"I just did CNN the other day," Aaron Paul says. "The woman called me Jesse and I... I just started laughing." It's understandable. After playing one of television's most beloved, complex characters - meth man Jesse Pinkman in AMC's Breaking Bad - a case of mistaken identity is a common occurrence. "The know me as playing one character," he says. "They just think that's who I am and I couldn't be farther from him."
Breaking Bad withdrawals are bad enough that Paul might play Jesse again in the upcoming spinoff, Better Call Saul, even if it means being called Jesse for years to come. The first bump was free, but the need for an fix is stronger than whatever Walt cooked for five seasons. It also makes perfect sense that he would drive off in the show's final moments into blockbusters to prove his worth as a bankable movie star. He's becoming a full-on habit instead of a one-hit experiment with 's religious epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, out this December, and Need For Speed, a movie based on Electronic Arts' longstanding racing franchise, out March 14.
"I hope when people see this movie, if they see it, they see a different person," Paul says of Tobey Marshall, the underground street racer he plays in Need For Speed. "They don't see Aaron. They don't see Jesse. They just see someone else." Who they're supposed to see is a man embodying Steve McQueen coolness upgraded for The Fast and the Furious generation, a blue collar worker seeking vengeance in the form of a racing tournament, the De Leon, after being falsely imprisoned for the death of his friend.
For , the stuntman-turned-director of Need For Speed, that muscle car sensibility involved three things: Danger, charm, and charisma. But Aaron Paul's name kept coming up for the bad guy, Dino Brewster, a role that eventually went to . Scott Waugh saw Paul's audition and was blown away. "I saw the audition tape and I was like, 'Oh my God,'" he says. He was an obvious choice for the movie's villain, but Waugh wanted to cast him as the film's hero, an all-American mechanic blasting across the country at breakneck speeds with his friend and co-star, .
"I just did a film with her and just wanted her to come along with me," Paul says of Poots. "They told me she was like the top of their list and I just begged Emmy to come with me and she did." At first, she didn't understand what the movie was supposed to be. A gritty drama? A movie about drugs? "He was like, 'No, it's about race cars,' she says. She wanted to work with Aaron again, even if she wasn't wild about the subject matter. She says it would have been crazy to say no to. "If I'm ever going to do a film like this in my life, I'd be thrilled to have Aaron next to me, you know, in this together," she says.
Even Waugh was skeptical of the whole idea. "They said the studio would never go for that," he says. "That's too edgy." He said that edginess - what people think of when they see Blue Sky or Jesse Pinkman yelling bitch in his best Juggalo voice rolling across the country with Imogen Poots, an actor Paul says he has chemistry with, is what Need For Speed needed. It doesn't hurt that they both have incredibly blue eyes, something the movie points out as well.
Still, Waugh's presence gave credibility to sculpting people's perception of Jesse Pinkman into Tobey Marshall. After all, movies like Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Smokey and the Bandit, and The French Connection are in his blood. His father was veteran stuntman Fred Waugh and he grew up around Hal Needham, a stunt icon that's broken around 60 bones over the course of his 310 films. One Need For Speed stunt in particular - The Grasshopper - a huge jump on a ramp was inspired by a scene where a car launches through a drive-in theater screen in the movie Our Winning Season. Waugh included the Grasshopper as a tribute to the man responsible for the original stunt, his father who passed away 2012.
"I want to give the stuntmen and women credit," Paul says. "The grasshopper was definitely not me and I did not want to do that." The freeway sequences where the actors are going about 125 mph are him, but when they got up to 180 mph they put Waugh's stunt people in the driver's seat. "I can change a tire, but other than that I would have no idea how to change my own oil," Paul says. "I'm sure I could figure it out." The cars that he and others drive in Need For Speed are replicas of Lamborghinis, Bugattis, and McLarens, mechanical works of art that would be too expensive to destroy in real life. Paul was able to trip around corners, doing reverse 180s and 360s. "You know, the fun stuff," he says.
The fun stuff is still very different from small passion projects like Breaking Bad or Hellion, which went to Sundance in January and was made for $400,000. He's essentially jumped from sets with crews of 30 to 600. "You don't remember if you had met the person and you feel bad," he says. "You go to a Ridley Scott biblical epic and you're surrounded by 200 camels and elephants, and there may be a couple of cheetahs, he says. "You're like, 'What is happening?'"