The last time most people saw Aaron Paul, he was riding off into the sunset. Or doing the “Breaking Bad” equivalent: crashing some redneck scum’s El Camino through a meth lab’s barbed-wire security fence and speeding off into the inky night, howling, his future uncertain. It was the September 2013 series finale of the TV crime drama-turned-postmodern “Scarface” phenomenon, and Paul’s Jesse Pinkman had finally been freed from rivals’ brutal clutches by his infamously soul-corrupted mentor/Svengali, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). After five long seasons of Eminem-stylin’ misbehavior, drug dealing, junkie backsliding, smacked-down redemptive struggles, and psychological and physical torment, Jesse was gone.
Six months later, we’re finding out more about where Paul, at least, was headed. And it turns out he’s still driving. The two-time Emmy winner’s first theatrical release since wrapping “Breaking Bad” is “Need for Speed,” a video-game adaptation that hits 3-D screens Friday. The slate might not reflect some master plan to steer his post-Jesse career toward a particular destination, but Paul’s initial choice was a deliberate one.
“I definitely wanted something lighter,” the 34-year-old actor admitted during a recent visit to Boston. “For six years, I had played a character who was just tortured, broken, people dying all around him.”
He sighs at the memory.
“It was nice to just go have some fun and drive around. When I got the script, I did think, ‘Ugh, another video-game movie.’ But then I read it and realized that because the game has no narrative, we were getting to work with a blank canvas, story-wise.”
Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a master mechanic and street racer who’s framed and jailed for a spectacular, deadly crash, then roars off in pursuit of vengeance — which awaits in a white-knuckle underground grand prix that’s a 3,000-mile drive away. “The crazy thing is that they did all of these stunts practically without CG,” says Paul, who’s something of a car guy himself. (His first date with his future wife was to go pick up a rebuilt ’65 Shelby Cobra he’d found on eBay.) “That’s another thing that pushed me to do it. Our director [Scott Waugh, “Act of Valor”] is a second-generation stuntman, and he wanted to stick to that sort of filmmaking, things like ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Vanishing Point.’
“There’s a shot where Scott wanted me to pull the emergency brake and slide and get within inches of the camera,” he continues. “Which is a little terrifying, because someone is holding that camera. Scott was doing it himself. So the first take, I was about 15 feet shy. And he just said, ‘Listen, if you hit me, it’s fine. I’ll just roll over the car.’ That didn’t make me feel better.”
The goal now, he says, is ‘just keeping the audience guessing, trying to do stuff that challenges me.’
As Paul recounts the story, he raises an amused eyebrow, expressive as we know him to be onscreen, even if it’s hardly that familiar Pinkman furrow. Commend his careful driving — better 15 feet short than 15 feet long — and he laughs a big, fine-grit sandpaper laugh that’s not quite his TV persona, either, all brightly energetic rather than overwound.
File it all under the heading of what distinguishes Paul from others we picture in roles of dirty-blond scruff and dark intensity: Ryan Gosling, say, or Ben Foster. The common edge, the danger they all project is tempered in Paul’s case by his dude-vibe screen presence – what translates, in real life, to his easygoing manner. When an interviewer expresses surprise at Paul’s casting in Ridley Scott’s upcoming biblical epic, “Exodus” — he plays Hebrew slave Joshua to Christian Bale’s Moses — Paul doesn’t bristle. Instead, he gamely pulls out his smartphone to shuffle through pictures of himself on set in Spain, de-contemporized by a three-hour makeup job. Oh, and to share the laugh of Bale striking a crazy-faced, Prophets-Gone-Wild pose.
English actress Imogen Poots remembers riding shotgun with Paul on “Need for Speed” and, before that, working with him on “A Long Way Down,” adapted from the novel by “About a Boy” author Nick Hornby. (Paul, Poots, Pierce Brosnan, and Toni Collette play would-be suicide leapers who form an unlikely support group in “A Long Way Down.” The coolly reviewed British film doesn’t yet have a release date in the United States.)
“You see ‘Need for Speed,’ and Aaron looks like this archetypal man, like he can save the world,” Poots says in a phone interview. “And then in between shots [in the desert], he’s got this shower cap contraption filled with ice on his head, and we’re both fanning around, like, ‘Oh, the heat!’ I always like to see someone breaking down that idea of a ‘Movie Star.’ He makes me laugh.”
Paul (born Aaron Paul Sturtevant) grew up in Idaho and moved to LA after high school to take his showbiz shot. Try looking back at some of his dues-paying gigs — a “Jackass” wannabe on a late-run episode of “The X-Files,” a telekinetic kid in a Juicy Fruit spot — and see if they don’t fall into the category of “Hey, I remember those,” as opposed to “Who knew about those?” Paul’s Red Bull-fueled appearance as a contestant on “The Price Is Right” is also a YouTube cult fave. (Ironically, he lost out on a sports car, overbidding by $132.)
Fast-forward more than a decade and 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” and Paul’s ambitions, understandably, have evolved. “Will I ever play a character that complex again?” he asks, raising the question himself. (It’s clear he must get this a lot.) “I don’t know. I always joke that it’s all downhill from here — which isn’t a bad thing, because I really do view the show as occupying the highest plateau possible.” The goal now, he says, is “just keeping the audience guessing, trying to do stuff that challenges me and zipping on as many different skins as possible.”
Paul is certainly giving it his all on that last count, busily playing what seems like every shade of screw-up. He started work on “Need for Speed” the day after “Breaking Bad” wrapped just over a year ago. After hitting Sundance in 2012 with “Smashed,” in which he had a supporting role as alcoholic Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s equally hard-living husband, he returned to the festival this year with “Hellion,” playing a delinquent kid’s emotionally wrecked dad. Also in the pipeline is the cancer-science drama “Decoding Annie Parker,” with Samantha Morton as a breast cancer survivor, Paul as her cheating husband, and Helen Hunt as a pioneering geneticist. And Paul is gearing up for two more: “Fathers and Daughters,” a fractured-time narrative that stars Russell Crowe and reunites Paul with his “Big Love” screen spouse, Amanda Seyfried; and “Triple Nine,” a corruption yarn directed by John Hillcoat (“Lawless”) that also stars Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Casey Affleck.
“I really don’t see Aaron falling into one particular mold, but stretching and doing a great many characters,” says “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, putting in a good word from Los Angeles. “He can do heartfelt and soulful, and he can be scary when he needs to be. You know, his part on ‘Big Love’ was the polar opposite of Jesse Pinkman. He’s got a lot more range in him than he’s even been able to portray yet.”
Not that further broadening his dramatic horizons would rule out a possible return visit to TV. It sounds like a good bet that Paul will appear on “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff that Gilligan is currently prepping for Bob Odenkirk’s slimeball lawyer, Saul Goodman. “Because we’re doing a prequel, you never know when someone might pop up,” Gilligan says. “We don’t want to overuse or abuse the privilege of it being a prequel, but I think judiciously using some of these characters would be a lot of fun.”
“I’ve definitely had some detailed discussions about it with Vince,” Paul says. “Jesse did know Saul before. But if it happens, I think it’ll be one of those things where Jesse just shows up one day.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.