sundance

Aaron Paul Lets Go Of Jesse Pinkman By Finding His Own Protégé

The Emmy winner is moving on from Breaking Bad with Hellion, an intense new movie at the Sundance Film Festival. And in it, he’s found his own partner-in-crime.

Evan Agostini/Invision for Chase Sapphire Preferred / AP Images

Aaron Paul is, unequivocally, Breaking Bad’s biggest fanboy. The star of the AMC meth drama live-tweeted the series throughout its final season and dutifully busts out Jesse Pinkman’s “Yeah, bitch!” catchphrase for the thrilled devotees of the now-departed award-winning series on the regular.

But even Paul, now 34 and a solid half-decade into what has mushroomed into international fame, can tire of the more bizarre aspects of life as a figure of public obsession, like the random people who snuck in to watch him wed and celebrate with his new wife Lauren Parsekian in September.

“We had wedding crashers. We saw them when we got all of our pictures back. This one girl was this close to catching Lauren’s bouquet,” he told BuzzFeed at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “We were like, ‘Who is this girl?’ And no one know who they were.”

If his private moments were always so exposed, if, say, he was living the sort of paparazzi-haunted paranoid life of one of the Twilight actors, Paul thinks he’d have to leave L.A. and move to a ranch out in the middle of nowhere — maybe somewhere like Park City, where there wasn’t much more than a small and respectful group of autograph and selfie seekers awaiting his car at the library that doubled as the premiere venue for Hellion, the Sundance movie in which he stars. Maybe if tabloid press had been in the room and noticed that Paul and his new wife spent much of the screening cuddling and sharing a box of popcorn, it’d have made the rounds. But there were, gratefully, no photographers to take note.

Hellion marks the opening of a new chapter in Paul’s life and career, and, just five days after he delighted the world by punctuating Breaking Bad’s Golden Globes win for Best Television Drama with an emphatic “Yeah, bitch,” that new chapter includes having the clout to lift a promising young filmmaker’s decidedly un-Hollywood script into one of the more anticipated films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In Hellion, Paul stars as Hollis, an alcoholic widower losing his grip on reality and his increasingly fractured family, and Kat Candler’s angry and anarchic Texas-set domestic drama also provided the actor with an eager teenage mentee in whom he sees a more talented version of himself.

Josh Wiggins, who plays Hollis’ sympathetic delinquent older son Jacob in the film, is a revelation. He never acted beyond some goofy YouTube videos he made with friends, but that was enough to get the now 15-year-old Texan an audition for the film (a friend’s mom sent the videos to a casting director) and, ultimately, a screen test in L.A. Though Wiggins told BuzzFeed he was initially nervous, Paul was quick to assure him that he killed it from the start, beaming with pride in a kid who the Emmy-winning actor says disappeared into the simmering, injured shit-stirrer with the sort of ease that made him jealous.

“For the more intense scenes, this kid would just stay in it,” Paul remembered of filming resentment-drenched verbal sparring and smashing truck windows. “If he needed to break away from conversation, he would go over and just kind of be in this mindset. It was great to watch.”

Wiggins insisted that “90% was working off Aaron’s give and take,” but Paul wouldn’t have it.

“The goal when you’re working is to just kind of get lost in the scene and forget that you’re acting, and it might sound cheesy to people that don’t do it, but people who love it know exactly what I’m talking about, and I felt that with you always,” he assured Wiggins, who couldn’t hold back the smile that he kept so in check in the film. “This being your first role, damn you! I was maybe, hopefully, a tenth of the actor that you are when I was your age.”

Paul with on-screen sons Wiggins (right) and Deke Garner (center) Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Paul moved to L.A. from his native Idaho at 17, having fallen in love with acting after doing high school theater. (Though his first role was as baby Jesus in the manger in a church nativity scene as an infant — a role that, in retrospect, was certainly against type.) Everyone has seen his pre-fame appearance on The Price Is Right and that Corn Pops commercial, which, along with TV guest spots on shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, The X-Files, and ER, supplemented his income throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s. Then, in 2007, he earned what he calls his first really fulfilling role on HBO’s polygamy drama Big Love as Scott Quittman, whom Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah Henrickson marries, despite her Mormon parents’ wishes.

But no experience in character acting can compare to Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, the unexpectedly and astoundingly complicated small-time meth pusher who gets caught up with Bryan Cranston’s increasingly maniacal teacher-turned-kingpin Walter White. Part of the reason Paul is both jealous of and so impressed by Wiggins is that the 15-year-old was able to slip in and out of such a troubled character’s skin, an ability that took Paul years to accomplish.

“I definitely used to dive in or just grab some stuff from my own personal experiences that make me feel more connected to it. If I just started thinking about past relatives that had passed away, if it’s an emotional scene, I’d get myself worked up and then I’m really affected by it,” he explained. “With Jesse Pinkman, for example, because he is such an emotionally fragile, intense character, a tortured character, I felt so closely connected to him because I lived and breathed every single moment of his existence.”

Ultimately, Paul was able to separate the things his character was experiencing from himself, a subtle but important feat for an actor, and one that likely came in handy when he took on the role of Joshua in Ridley Scott’s Jews-out-of-Egypt epic Exodus, one of five wide-ranging films coming up for Paul in the next year or so.

Wiggins, who also signed with Paul’s manager and agent, is looking to the future, as well. He’s already changed schools to allow himself more time for auditions, and he just won the lead role in the the Josh Duhamel movie Lost in the Sun. Not bad for a kid who had never even given much thought to acting before this.

And Paul has some advice for his younger co-star about navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood. “Just take it with stride, man. You’re brilliant, but don’t let it get to your head,” he told Wiggins. “I know you won’t, so keep doing what you do. It’s kind of cool because you’re kind of going down the footsteps that I took. It’s a great path and I’m happy for you, buddy.”

For all the strides Paul has made as an actor, the paternal protectiveness he took on for Hellion seems to be more than a performance.

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