Aaron Paul: 'Breaking Bad' Dealer Isn't Dead ... Yet Student-turned-drug dealer Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die in the first season of the AMC drama. But the writers decided the chemistry between high school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) was too good to let go.
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Aaron Paul: 'Breaking Bad' Dealer Isn't Dead ... Yet

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Aaron Paul: 'Breaking Bad' Dealer Isn't Dead ... Yet

Aaron Paul: 'Breaking Bad' Dealer Isn't Dead ... Yet

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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.



AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yo, yo, yo, one, four, eight, three to the three to the six to the nine, representing the ABQ. What up, Beatch? Leave at the tone.

GROSS: Well, that's how Aaron Paul used to sound as Jesse Pinkman in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Back then, Jesse was a teenager cooking and selling meth with his former chemistry teacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Both have won Emmys for their performances on the show.

In Season One, Walt was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Needing money for his treatment and wanting to leave money for his family when he died, he decided to start cooking crystal meth, and because of his chemistry background, he cooked super-high-quality meth.

Jesse, his former flunking student who was already in the small-time meth business, became Walt's assistant cook. Now in Season Four, the two of them are connected to a drug lord and are in way over their heads. A little later, we'll meet Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show. First, we'll hear from Aaron Paul.

Before "Breaking Bad," he was best known for his performance in the HBO series "Big Love." Let's start with a scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad," soon after Walt, the chemistry teacher, and Jesse, his former student, have started cooking and selling meth.

Jesse was supposed to sell the meth they just cooked and bring back the money. Walt has been waiting for Jesse, who is very 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.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Hey, prepaid cell phone, use it. 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 $1,300, minus $25 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: 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 we're into the fourth season of "Breaking Bad" now. Have you come close to counting how many times you've used the word bitch?


PAUL: Oh, wow. The yos and bitches. It's too many to count. It's incredible. And all of those are scripted, nothing - a lot of people ask me if - do you just improv the yos or the bitches sometimes, and everything's on the page. It's great.

GROSS: Has it entered into your speech at all, your real speech?

PAUL: Oh, 100 percent. Every time we stop shooting a season, it takes me a little bit for me to stop saying yo or bitch. Yeah, it takes me a minute, though.

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 still had - 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 the 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 because there's, you know, many things that this character has screwed up on, and, you know, he could definitely meet his deathbed 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, you know, 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.


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. They kind of slowed down in the fourth season, but we'll see. Who knows? I mean, this kid could die at any second.

GROSS: Well, when I interviewed Vince Gilligan, he basically said he couldn't imagine the series without you.

PAUL: Oh, I love that man. How nice is he?

GROSS: But he also made it clear that's no guarantee.


GROSS: So - but, you know, that kind of uncertainty, I could see that being a little helpful because Jesse's never sure how long he's going to live. So why should you know?

PAUL: Right, exactly. That's true.

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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) 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 they 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.


JERE BURNS: (as Group Leader) How'd you feel about what you did, Jesse?

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

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

BURNS: (as character) Colleen.

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

BURNS: (as character) 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? All right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance.

BURNS: (as character) Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn't give meaning to anything.

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

BURNS: (as character) 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 back your truck over your own kid, and you like accept? What a load of crap.

BURNS: (as character) 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 character) No.

PAUL: (as Jesse) About time.

GROSS: That's my guest Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from this season of "Breaking Bad." 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," because 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 in 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, Jesse has completely really lost the support of his family. He had lost his first really true love, I think, with Jane, that started off as a good influence on Jesse but then just turned into like a chemical romance, really.

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, but he had to do, and he has to live with the consequences of that. Did you have to figure out who is Jesse without the drugs and the poses?

PAUL: Yeah, yeah, I really - you know, joining this series, obviously I had no idea where this character was going, and I didn't really have much of a backstory, but as the seasons have gone on, I feel like I have a true grasp of who this kid is, inside and out. And it's incredible how I feel like such a personal connection with Jesse. It feels like he's almost a part of me, to be honest.

But I couldn't be such a polar opposite from this kid. But going to work every day and kind of zipping on his skin is such a - you know, such a dream.

GROSS: What makes you the opposite of Jesse Pinkman?

PAUL: I feel like I have my life together, really, and Jesse just seems like he's constantly just struggling to keep his head about 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.


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

GROSS: My guest is Aaron Paul. He stars in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Paul, and he co-stars in "Breaking Bad" as Jesse Pinkman, a young meth-maker who is now involved in a big drug ring, and he's way over his head.

You've taken a lot of punishment in the series. You've been beaten in a lot of very imaginative ways. What are some examples of some of the worst beatings you've taken in the series?

PAUL: Wow, well, some of the worst beatings really came at the very beginning, which was done by a character name of Tuco, this guy played by Raymond Cruz, and he's just this very loud, violent drug dealer who's addicted to meth. And there was this one scene where he's beating me up with a bag of money and beating me to a bloody pulp, and that's the first time Jesse goes to the hospital in the series.

And then the next time that he got beaten up by Tuco, really Tuco's going to - is about to put a shotgun to his face and pull the trigger, and he throws Jesse out of this house. And in one of the takes, probably on the eighth or ninth take, my head actually comes into contact with the opening of this wooden screen door.

And I catch it, and my entire body flips around, and it splits the screen door into a million pieces, and I just land flat on my, like, head and chest. And the scene continues to go on because he thinks that I'm just acting. But in reality, I was just completely out of it, and I don't remember it happening. And I ended up getting this pretty serious concussion.

GROSS: Oh, really?

PAUL: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: I thought you meant the character thinks you're acting. You mean the actor thinks you were just acting.

PAUL: Yeah, no, the - yeah, Raymond Cruz thought that I was still just in the moment, but then there was a point where he picks me up, puts me on his shoulders, and he was going to slam me against the wall, and try to grab him and just tell him - you know, to tell him to stop.

And so they shut down production for a little bit, ambulance was called, and they sent me to the hospital. I was saying I was fine, but I just felt a little drunk, to be honest. It was just so strange. So I just, you know, ended up going to the ER and spent about six or seven hours with one of our executive producers.

GROSS: 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 with my family. You know, they have a "Breaking Bad" night every week, and so 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. It's their 40th anniversary coming up in November. And 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: Aaron Paul will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the AMC series "Breaking Bad" as Jesse Pinkman. He's the recording that ended the pilot of "Breaking Bad," Mick Harvey's "Out of Time Man." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


MICK HARVEY: (singing) I'm walking out for love, I'm walking out, really down like a cool breeze, I'm gonna be late again driver wait for me please. I'm runnin' all in vain, trying to catch this train...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Aaron Paul. He plays Jesse Pinkman, in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Jesse was the small-time meth cook and dealer until he looked up with his former chemistry teacher, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Walt's chemistry background helped him cook perfect crystal meth. Now Walt and Jesse are working for a drug lord and in way over their heads.

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 love 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 obviously, but...

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, Chris Masterson ended up getting the role and he was brilliant on it. But, yeah, I was a huge fan of that show from day one. I think I've probably seen pretty much I think every episode. 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're going to play...


GROSS: ...somebody who cooks meth in the series.

PAUL: Yeah.


PAUL: 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.


PAUL: 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 he still does, you know, weddings and funerals and sometimes will guest speak at some churches. 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, 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. It's, 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 graduated, I'm done, and she said I feel that you're making a big mistake and 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: Well, they must have a lot of faith in you and in your ability to follow through on the dream.

PAUL: Yeah. I know it's and, you know, obviously I couldn't have done this without them and it's incredible, very, very blessed.

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

PAUL: Yeah, no, I know.

GROSS: You have you car is packed up, 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.


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 so I'm sure very safe, but I'm sure she was scared for my life but she was still very, very, very supportive. But yeah, I didn't know anybody, I just, you know, saved up a bunch of money from random jobs I worked in Idaho and just tried to find myself an agent and a manager.

GROSS: And succeeded?

PAUL: And succeeded. Yeah. Yeah. I got a...

GROSS: Oh how did you do it? Did you just talk them into it or what?

PAUL: Yeah, I just talked them into it and bribed them a little bit. But...

GROSS: With?

PAUL: No. I - oh, no.


PAUL: I didn't bribe them. I actually I ended up going to this acting competition that was held downtown Los Angeles. And I mean there's just thousands of kids there and I ended up signing with a manager there, and then he found me an agent pretty quickly, like, you know, a couple of weeks later. And that agent, Loch Powell, is now my manager and I've been with them since day one. And I, you know, I really owe everything to him. He's great.

GROSS: Well, you paid off.


GROSS: So can I just say something about the voice that you do as Jesse?

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: There's something about the voice that Jesse always seems to be on the verge of like complaining or whining or feeling put upon.

PAUL: Right.

GROSS: It's like he still a teenager. You know what I mean? It's like still his parents are nagging him or his teacher is nagging him. That's his kind of like posture in the world a lot of the time.

PAUL: Right. Yeah. It's true.

GROSS: Is that what you've been trying for vocally?

PAUL: Yeah. No, I mean it just - I see Jesse as this kid that still hasn't found his footing, you know? And I love that he, you know, he still calls Walter White Mr. White and he's...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's so great.


PAUL: He's just lost in his own world. And, I don't know. I think well, you know, this season is where he's really, he's kind of taken the reins of his life.

GROSS: Well, I just want to say, if Vince Gilligan is listening, please do not kill off Jesse Pinkman.


PAUL: Yes. I agree. Thank you so much.


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

PAUL: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Coming up, we talk with the creator of the series, Vince Gilligan. This is FRESH AIR.

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