After wrapping up his career-defining run as Jesse Pinkman on AMC's Breaking Bad, actor Aaron Paul hasn't missed a step, nimbly jumping from star vehicles like 2014's Need For Speed to ensemble pieces like the upcoming Eye in the Sky and the heist pic Triple 9, in theaters now.
I talked to director John Hillcoat about the tense thriller, about corrupt cops planning a daring robbery in Atlanta, a few days ago, and now here's are some highlights from my roundtable with the always-chatty and boisterous Paul (who I previously had a great time interviewing for Need For Speed).
Read on to see the actor's thoughts on what drew him to this project, his relationship with costar Norman Reedus, and whether or not he feels intimidated by the long shadow of Jesse Pinkman:
You're sort of unrecognizable in this movie. The hair, the strung-out-ness. How did you go to that place? It feels like he's so out of his depth at this point in his life.
He's going through a lot. It was kind of easy; it was just on the page. I think these characters were so well developed before I even attached myself. Before we even started, John gave us all a giant folder of information, a dropbox that just kept filling up every day with images that are impossible to erase from your mind. Decapitated heads...he wanted us to draw from our own knowledge.
He had me go on some ridealongs with the LAPD and I saw some pretty crazy stuff. We drove around East L.A. in a neighborhood I've never been to in my life. You just see how cops are viewed. We pulled over this guy whose girlfriend had just been shot. She was in the front seat, his mom was in the back seat. This was now his third strike because he had a loaded gun on him with the serial number scratched off.
Things got pretty real. He was arrested went down to the station. They take off his shoes, he's handcuffed to this bench, and they ask me if I want to go in and interview him. He has tattoos all over his face--scariest guy I've ever seen in my life. I'm like, "No...I don't want to go." There was no reason for me to go interview him but I did end up going in to talk to him. He ended up being a fan of Breaking Bad, which is pretty funny.
What was your reaction to the script, and this idea of these characters pulling off a "triple 9"?
God, I loved this script. I knew with John holding the reigns it was going to be such a brutal telling of this story but in a grounded way. I didn't know what "triple 9" meant before shooting this film but it absolutely makes sense. If someone wants to cause a distraction in the police force, that's definitely the way to do it. I love the story.
Early in the movie, you and Norman [Reedus] have a pivotal scene together that establishes the emotional stakes for what's to come for those characters.
Norman and I have been friends for the past sixteen, seventeen years. It's the first time we've worked together, and we're playing brothers, so we already have that bond, that love there. That scene you're talking about was an added scene we shot after we were done shooting. They wanted to do just that--raise the stakes, really let people know that these guys aren't just friends; they're brothers. They love each other. It was great. I love that scene.
I see some similarities with this character and Jesse Pinkman, who's beloved for a lot of people. What do you do to distinguish a character when he's become so iconic like that?
How do I veer off?
Yeah. Do you feel constrained by that at all?
Not really. I definitely don't see Jesse Pinkman leaving me anytime soon. For the rest of my life, I'm going to be called "bitch." I gotta take it in stride, though. I feel very blessed to be able to have played such a, it's strange to say, but an iconic character that has -- this show, Breaking Bad, became a part of, I don't know, it was just a part of television history. He's part of pop culture. But, yeah, it's all about trying to do something different than that guy.
This is really the first role since that show that, my character is picking up a pipe and I get offered drug addict roles all the time, on a weekly basis, and I just try to stay away from that. This script was impossible to ignore. The material was beautiful and, of course, John Hillcoat was the first name that I noticed before I started reading it. I knew it was going to be a great ride. Yeah, when he picked up the pipe, it was like, "Ah, does he have to do that?" [laughs] But you know, I figured, why not?
The movie felt a lot like Heat.
Yeah. Heat is one of those timeless films. I really hope Triple 9 becomes that. My father-in-law was so excited. "It was like Heat! It's like Taxi Driver!" I agree with him. It's one of those gritty, brutal, crazy films.
You're an actor who acts with his whole body. Is it something you think about when you're on camera ?
It just kind of comes with the territory for me. Every character's a little different. The only similarity is that I tend to gravitate toward characters that are going through a lot, emotionally. I think emotions run through your entire body. You kind of put yourself in a situation and force yourself to believe in whatever's going on and hopefully people buy it.
In Need For Speed you were at the head of the ensemble. For this movie, it's more of an egalitarian mix. How are those experiences different?
Less work, less shooting days. I like them both, you know? But, I love big ensemble casts. I think there are 12 main characters in this film, and everyone has just such a pivotal part in the story. I love that. With Need for Speed, I think I was in almost every scene. So, it was a lot of work. I don't mind that either.
What about the next movie, Eye in the Sky? What's it like going from playing a criminal in this movie to playing someone who's straight-laced and in the military?
I do play the darker side of things. But I always try to bring some sort of heart to my characters. With Triple 9, he's technically a bad guy but you feel for him. He has a line he will not cross and this is that line, so he's desperate to stop it from happening. He's desperate.
He's really the hero of the movie.
Finally, someone said it! [laughs] It's great being the bad guy and it's also great being the good guy.
What piece of key advice would you give our students that are pursuing a career in Hollywood?
[leans into mic] "Don't do it. I repeat, do not do it. [laughs] No, honestly, I'll just repeat a word of advice I got when I moved to L.A. I recognized this guy from a commercial, this older gentleman, and we were in the courtyard of an apartment complex and he was walking down with his dog. It might have been, maybe the genes, but I was like, "Hey, you're the guy from the such-and-such commercial!" He got really excited that I recognized him. He got really excited that I recognized him.
I was 17 years old, just moved out to L.A. I was like, "Wow, man, you're doing it! Is there any advice you can give to me?" He said, just remember, the strong survive. If you want it for the right reasons, it will happen. Just keep working at it, is all I can say. I learned from trial and error. I never went to an acting class. I would mess up an audition and I had to apologize to the casting directors and then I would try and do a better job next time around. Just fight for it.
Many thanks to Aaron Paul for his time. You can check out Triple 9 at a theater near you. For more movie talk, including an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion about superhero mega-hit Deadpool, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: