Aaron Paul On Playing A Meth Dealer On 'Breaking Bad'

Paul won the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for playing student-turned-drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. In 2011, he said his character was supposed to die in the first season.

Originally broadcast Sept. 19, 2011.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


AARON PAUL: Oh, wow. I feel like I'm going to throw up.

GROSS: Those were Aaron Paul's first words when he accepted his Emmy award Monday night for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for his performance in "Breaking Bad." Today we continue our mini series of interviews with some of this week's Emmy-winners. We begin this edition with our interview with Aaron Paul. Here's how he sounded in the early days of "Breaking Bad" as Jesse Pinkman.


PAUL: (As Jesse) Yo, yo, yo. One, four, eight, three to the three to the six to the nine. Representing the ABQ. What up, biatch? Leave it at the tone.

GROSS: Back then, Jesse was a teenager cooking and selling meth, working with his former chemistry teacher, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Walt used his chemistry knowledge to cook crystal meth so pure and potent, it became legendary. Their operation got bigger and bigger, and they got in way over their heads with drug lords, eventually leading them to commit acts of betrayal and murder.

When I spoke with Aaron Paul in 2011, we started with a scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad" soon after Walt and Jesse have teamed up, when Walt still thinks of Jesse as his former, flunking student. Jesse was supposed to sell the meth they just cooked and bring back the money. Walt is angry when Jesse shows up late.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) We were supposed to start at three.

PAUL: (As Jesse) Hey, I'm out there making fat stacks, man, chill. Hey, prepaid cell phone, use it.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter) How much is this?

PAUL: (As Jesse) Twenty-six big ones.

CRANSTON: (As Walter) Is that all, $26,000?

PAUL: (As Jesse) No, that's 2,600. And your share is 13, minus 25 bucks for that phone.

CRANSTON: (As Walter) How much meth did you sell?

PAUL: (As Jesse) Nearly an ounce.

CRANSTON: (As Walter) Last time I checked, there were 16 ounces to a pound. What'd you do with the rest, smoke it?

PAUL: (As Jesse) Yo, I've been out there all night slinging crystal. You think it's cake moving a pound of meth one teenth at a time?

CRANSTON: (As Walter) So why are you selling it in such small quantities? Why don't you just sell the whole pound at once?

PAUL: (As Jesse) To who? What do I look like, Scarface?

CRANSTON: (As Walter) This is unacceptable. I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk. I thought you'd be ready for another pound today.

PAUL: (As Jesse) You may know a lot about chemistry, man, but you don't know jack about slinging dope.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Well, I'll tell you, I know a lack of motivation when I see it.

PAUL: (As Jesse) Oh, my...

CRANSTON: (As Walter) C'mon. You've got to be more imaginative, you know? Just think outside the box, here. We have to move our product in bulk, wholesale. Now, how do we do that?

PAUL: (As Jesse) What do mean - to, like, a distributor?

CRANSTON: (As Walter) Yes, yes, that's what we need. We need a distributor. Now, do you know anyone like that?

PAUL: (As Jesse) Yeah, I mean, I used to until you killed him.


GROSS: (Laughter). Aaron Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene.


PAUL: Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I love the way your former chemistry teacher, who's now your partner cooking meth, is lecturing you about your lack of motivation the way only a teacher could.


GROSS: Now, your character Jesse starts off as - I mean, he's a kid from the suburbs who's an underachiever, and he's modeled his look and his way of speaking on hip-hop culture - probably watched a lot of, like, Beastie Boy videos.

PAUL: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: And you got the picture from a cell phone message that we played. Who did you model Jesse on early in the series?

PAUL: Really, it was a combination of people that I've met throughout my life and people that I've encountered in New Mexico, and it's all over the place. And so I just kind of tried to form a unique, interesting personality through people that I've encountered.

GROSS: So your character, Jesse, was supposed to be killed off in the first season of "Breaking Bad." How did you find out that your character was doomed? When did you learn that?

PAUL: I didn't learn that until towards the end of the first season. We were on the sixth episode, so the fifth episode plus the pilot. And we had one more to go, and I hadn't read the script yet. And Vince - we were at lunch, and Vince is...

GROSS: This is the creator, Vince Gilligan.

PAUL: Yeah, this is creator Vince Gilligan - calls me over, and he's, you know, eating with all the writers. And he goes, I want to tell you something. And I go, what's that? And he goes, you know, originally, Jesse was supposed to die at the end of this season. And this is the first time I've ever heard any of this.

And instantly my heart kind of dropped and slowed down a bit, and he goes, but we don't think we're going to do that anymore. And I was just - I was like, what do you mean? What are you talking about? Like, what's the plan? And he's like, no, we just - I just wanted to let you know that that's not the plan anymore.

And I didn't know how to take it, but he said that they just loved the, you know, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse and the chemistry that, you know, Bryan and I kind of brought to these characters. He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and, really, of the show.

But the entire second season, the entire third season, I thought that Jesse could be a goner at any moment, so - and they'd always tease me. They'd always joke around saying, oh, did you read the next script? And I would say, no, not yet. I haven't got it. You know, I haven't got it. And Bryan would come up and give me a hug and say, well, I'm not going to say anything, but, you know, it was such a pleasure working with you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: It's been an amazing past year and a half, and, you know, you have a huge career ahead of you. And so they would always joke around about it.

GROSS: Jesse's changed so much in the course of the now four seasons of the show. And, you know, he starts off really small-time. You know, he's almost, like, still a kid. And now he's involved with this big drug ring and - where there's a lot of violence, a lot of money.

At the end of Season Three, last season, Walt is afraid that the head of the drug ring is going to kill him as soon as Walt has finished training his assistant cook, a man named Gale, in how to prepare the meth recipe. And if the head of the drug ring kills Walt, he'll probably kill Jesse, too.

So Walt thinks the only hope is to have Jesse kill this assistant meth cook, Gale. So he convinces Jesse that Jesse has to murder the assistant cook. And so you, Jesse, kill Gale. And then you just really become dead inside afterwards.

So you kill him. You're dead inside. You start using meth again, and then you end up going to your support group, your drug support group. You want to confess that you've killed a man, but you can't confess that. So you make up a story that you've killed a dog. And here's a clip from that scene in the support group.


PAUL: (As Jesse) A couple weeks back, I killed a dog.

JERE BURNS: (As group leader) You hit him with your car?

PAUL: (As Jesse) No, I put him down. I watched him go. I was looking him straight in the eye, and he didn't know what was happening. He didn't know why. He - he was just scared, and then he was gone.

GROSS: And then members of the support group try to comfort Jesse, and one of them says, oh, well, the dog was suffering, putting him down was a kindness. And then when Jesse says that's not what happened, the woman in the group assumes, oh, well, the dog must have bitten someone, so you did the right thing. And then you say it wasn't that.

And then another person in the group assumes, like, well, you must have started using meth again, and that took you to the dark side because that's what meth does. And everybody's trying to help you justify killing this dog, and you know that there's really no justification for what you've done, which is killing a man. So let's pick up the scene from there. And the leader of the support group speaks first.


BURNS: (As group leader) How'd you feel about what you did, Jesse?

PAUL: (As Jesse) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Colleen) Who cares how you feel? What kind of a person kills a dog for no reason?

BURNS: (As group leader) Colleen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Colleen) You put an ad in the paper, you drop him off at a shelter. You don't just sit there and talk about killing a helpless, innocent animal.

BURNS: (As group leader) Colleen, we're not here to sit in judgment.

PAUL: (As Jesse) Why not? Why not? Maybe she's right. You know, maybe I should have put it in the paper. Maybe I should've done something different. The thing is, if you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? Oh right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance.

BURNS: (As group leader) Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn't give meaning to anything.

PAUL: (As Jesse) So I should stop judging and accept?

BURNS: (As group leader) It's a start.

PAUL: (As Jesse) So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just, what, do an inventory and accept? I mean, you backed your truck over your own kid, and you, like, accept? What a load of crap.

BURNS: (As group leader) Hey, Jesse, I know you're in pain...

PAUL: (As Jesse) No, you know what? Why I'm here in the first place is to sell you meth. You're nothing to me but customers. I made you my bitch. You OK with that, huh? You accept?

BURNS: (As group leader) No.

PAUL: (As Jesse) About time.

GROSS: You are so lost at this point in the storyline. Do you feel like the character you're playing now is different from the character you started playing on "Breaking Bad" 'cause so much has happened to him - he's changed so much?

PAUL: Oh, 100 percent. He is so broken now. I mean, he was a lost kid at the beginning of the series, you know, just kind of struggling to find his way. But he was content with dime-bagging it, you know, just selling teenths at a time and living at his aunt's house.

But when Mr. White comes back into his life, and they continue to go down this dark rabbit hole, and they can't seem to get out of it, they're both so in way over their heads. And now, you know, he's a murderer, and he's just lost and tortured, and it's so tragic what he's going through.

GROSS: And murder really isn't in his nature.


GROSS: But he's had to do it, and he has to live with the consequences of that.

PAUL: Jesse just seems like he's constantly just struggling to keep his head above water. And he's just this, you know, messed up kid trying to find his way, but you know he has this soul. He has this heart. And that's why - I mean, that's why I feel people, you know, are rooting for him. And they just want to, you know, hug him and tell him it's going to be OK. But at the end of the day, like, is it really? Is it going to be? You don't know.

GROSS: He wouldn't accept that hug anyways. (Laughter).

PAUL: No, no, he actually would not, no.

GROSS: We're featuring an interview with Aaron Paul. This week he won his third supporting role Emmy for his performance as Jesse Pinkman in "Breaking Bad." More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 2011 interview with Aaron Paul. He won a supporting role Emmy this week for his performance as Jesse Pinkman in "Breaking Bad."


GROSS: You've taken a lot of punishment in the series. You've been beaten in a lot of very imaginative ways. Would you have problems watching scenes like when you're beaten up or scenes when your face has been beaten to a pulp? Do you watch yourself in those scenes?

PAUL: I do, yeah. I mean, I'll watch it when the show airs, you know, whether it being if I fly home to Idaho and I'm with my family. You know, they have a "Breaking Bad" night every week, and so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: I come from a huge, huge, loving family, and they've been supportive since, you know, day one. So my parents are, you know, they're still madly in love. I have many siblings. I have 14 nieces and nephews. And they throw a huge party.

GROSS: Whoa.

PAUL: Yeah, they throw a huge party every Sunday night. So that's pretty great.

GROSS: So your co-star, the star of the series "Breaking Bad," is Bryan Cranston. Did you know him from "Malcolm in the Middle?" I mean from watching him on "Malcolm in the Middle," in which he played the father?

PAUL: Oh yeah, I loved him. I loved that show. I thought he was great. And...

GROSS: And how old were you when you first started watching that?

PAUL: Oh man, I actually - I was in L.A. when they were casting that pilot. I remember reading that pilot, and I went out for the older brother, didn't end up getting it. But my mom is the biggest "Malcolm in the Middle" fan. She's obsessed. And when...

GROSS: Maybe that's helped to ease the blow that you were going to play somebody who cooks meth in the series. (Laughter).

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. When I told her that Bryan Cranston was the star of "Breaking Bad," the pilot that I had just booked, she lost her mind. She was so, so, so excited because she knew one day she would be able to meet him, you know? So she was ecstatic.

GROSS: So you're obviously very different from the Jesse Pinkman character that you play on "Breaking Bad." In fact, you know, he's a meth head. You grew up in Idaho. Your father is a Baptist minister, yes?

PAUL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. He's actually retired. He doesn't have a church he does every week in anymore. But, yeah, throughout my entire life growing up in Idaho we would go, you know, to his congregation every week, and he would preach and, yeah.

GROSS: What was his preaching like?

PAUL: It was it great. It was inspiring, really. I mean he would get up in front of all these people and kind of just get lost in the moment as well, and I think that's where I take - not that I'm saying he was really standing up their acting, but he would just really get lost into these stories. He would speak, and it was fun to watch and to hear. And, you know, I left at such a young age. I left...

GROSS: Left Idaho and left home?

PAUL: Left Idaho. Yeah, I left Idaho at 17. You know, I graduated high school a year early and just - you know, the typical story. I packed up my car and moved out. Yeah.

GROSS: I wonder if there was any pressure on you to be the good kid because you were, like, the son of the minister, and if so, if acting was a kind of like release valve for that because you could be all the people that you weren't allowed to be.

PAUL: Oh yeah, total - 100 percent. I mean, you nailed it. You know, I forget who told me this but they said, you know, acting is really like a cheap form of therapy. It's such a nice release. You know, we're all kind of crazy in our own way. And it's true. It is a nice - it's a great release, and it's so much fun just to kind of zip on different skins and...

GROSS: When you left home at age 17, which as you point out is really young...

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did your parents try to like bar the door and do everything in their power to prevent you from going, and telling you that you were making a huge mistake that you would always regret - that you are throwing your life away and throwing away everything that they had ever done to help you in life, etcetera?

PAUL: You know what? Not at all. It was quite the opposite. I always had the plan of moving to L.A. They knew I always wanted to do this. And I think, really, in eighth grade, I made it certain just to let my parents know this was my plan. You know, I'm going to move to California or New York, and I'm going to try to become an actor, and that - they knew that from early on. And so when I started taking it very seriously in high school and they would see, you know, these productions that we put on and they would see how excited I would get about them, they were all about it when I mentioned to them that I wanted to take zero hour, where I'd go to school early, you know, to do an extra class and take correspondence, which was really homeschooling as well, just to graduate early so I could get out to L.A., you know, sooner than later.

And they just applauded me. And they said go for it. Just do it. You want this. Like I love, you know, like, I love your passion. And so they supported me. I love - you know, there's a great story. Most of my teachers were supportive, but there was this one teacher that came up to me when I was saying goodbye, really, because I had graduated - I'm done. And she said I feel that you're making a big mistake. What is your plan B? I mean do you have another plan if this doesn't work out? Like, what if it doesn't work out?

And when I told my mom that, 'cause every - from everywhere I was getting blessings from every side. But I told my mom that and my mom went straight into the school and just said how dare you say this to my son? Like, what's your plan? What's your second - what if this doesn't work out for you? You know, what's your plan B? And it was just so great to see my mom, like, take that control because I've never seen her like that in my life. And it was just so great that they were supportive of going after dreams. And - 'cause if you don't, then what do you really have? You know, you might as well just shoot for whatever you want to do.

GROSS: So you get to LA and then what? You don't know anybody there, right? You don't, I mean....

PAUL: Yeah, no, I know.

GROSS: You have you car. It's packed up. What then - what?

PAUL: Yeah. I actually - my mom came out with me, found a little studio apartment, and she just wanted to make sure I would get settled. And it's funny, the weekend I was moving into this little, tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood, a bank robbery is in progress like two blocks from my place.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: A giant bank robbery, and it ended in crazy bloodshed. And my mom is like oh, my God. Where am I allowing my son to move to? But she - you know, she got on a plane and went back to Idaho and felt, I'm sure, very safe. But I'm sure she was scared for my life, but she was still very, very, very supportive.

GROSS: Aaron Paul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Aaron Paul, recorded in 2011 - this week he won his third Emmy for his supporting role in "Breaking Bad" as Jesse Pinkman. "Breaking Bad" won other top awards this week for outstanding actor and supporting actress in a drama series and for best drama series. We'll here more of this week's Emmy winners in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.