“You have to try the meth,” says Aaron Paul, trying to figure out how to score me some of the lab-pure, blue-tinted “Heisenberg” product that is at the center of mortally contentious connoisseurship on Breaking Bad. We’re rummaging through a prop room on the set in Albuquerque, and Paul, who plays the show’s mopey-cute dealer, addict, and drug sous-chef, Jesse Pinkman, has already offered me a Breaking Bad–branded tote bag, a beer Koozie, and a book of matches from Jesse’s flamboyant lawyer-without-qualms Saul Goodman, with “3 Strikes” printed on the back, along with his slogan: “Better Call Saul.”
“It’s actually cotton-candy-flavored rock candy,” Paul explains.
For the first couple of seasons, they would inhale this sweet stuff on-camera, smoking out of a glass pipe with grim documentary élan. But it left a bad taste in his mouth. “It’s like licking the burned bottom of a cotton-candy machine,” he says. That’s a warning, in case you’ve got the idea of throwing a faux-meth-smoking party for the series’ return to AMC in July.
Breaking Bad is “absolutely not for everybody,” says Paul. It’s densely plotted and violent, abject and absurd. Over the past four years, word of its dramatic potency spread with changes in the way TV could be ingested, and people began bingeing on it on DVD and online, losing entire weekends to it. “I’ve met so many people who watched all four seasons back-to-back,” he says, walking me through the flimsy village of banal Sunbelt-suburban interiors of the show. “We don’t have the biggest fan base in the world, but all of them are so hard-core.”
Paul, 32, is slight enough to be physically convincing as the twentysomething he’s played for the past four years. On the show, his dithering youthfulness is somewhat exaggerated by his baggy clothing and the way he tends to slouch and let his arms hang behind him like a dreamy, impatient 9-year-old who wants to be somewhere else.
“He’s just this lost kid,” says Paul. “He couldn’t be less like me. You know, I’ve been in L.A. for fifteen years, and it’s impossible not to see drugs. I have had people—just beautiful, amazing people—having their souls sucked out of them. By meth, actually.” Former methheads sometimes come up to him, crying, wanting to hug Jesse. “They say it’s a reminder of why they went sober.”
But Breaking Bad is not really about drugs. It’s about the Old Testament consequences of what ought to be foreseeably bad choices. Still, it’s not a morally orderly world. In some ways it’s as paranoid and borderline supernatural as The X-Files (on which its creator, Vince Gilligan, previously wrote) or Pulp Fiction–era Quentin Tarantino (to which Gilligan sometimes refers). “The meth started off more as a structural component,” says Gilligan. “What was interesting to me was a protagonist making money doing the worst thing you could conceivably do to make money.” That would be Walter White, a 50-year-old chemistry teacher with lung cancer, played by Bryan Cranston. Walter decides that he’ll provide for his family and, perhaps more to the point, prove that he’s been underestimated by the world all along by making the Southwest’s best meth. To execute that plan, he recruits a former student, Jesse, who was already in that line of work on a more artisanal scale.
“It would be facile to say Jesse’s in the meth business because he likes meth,” says Gilligan. “Walt has helped him be good at something. And Jesse’s desperate to have some sense of approval. Despite Walt’s coldness and lack of affection. And occasional mandate that he shoot a guy in the face.”
Paul grew up in Idaho, and his father was a Baptist minister in towns like Emmett, Twin Falls, and Boise. He was the youngest of five, precocious but not too rebellious. “I grew up believing that once I died, I’d fly around in the clouds,” he says. “I guess you believe whatever is placed in front of you.”
He performed in church plays and realized in eighth grade that he wanted to be an actor. In high school, he convinced the drama teacher to let him try out for the upperclassman group and performed Alec Baldwin’s monologue from Malice, where he was an arrogant surgeon being depositioned in a malpractice suit. It’s more of a Walter speech than a Jesse speech, really (“The question is: Do I have a God complex? … I am God.”). He got into the group and got his mother to promise to let him graduate a year early and try to make it in Hollywood.
At 17, he was moved by his mom to an apartment in L.A., and soon he’d dropped his last name (Sturtevant) and was doing commercials, starring as a proto-Jesse in a Korn video (as an outcast named Floyd Cifer, who gets back at the abusive jocks by showing up at the prom with a call girl and vomiting on everyone), and landing various TV roles. Once, on an episode of The X-Files, he played Sky Commander Winkie—Vince Gilligan’s nickname in college—whose brain was eaten by bugs. (Gilligan’s friend had written that episode.)
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.”
• Watch Exclusive Footage of Aaron Paul’s Photo Shoot for New York Magazine’s TV Issue