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Aaron Paul: Playing Bad On 'Breaking Bad.'

Student-turned-drug dealer Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die in the first season of the AMC drama. But the writers decided the chemistry between high school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) was too good to let go.

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on September 19, 2011.

27:28

Other segments from the episode on December 27, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2011: Interview with Margo Martindale; Interview with Aaron Paul.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year. One of the more riveting TV performances this year was given by Margo Martindale in the FX series "Justified." She won an Emmy for that performance.

It was great to see her develop a character through an entire season of a series. I'd been impressed with her before in "Million Dollar Baby," playing Hilary Swank's mother; in "Paris Je T'Aime" as a middle-aged woman whose life is changed by a trip to Paris; and in other roles. But it took me a while to realize that these performances were by the same person.

Let's start with a scene from "Justified." The series is about a deputy U.S. marshal in Kentucky played by Timothy Olyphant. In this year's arc, he investigated a family drug ring run by a very tough woman, Mags Bennett, and her sons.

Mags was played by Margo Martindale. In this scene, she's disciplining her not-very-bright son Coover for leaving a paper trail that could incriminate the family. As this clip begins, she picks up a hammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

BRAD WILLIAM HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) I'm sorry, mama.

MARGO MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Coover, I know you're sorry. That's why it's going to hurt so much to have to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDBITE OF PUNCH)

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hey, put your hand ((unintelligible)...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Take what's coming.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama, I'm...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) I'm saving your gun hand now.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama, don't hurt me.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Cross me again, and I will leave you...

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) All you've got to do is...

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) You shut your mouth.

HENKE: (As Coover Bennett) Mama.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) (Unintelligible) it ain't you dead on that table.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROWLING)

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) As it is, I have to hurt Coover. And I like Coover.

(As Coover Bennett) Mama, I love you. Mama, I love you. Mama, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Margo Martindale, welcome to FRESH AIR, and please don't hurt me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: Oh, that really makes me laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's such an amazing scene. And, I mean, you're playing it both ways, like you're the loving mother who has to do this, as if you're about to spank your baby, but you're about break his - every finger in his hand with a hammer. But you're nice enough to spare his gun hand.

MARTINDALE: I know...

GROSS: Because you love him that much.

MARTINDALE: So sweet.

GROSS: Tell me what it was like to play that scene.

MARTINDALE: Well, you know, it was - everything about this part just came so easily. And I had...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That scares me, I have to tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: I know. It's so crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: But those boys were just fantastic - Brad Henke and Jeremy Davies and Joe Lyle Taylor, my sons. We had a blast. It was like doing a, you know, a six-month movie. It was just - it was easy. That's all I can say, very easy.

That scene, the only thing I worried about was hurting his hand. It was a rubber hammer, but I kept saying, oh, please, Brad, if it hurts, let me know. And, of course, I think it hurt a little bit, but, you know, that's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: He deserved it.

GROSS: One of my favorite scenes in "Justified" is at, like, a town hall meeting. There's a big company, big coal-mining company that wants to buy out everybody's land so that they can, you know, that they can mine the mountains. And you get up, and you give this inspirational speech about the spirit of the mountain people and how you're not going to give in to big coal. And it sounds like a cross between, like, the documentary "Harlan County USA" - which is about coal-mining, you know, like, destroying Kentucky -and "Norma Rae."

But the truth - which we find out a little later - is that the reason why you don't want people to sell their land is because you want to force the coal company to accept the deal you're about to offer. You want to hold them hostage to your deal, which would make you incredibly wealthy and basically give you a percentage of the company that owns the coal company.

So all this Appalachian speech-ifying is just a way to cut out all the people and get the deal that benefits you.

So I want to play that speech that you give at this town hall meeting, we'll hear an excerpt of it, and in this speech we'll also hear the coal mining company representative Carol Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED")

GROSS: (As Mags Bennett) You know what happens when 500 million gallons of slurry breaks loose? The gates of hell open.

CAROL JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) Those poundments are built strong to keep the slurry back.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) The gates of hell open, and all that waste rolls down through the hollers and poisons the water and the land and everything it touches. The mining company has a word for those leavings, doesn't it? The spoil. The spoil. And that is what our lives will be if Black Pike has their way with our mountain.

JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) With all due respect, Mrs. Bennett, Black Pike will replace the mountaintops and leave money, a lot of money in the pockets of the working people of Bennett and Harlan County.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) That a fact?

JOHNSON: (As Rebecca Creskoff) Yes, ma'am. That is a fact.

MARTINDALE: (As Mags Bennett) Well, that's something to consider because it ain't an easy life here, no, ma'am. To an outsider, it's probably hard to understand why we're all not just lining up and saying, where do we sign? But we got our own kind of food, our own music, our own liquor.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTINDALE: (as Mags Bennett) We got our own way of courting and raising children and our own way of living and dying. And to protect all that, we have got to say no thank you to Ms. Carol Johnson here and Black Pike.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GROSS: So that is such a great scene. I love when you go: We have our own - we have our own food. We have our own way of living.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: I tell you, they're just the greatest writers ever. They really are incredible.

GROSS: Where did you go, who did you watch? Did you watch movies? Did you visit Harlan County? What did you do to get into this?

MARTINDALE: I just, just came right out of me. I didn't do anything. I'm from Texas. I'm from east Texas. I'm from big land-owning people, big ranchers, big hunters, big athletes. They all talked like that. They're all smart and deceptive and powerful. And also I lived four years in Kentucky, at Actors Theater of Louisville. So it's all part of my makeup.

You know, it's something I really understand. I'd like to say that I worked really hard and studied people and everything, but I didn't. I just - it just came out of my imagination and the 60 years I've lived, truly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I think one of your great tools is your voice. You have a really deep voice that you can make even deeper in roles like "Justified." You can bring your voice from really, like, deep within.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I have to say that this is at a time when a lot of women speak in much higher voices and when - often our voices get more trapped in our throats, you know, for woman. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about your voice and using how deep and full it can be in a role like your role on "Justified," where you have express power. You have to convey you've got the power.

MARTINDALE: Sometimes I worry that my voice is too mmmm, buzzy, too round, that when I'm on stage, I really have to lift my voice. I have to put it in another spot so that you can hear me because sometimes when you're down in this thing, you can't hear the enunciation as well.

My voice is lower than - I have one - both of my brothers, but one of them is not with me anymore, but my voice is lower than their voices. Texas men usually have a little bit higher voices like that. But my mine's lower than - my mother had a very low voice, too. So I don't know. I - sometimes I feel that it is a plus, and something I think that it gets in my way, my voice.

GROSS: Why does it get in your way sometimes?

MARTINDALE: And maybe "Justified" has changed that for me in my head. Sometimes I think I have to pretty it up, girlify it, make it more - make it a little sweeter, a little softer, a little more - you know, have a little more - because everybody I talk to on the phone said yeah, yes sir, no sir. This is a woman. I've said this is a woman, I must say it maybe 2,500 times in my life. And I get really pissy about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is why I'm so grateful to the people on "Justified" for allowing you to, like, unleash your gifts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: It's been - it was - they just let me run wild. Isn't that wonderful? It was really, really liberating, I can tell you that. It also I think has - I think because I let it go, I let everything except that I love to act, and I love to be honest and true to the character; that's all that I cared about. And I didn't care what I looked like, I didn't care what I - how - you know, obviously I didn't care what I looked like.

I care what I look like. I care that I'm fat. I care, but Mags Bennett did not care, and I love that about Mags Bennett. So, maybe...

GROSS: Her size is part of her power.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: Maybe she's taught me something. I hope so.

GROSS: You just described yourself as fat.

MARTINDALE: Yes.

GROSS: I'd use the word plump or something, but...

MARTINDALE: You're so sweet.

GROSS: Thank you, but, no, I read that when you were in high school, you were a cheerleader...

MARTINDALE: I was a cheerleader.

GROSS: ...and you were like the football homecoming queen or something along those lines.

MARTINDALE: I was only - I was not - I was the football sweetheart in the ninth grade. I was Ms. Jacksonville High School in high school. But I was never the homecoming queen. Let's get that straight because people really get mad when they read that. But I imagine you had, you know, quite an attractive figure then to be a cheerleader and...

I had a really lovely figure, I did. Surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did it upset you when you started putting on weight?

MARTINDALE: Yes, mm-huh, yes. Uh-huh. It's always - I wore a body brace all during my teenage years, from when I was 12 until I was 15.

GROSS: For like scoliosis or something?

MARTINDALE: For severe scoliosis. I - they think I had polio when I was three and that it - when my spine grew that it grew crooked. So I wore the body brace, and I wore prism glasses to see. I was extremely small. And then when I got out of that brace, I put on I'd say 20 pounds almost immediately because I felt very vulnerable. So I...

GROSS: Oh, 'cause you didn't have this, like, brace protecting you.

MARTINDALE: I didn't have armor around me.

GROSS: Yeah.

MARTINDALE: Yeah, so - but I'm talking - then I weighed 140 pounds instead of 120 pounds. And then, and then after my father died, I gained 70 pounds. Then I lost that 70 pounds. And I stayed alright right until I had a child. And then I just said to hell with it and went with it.

GROSS: We're listening back to our interview with Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her performance this year on the FX series "Justified." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We're listening back to our interview with Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for her performance this year on the FX series "Justified."

The first time I noticed you was in the Clint Eastwood movie "Million Dollar Baby," which starred Hilary Swank as a young boxer who was really going against the odds because she's a woman, and she's being trained by an over-the-hill boxer trainer played by Clint Eastwood.

And when she starts to win matches, she buys her mother, you, and her sister and her sister's child a house. Now, they're all on welfare. They don't really care about her. They're what some people might call white trash.

MARTINDALE: Yes, some people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So when she takes you and your daughter to your new home that she bought you to surprise you all, the big surprise is your reaction. So here's the scene with Hilary Swank and you as her mother. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) How much money did this cost you?

HILARY SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) You never mind that.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Well, you shouldn't have done that.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) You need a decent place.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald ) You shouldn't have done it. You should've asked me first. Golly, the government's going to find out about this house, they're going to stop my welfare.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) Mama, no they ain't.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Yeah, they are. You're fine. You're working. But I can't live without my welfare.

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) Mama, I send you money.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) What about my medicine? Medicaid gonna cut me off. How am I supposed to get my medicine?

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) I'll send you more money.

RIKI LINDHOME: (As Mardell Fitzgerald) I hope you're not setting J.D. to move in here with us. He's getting out, you know.

MARTINDALE: (As Earline Fitzgerald) Why didn't you just give me the money? Why'd you have to buy me a house?

SWANK: (As Maggie Fitzgerald) I didn't have to, mama, but it's yours. You want some money? Sell it.

GROSS: What gratitude you display in that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was really just such a stunning role. I saw that, and I was wondering who is that actress because I don't think I'd really seen you that much before that, or I hadn't really noticed. So how did you prepare for this part, for instance?

MARTINDALE: You know, I - the same kind of thing. I mean, it was sort of a lead-in to "Justified," I think. I was in Los Angeles again. They asked me to come in and audition for that part. And I said I want to wait until I get back to New York because I want this part, and I feel more comfortable auditioning in New York. It's a weird thing; you feel more comfortable at home.

And I did the whole part. I learned the whole part, I did the whole part. And I think that's the way you get it for Clint Eastwood. If you're not a star, you really have to show him the whole thing done.

GROSS: He was one of the stars of the film, playing the manager of the boxer, and there's a scene at the end after the young woman boxer, played by Hilary Swank, has broken her neck. She's lying helplessly in her bed. She's paralyzed from the neck down.

And you and your daughter, like the whole family comes in basically putting a document under her nose and telling her to sign it with her mouth because it's the only part of her body that moves, willing everything she owns to you for when she dies. And Clint Eastwood is in the doorway staring really hostilely at you. And I'm wondering what the experience was like of having your director...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...because he directed the film as well - in the doorway staring hostilely at you as you were trying to do your scenes.

MARTINDALE: Oh, you know, honestly, that scene, I - the first part of the movie, first two scenes that I did, then I went home, and my brother died.

GROSS: Oh, my God. I'm so sorry.

MARTINDALE: And - yeah. And when I came back, he was so kind to me that what I really was doing during all of that last scene was trying very hard not to be emotional about it. So it was - everybody was extremely supportive, and it was all about me not giving into my own life experiences during that time. He couldn't be more lovely and wonderful as a director and a person.

GROSS: Would you mind if I asked how your brother died?

MARTINDALE: He died of outpatient surgery.

GROSS: Oh no.

MARTINDALE: Yeah.

GROSS: A staph infection or something?

MARTINDALE: No. No. He blew a blood clot in the morning. He went home after having some kind of hernia operation and...

GROSS: Oh no.

MARTINDALE: ...and, you know, died. He called me before he got actually, he had a hernia operation and one of his testicles removed. I'm sorry, Tim. But he called me when he got home. He said, I'm high, sister, I'm going to go to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: And then he said, I'm tired. I said, Oh Tim, you're ridiculous, and then he, he said I'll call you tomorrow, and he, he was dead. So it was really shocking and hard, and he was 50, 58 years old. So...

GROSS: So he was an older brother.

MARTINDALE: He was five years older than me. And I have another brother who's 13 years older than me. But...

GROSS: I'm really sorry.

MARTINDALE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: So I'm thinking, you know, a lot of actors are given the advice to kind of play - like find the emotion within you, play yourself in a way. You know, be your version of that character. And from how you're describing it, you had to make sure you were not in touch with your emotions, because your emotions are so raw at that moment.

Did you have to draw on a completely different way of acting because what you were experiencing was so profound and so, you know, so bad, you were in such grief?

MARTINDALE: You know, I never thought about that, but yes, I guess I did. I shut - though I think that - approaching that scene I would have shut down that part of the anyway, because I'm very empathic and I would have been affected emotionally by that scene as me. So I had to actually, like in "Justified," shut down that part of me that feels for people. So that part of my brain was not there.

GROSS: Earlier we talked about your voice. And it turns out that you have a great singing voice. There's a moment in "Justified" where you're on the porch and somebody says oh, sing. And you go, oh no, of course hoping that they'll...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...keep asking, which they do, so you break out into song, and wow, you sound great. So have you done musicals or anything like that?

MARTINDALE: I've done a lot of musicals. I love music. I love music. I would love to do a musical again. It's been a while.

GROSS: Your husband is a musician, right?

MARTINDALE: He is. He's a lyric tenor. And...

GROSS: Oh, he sings?

MARTINDALE: Yeah. He's fantastic. And so when I married him, I didn't think I could sing anymore because he can sing. I'm just incredibly musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: That's what he always says: You're extremely musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTINDALE: So - but, yeah, it's fun. I can sing. No, I'm not a great singer, but I can sing.

GROSS: Well, Margo Martindale, it has been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MARTINDALE: Thank you so much, Terry. I so appreciate it.

GROSS: And here you are singing on the porch in "Justified."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED)

MARTINDALE: (As Mags) (Singing) High on the mountain (unintelligible), wind blowing free, thinking about the days that used to be. High on a mountain, standing all alone, wondering where the years of my life had flown.

GROSS: My interview with Margo Martindale was recorded in September of this year, just before she won an Emmy for her performance as Mags Bennett in the FX series "Justified." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

AARON PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Yo, yo, yo, 1, 4, 8, 3 to the 3 to the 6 to the 9, representing the ABQ. What up, be-atch? Leave at the tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE BEEP)

GROSS: That's how Aaron Paul used to sound as Jesse Pinkman in the early days of the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Back then, Jesse was a teenager cooking and selling meth, working with his former chemistry teacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

In Season Four this year, both were working for a drug lord and were in way over their heads. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Aaron Paul in September, as we continue our series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year.

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston have won Emmys for their performances on "Breaking Bad." When the series began, Walt was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Needing money for his treatment, and wanting to leave money for his family when he died, he decided to use his chemistry expertise to cook crystal meth. His meth became legendary. Jesse, his former, flunking student who was already cooking and selling meth small time, became Walt's assistant cook.

Before "Breaking Bad," Aaron Paul was best known for his performance in "Big Love," as Amanda Seyfried's husband.

Let's start with a scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad," soon after Walt and Jesse have teamed up. Jesse was supposed to sell the meth they just cooked, and bring back the money. Walt is really angry when Jesse shows up late.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter White) We were supposed to start at 3.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Hey, I'm out there making fat stacks, man, chill.

Hey, prepaid cell phone. Use it.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) How much is this?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Twenty-six big ones.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Is that all, $26,000?

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, that's 2,600, and your share is 13 - minus 25 bucks for that phone.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) How much meth did you sell?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Nearly an ounce.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Last time I checked, there were 16 ounces to a pound. What'd you do with the rest, smoke it?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Yo, I've been out there all night slinging crystal. You think it's cake moving a pound of meth one teenth at a time?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) So why are you selling it in such small quantities? Why don't you just sell the whole pound at once?

PAUL: (as Jesse) To who? What do I look like, Scarface?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) This is unacceptable. I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk. I thought you'd be ready for another pound today.

PAUL: (as Jesse) You may know a lot about chemistry, man, but you don't know jack about slinging dope.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Well, I'll tell you, I know a lack of motivation when I see it.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Oh, my...

CRANSTON: (as Walter) C'mon. You've got to be more imaginative, you know. Just think outside the box here. We have to move our product in bulk, wholesale. Now how do we do that?

PAUL: (as Jesse) What do mean - to like, a distributor?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Yes, yes, that's what we need. We need a distributor. Now, do you know anyone like that?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Yeah, I mean, I used to until you killed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Aaron Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I love the way your former chemistry teacher, who's now your partner cooking meth, is lecturing you about your lack of motivation - the way only a teacher could.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, your character, Jesse, starts off as - I mean, he's a kid from the suburbs who's an underachiever, and he's modeled his look and his way of speaking on hip-hop culture; probably watched a lot of like, Beastie Boy videos.

PAUL: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: And you get the picture from the cell phone message that we played. Who did you model Jesse on, early in the series?

PAUL: Really, it was a combination of people that I've met throughout my life, and people that I've encountered in New Mexico. And it's all over the place. And so I just kind of tried to form a unique, interesting personality through people that I've encountered.

GROSS: So we're into the fourth season of "Breaking Bad" now. Have you come close to counting how many times you've used the word bitch?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Oh, wow. The yos and bitches - it's too many to count. It's incredible. And all of those are scripted. Nothing - a lot of people ask me if - do you just improv the yos or the bitches sometimes? And everything's on the page. It's great.

GROSS: So your character, Jesse, was supposed to be killed off in the first season of "Breaking Bad." How did you find out that your character was doomed? When did you learn that?

PAUL: I didn't learn that until towards the end of the first season. We were on the sixth episode, so the fifth episode plus the pilot. And we had one more to go, and I hadn't read the script yet. And Vince - we were at lunch, and Vince is...

GROSS: This is the creator, Vince Gilligan.

PAUL: Yeah, this is creator Vince Gilligan; calls me over and he's, you know, eating with all the writers. And he goes, I want to tell you something. And I go, what's that? And he goes, originally Jesse was supposed to die at the end of this season.

This is the first time I've ever heard any of this. And instantly, my heart kind of dropped and slowed down a bit. And he goes, but we don't think we're going to do that anymore. And I was just - I was like, what do you mean? What are you talking about? Like, what's the plan? And he's like, no, we just - I just wanted to let you know that that's not the plan anymore.

And I didn't know how to take it, but he said that they just loved the, you know, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse and the chemistry that, you know, Bryan and I kind of brought to these characters. He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and really, of the show.

But the entire second season, the entire third season, I thought that Jesse could be a goner at any moment because there's, you know, many things that this character has screwed up on, and, you know, he could definitely meet his deathbed at any moment, so.

And they'd always tease me. They'd always joke around, saying: Oh, did you read the next script? And I would say no, not yet. I haven't got it. You know, I haven't got it. And, you know, Bryan would come up and give me a hug and say, well, I'm not going to say anything but, you know, it was such a pleasure working with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: It's been an amazing past year and a half and, you know, you have a huge career ahead of you. And so they would always joke around about it. They kind of slowed down this fourth season, but we'll see. Who knows? I mean, this kid could die at any second.

GROSS: Well, when I interviewed Vince Gilligan, he basically said he couldn't imagine the series without you.

PAUL: Oh, I love that man. How nice is he?

GROSS: But he also made it clear, that's no guarantee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So - but, you know, that kind of uncertainty, I could see that being a little helpful because Jesse's never sure how long he's going to live. So why should you know?

PAUL: Right, yeah, exactly. It's true.

GROSS: Jesse's changed so much in the course of the now four seasons of the show. And, you know, he starts off really small-time. You know, he's almost like, still a kid. And now, he's involved with this big drug ring and - where there's a lot of violence, a lot of money.

At the end of Season Three - last season - Walt is afraid that the head of the drug ring is going to kill him as soon as Walt has finished training his assistant cook, a man named Gale, in how to prepare the meth recipe. And if the head of the drug ring kills Walt, he'll probably kill Jesse, too.

So Walt thinks the only hope is to have Jesse kill this assistant meth cook, Gale. So he convinces Jesse that Jesse has to murder the assistant cook. And so you - Jesse - kill Gale, and then you just really become dead inside afterwards.

So you kill him; you're dead inside; you start using meth again. And then you end up going to your support group, your drug support group. You want to confess that you've killed a man, but you can't confess that. So you make up a story that you've killed a dog. And here's a clip from that scene in the support group.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

PAUL: (as Jesse) A couple weeks back, I - uh - killed a dog.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) You hit him with your car?

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, I put him down. I watched him go. I was looking him straight in the eye, and he didn't know what was happening. He didn't know why. He - he was just scared, and then he was gone.

GROSS: And then members of the support group try to comfort Jesse. And one of them says oh, well, the dog was suffering; putting him down was a kindness. And then when Jesse says that's not what happened, the woman in the group assumes oh, well, the dog must have bitten someone, so you did the right thing. And then you say it wasn't that.

And then another person in the group assumes like, well, you must have started using meth again, and that took you to the dark side - because that's what meth does. And everybody's trying to help you justify killing this dog, and you know that there's really no justification for what you've done, which is killing a man. So let's pick up the scene from there. And the leader of the support group speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

JERE BURNS: (as Group Leader) How'd you feel about what you did, Jesse?

PAUL: (as Jesse) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) Who cares how you feel? What kind of a person kills a dog for no reason?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) You put an ad in the paper; you drop him off at a shelter...

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) You don't just sit there and talk about killing a helpless, innocent animal.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen, we're not here to sit in judgment.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Why not? Why not? Maybe she's right. You know, maybe I should have put it in the paper. Maybe I should've done something different. The thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? All right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn't give meaning to anything.

PAUL: (as Jesse) So I should stop judging and accept?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) It's a start.

PAUL: (as Jesse) So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just - what, do an inventory and accept? I mean, you back your truck over your own kid and you like, accept? What a load of crap.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Hey, Jesse, I know you're in pain...

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, you know what? Why I'm here in the first place is to sell you meth. You're nothing to me but customers. I made you my bitch. You OK with that, huh? You accept?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) No.

PAUL: (as Jesse) About time.

GROSS: That's my guest, Aaron Paul, as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from this season of "Breaking Bad." You are so lost at this point in the storyline. Do you feel like the character you're playing now is different from the character you started playing on "Breaking Bad," because so much has happened to him, he's changed so much?

PAUL: Oh, wow, 100 percent. He is so broken now. I mean, he was a lost kid at the beginning of the series, you know, just kind of struggling to find his way. But he was content with dime-bagging it; you know, just selling teenths at a time and living in his aunt's house. But when Mr. White comes back into his life, and they continue to go down this dark rabbit hole - and they can't seem to get out of it; they're both so in way over their heads.

And now, you know, Jesse has completely, really, lost the support of his family. He had lost his first really true love, I think, with Jane, that was - started off as a good influence on Jesse but then just turned into like, a chemical romance, really.

And then - and now, you know, he's a murderer, and he's just lost and tortured, and it's so tragic what he's going through.

GROSS: And murder really isn't in his nature.

PAUL: No.

GROSS: But he's had to do, and he has to live with the consequences of that. Did you have to figure out: Who is Jesse without the drugs and the poses?

PAUL: Yeah, yeah, I really - you know, joining this series, obviously I had no idea where this character was going, and I didn't really have much of a backstory. But as the seasons have gone on, I feel like I have a true grasp of who this kid is, inside and out. And it's incredible how I feel like, such a personal connection with Jesse.

It feels like he's almost a part of me, to be honest. But I couldn't be such a polar opposite from this kid. But going to work every day, and kind of zipping on his skin, is such a - you know, such a dream.

GROSS: What makes you the opposite of Jesse Pinkman?

PAUL: I feel like I have my life together, really, and Jesse just seems like he's constantly just struggling to keep his head above water. And he's just this, you know, messed-up kid trying to find his way. But you know he has this soul; he has this heart.

I mean, that's why I feel people, you know, are rooting for him. And they just want to, you know, hug him and tell him it's going to be OK. But at the end of the day, like, is it really? Is it going to be? You don't know.

GROSS: He wouldn't accept that hug anyways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: No, no, he actually would not, no.

GROSS: You've taken a lot of punishment in the series. You've been beaten in a lot of very imaginative ways. Would you have problems watching scenes like when you're beaten up, or scenes when your face has been beaten to a pulp? Do you watch yourself in those scenes?

PAUL: I do, yeah. I mean, I'll watch it when the show airs, you know, whether it being if I fly home to Idaho with my family - you know, they have a "Breaking Bad" night every week, and so - I come from a huge, huge, loving family, and they've been supportive since, you know, day one.

So my parents are, you know, they're still madly in love. It's their 40th anniversary coming up in November. And I have many siblings. I have 14 nieces and nephews. And they throw a huge party.

GROSS: Whoa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yeah, they throw a huge party every Sunday night. So that's pretty great.

GROSS: Your co-star, the star of the series "Breaking Bad," is Bryan Cranston. Did you know him from "Malcolm in the Middle" - I mean, from watching him on "Malcolm in the Middle," in which he played the father?

PAUL: Oh yeah, I loved him. I loved that show. I thought he was great. And...

GROSS: And how old were you when you first started watching that?

PAUL: Oh man, I actually - I was in L.A. when they were casting that pilot. I remember reading that pilot. And I went out for the older brother - didn't end up getting it, obviously.

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, Chris Masterson ended up getting the role, and he was brilliant on it. Bu, yeah, I was a huge fan of that show from day one. I think I've probably seen pretty much - like, every episode. But my mom is the biggest "Malcolm in the Middle" fan. She's obsessed.

GROSS: Maybe that helped to ease the blow that you were going to play somebody who cooks meth in the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. When I told her that Bryan Cranston was the star of "Breaking Bad," the pilot that I had just booked, she lost her mind. She was so, so, so excited because she knew one day, she would be able to meet him, you know. So she was ecstatic.

GROSS: So you're, obviously, very different from the Jesse Pinkman character that you play on "Breaking Bad." In fact, you know, he's a meth head. You grew up in Idaho; your father is a Baptist minister, yes?

PAUL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. He's actually retired. He doesn't have a church he does every week anymore but he still does, you know, weddings and funerals, and sometimes will guest-speak at some churches. But yeah, throughout my entire life growing up in Idaho, we would go, you know, to his congregation every week and he would preach - yeah.

GROSS: What was his preaching like?

PAUL: It was - it was great. It was inspiring, really. I mean, he would get up in front of all these people and kind of just get lost in the moment as well. And I think that's where I take – not that I'm saying he was really standing up there acting, but he would just really get lost into these stories. He would speak. And, you know, I left at such a young age.

GROSS: Left Idaho, and left home?

PAUL: Left Idaho. Yeah, I left Idaho at 17. You know, I graduated high school a year early and just - you know, the typical story; packed up my car and moved out.

GROSS: When you left home at age 17, which - as you point out - is really young...

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did your parents try to like, bar the door and do everything in their power to prevent you from going, and telling you that you were making a huge mistake that you would always regret; that you were throwing your life away, and throwing away everything that they had ever done to help you in life, etc.?

PAUL: You know what? Not at all. It was quite the opposite. I always had the plan of moving to L.A. They knew I always wanted to do this. And I think, really, in eighth grade, I made it certain just to let my parents know this was my plan. You know, I'm going to move to California or New York, and I'm going to try to become an actor. And so when I started taking it very seriously in high school and they would see, you know, these productions that we put on, and they would see how excited I would get about them, they were all about it when I mentioned to them that I wanted to take zero hour - where I'd go to school early, you know, to do an extra class and take correspondence - which was really home-schooling - as well, just to graduate early so I could get out to L.A.

They just applauded me. And they said, go for it; just do it; you want this. Like, I love - you know, like, I love your passion. And most of my teachers were supportive.

But there was this one teacher that came up to me when I was saying goodbye, really - because I had graduated, I'm done. And she said: I feel that you're making a big mistake, and what is your plan B? I mean, do you have another plan if this doesn't work out? Like, what if it doesn't work out?

And when I told my mom that - because from everywhere; I was getting blessings from every side. But I told my mom that, and my mom went straight into the school and just said, how dare you say this to my son? Like, what's your plan? What's your second - what if this doesn't work out for you? You know, what's your plan B?

And it was just so great to see my mom like, take that control, because I've never seen her like that in my life. And it was just so great that they were supportive of going after dreams.

GROSS: Well, they must have a lot of faith in you, and in your ability to follow through on the dream.

PAUL: Yeah. No. You know, obviously, I couldn't have done this without them, and it's incredible - very, very blessed.

GROSS: So you get to L.A., and then what? You don't know anybody there. You don't, I mean....

PAUL: Yeah, no, I know.

GROSS: You have your car; it's packed up. Then what?

PAUL: Yeah. I actually – my mom came out with me. Found a little studio apartment, and she just wanted to make sure I would get settled. And it's funny: The weekend I was moving into this little, tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood, a bank robbery is in progress like, two blocks from my place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: A giant bank robbery, and it ended in crazy bloodshed. And my mom is like, oh my God; where am I allowing my son to move to? But she, you know, she got on a plane and went back to Idaho and felt, I'm sure, very safe. But I'm sure she was scared for my life but she was still very, very, very supportive.

But yeah, I didn't know anybody. I just, you know, saved up a bunch of money from random jobs I worked in Idaho, and just tried to find myself an agent and a manager.

GROSS: And succeeded?

PAUL: And succeeded. Yeah. Yeah. I got a...

GROSS: Oh, how did you do it? Did you just talk them into it, or what?

PAUL: Yeah, I just talked them into it, and bribed them a little bit. But...

GROSS: With...

No. I -

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: No, I didn't bribe them. I actually - I ended up going to this acting competition that was held downtown Los Angeles. And I mean, there's just thousands of kids there. And I ended up signing with a manager there, and then he found me an agent pretty quickly - like, you know, a couple weeks later. And that agent, Loch Powell, is now my manager, and I've been with them since day one. And, you know, I really owe everything to him. He's great.

GROSS: Well, you paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So can I just say something about the voice that you do as Jesse?

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: There's something about the voice that - Jesse always seems to be on the verge of like, complaining or whining, or feeling put upon.

PAUL: Right.

GROSS: It's like he still a teenager, you know what I mean? It's like, still, his parents are nagging him or his teacher is nagging him. That's his kind of like, posture in the world a lot of the time.

PAUL: Right. Yeah. It's true.

GROSS: Is that what you've been trying for vocally?

PAUL: Yeah. No, I mean, it just - I see Jesse as this kid that still hasn't found his footing, you know? And I love that he, you know, he still calls Walter White Mr. White.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's so great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: He's just lost in his own world. And - I don't know. I think - well, you know, this season is where he's really, he's kind of taking the reins of his life.

GROSS: Well, I just want to say, if Vince Gilligan is listening, please do not kill off Jesse Pinkman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yes. I agree. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Aaron Paul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman on the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Our interview was recorded in September. It's part of our week-long retrospective of some of our favorite entertainment and pop-culture interviews of the year.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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