The Ascent of Jesse Pinkman

Photo: Jennifer Rocholl

I pictured Jesse as an average-looking guy, you know, a 25-year-old snot that cooks meth. On the spectrum of life, he’s a loser,” says Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. So when Aaron Paul walked in to audition for the role of Jesse Pinkman in 2007, he had a severe handicap: He was too handsome. That may seem counterintuitive in Hollywood, especially given that the character was part of a new show on the then ratings-starved AMC, but Gilligan was committed to as bleak a vision as you’re likely to find on TV. Still, once Paul started reading his lines, “I knew he was the guy.” It took some persuading—AMC executives were similarly perplexed by his attractiveness—but Gilligan got his way and cast the 30-year-old Idaho native as Jesse, the drug-dealing sidekick to chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston). “When folks rise to the occasion and make themselves indispensable,” Gilligan says of Paul, “your perception of your own show changes. Funny how that works.”

To the invested audience of Breaking Bad—which premiered its third season last Sunday—what began as a show about Walter White’s journey from cancer victim to unlikely drug lord is now a two-man story. Jesse started as an absurd screwup, his defiant gait and explosive intensity made comical by the laughably oversize clothes and gangsta posturing of a backwater hustler. That began to change in season two, with the spectacularly creepy and heartbreaking “Peekaboo,” an episode centering on Jesse and the neglected child of two junkies. “The location was a sad place, a rundown house that the art department found in Albuquerque,” Paul says of the dingy meth-den set. “The dialogue and the emotions were really intense, especially because I was working with a kid.” It was the first episode that centered on Jesse alone, and the reaction from fans was immediate. “This was a favorite,” says Gilligan. “I think it’s because of the tenderness that Jesse shows toward that little boy. You realized that in an alternate universe, he could actually be a really good dad. Often in TV, you give an episode to a supporting character for practical reasons, because your star is unavailable. That was not the case here. We wrote that episode about Jesse’s mind-set because it was time to do it.”

In person, you might mistake Paul for a freshly scrubbed Boy Scout leader—more like Scott Quittman, the upstanding young husband he plays on Big Love. (It’s a little disconcerting: Paul is now so entwined with Jesse, you find yourself wondering when Quittman will reveal some dark predisposition.) “I’m pretty light, but I’m drawn to the opposite,” says Paul. “Coming from Idaho and moving to L.A., it was impossible to ignore the drug world. And this particular drug, meth, definitely affected people close to me, including a girlfriend,” says Paul. “I saw people morph into something else, and at a certain point, it’s not even their fault anymore.”

Season three begins with Jesse in rehab, following a descent into heroin addiction and his (fictional) girlfriend’s death. He’s off drugs, his clothes fit, and he’s learning to accept himself. Yet oddly, playing Jesse straight “really threw me for a loop,” says Paul. “It was hard to nail him. I had no idea where they were going with this character. He’s so numb and cut off from everything.” Cranston, who considers himself a kind of mentor to his co-star, says the struggle hasn’t dimmed Paul’s enthusiasm. “It was wonderful to see him, for lack of a better term, just sit down in it and swallow this new approach,” says Cranston, who has won two Best Actor Emmys for Breaking Bad (Paul has been nominated once). “I’ll say to him, ‘Can we work on this scene?’ He’s like a little puppy, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. What do you want to do?’ And he’s excited about it, genuinely excited about it.”

Turns out good looks weren’t the only hurdle for Paul back in 2007; unbeknownst to him, he was auditioning for a doomed character. “My intention was that at the end of season one, Jesse would die horribly, which would make Walt feel really guilty and force him to question his criminality,” says Gilligan. “But it became clear to me that Aaron Paul was an absolute asset to the show. I’d no more kill him off now than cut off one of my pinkies.”

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The Ascent of Jesse Pinkman