Aaron Paul Talks ‘Triple 9,’ Brotherly Bond With Norman Reedus
Perhaps for the entirety of his career, Aaron Paul will be tied to the iconic role of Breaking Bad‘s burnout-turned-meth-hero Jesse Pinkman. It’s something he’s thankful for: “I’m very blessed to have played an iconic character,” he says graciously. Since that landmark TV show, Paul’s stayed away from drug-addict roles for obvious reasons. But when he was presented with the script for John Hillcoat‘s ensemble crime-thriller Triple 9, he jumped at the chance to work with the director, despite the fact that he’d once again have to pick up a pipe on-screen.
The decision paid off: Paul is an absolute standout in a movie full of Hollywood heavy-hitters including Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Clifton Collins Jr., and more. Playing a member of a gang crooked cops pulling off an elaborate, dangerous heist, the still-evolving actor makes every onscreen minute count, creating a character with dimension and depth in what’s essentially a series of quick glimpses. Looks like he’s continuing to hone the tools he sharpened opposite Bryan Cranston on that seminal show forever doomed him to be referred to as “bitch” by his adoring fans. “I gotta take it in stride, you know?”
In a roundtable interview, I spoke to Paul about Triple 9, which is out in theaters nationwide today.
You’re sort of unrecognizable in this movie. The hair, the strung-out-ness. How did you go to that place? It feels like he’s so out of his depth at this point in his life.
He’s going through a lot. It was kind of easy; it was just on the page. I think these characters were so well developed before I even attached myself. Before we even started, John gave us all a giant folder of information, a dropbox that just kept filling up every day with images that are impossible to erase from your mind. Decapitated heads…he wanted us to draw from our own knowledge.
He had me go on some ridealongs with the LAPD and I saw some pretty crazy stuff. We drove around East L.A. in a neighborhood I’ve never been to in my life. You just see how cops are viewed. We pulled over this guy whose girlfriend had just been shot. She was in the front seat, his mom was in the back seat. This was now his third strike because he had a loaded gun on him with the serial number scratched off. Things got pretty real. He was arrested went down to the station. They take off his shoes, he’s handcuffed to this bench, and they ask me if I want to go in and interview him. He has tattoos all over his face—scariest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m like, “No…I don’t want to go.” There was no reason for me to go interview him but I did end up going in to talk to him. He ended up being a fan of Breaking Bad, which is pretty funny.
What was your reaction to the script and this idea of these characters pulling off a “triple 9?”
God, I loved this script. I knew with John holding the reigns it was going to be such a brutal telling of this story but in a grounded way. I didn’t know what “triple 9” meant before shooting this film but it absolutely makes sense. If someone wants to cause a distraction in the police force, that’s definitely the way to do it. I love the story.
Early in the movie, you and Norman have a pivotal scene together. I think it’s such an important scene because you have to establish a lot of the emotional stakes for what’s to come for those characters.
Norman and I have been friends for the past sixteen, seventeen years. It’s the first time we’ve worked together, and we’re playing brothers, so we already have that bond, that love there. That scene you’re talking about was an added scene we shot after we were done shooting. They wanted to do just that—raise the stakes, really let people know that these guys aren’t just friends; they’re brothers. They love each other. It was great. I love that scene.
There are similarities between this character and Jesse Pinkman. Do you feel constrained by how iconic that character is?
I definitely don’t see Jesse Pinkman leaving me anytime soon. I know for the rest of my life I’m going to be called “bitch.” I gotta take it in stride, you know? I’m very blessed to have played such an iconic character [on a] show that became a part of television history. He’s a part of pop culture. It’s all about trying to do something different from that guy. This is really the first role since that show where my character’s picking up a pipe. I get offered drug addict roles all the time, on a weekly basis. I just try to stay away from that. But this script was impossible to ignore. It was beautiful. And, of course, John Hillcoat was the first name I noticed before I started reading it. It was a great ride, but when [my character] picked up the pipe, I was like, “Aww…Does he have to do that?”
The movie felt a lot like Heat.
Yeah. Heat is one of those timeless films. I really hope Triple 9 becomes that. My father-in-law was so excited. “It was like Heat! It’s like Taxi Driver!” I agree with him. It’s one of those gritty, brutal, crazy films.
You’re an actor who acts with his whole body. I appreciate that. Is it something you think about when you’re on camera or no?
It just kind of comes with the territory for me. Every character’s a little different. The only similarity is that I tend to gravitate toward characters that are going through a lot, emotionally. I think emotions run through your entire body. You kind of put yourself in a situation and force yourself to believe in whatever’s going on and hopefully people buy it.
In Need For Speed you were at the head of the ensemble. For this movie, it’s more of an egalitarian mix. How are those experiences different?
[One’s] less work, less shooting days. But I love them both. I love the ensemble cast. There are twelve main characters in this film and everyone has such a pivotal part in the story. With Need For Speed, I was in almost every scene. It was a lot of work.
What about the next movie, Eye in the Sky? What’s it like going from playing a criminal in this movie to playing someone who’s straight-laced and in the military?
I do play the darker side of things. But I always try to bring some sort of heart to my characters. With Triple 9, he’s technically a bad guy but you feel for him. He has a line he will not cross and this is that line, so he’s desperate to stop it from happening.
He’s really the hero of the movie.
Finally, someone said it! [laughs] It’s great being the bad guy and it’s also great being the good guy.
Who’s an actor that would be a dream for you to work with?
Oh man, there’s so many. I think probably Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s my favorite actor, for sure.
How about actors who aren’t alive?
You’re really changing things up on me, man! I would love to work with Marilyn Monroe. She’s such an idol, such a legend. I’d just love to kind of hang out with her in between takes and see what she’s all about.