Paul actually almost didn’t get the Breaking Bad gig: Gilligan says he had to work to convince another producer who worried that he was too handsome to be believable. Little did Paul know that Jesse wasn’t supposed to last the first season. “I thought Jesse was just the way for Walter to get into the business,” says Gilligan. “I figured I’d kill off the character and give Walter a reason to feel guilty and want revenge.”
But as the first season got going, it became clear that Paul “smoothed out the generational differences on the show,” says Cranston. “We got younger with him in it. So there was a balance there from a network point of view.”
“I really wasn’t thinking of the show as being such a two-hander as it has turned out to be,” says Gilligan. “But that’s what’s intriguing about television. A lot of Aaron’s personality—and it’s not to say Aaron is Jesse—but the cadence of his voice and his decency and vulnerability, leached into the writing of the character. You want to protect him.”
Given the steady body count on the show, and the fact that, as Cranston puts it, Jesse is the “weakest wildebeest,” one of the primary questions for the viewer has always been when he’s going to finally die. Jesse is impulsive, illogical, and self-destructively romantic. To the systematic and pitilessly self-actualized adults on the show (“Walt plays chess, Jesse plays video games,” says Cranston), he often seems like more trouble then he’s worth. Still, protecting Jesse is what anchors Walter to something outside himself. “Jesse brings out flashes of nobility in him,” Gilligan says.
Worrying about Jesse keeps the show from being too Tarantino-like in its bloody swagger. He’s the only character affected by what’s happening around him. Jesse feels so guilty after a junkie girlfriend chokes on her own vomit that he goes to rehab; to save Walt, he kills a rival meth cook, which sends him into a nihilist funk. In fact, Jesse, the expendable, has become one of the most complex characters on the show, which is why Paul won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 2010.
“He started off the show as the student, and he in many ways remains that well into season five,” says Gilligan, hinting at what’s to come.
Paul is still learning, too. Though it’s less rough-going. After he was robbed twice in Albuquerque when he returned to shoot season five, he tweeted, “First time it was my car and this time around it was my house … Can’t wait to be back in L.A., it’s so much safer there.” It caused a dust-up locally. He apologized on Twitter and declared his affection for the city by throwing out the first ball at a triple-A Isotopes game. “It was a lesson for him. He was just trying to make a joke,” says Cranston. “That really hurt his feelings. He doesn’t want to hurt people.”
The day we spend on set, the characters do and redo their lines, take after take in a clattering tortilla factory. Paul’s back in his oversize clothes, and his fingers clutch the ends of the too-long sweatshirt sleeves. His fiancée, Lauren Parsekian, a pretty anti-bullying activist with a high-gloss pedicure, is visiting, watching on the sidelines.
At first, the cast was a bit worried about how hard he fell for her. “He’s that guy,” says Cranston. “It happened a couple of times, and then the next young lady who he brought around I was like, ‘Take your time.’ And he was like”—whispering—“ ‘I know, I know I’m just crazy about her.’ ”
They met three Coachellas ago through friends. “We have very similar musical tastes,” Parsekian says. And it’s not Jesse’s thumping hip-hop, it’s earnest indie bands like Delta Spirit and the Shivers. Music is important to Paul—he calls concerts his “only addiction.” About a month and a half into dating, they tattooed EKGs of each other’s heartbeats on the inside creases of their ring fingers. “The most important thing for me on the planet is her heart. Just make sure that it’s beating,” he says. They got engaged in Paris on New Year’s.
The night before I was there, Cranston and Paul had hosted a bowling party for the cast and crew. “He’s not good,” says Cranston of Paul’s skills on the lanes. “He’s not embarrassing. He’s always enthusiastic. That’s always true of him.”