Over the past few years, audiences have started to discover actor Aaron Paul, mainly from his role as a meth manufacturer on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and though he’s appeared in a few movies since then, he’s starting to get bigger roles like the one he plays in James Ponsoldt’s upcoming dramedy Smashed.
It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate, a schoolteacher whose drinking binges with her husband Charlie, played by Paul, leads to her job being at risk. When one such bender leads to her smoking crack with a stranger, she realizes it’s time for a change. With the help of the school’s vice-principal (Nick Offerman), Kate joins Alcoholics Anonymous where she’s sponsored by a woman played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
Charlie’s an interesting role for Paul, because the movie leaves you wondering how large a factor the character plays in keeping Kate from recovering, yet he’s also a completely sympathetic character, which is a testament to Paul’s portrayal.
ComingSoon.net got to sit down with Paul at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where the actor had flown in briefly before heading back to London to continue shooting an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. We talked to him about that movie and about “Breaking Bad” on top of Smashed.
ComingSoon.net: I saw the movie at Sundance, maybe later in the festival, I guess.
Aaron Paul: And what did you think?
CS: I liked it a lot. The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen “Breaking Bad” at that point. I knew that it had a lot of fans and that won the Emmy but I hadn’t seen the show, so for me, you were that actor from the cool Sundance movie rather than Jesse from “Breaking Bad.”
Paul: Have you seen “Breaking Bad” now?
CS: I’ve seen the entire series, but back then I didn’t put two and two together that the actor from “Smashed” was the guy from the show all my friends seem to like. Obviously the show’s been really successful, so how did James approach you to do this and why did you want to do this in what I expect is the little time you have between seasons?
Paul: Yeah, I just loved the story and it’s just such an honest, raw just a real story. That’s what drew me to it. Then, I sat down with James and we just hit it off. We talked for like three hours over many cups of coffee or tea and just hit it off. I just related to it–not me personally having an issue with alcoholism, but definitely people close to me–and I just wanted to be a part of it.
CS: At least the first half of the movie involves Mary Elizabeth’s character on these drunken benders, which anyone who drinks has experienced at least once, so was that all scripted or was there some improvisation in doing those scenes?
Paul: Yeah, it was kinda just roll the punches on the day. We didn’t really know exactly where it was going, but we knew it was going to be intense. This is an intense film, but yeah, it was just very raw.
CS: It’s interesting you say that because one of the things I’ve been trying to get my head around is the humor in the movie because it’s not straight drama. It was strange that at Sundance, there was so much laughter about her drunken antics, although maybe afterwards people would go, “That’s not so funny, because she has a problem.”
Paul: Yeah, but this film was never supposed to be like a scared straight sort of story. We wanted to just play the reality of it, and sometimes life is just funny, even though you might go through some pretty intense situations, sometimes those intense situations tend to be funny.
CS: Yeah, the night Kate goes on a crack bender was one example of that.
Paul: Yeah, it’s not good.
CS: I know, exactly. It’s not really funny, so why are we laughing at this scene?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. It’s kinda like with the show I do, I mean, the second episode, my character tries to melt a body in acid, and that’s not funny, but you are laughing at it.
CS: Yeah, that’s one of those weird things when you mix drama and comedy and I hope to speak to James about that.
Paul: He’s incredible. That’s what I first took from him. He’s just so kind and just so generally excited about it all and so passionate. I knew that’s what it was going to be like on set, so I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to do that with him.
CS: Was it fairly low budget and fairly quick and loose?
Paul: Oh yeah. We shot the entire film in I think 18 or 19 days, in three six-day weeks, I think. We all did it for no money. I think every single one of us just did it for the love of the story, the love of the craft and something that challenged us, and yeah, it was great.
CS: Did you spend some time with Mary Elizabeth beforehand to build the relationship?
Paul: Yeah, yeah, before they officially offered it to me, they set up a meeting with Mary and I and we met at this restaurant slash bar and just kinda talked and felt each other out and we hit it off. You know, I’m such a huge fan of hers and I couldn’t wait for a project like this to kinda come her way because I thought she really deserved it. I always knew that she was super-talented, but she just needed the right project to be able to kinda spread her wings and this is just that and she’s brilliant.
CS: I’ve been a big fan of hers a long time and I’ve met her a few times, and I remember seeing her work in “The Thing” and how much she put into the role, but unfortunately movies are a director’s medium and I don’t think some of the more dramatic work she was doing made the movie.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, what’s going to hit the cutting room floor and make the film, but it was so great because she just really stayed in character pretty much the entire time, which must’ve been so exhausting for her. Then, that was exhausting for me.
CS: I was curious about your take on Charlie. Having seen the movie twice, it’s obvious he may be a bad influence on her, but it does seem like he’s trying to improve. He stops drinking. It does seem like by the time they get into the big fight, he’s already gotten himself clean.
Paul: Yeah, I think he finally realizes, “My god, wow, she does have a problem.” That’s just what’s so honest about it is he felt like he was trying, but maybe he wasn’t really trying enough. You can tell that these characters love each other, they generally do care for one another and are super-passionate for each other, but they never knew what it was like to be sober together. They never knew what it was like to have a sober relationship. When one tries to go sober and the other just doesn’t get it, just feels that he’s lost his kind of partner in crime, his drinking buddy and it’s hard, and yeah, it was rough.
CS: Having friends of mine who enjoy social drinking, you start to wonder when is the point that it’s a problem. I guess when you throw up in front of your class of five-year-olds and lie to them…
Paul: Yeah, yeah, that could be a telltale sign, lying to your first grade class, but yeah, it really opened my eyes to Los Angeles. People go out all the time, and they go out everywhere, but it kind of made me question, “Wow, I wonder if there’s just a lot of people like these characters that are in my life that I didn’t really realize could possibly have a severe drinking problem?” I think I do have a lot of friends that just resort to, “Oh, I will just get drunk today.” But every person’s different.
CS: It must be tough in L.A. with the whole party scene. By the way, when did you shoot this movie, between two seasons I imagine?
Paul: This was shot last hiatus, so between four and five. Then, yeah, we shot it super, super quick, and then, they submitted a rough cut to Sundance just a few weeks after we were done.
CS: Right after shooting?
Paul: Yeah. Just a rough cut, you know? But James will tell you, he’s like, “I don’t know if that’s a good thing to talk about or bad.” But he just knew what he wanted and I really think he got it. “We’re going to try and make the deadline for Sundance,” and I’m like, “Really? Isn’t that just in a few weeks or a month?” They’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to try.” I’m like, “Wow.” Then, we got accepted. They literally were working on it until the day before the screening I think.
CS: I hear that happens a lot with filmmakers showing up with their print the day of the movie’s premiere.
Paul: Yeah, it’s just never done. It’s so funny, that story of the guy in the museum who got arrested for painting on a painting. Did you hear about that? He gets arrested and then they realize he was the artist of the actual painting because he’s looking at it and he’s like, “Ah, it’s just quite not right.” But yeah, I guess an artist is never really done.
CS: It happens a lot with festival and maybe when you spend too much time over-thinking things, you screw things up. Are you generally trying to do movies in between each season?
Paul: Yeah, I like to try and stay busy, as long as it’s something that’s honest and something that I’m passionate about. I’d rather not work. But, yeah, I’m doing a film right now called “A Long Way Down.” It’s a Nick Hornby novel that’s adapted and I’m super-excited about it. We’re shooting right now. I flew in from London yesterday and then I go back tomorrow and it’s a great cast, but yeah.
CS: Have you met Nick yet?
Paul: Yeah, we had dinner together last week. He’s a great guy, super-talented and I think the script does the novel justice, so I think he’s happy with it.
CS: That’s directed with a fairly new director, right?
Paul: Yeah, it’s Pascal-I’m going to slaughter his last name (Chaumeil). He’s this French director, brilliant, but a great cast. It’s these four strangers that find themselves on the same rooftop on New Year’s Eve all wanting to commit suicide. It’s Toni Collette, Pierce Brosnan, Imogen Poots and myself.
CS: Are you British in that?
Paul: No, my character J.J. is the only American. Hopefully it’ll be here next year at Toronto. I’m really excited about it.
CS: What about “Decoding Annie Parker?” I talked to Rashida Jones not that long ago. Do you have any idea what’s going on with that?
Paul: I actually have no idea. You never know, you know? Sometimes it’s really quick, sometimes they’re like, “I need to be in the editing room for two years.” I’m like, “Wow, okay.” But yeah, Rashida Jones is super great and yeah, a super interesting writer/director. That’s another honest story, a true story, Annie Parker, just who ends up getting breast cancer. You know, her grandparents died of cancer. Her parents died, her sister died of cancer, and then she was just waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop. She found out that she has cancer and then she’s like, “No.” And yet she just has a…
CS: That’s not a comedy though, right?
Paul: No. No, no, absolutely not. She was waiting for that shoe to drop and she has a high school education, but she was convinced, she was focused on finding the cure for cancer. She ended up beating it and I play her husband. Samantha Morton is just brilliant.
CS: I was curious because we spoke earlier about mixing drama and comedy, so do you generally not think about whether you’re doing comedy or drama?
Paul: Yeah, well I never really do comedies. I might do dramas that have some comedic elements in it, but I’m just not funny. I can’t do the slapstick sort of humor. I wish I could, but I just can’t. I’d look like an idiot. (Laughs) But yeah, I love it all. I always gravitate towards the darker side of things, I think. Just for me I think it’s more exciting to play. I don’t know. I just love kind of zipping on different skins.
CS: You’re really funny on the show.
Paul: Yeah, you have to because if you don’t, you’re just beating everybody up with such intensity and it just might just be a little much, but you gotta bring the reality to it. Like I said before, reality sometimes is funny, yeah.
CS: The first half of the last season of “Breaking Bad” aired last week. I know they’re still working on next season with the writing and all.
Paul: They just went into the writer’s room. They went back. They don’t know.
CS: I was curious, when you do that show, do you generally know what’s going on in the other parts of the show that don’t include you? The last couple of episodes, a lot of stuff went on where you’re not in there. Do you generally know about that stuff?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I read the entire script. I don’t just read my stuff, and I’m really milking each page now because it’s down to the final eight episodes. This front eight was just so hard because after each script I read, that’s one less that I get to read. So yeah.
CS: Is it exciting for you to get a new script?
Paul: Oh my God, yeah, because I’m such a huge fan of the show. We all are. We all know that we’re a part of something super-special. I’ll be the first to admit, I know I’m not going to jump onto another thing like “Breaking Bad.” That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, which I’m fine with. I’m okay with being here, and then it’s all right. My future projects won’t hold a candle to what I had been working on, but I’ll be super stoked to continue to work and be in this business. We’re all just lucky to kinda do what we do.
CS: It’s crazy hearing from my friends for so many years about how great “Breaking Bad” was and then I learned that my older brother has been watching it from the beginning. And then I finally got around to watch it and it really was as good as everyone kept saying.
Paul: Yeah, that’s what I mean. It’s funny that so many people… I mean, everyone’s been talking about the show since the beginning. That’s just so great. We might not have the biggest – I mean, our fan base is definitely incredibly much larger than it was, but we always had had our small core group of fans. It definitely wasn’t the biggest fan base, but all of the fans are just so hardcore and so passionate about it. That’s the only reason why our show has survived. Each season, our fan base has drastically grown and then especially with this last season with Netflix…
CS: That’s the key.
Paul: It just made it so accessible, so easy. They’re like, “Well, why wouldn’t I watch it?” It’s been the most viewed show on Netflix for some time now. Every day. I just talked to the head of marketing at Netflix last night and they told me. They’re like, “Every day, it’s the most viewed TV program and it keeps growing every day,” which is super exciting.
CS: Have you thought about what you might do after “Breaking Bad” or are you still focused on the Nick Hornby movie?
Paul: Yeah, I’m just focused on that, and then we’re going to shoot the final eight starting in November and we’re going to be done in March. Then, we’ll see what happens after that.
CS: I mean, obviously a lot of times with TV you’re doing a show and then it comes out a week later, but it’s interesting that you shoot an entire season and then it might not air for four or five months. So do you go into hiding during that time?
Paul: Yeah, yeah, well, we’re all super good about not revealing anything because we don’t spoil it. What’s the point of that?