[The following story contains spoilers for Better Call Saul and Westworld.]
After 64 episodes of television, a feature film and a statue dedication, Aaron Paul has closed the book on Jesse Pinkman.
The Breaking Bad and El Camino star has decided that his two recent appearances on Better Call Saul are the perfect way to bid adieu to the character he’s played since Bad’s pilot shoot in 2007. Paul’s decision makes even more sense on the heels of Albuquerque’s unveiling of two bronze statues that commemorate Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, two fictional characters who turned New Mexico’s largest city into a tourist destination for fans around the world.
“[Jesse Pinkman] will always have a special place inside of me, but I can confidently say that [Better Call Saul] was the last time we’re going to see Pinkman. So it was a nice farewell,” Paul tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Westworld season four aired concurrently to Paul’s return to the Breaking Bad universe, and he received rave reviews for his performance as Caleb Nichols, especially in his showcase episode “Fidelity,” which was written by Jordan Goldberg & Alli Rock, and directed by Andrew Seklir. Despite the critical praise, Paul still can’t bring himself to watch Caleb’s struggle to transmit a message to his long-lost daughter, Frankie (Aurora Perrineau).
“There are just certain things that I won’t allow myself to watch, and that was just such an undertaking. It was pretty brutal on me, so I just didn’t want to relive it,” Paul explains.
In a recent conversation with THR, Paul also talks about his scene with Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and how a physical ailment turned it into his most painful experience on set.
Well, in 2008, when I first saw Jesse Pinkman fall out of a bedroom window, I immediately knew that he’d get a statue in Albuquerque someday.
Now that you’re a few weeks removed from the ceremony, is it still hard to believe that you and Bryan (Cranston) are the Rocky statue of Albuquerque?
Honestly, I don’t even know what to say or think about that. It’s all so strange to me. I think it always will be, but it’s great. New Mexico has such a special place in my heart and in my soul. Heading out to Albuquerque and starting that journey, I was at the lowest point in my career, with lots of ups and downs prior. I really needed Breaking Bad to be somewhat of a success just so I could survive. I don’t want to seem melodramatic, but that’s really where I was at. And now, the fact that we ended the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universe with these statues is surreal to me.
Is it true you would’ve given up acting if Breaking Bad didn’t work out for you?
I don’t know if I would’ve given up acting. I think I would’ve kept fighting. I mean, I was happy when I was working in commercials and doing little bit parts here and there. I considered that a success as long as I was paying my bills. If I wasn’t able to survive off of it, then what am I even doing? Breaking Bad was the fifth or sixth pilot that I had done, and none of the pilots prior to Breaking Bad went to series. It’s impossible not to think about your hopes and dreams when you shoot a pilot and what it could be like to have a regular gig in this industry that I’m so madly in love with. And so Breaking Bad just opened up doors for so many people, and that’s all Vince Gilligan.
So you snuck into Albuquerque for a few days in April 2021, and you found yourself inside the “crystal ship” with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Did it feel like time travel?
Yeah, it was beautiful, and there were so many familiar faces. Many of the people that we shot the Breaking Bad pilot with were still a part of this crew. Of course, I got to reconnect with a lot of them while shooting El Camino, and now, we were zipping on the skin of when Jesse Pinkman and Walter White introduced the world to Saul Goodman. So it was cool to go back to what seemed like the “lighter” times in our characters’ lives.
Did it take long to get back into the headspace of when Jesse and Walt were coercing Saul to get Badger (Matt Jones) out of jail? Can you calibrate each phase of the character with ease?
It’s kinda like reconnecting with a very familiar friend. You can be away from that friend for some time, but when you are back in each other’s company, it’s like no time has passed. We all know our characters so well having played them for years, so it felt good. I love Pinkman. He will always have a special place inside of me, but I can confidently say that [Better Call Saul] was the last time we’re going to see Pinkman. So it was a nice farewell.
You’re killing me, Aaron.
(Laughs.) Aw, I love you. It was such a fun ride. When we were finishing up Breaking Bad, Michael Slovis, our incredible DP, gave us all this really beautiful wrap gift and a note with a Dr. Suess quote that said, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” So I’m holding on to that.
When Jesse bridged the two worlds even more by asking about Lalo (Tony Dalton), it sent a shiver down my spine.
Oh my god, I know. Honestly, I did not expect a call to join Better Call Saul. I’m such a huge fan of the show, but I didn’t see how they were going to do it. And when the call came, I was half a season behind, and so I didn’t really know where the timeline was going. But from the moment they called me, I said, “Yeah, they figured it out. They knew how to do it.” So it was truly a dream to be back in this universe that Vince, Peter [Gould], Tom [Schnauz] and all the writers created.
I love that Jesse used the term crystal ship in Better Call Saul’s “Breaking Bad” because it now precedes the original mention in Breaking Bad 502. So he kept trying to make crystal ship happen, but Walt had no idea what he was talking about in both cases.
(Laughs.) He just wants something to catch on. That’s so Pinkman. Bless him.
Your scene in Better Call Saul 612 with Rhea Seehorn was an all-timer. Did you realize that Vince used the same reveal shot that he used to reveal Walt in Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) kitchen in Breaking Bad’s series finale?
Wow, no! But I love that. I didn’t even pick up on it. Vince is just the happiest when he’s on set. I know you’ve talked to him, but he’s just such a wholesome guy. He’s one of the good guys, and you can’t help but root for him. But you also question how the hell he comes up with this shit. (Laughs.) It’s just wild, but I feel blessed to be in his camp.
In the scene with Kim Wexler, Jesse is just shy of his 21st birthday, and I thought you did an admirable job, especially with your voice. Did you get a kick out of capturing an even younger version of him?
I haven’t aged a bit, let’s be honest. (Laughs.) There’s always going to be people who poke at something. Obviously, I’ve aged; we’ve all aged. But it’s fun, so let that go. I had the time of my life back then, and when I jumped into his skin now, I had the time of my life again. So it was interesting to just be as playful as I could possibly be with him. Pinkman was without a care in the world at that time, especially when you compare it to what lies ahead in his very near future. So it was a beautiful challenge.
I heard you had a migraine on top of it all.
Yeah, I’d never had a migraine in my life. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was having a brain hemorrhage. I really did. We had to stop rolling, and I felt very dramatic. Us actors are so dramatic, but until then, I’ve never had to cut a take because of something going on with me, personally. Maybe I’ve done it for a couple laughing attacks during takes with Cranston on set. You just can’t help yourself, but I really feel for the people that suffer from serious migraines. I don’t know if you have ever had one, but it felt like my brain was going to explode.
Did it feel worse than the concussion you got from Ray Cruz (Tuco Salamanca)? If I recall correctly, he accidentally threw you through a locked screen door in Breaking Bad 202, resulting in a concussion.
Yeah, [the migraine] really was worse. The concussion shot actually made it into that episode. You can see the door splinter into a million pieces. An ambulance came and took me to the hospital. Again, very dramatic, but I was totally fine. (Laughs.) This migraine was during a typical night shoot on set where you come in at sunset and you don’t leave until sunrise. So it was just one of those nights. It was very bizarre and unfortunate timing.
Better Call Saul costume designer Jennifer Bryan said that as soon as you put on the oversized clothes again, you were walking and moving like Jesse.
Yeah, I couldn’t help it. It was truly putting on a costume because I would never wear his clothes in my day to day, especially the first few seasons. In seasons four, five and six — or season 5B, they’re calling it — they kind of trimmed his clothing a little bit. In the first season, he looked absolutely ridiculous in a very good way, so it’s impossible not to move that way when I put on that skin again. I’m just so comfortable with it.
So when we spoke for Dual, I pitched you the idea of teenage Holly White looking for a 50-year-old fugitive named Jesse Pinkman in Alaska, but since you’ve retired Jesse in this interview, I want to throw another idea at the producer in you.
When Jesse auditions for the cartel in Breaking Bad’s “Salud,” someone in Don Eladio’s (Steven Bauer) crew videotapes his process in the lab, and that tape is still out there, somewhere in Mexico. So during a time in which multiple cartels are vying for Eladio’s former territory, what if a bright kid finds that tape and uses it to free their family from this area? Walt is dead, his formula certainly isn’t.
Wow, have you pitched this to Vince?
I’m workshopping it with you, the producer, first.
(Laughs.) Well, I have no notes, man. It’s very well-thought-out and fleshed out. There’s something there.
Well, at least you no longer have to sneak into Albuquerque. What limited your availability at the time?
I honestly forget. Everything gets on top of each other. But yeah, they flew us in, and it was shrouded in secrecy. We were told not to leave this Airbnb they had us in. It was a duplex, so I was on the top floor with my family and Bryan was below us. And then they made the announcement that we were going to be in the final season before the season aired. And so I was like, “Well, why were they keeping this a secret at the time?” We felt like we were prisoners, but it’s all good. It turned out so great. It was a beautiful way to tie everything up on Better Call Saul. They just really know how to nail their landings.
So I think Westworld season four was the show’s best season, and I’m also willing to say that it’s your finest work outside of Albuquerque and The Parts You Lose. When you first read episode four, was the twist still intact for you?
Yes, when I read that on the page, the floor fell out beneath me, for sure. They keep everything so close to their chest, but before diving into this season, I sat down with Lisa [Joy] and she gave me a little rundown of where Caleb was at. So I knew it was seven years later and that he had a wife and kid. I knew all of that was happening, but they did not inform me of the twist and what Caleb has been reliving over and over again. So when I read it, I felt many things. I was just like, “Oh my god, I’m a part of a classic Westworld twist,” which was exciting for me. And then there’s, “Oh my god, how am I going to do this?” Because there’s nothing for me to grasp from my own reality or experiences. I was just trying to make things up in my head as I went along, which was an interesting challenge for me.
Now that you have two kids, do you have to reach very far to play a father-daughter storyline like Caleb’s this season? Is it easier now to get where you need to go, especially in that big monologue at the end of episode six?
I try not to pull from my own reality, but during this season, it was very hard not to have those emotions really creep up and take over. So you’ve got to just run with it and then try to curb them if it’s becoming a little much. I never know what I’m doing. What I love about this business is that there’s just so many people creating something together. I love being directed. I love directors who love to direct, and just playing off of each other and building on something. I also like going into a completely different direction than you thought you were going to go. It’s good to keep yourself guessing.
Aside from concussions and migraines, was episode six as difficult as anything you’ve ever done?
(Laughs.) Oh my god, man. Episode six. Yeah, that was a rough one for me, for so many reasons. I couldn’t watch episode six. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen everything else.
Yeah, there are just certain things that I won’t allow myself to watch, and that was just such an undertaking. It was pretty brutal on me, so I just didn’t want to relive it.
The way you played a degrading host was so convincing. You did this tic with your neck that I can’t even describe, but it really sold his deterioration.
Yeah, I just wanted a little sign that he’s falling apart, slowly. I didn’t know what that was going to be, but through rehearsals and stressing myself out, that came to be. People seemed to like it when I was on set, so I just went with it and hoped for the best.
Anything is possible on Westworld, but Frankie’s (Aurora Perrineau) goodbye to Caleb could certainly serve as our goodbye to him, too. So what can you say about your future as this character?
There’s not much I can say because I really don’t know much. I know there’s rumblings that they want to keep this story going, but it’s not set in stone. I hope we get to complete this story. It’s been such a fun, beautiful and very hard ride, but I feel blessed to be on this journey with everybody that’s involved. I’ve made lifelong friends through this process. So we’ll see.
Right after we last spoke, you went on this wild Dos Hombres tour with Bryan, where he was pouring bottles straight into people’s mouths and whatnot.
He even pushed you around in a shopping cart at a BevMo. Did you guys have the time of your lives?
(Laughs.) We’re stil having the best time. I am just so fortunate to team up with him again on something that we created together. I told you this before, but this was all self-funded from the very beginning. It was our idea, and we just wanted to find something fun to do together. And then we invited our friends and family to jump on board when we needed more capital. So our hearts are in this thing, and we’re just having the best time.
You guys are doing everything that Walt and Jesse should’ve done. You’re building an honest business the right way.
(Laughs.) Exactly! We’ve learned from our mistakes, and now we’re trying to make up for it.
Better Call Saul is now available AMC+. Westworld is now available on HBO Max. This interview was edited for length and clarity.