Aaron Paul is telling me about that time he led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
“There’s a day where I’m walkin’ behind Christian, along with all of the Hebrew slaves that we’re bringing through the Red Sea—and there’s camels and horses. The thing is, all these camels and horses get scared, so they’re shitting all over, in the water. So there’s about 500 background players, with Christian Bale, myself, all the other actors, who are walking through this. I have an embarrassing gag reflex, and Christian can’t stop laughing. About 500 people walking through camel and horse shit in the middle of the Canary Islands, parting the Red Sea. And I’m gagging. Trying to save these people.”
We’ve been discussing Paul’s turn as Joshua, Moses’ successor, in Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings, out in December.
Paul says, “Joshua, hands down, had to have a gag reflex.”
“The stuff they don’t write down,” I counter.
“They wrote a lot down in the Bible, but that they decided to keep out.”
It’s a clear Monday evening in Santa Monica, and we’ve settled into a well-worn booth at an English pub, close to the water. For now the pub is mostly empty and we have a chance to chat for a while, uninterrupted. It is, perhaps, for Paul, a press of the pause button. He started shooting Need for Speed the morning after wrapping Breaking Bad, and projects of various stripes have been nonstop since. As if being continually in demand isn’t praise enough, he’s just collected a fifth Emmy nomination (an honor he’s won twice previously) for his role as Jesse Pinkman. Talking to him as we knock back a couple Old-Fashioneds, his success isn’t hard to understand. He’s an actor admired for his intensity, focus, and generosity—a kind of Millennial’s Montgomery Clift—and he brings these qualities to bear even in an ex-pat-English pub on a Monday night. I’m curious about the clockwork behind it all, but when I ask about his process, he hedges.
“I don’t know. I haven’t taken an acting class since high school.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Well—I took a couple of classes when I first got here. In one, two people faced each other cross-legged and rolled a ball back and forth. In the other, a man and a woman faced each other, and the guy said, ‘I’m wearing a yellow shirt.’ And she said back, ‘You’re wearing a yellow shirt.’ And the guy said, ‘I am wearing a yellow shirt.’ And I was thinking, what the hell is going on here? Why can’t they just do the easy thing and believe in what they’re saying?”
He elaborates a few minutes later as the conversation drifts over some of the difficulties of playing Breaking Bad’s Jesse.
“How I go about it—my process is, I force myself to believe the situations are actually happening to me as that character. So, I feel like I have lived every moment of Jesse Pinkman’s life that you saw on the screen. And more—the backstory I gave him. Different things that kid went through, I felt like I went through it in a way. That was hard at times. But, you know, I love that kid…”
Paul’s involved in a number of high-profile projects, like Exodus, and Triple Nine with Norman Reedus. “Does this success connect in some way to a philosophy?” I ask. “Have you said to yourself, ‘What I believe, this is where I’m going to end up?’”
“I think so, yeah.” He mulls over his early career. “I’m very happy that I went through that struggle. It wasn’t always a struggle, it was just ups and downs. Success came pretty quickly to me, in terms of being able to support myself from acting. It took me about eight months to get into the business. That’s when I quit my day-to-day job. And I’ve been living off of this exclusively for over 17 years now. You know, I saved up money to move out to Los Angeles, worked five completely different jobs to earn money. I had about 5,600 dollars to my name, which was more money than I could ever imagine having.”
“But you felt ready.”
“But I felt ready. I moved at 17. And—every 17-year-old thinks, hey, I’m graduating high school, or I’m about to graduate high school. I’m a man. I’m an adult. I can drive by myself, at night! You think that you know everything, but in reality, you’re still very much learning on a day-to-day basis. But I knew what I wanted to do. I knew from when I was 12, 13 years old, that, when I graduate I am moving to either New York or Los Angeles to chase after this—what a lot of people thought was a pipe dream. And so I fought for it. I didn’t have a Plan B. I didn’t want a Plan B. When I moved to L.A. there was an actor who gave me this advice. He said, ‘If you want this bad enough and you want it for the right reasons, the strong will survive.’”
“What are the right reasons?”
“My reason is the pure love, the joy of acting.”
Dealing with fame has dealt a few challenges. I ask if there’s a split between who he’s become publicly and who he is privately. In particular, we’re discussing a YouTube video in which Paul talks to a group of stargazers parked on his street.
“I feel like I’m the same. I would like to think so. That tour bus… I made the mistake of coming down and saying hi. I thought that would be a cool thing, saying hi, you know? It wasn’t. To them it was and to me, at that moment, it was great. But the moment that video went viral, people were banging on our front door, which is fifty-two steps up. It takes fifty-two steps to get to our front door. People are waiting for us to get home at the top of the steps. So imagine how awkward that is…”
The pub is picking up and a few weeknight revelers have started asking for pictures. We decide to head down to the pier. Paul likes the ocean air and he mentions a ride—the Pacific Plunge—that he’s fond of. We stroll and talk about working out, MMA, cars, bikes. He has a weak spot for classic Triumphs and the ’69 Torino he drove in Need for Speed. It’s a bro-ment. When we reach the pier, we’re all right for a few minutes, but then Paul is noticed and, again, fans ask for pictures. They’re always polite—“I’m sorry!”—but they want what they want. Paul is gracious, every single time, but the going gets a little slow. Finally, we find ourselves on the ride, a free-faller, and it’s fine, a good time, especially because the pier is so stunning that night. Still, there’s some light disappointment.
“That wasn’t quite as thrilling as I remember it,” Paul says, unwilling to exploit the rhetoric of the Pacific Plunge.
“Nah, it’s not that thrilling,” the ride operator says.
We make our way back and, as though attempting to ease the ride operator’s downer confession, a few more carousers express admiration: “You’re my hero! I loved you in Need for Speed!”
After a few minutes, Paul recovers his enthusiasm, shouting, “I like your shirt!” at a man wearing a white Heisenberg tee. There are more pictures, more sincere celebrations of the moment.
Earlier at the pub, discussing his penchant for dark, difficult roles, we talked through a list, dwelling on Hollis in Kat Candler’s Hellion, and concluding with JJ in A Long Way Down.
“Another complicated mess. I don’t know what this says about me, deep down.”
We laughed, but I asked him, “Do you think of yourself in this way?”
“You know what? Maybe. I don’t know. Truly, I feel like I’m a very happy, outgoing individual. But let’s be honest, I think every single actor in the world is crazy in their own special way. This city is full of dreamers—and that’s awesome. I mean, every city is full of dreamers, but that’s what this city lives on.”
It occurs to me as we shake hands for the night that, over the last 18 years, Aaron Paul has perfected the art of bringing his own dreams to life within the city’s. Or, perhaps the reverse is true. Either way, I can’t make a distinction between the A-lister and the personable, easy-going guy I’ve spent a brief time getting to know. There’s a natural continuity between these roles that’s at once larger than life and completely believable.
Photographer: Prakash Shroff for thomastreuhaft.com.
Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga for OpusBeauty.com.
Groomer: Daniele Piersons for eamgmt.com.
Equipment: Siren Studios.
Motorcycle: Black Anchor Society.
Photography Assistant: Brian Lipps.
Styling Assistant: Alexander-Julian Gibbson.
Editorial Intern: Karin Kerylow.
Special Thanks: J. Winters.