Aaron Paul is not Jesse Pinkman. Thanks to five trailblazing seasons on “Breaking Bad,” it’s damn near impossible not to think of Paul as anyone else. But as he stressed to Indiewire in Park City during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January, the deeply troubled Pinkman is his “opposite.” The same goes for the alcoholic father he plays in Kat Candler’s scorching directorial debut, “Hellion,” which premiered in competition at Sundance and opens in select theaters this Friday.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival.]
The film marks Paul’s second to play at Sundance, following James Ponsoldt’s “Smashed,” which premiered two years ago at the fest. “Hellion,” based on Candler short of the same name, centers on motorcross-obsessed 13-year-old (stunning newcomer Josh Wiggins) and his tenuous relationship to his deeply troubled father (Paul).
Indiewire sat down with the Emmy-winner in Park City earlier this year to talk about his love for independent film, life post-“Breaking Bad” and why fame terrifies him.
“Smashed” premiered at the Library two years back, the same theater where “Hellion” was just unveiled. What’s it like to be back?
It’s kind of surreal. When we did the “Smashed” premiere, that’s when they were doing the shorts premiere for “Hellion.” I didn’t actually end up seeing it that year, but it’s pretty cool to come back to Sundance. I love this festival – who doesn’t? They promote independent filmmaking and that’s where my heart is.
Both films are hard-hitting character studies. What draws you to this type of material?
Yeah, I love just going for it. I love diving into different skins, skins that make me feel deep emotions. Maybe that says something about what’s going on in my insides – I don’t know. But in reality, I’m so happy and everyone that knows me knows me as this fun loving guy who plays such intense characters. With “Breaking Bad,” it was very intense, but really funny in the beginning. Jesse was kind of like the comic relief for the beginning of the show, but then Saul Goodman took that lead. I always gravitate towards characters that are so opposite of me.
“Smashed” marked James Ponsoldt’s second film while “Hellion” is Candler’s debut. What makes you take the leap with newcomers?
With “Hellion,” it was sent to me from all directions including James Ponsoldt [the director of “Smashed”]. He said the script was phenomenal and that the filmmaker was a total sweetheart. James I just respect for so many reasons. That moved the project up to the top. I saw her short film “Hellion” and “Black Metal,” which I thought were both fantastic and then I read the script. It was so beautifully honest. I love coming of age stories that have struggle.
You’re at a different stage of your career now than when you were last here with “Smashed.” What’s changed in how you select your projects?
From the very beginning, I’ve always just wanted to do something I’ve never done before. I’m still just trying to be on that path. It’s all about working with filmmakers that you believe in. My heart is truly in independent filmmaking. I think that’s where the real, interesting stories are being told.
I’ll jump onto a studio film, but it’s got to be a good studio film. It’s got to be something that’s first of all fun.
Which “Need for Speed” sure looks like.
“Need for Speed” was a blast! I needed a break from getting beat up and tortured on “Breaking Bad.” It was nice to get away from that and just do something that’s just fun, and also has a great story in it. I think the film will surprise a lot of people.
From that I wanted to do something quite the opposite. That was a giant budget, big Dreamworks film. They’re hoping that will be a franchise – I mean, that’s the goal. And now I just want to do small passion projects like “Hellion.” Films like that allow me to do films like “Hellion.”
Say you were cast as a lead in a film the size of “Need for Speed” at the outset of your career, before “Breaking Bad” ever came to be — do you think you could have handled the pressure?
Maybe. I would hope so because I love challenges. It’s little nerve racking, because if the film bombs, it’s kind of on your shoulders. Now you got me thinking! (Laughs.)
If “Need for Speed” hits big and studios pitch more blockbuster franchises your way, could you see yourself embracing that to become the next Tom Cruise-type actor?
No. I don’t see myself ever going down that path. I never saw myself as a leading man whatsoever. I always saw myself as a character actor and I still do. With “Need for Speed” you look at it and it’s a leading man, but for me, it’s like a character ’cause I’ve never played anything like that.
Even with “Breaking Bad,” I slowly saw my private life drifting away. That scares the hell out of me and I hate it. I want to take the John Hawkes approach. He is such a brilliant actor, and he sticks with independent films. I love that about him. If I could just become half the actor that guy is, I’d be satisfied.
I’m surprised you didn’t follow “Breaking Bad” up with a romantic comedy, just to cool down.
I just pitched a show to Netflix that got picked up and it’s a comedy! It’s a cartoon and it’s wrong on every single level possible in the best way. It’s called “BoJack Horseman.” I’m executive producing and starring in it. It’s so fun just to get in the booth, put on the headphones and be crazy. It’s about a washed up 90s sitcom star from the show “Horsing Around,” who’s a horse, and he’s trying to put his career back in order.
Do you play the horse?
I don’t. But Will Arnett does. He has the most perfect voice for it. He has issues with drugs and alcohol and a very severe potty mouth. I play his house guest Todd who just never leaves. It will probably come out sometime in the summer.
In your recent Details magazine profile you say that you’ll do anything to be a part of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.” Given that it’s a prequel series, how you see Jesse Pinkman fitting into the show?
It could possibly happen because Jesse brought Walt to Saul, so Jesse knows who Saul is. Who knows how he met him, because they never explained it. But what’s so great about it is that they can bring back characters who died. We shall see. Both Bryan [Cranston] and I have thrown our names into the hat.
Sounds like you’re not ready to say goodbye to Jesse.
No, no, no. I was ready, absolutely. And I did say goodbye to him. But to have the opportunity to play Jesse Pinkman in the lighter days? That would be incredible.