From the Set of ‘Need for Speed’: Aaron Paul Talks His New Action Role, ‘Breaking Bad’ and Stunt Driving
When I got a chance to sit down with Aaron Paul on the set of his new movie, ‘Need for Speed,’ he was just coming off the conclusion of ‘Breaking Bad’ — the show that launched him into stardom — and he was in a great mood (at one point I think he wanted me to high five him, and I feel bad I didn’t). His energy is infectious, and he was great to talk to about his action film, which could be his launching point into leading man roles. (He’s going to follow it with a role in Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus,’ so he’s in a good place).
Paul follows in the footsteps of a number of actors who used a hit television show to launch a film career, but for every George Clooney there’s a David Caruso. That said, Paul has been smart about his choices, and for an in-demand talent, he’s remained accessible to his fanbase.
Read on for my interview with Aaron Paul from the set of ‘Need for Speed,’ as he chats about working with the “crazy” car-racing stuntmen, his experience on ‘Breaking Bad,’ and more.
We heard that you’re a pretty good driver.
Did he [director Scott Waugh] say that? That was one of the things when they approached me [about] this. He said, “We’re going to do this a little differently than what’s out there right now. Everything’s going to be practical.” And I said, “Absolutely.” So he said first I had to go to stunt school, so I went through a whole thing, and it was a blast.
Was there anything you wouldn’t do or couldn’t do?
Not at all. I just convinced myself everything was okay. During the stunt course I had a helmet on, I had a fire suit on, I felt pretty protected so I was willing to do it all. I mean, the first day I was flying down a ramp and doing a full 360. It’s a blast. And then the next few days was doing 180s and driving in reverse for a long time, and it’s stuff we all want to do, and you can. You can go to Willow Springs and pay for this course, and I recommend it to everybody because it teaches you how to get out of problematic situations.
So has this changed the way you approach the 405?
In a situation like this, where you know you’re going to be behind the wheel for a chunk of the movie, do you practice your driving faces?
Not really — maybe I do, I don’t know. It was easy just to do it because it’s all practical. You’re like, “Holy sh-t, I’m driving 140 miles an hour.” You don’t have to put on a face. I just try and look as calm as possible because for my character it’s normal. For me, not so much, but it’s a blast.
Do you have a favorite car in the film?
Absolutely — the Gran Torino. I wanted to take that car home so bad. I think Scott wanted the car too, but I don’t think they gave it to him. I think we all had our eyes on certain cars. It was a joke, we drove all around the country in the most ridiculous cars possible, they let me go behind the wheel and then we destroyed them. It was so fun.
You had the ‘Breaking Bad’ experience and living with the character for such a long time, and then with this you don’t have as much time. How has the transition been? Do you prefer to have more time?
With a movie, you’re telling a story in an hour and a half [to] two hours. With ‘Breaking Bad,’ when I started I didn’t think any of us knew who Jesse was — we knew he was a druggie burnout, but he wasn’t supposed to survive after the first season and that’s when the layers were revealed. This movie, with the script, it was very character driven, and I was so surprised and excited about it, and I felt like I knew who this guy was. Because they have to tell this in a short amount of time. But I had enough information, and Scott and I talked about what happened before the story started and the backstory.
Is your character a hero or an antihero?
This movie stems from a lot of revenge. My character gets blamed for the death of one of his best friends. He spends some time in prison so revenge is on his mind and it’s a race against time. But he’s a good guy who’s trying to right a wrong, so I don’t know if he’s an antihero, but he is out to get that bastard.
I have to say I’m impressed how you interact with your fanbase on Twitter.
I moved out to Los Angeles a fan of many people, and meeting people I put on a pedestal that just disappointed me. Without fans, this business would not exist, so I try and say that we’re all on the same level. When I was in London a year and a half ago shooting a movie, I said, “Hey, I’m going to see this movie,” and people would show up and we would watch the movie together. And it’s fun and people like it. People that I’m a huge fan of, I wish they’d act like that. Sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t, but with ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was such a phenomenon. I want to give back as often as I can.
Congratulations on ‘Breaking Bad.’ It was an incredible run, and I’m sure everyone agrees with me, and if they don’t they’re a–holes. Obviously you’re hot coming off of that. So did you sign on for this as a possible start of a franchise? Did you have to sign on for multiple pictures?
I definitely signed on for a possible franchise, because we all had a blast doing this one, and it was all on the page. The writers did a great job, it’s a great and tense character-driven piece, and I would love to do more.
And what’s great is you get to make your character. There’s nothing from the video game to take from.
With this film, ‘Need For Speed,’ with this we had a blank canvas to work with. What we had to do was have fast cars, and that’s it. That’s it. They put a great story behind it and Scott had a distinct vision. He said, “I want to do a throwback to the classic ’60s, ’70s car culture. And I want you to watch every Steve McQueen movie out there.” And I was like, “Yes, let’s do it.” And he wanted to make sure that when people are watching this film they’re not being fooled, they’re not being lied to. People can watch it and say, “Oh my god. That sh-t is actually happening.” And they did it all practical, they wanted it to feel like you’re in the car driving, and that’s what you feel like when you play the game.
So, between stunt driving, playing video games and watching Steve McQueen films, this sounds like the best pre-production ever.
That’s what I’m saying, exactly. It’s a joke. [Writer's Note: This is where I think Paul wanted a high five.] Going all over the country, going to places I’ve never been to, driving these crazy cars. Like, really? Okay, I’ll do it. It’s ridiculous, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
We saw the grasshopper stunt, you didn’t do that did you?
No, thank god. I went to set to watch that and Troy did that stunt, and there is this calm, a quiet that went across the set ramping up to this moment, because he actually did it. He’s flying down the freeway, going up the embankment and then flying over three or four lanes of traffic — everyone’s in those cars as well — and landing. Everyone’s huddling around Troy, saying, “I’ll see you on the other side. I’ll see you on the other side.” His dad there’s, he’s a third-generation stuntman, and I’m thinking something could seriously go wrong here, because he is so high off the ground. But it was all good.
How much were you in the car?
I was always behind the wheel, majority of the time I was there. We had these things we called pod cars that I’d never seen before. But Tanner Faust, my stuntman — who’s f—ing crazy, but I trust my life in his hand — he does all these crazy YouTube videos, so he would be on top of the car, in the back, actually controlling the car. So the wheel doesn’t work, the gas doesn’t work, and the brake pedal does not work. So there were moments where I was like, “Tanner, you’re driving way too close,” but I’m flying and trying to pretend, but he’s controlling everything so it was like the most realistic video game possible.
There seems to be a lightness to this that you didn’t get in the last year of ‘Breaking Bad.’ Was it a conscious decision to make something not quite as dour?
Yes, absolutely. But there’s a lot of emotions going on in this film, which you rarely see in car movies, and so when I read the script I was surprised and effected by it. But with ‘Breaking Bad’ I lived and breathed every moment as Jesse. I loved the kid. I miss him so much, but … you know.
There was a nice bit of synergy in Jesse driving off, and then cutting to a commercial for ‘Need for Speed.’
He’s fine! He’s doing okay! I’m so glad Jesse was able to drive off after that.
So you wave off all the people who chalk the final episode up to being a dream?
Yeah, no. No, no, no. I don’t know if you heard about the alternate endings, where everyone was going to die besides Walt. That includes baby Holly. I never read anything, but that’s definitely stuff they played around with.
So on this movie you’re hanging around with stunt guys, and I think they’re the coolest manly guys around. What did you walk away from with that experience?
I never experienced anything like it. You walk onto set and you’re walking through a very thick cloud of testosterone. You can see it. But it was perfect for this movie. And I walked away knowing that it’s a family, it’s a brotherhood. And they’re all just out of their minds, but in the coolest way possible.
Does that change your approach?
Absolutely. Scott said, “Hey, if this acting thing doesn’t work out, we’ll bring you on with open arms,” and I’m strongly considering it because doing this sh-t is so much fun. The adrenaline’s going. I’m not going to do the grasshopper stunt, or drive off a cliff, but yeah.
New Ridley Scott movie … stunt work. Hard choice. But does it push you when you do your next movie to say, “I can do all these stunts!”
In the new Ridley Scott movie, I’m shooting my own arrows, and I’m riding my own horse.
Not as much fun research, though there’s not a guy behind you driving the horse.
It’s a pod horse!
Did you have any car accidents on the set?
Me personally, no. There was one take that Tanner was driving the pod, and I kinda bumped cars, and I went, “Holy sh-t, it’s real!” But that was the closest. But my character is an excellent driver. They really crash these cars, though.
Speaking of your character, many people know you as Jesse. Is there a conscious decision to break from the character? Do you have a no “b-tch” clause?
That’s awesome. I do now. But yes, I want to steer as far away from Jesse Pinkman as possible. During the shooting of ‘Breaking Bad,’ everyone was trying to get me to play a drug addict in their films. “We can see that you can do this, so why don’t you try it again here?” For me, I wanted to do something as far away from that as possible. I’ve never done something like this, this sort of character, and I jumped at the opportunity.
“No bitch clause.” [Laughs]
‘Need for Speed’ opens March 14.