On Movies: As meth-head protégé, he was hesitant about being a boozer

"Smashed" stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as a couple - and a couple of drunks. Paul, of AMC's "Breaking Bad," was reluctant to take on the role.
"Smashed" stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as a couple - and a couple of drunks. Paul, of AMC's "Breaking Bad," was reluctant to take on the role.
Posted: October 22, 2012

TORONTO - To play drunk, Aaron Paul got drunk.

He didn't show up on set soaked in alcohol, mind you, but for Smashed - the compelling, careening indie about a Los Angeles couple wed to each other, and wed to the bottle - there was research to be done. And Paul, a diligent actor who has won two Emmys for playing Jesse Pinkman, the meth-head protégé of Bryan Cranston's Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad, felt he needed to investigate what being smashed was all about.

"I'll have an occasional beer or two, you know, but never like getting plowed all the time," explains Paul. And so, to play Charlie, an idle rich kid married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Kate - a schoolteacher who regularly arrives in class seriously hungover - he took to the booze. But never during the shoot, he wants to make clear. Smashed, which premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens Friday at the Ritz Five and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ.

"Before we shot, I found myself drinking a lot," says Paul, who is a boyish, keen-eyed 33. "And then I just filmed myself drinking. . . . I wanted to go as far as I could, because I wanted to be as honest as possible. I'm not afraid to admit it."

He and Winstead - whose character recognizes she has a problem, while Paul's does not - went out drinking one night. To excess.

"We had our sober driver," he recalls, "and he took us out, and we were kind of in character, and he just kept giving us shots, and I filmed it all.

"And I think it really created a bond between Mary and I. We experienced quite a night."

Smashed is more Winstead's film than Paul's - it's a showcase for the talented Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actress. But that's not the reason he was reluctant, at first, to take it on. When he initially heard about the project, Charlie Hannah seemed too close to Jesse Pinkman.

"I was a little apprehensive, because I didn't want to do another substance-abuse story while I was doing Breaking Bad," he says. "But then I read it, and I thought it was just so honest, and then I sat down with James Ponsoldt, the director-slash-writer, and we talked for about three hours, and we just hit it off. . . . And then they set up a meeting for Mary and I. We had an appetizer and a drink at a restaurant in L.A. and were just feeling each other out, and I was such a huge fan of hers. I was waiting for a project like Smashed to come around for her so she could really spread her wings. I knew she had it in her. . . .

"And then, a couple of days later, they offered me the film. . . . And I thought, 'OK, well, playing drunk is going to be hard, because I've seen a lot of people play drunk, and they're playing drunk.'

"So, a little scary - but I was super excited by it."

Paul flew into Toronto for the Smashed premiere from London, where he has been shooting A Long Way Down, an adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel about four strangers who meet on a building's roof on New Year's Eve. They are each considering suicide.

Paul plays JJ, an American rocker who has just been dumped by his record label, and by his girlfriend.

"They're all up there wanting to jump off, to commit suicide. So they create this strange bond - and that all happens in the first few pages of the script, that they all meet. But it's actually really funny. I'm excited.

"They've been trying to make this into a film for some time. It was in Johnny Depp's hands for a while, but he's no longer involved. So it's me, and Imogen Poots and Toni Collette and Pierce Brosnan."

In fact, Paul and Brosnan were on the same flight coming over from London - Brosnan had Love Is All You Need, the Susanne Bier film, at the festival.

"It's incredible how he's just so together, so cool, so funny, always," Paul says of his colleague, who, of course, used to be 007. "It's not that he's trying to be, that's just who he is. . . . On the plane yesterday, I looked over at him and he's reading a magazine and his legs are crossed and I thought to myself, 'My God, I wish I looked that cool reading a magazine!' "

Paul originally hails from Idaho. He has wanted to be a professional actor since he was 13. When he was 17, just graduated from high school, he packed his car and drove to Los Angeles.

"I saved up money," he says. "My parents, bless them - I love them to death, they're the greatest parents I could ask for - but we didn't have much money. So I worked a bunch of odd jobs in Idaho, five jobs at once, actually. I was a pizza-delivery boy, I worked at a cookie shop in the mall, I worked for two different radio stations as their mascot, and I worked for a contractor - I would deliver fliers after work on weekends to people's doorsteps, and I'd get 10 cents a flier.

"So, I saved up. I think I moved to Los Angeles with just over $5,000, which was so much money! I moved into a place that was $495 a month, a little studio, and I got a roommate pretty quickly, so we were paying $250 a month. And then I worked at a movie theater, the City Walk at Universal Studios. Two weeks into working at the theater, we did our first premiere, for Primary Colors, and I took people's tickets. And the first celebrity that I recognized was Steven Spielberg, and I thought to myself, My God, I have made it.

"And that was the last time I saw Steven Spielberg," he adds, with a laugh.

Paul didn't work as an usher for long. He landed a Corn Pops commercial ("Gotta have my Pops") and then a spot as a contestant on The Price Is Right. Clips of Paul in both shows can be found on YouTube.

"They've started doing the whole viral thing," he says, with a little pride - and awe. "And you have to check out my Price Is Right clip! I look like I'm on crack. I drank six or seven cans of Red Bull, because I knew they wanted energy. You'll see - I can't stop moving. I literally look like I'm on meth."

Even back then, Paul was serious about getting into his role. Even if it meant drinking a lot - of caffeine.


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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