Aaron Paul never expected to play Jesse Pinkman again after Breaking Bad ended in 2013. He took other jobs (he’ll be part of the Westworld Season Three cast) and found other excuses to hang out with Bryan Cranston. Then Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan called and said he wanted to make a movie following Jesse in the immediate aftermath of the series finale. Paul needed no convincing to say yes.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie debuted on Netflix last Friday. Here, Paul speaks about coming back to the role that made him famous. (With spoilers for the film.)
How did you react when Vince reached out to you about doing this?
I was a little thrown off-guard. We were talking about the logistics around our 10-year anniversary, and he mentioned at the end of the call that there was a story he was poking around with and wanted to get my thoughts on it. He told me that he wanted to follow Jesse post-Breaking Bad, post-escaping the neo-Nazi compound. “Are you interested in doing that?” I told Vince, “I trust you with my life. So if it’s a story you want to tell, so I am happy to go on this journey with you.” He told me, “I don’t want to do this film unless I truly believe it’s perfect. So I’ll get back to you when I finish writing it.” Seven months later, he gave me a call and said, “the script is done.” And it’s pretty great.
Because the movie takes place both after Breaking Bad and during certain episodes of Breaking Bad, what kind of prep did you do to get ready to play so many different versions of Jesse?
To be honest, everyone involved in this show knows the story so well. After reading the script, I really felt like I knew all of his emotional beats. I only had to rewatch one episode to remind me where he was at emotionally, what things happened during that particular time period to cause him to react the way he’s reacting. That was “Buyout,” which is where the movie kicks off, with Jesse and Mike along the riverbed. I just wanted to see everything that was going on in his life at that point.
So when the cameras actually started to roll on the movie, did you feel ready to be Jesse again?
God, I hope I was! [Laughs] It was easy, man. It was revisiting an old friend. What was interesting, there’s a scene toward the end where it’s Jesse during his happier days, and I had not played that guy in a very long time. And that was a scene that I was really looking forward to for most of the shoot, as was most of the crew as well. But then jumping into it, we were flooded with so many beautiful memories of that show, just to have these characters together once again.
There were definitely scenes and episodes of the show where you weren’t working with Bryan, but was it strange to do an entire production where he was absent except for that one day you filmed the diner scene?
Not at all. It’s just such a family on that show, that film. We had, for the most part, the same crew that we had in the pilot of Breaking Bad. And then they ran for the entire series, and most of them followed suit into Better Call Saul. It’s a really tight-knit group out there in New Mexico. We’re all so damn proud of Breaking Bad, of Better Call Saul, and now of El Camino. It was a little different not having Bryan around pulling pranks on everyone, but it was nice to have him around when he was.
Did it occur to you that this would probably be the last time you ever say, “Yeah, bitch!” — at least in character?
Absolutely. And I thought the way Vince and the writers finished Breaking Bad, they did it pretty perfectly. It’s hard to nail a landing when you’re trying to end a show. Especially a show this popular.
When Vince and I spoke about the movie, he said one thing that bothered him making the final season of the show was that Walt’s story took priority, and he wasn’t using you as much as he wanted to, or had in the past. Was that something you were aware of at the time?
Honestly, I’ve never really thought about it. Each script I got, whether Jesse was in it or not, was just so gripping. We had a routine where I would open up a bottle of wine and just take as much time with these scripts as possible when I’m reading them for the first time. I was just along for the ride, like any fan watching it at home. So I never really thought, “Oh, why aren’t I in any more scenes?” I just thought it was all so beautiful.
Before Vince gave you this script, how much thought did you give to what happened to Jesse after he drove off into the night?
I thought about it when I read the [finale] script. I loved how it was left to the viewers’ imagination. But I also love now that it paints me a very detailed picture of what happens. I actually thought, and I convinced myself that Jesse, believe it or not, ran off to Alaska. And he just is in hiding in a small town, and hopefully he falls in love and he keeps his nose clean, and he starts maybe working with his hands again. Maybe he starts working in a woodshop. That would be nice.
Do you expect to ever play Jesse again? If Vince called and said he needed you for Better Call Saul, would you do it?
Again, I would do anything that Vince asked me to. I would be happy to. Whether it’s in the Breaking Bad universe, Better Call Saul universe, anything. He gave me a career, and I trust him with everything. I thought I said goodbye to this guy years ago. And here we are. I love where we are, and I’m so proud of this film, and I had such a great time doing it. It was such a beautiful happy reunion.
Vince was going to kill Jesse back in Season One, until you turned out to be too good to kill. How strange is it to be playing this character again so many years later, given what a short shelf he was supposed to have?
It is such a blessing. I didn’t know that was going to be the case when I was hired. This was probably the sixth pilot I had done. The previous five never made it to air. So I would have been utterly heartbroken if they killed me off. “Oh, it’s something I must’ve done.” So it’s crazy. I know how lucky I am to be in their company and to be still standing.