Aaron Paul and I can’t decide where to sit down. We’re in an old English-style hotel suite, and nothing seems obvious, as nothing matches. There’s a couch, but it’s right out of Sigmund Freud’s catalogue.
Aaron’s worried if he sits there he might start revealing too much.
“Try sitting normally, and if my questions get intense enough, you can have a lie down,” I suggest.
“That could work,” he says.
Aaron has an aura of contentment that only comes to people who once prayed to be where they are today. It’s been six years since he wed Lauren Parsekian in Malibu, California – with John Mayer as his wedding singer – six years since Breaking Bad ended, and if his life peaked in that moment, no one told him you’re supposed to come back down afterwards.
Maybe it’s the couch, but we get personal quickly.
“I’m madly in love. I met my wife just after I started shooting Breaking Bad so it was before the pandemonium, and before the worldwide success of the show. I feel so blessed to have met her before that. We’re still madly in love,” Paul repeats.
His face beams. “And we have a little baby girl now!”
He immediately pulls out his phone to show me his daughter Story Annabelle Paul, his background image.
“She’s just the best thing in the world. Becoming a parent is the greatest gift anyone could have… I’m in a much heathier, happier place now,” he says, staring down at the picture of his daughter on the screen.
It’s a natural time to reflect. With his new Netflix film El Camino, Paul returns to the role of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad to tell the story of not just what happened next, but to chart how far the character has come. It’s hard to say who grew more in those six years –Pinkman, or Paul himself.
Twelve years ago, sitting in the waiting room for the audition, Paul was already past the point that most struggling actors would have given up. He wasn’t hoping to land the role of a lifetime, he just needed a role.
“I was in the lowest point in my career, I could barely pay my bills,” says Paul. He pauses. “I actually couldn’t pay my bills. For three months in a row. It was the first time in my life I ever had to borrow money from anybody. I was desperate.”
At the time, everyone knew a writer’s strike was around the corner, and when it came, everything was going to shut down. Movies, TV shows, everything would stop – and there wouldn’t be a paycheck in sight.
“I knew if I didn’t get something during this pilot season it would just be a very scary time for me. This was my seventh pilot. The first one that actually got picked up to series,” says Paul.
Through sheer force of will, he booked the role. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was the only one that saw something in the young actor, fighting the network and his producers to cast him.
“Maybe they could sense that fear in me, that desperation in me, that I needed the role versus me truly earning the role,” says Paul.
Pinkman wasn’t built to last, anyways – Gilligan planned to kill the character by the end of the first season. It wasn’t until he saw how good Paul really was, and the magic (no, I’m not going to call it chemistry) that he and co-star Bryan Cranston had between them that he and the writers charted a new course for the series.
Over the next five years, a show that was designed to transform one man actually transformed two. As Cranston’s Walter White descended from a mild-mannered science teacher to a murderous kingpin, Paul’s Pinkman took the full weight of the consequences of their actions onto his own shoulders and became something better than he was. Without Walter White, Breaking Bad would have no story. Without Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad would have no soul.
Jesse became the hero of Breaking Bad, so he couldn’t die – could he? As the finale neared, Paul began to doubt that a show like Breaking Bad could give anyone their happily ever after.
“It was leading up to the end of the series, before we started shooting the final eight episodes, where I thought, oh god, he may die. I actually wrote Vince a very long letter to read to the entire writing staff the first day back into the office, back in the writer’s room,” says Paul.
“I just pleaded with them, ‘Look, if he’s going to die, let it be by his own hands.’ That was my one request. He responded that very same day. He goes, ‘Look, I read your letter to everybody, but I want you know that Jesse is going to have a much happier fate than that. It may not be easy, but he’s going to survive this journey for sure.’”
In the end, Breaking Bad only hinted towards Pinkman’s fate. When we last see him, he’s driving off into the distance – screaming, crying laughing – with the implication that his future is finally in his own hands. With El Camino, we finally see him as the man he had the potential to become.
“To be honest, [returning to the role] wasn’t hard for me. None of it was hard. Some of the scenes were a little more difficult, just because of the emotional toll that it took on me, but to zip back on that skin was so very familiar to me.”
The different iterations of the character that the film revisits through flashbacks allowed Paul not only to retrace his footsteps, but to actually bring back some of Pinkman’s once lighthearted nature.
“The version of Jesse when we see him with Wal again in the diner towards the end of the film is a version of Jesse where he’s still madly in love. They do still have blood on their hands but not much. It was a happier time. Jane was still very much alive. People around him were still breathing. He was kind of this goofball in a way, and I love that side of him. I missed that. I didn’t realise how much I missed playing that side. I was so used to playing this tortured, heavy, sad kid. It was nice, especially towards the end of the shooting, to play that version.”
While El Camino is something of a victory lap for a show that ended exactly where it meant to, Paul’s next most-beloved project is approaching an ending itself, this time against its producers’ will. Even so, Paul is taking the ending in his stride, counting the many blessings that led him here, and the ones that continue him forward.
“I was sorry to hear about the cancellation of BoJack Horseman,” I say to Paul, who plays Todd Sanchez on Netflix’s cult animated hit.
“As was I, man, but we were able to write to a perfect, beautiful ending. It wasn’t as if they pulled the plug on us after we were done recording this last season. We knew this was coming for some time – for a couple of years now. We knew they just wanted to do six seasons and that was it.”
Netflix has become the home for creators like Gilligan and Paul to pursue their passion projects, but the streaming giant is still something of an enigma.
“I think this and Orange is the New Black are their longest-running series. They’re not in the game to have a Simpsons or a South Park on their hands – apparently. We were unaware of that at the beginning! But they gave us a home for six wonderful years and I feel blessed to have produced that show and played a character I really fell in love with as well. Todd Chavez, which I think is one of the most mysterious characters of BoJack.”
Chavez allows Paul to recapture some of the goofy charm that he missed in Jesse Pinkman, something that makes the character hard to say goodbye to.
“He has the biggest vocabulary of anybody on the show. He’s incredibly articulate but comes up with such wacky and fun ideas that just don’t really make sense, but also some of them are like whoa! You are a genius! Well done, Todd!”
El Camino is now streaming on Netflix