Aaron Paul weeps with the kind of abandon usually reserved for children who’ve tumbled from a very tall slide. Dude gives great cry-face; his tears — which look hot and painful, the kind of tears that burn your eyes and throat and necessitate an immediate nap — are as convincing as they are emotionally exhausting to behold. This singular talent for sobbing means that nearly every single project Paul’s ever done has seen him throwing some version of an adult tantrum. Paul ugly-wept his way into America’s hearts as bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold-but-also-a-raging-meth-habit Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. He bleated into his beer in both Hellion and Smashed. And in his newest project, Hulu’s cult-centric drama The Path, Paul breaks into a full-on bawl at least once per episode.
In The Path, Paul plays Eddie, a sort of alternate-universe version of Jesse Pinkman, if Jesse had married a gorgeous woman (Michelle Monaghan) with a wholesome grin and a lifelong membership to a cult that promised to wash away all of his sins. When we meet Eddie, he’s tripping balls on a cult-sponsored retreat, where he sees something that shakes his faith in the entire thing. As he privately questions his allegiance to Meyerism (a made-up "spiritual movement" that bears more than a passing resemblance to everyone’s favorite Cult To The Stars, Scientology), Eddie’s forced to put on a good face for his unwaveringly faithful wife, hide his potential defection from his insatiably power-hungry leader (Hugh Dancy), and make up lots of convoluted and harmful lies to cover his tracks. All of which, thankfully, lends itself to lots of hysterical weeping.
MTV caught up with Paul right before the show’s March 30 premiere to talk about his devout Southern Baptist upbringing, his wide-ranging musings on the nature of the universe, and why everybody wants him to play "damaged" all the time.
So you put a self-proclaimed "moratorium" on live-action TV after Breaking Bad. Why return for this show?
Aaron Paul: It was the world they created. It’s impossible to ignore. I read the first two episodes and I just fell in love with these characters. Jessica Goldberg created such a beautiful painting for us to just dive into and play with. It all starts with the writing, on the page, and the writing was so incredible. These characters were so well developed from the very beginning.
This is the first time you're really headlining your own TV show. Did Bryan Cranston give you any advice?
Paul: He did, quite a bit, while shooting Breaking Bad. He was such an incredible person to learn from, it was impossible not to just take things in. He was No. 1 on the call sheet; you have some sort of responsibility, you know? And with The Path, it really is such an ensemble show. Kind of a three-hander, with Michelle, Hugh, and I. It’s all about creating a beautiful environment to work within. We’ve definitely done just that on the show. I watched Bryan create that on Breaking Bad. I’ve worked on sets before where the star of the show just comes in, does their work, and just leaves, and isn’t really approachable [to] the people around them. If you’re friendly and you’re all in this together, it becomes a much more enjoyable experience.
This part in The Path is a long way from playing Wasted Guy in Van Wilder: Party Liaison, which IMDb tells me was one of your earlier roles.
Paul: Oh, yeah. There’s actually a funny story with that project. My friend was casting that, and she sent me the script, and she said, "Is there any of these smaller roles you’d like to play?" And the reason I chose Wasted Guy [was because] one of my first films ever was a film called Whatever It Takes. And I was originally hired as Wasted Guy. It was a very small role. [Laughs.] And Ben Foster had this much bigger role, Floyd. He’s a buddy of mine, and after the table read, they went up to Ben and said, "Hey, listen, we’d like to talk to you about your character choice." And Ben was like, "This is how I want to play this role. If you want to replace me, would you please consider Aaron for the role?" I don’t know if he just wanted out or just didn’t want to change his take on the role. Anyway, I ended up auditioning for that role. I thought it was pretty funny to play [Wasted Guy] in a different movie.
You couldn’t leave him behind forever.
Paul: I couldn’t leave him behind forever.
By my count, you cry at least four times in the first episode of The Path alone.
Paul: No! [Laughs.]
Why does everybody want to make you cry onscreen?
Paul: I don’t know. I don’t understand. I guess I’m drawn to characters that are going through a lot of emotional turmoil. I have no idea. But yeah, I think that’s definitely a similarity that Eddie has with a particular character I played on a TV show for many years. He has this sort of tortured past, and he’s just kind of dealing with this internal conflict that he has.
You've done a lot of those types of damaged, depressive roles, but that's not at all the impression I get of you as a person.
Paul: No, not at all. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to these sorts of characters, because it really, truly feels like I’m playing someone else. That’s what I love about acting: putting on this completely different skin.
You must have some kind of darker side, though, to go there. What's that side of your personality like? How would your wife describe it?
Paul: Oh, man. My darker side. I just become very quiet. She knows when I’m going through my process. I just check out for a little while. I go into a separate part of the house and just dive into [my] world.
You were brought up in a strict Southern Baptist home, and then left that lifestyle behind for acting. How did that feed into your understanding of Eddie, who’s similarly detaching when we meet him?
Paul: I did come from a very religious upbringing. I didn’t cuss. I didn’t say a swear word until probably my twenties, to be honest, which is so funny. I was just taught it was so bad [laughs]. And then I realized, "Eh, it’s not that bad. Just don’t be too intense about it. But don’t beat yourself up over it, either." So I let that go. I had my first beer at 19. I lost my virginity at 19. And that was me living in Los Angeles by myself for two solid years without a drink. I never slept around, ever. And I like that. I see — some of my friends are still single, going out to the bar, doing that thing, that day-to-day grind. Oh my god. It just seems so sad and lonely. And so it’s because of my upbringing that I landed the most incredible woman [wife Lauren Paul], who I look up to on a daily basis. I think it’s really because of the morals and values I picked up as a very young kid.
Did you have a similar sort of crisis of faith when you got to L.A.?
Paul: You know what it was? I think when I moved to L.A., I moved at a very young age. I was running to something, but I was also running away from something. I was pursuing my dream, you know? But I was also running away from a very sheltered life. I have very loving parents, I love my siblings. It wasn’t a tortured life whatsoever. But they were just very … [they had] one way of thinking. They had a specific view, religion, beliefs, all that. And I was born into it. So I knew what I knew, and I absolutely believed it. But I did have some sort of doubts, and when I moved to L.A., my eyes were opened to so many other beliefs. I was like, "Wow, there are so many other religions out there that I was just not really aware of." I was fascinated by that. I wasn’t necessarily searching them out, looking for them, but it was impossible to ignore.
What about now? How would you define your beliefs?
Paul: Do I believe that there’s something out there? Absolutely. Do I know what that something is? Of course not. How would I know? I’m spinning out of control thousands of miles an hour, and I’m in the middle of nowhere. How would I know? I think it’s cool that people are searching and that some people claim that they do know. It’s good that it gives people some sort of purpose and hope. And I think some people absolutely need that.
You said once that you and your wife have "daily conversations about the universe, space and time.” So you clearly think about this stuff a lot.
Paul: We do. We’re obsessed with it. We’re obsessed with the fact that you look up and [the sky] is infinite. It’s fascinating. We’re so lucky to exist. I read this article, "The Odds of Existing." [Editor's note: This seems to be the article Paul is referring to.] You ever read that?
Paul: It puts numbers on [us existing]. It’s like rolling 1 million dice that are all trillion-sided, and all the numbers landing on the same number. That’s the odds of existing! It kind of puts things in perspective. We’re so lucky to just be alive. My religion, my spiritual belief? Just be a good person. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t take things for granted. That’s it, you know? That’s really it. You’re not gonna know what’s going on. You can find something that really kind of hits you in your personal heart, and live by those sort of rules, and live inside those walls, and if that brings you some sort of hope or peace or purpose, that’s great. My personal belief is "I don’t know what the hell is going on." Nor will I ever know what the hell is going on. But I’ll always stare at the sky in a constant state of wonder.
In terms of that "not being an asshole" thing — you’re particularly open and generous with your fans. You run out of your house and take photos with them, you’re really outspoken about your relationship and your personal life. Where does that instinct to share so much of yourself come from?
Paul: I just like to break down those walls, those barriers. Like I was saying before, we’re all spinning on this planet out of control together. Let’s just love one another. With that said, me walking out downstairs to offer people champagne and hang out with the tour bus was probably a mistake [laughs]. Those tour buses come up far more often now, and people have been waiting at the top of my steps for us to get home. My wife will be arriving to the house by herself at nine o’clock at night, and there’ll be a dude sitting at the top of the steps. That’s scary! So we put up a security system, we installed a gate. I feel like I maybe pushed the limits there a little bit.