Thanks to his iconic role on Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul has become singularly associated with a certain B-word. But after Need For Speed, he may find himself dodging associations with another one – namely, badass.
In the new release from DreamWorks Pictures, Paul plays Tobey, a gifted driver who crosses the country with an army of police in tow to take revenge on his fiercest, most ruthless competitor Dino (Dominic Cooper of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the race of a lifetime. Although professional drivers certainly tackle some of the hairier feats, director Scott Waugh ensures that audiences see Paul in the driver’s seat for as much of the movie as possible.
Spinoff Online spoke with the actor at the recent Los Angeles press day for Need For Speed. In addition to detailing his own affection and experiences with cars outside the film, he talked about the appeal of the material, and reflected on the challenges – and fun – involved with bringing this video-game adaptation to the silver screen.
Spinoff Online: How much, if any, of the actual driving did you do? Do you consider yourself sort of a daredevil in real life?
Aaron Paul: I did quite a bit of my own driving. I didn’t do the grasshopper jump, obviously, and I didn’t drive off the cliff. When I was driving fast and kind of weaving through cars in freeways, that was me. I did a lot of the kind of sliding around. That was the main thing. When Scott Waugh talked to me about this movie, he said if you want to do it, great, but I’m going to need you to learn how to drive these cars. I need the audience to know that you’re in the driver’s seat. He didn’t want to lie to the audience. He didn’t use any CGI and all of the stunts were practical. They actually happened. Daredevil? I think so. Maybe. A little bit. Not like these guys, I don’t think.
Did you do roller coasters, motorcycles or anything like that?
Oh, yeah. I grew up on dirt bikes when I was a kid. My next=door neighbor had a whole dirt bike track for a backyard, but these are like little 50s. It’s not crazy bikes.
An interesting aspect of the success of these movies is that they’re very sincere, and instead of it being just goofy or fun, it’s very straightforward and serious. What were some of initial impressions about this when you got it and how did that change as you were getting into the character?
To be honest, when I saw Need For Speed, the script on my desk, I thought to myself, “Oh, no.” Before I read it I did not expect much from it. Nothing against the game, the game is great and super-fun — they’ve made 18 of them. They definitely know what they’re doing, and now they’re making it into a movie. What’s so great about Need For Speed, the video game had no narrative, so we could really put any story we wanted to the name Need For Speed, as long as we were using the same sort of dynamics used in the game. As long as we were using super-fast cars and we put the audience in the driver’s seat. I thought they put a really great, honest, fun, touching story. When I started reading the script, I was instantly invested in these characters. I cared about these characters, and then after I was done reading it, it was such a fun ride and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
How was it getting acclimated to the driving you were required to do in the film?
Probably the most difficult for me, technically, there was a shot that I knew they wanted me before we even started shooting, because on the track they had me practice it so much. On the day, it’s me flying over the bridge, when Tobey flips the car around. So I had to flip the car around, bring the car back and fly to the camera about 75-80 miles an hour. Then I had to pull the E-brake and have it slide almost to a 180 and stop within inches of the lens. So that was a little scary, because I didn’t want to hit [the camera]. And it wasn’t our camera guy during this particular shot, it was Scott, our director — he took the camera, because I don’t think any of the cameramen wanted to be in that position. And so Scott’s holding it and first take I came about 15 feet shy of the camera. He came up to me and said, “Listen, I need you within inches of the matte box. I need the audience to know that this is you driving. I can’t even see you 15 feet away.” I go, OK. “If you hit me, don’t worry about it. I’ll just roll over the hood of the car.” Uh, OK. That didn’t make me feel better about the situation. He goes, “If you go past your mark, don’t worry about it. I’ll just sense it and I’ll roll over the car.” And so by the third take I got it by about this far from the matte box. That was probably the most nervous I was.
Did you have to go through a type of training?
Right when I signed on to do it, the first thing was to get out on the track as often as I could. Those were long track days. That was from sunrise to sunset, all day long. Lance Gilbert was our stunt coordinator. He’s third-generation stuntman, and he’s just a badass. He just lives and breathes stunts. He just really knows what he’s doing. The people that run the track, they have a whole school out there. When I have kids I’ll definitely send them to this track, because the first few days was just really learning how to get out of problematic situations, and that’s what they wanted … their main priority was safety.
Do you want to own a Shelby now?
I do, but I’ve owned it for years. I have a ’65 Shelby Cobra, and yeah.
What’s the top speed you’ve driven in your personal life?
I’m not really sure. There was a closed track I was on for an Audi race car event that I was a part of. I went maybe 135, maybe 140, and then I did a Lamborghini event, which I think was about 150, 160. It was all on a closed track. On this film, the top speed while shooting was probably about 125, for me but then they wanted the cars to be going around 180 they got the stunt men and women in there.
How was your working relationship with Scott and how much freedom did you have as an actor to improvise?
In all honesty, everything was on the page. It was. Working with Scott, you get on set and he’s just a big kid working with his favorite toys. It was such a fun working environment, but he had a very specific structure to stay on. He wanted to do a throwback to the classic films that he believes really started the genre, such as Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Smokey and the Bandit, all of these films that had no CG. They had to do their own stunts because there was no such thing as CG back then. He said that we could improvise if we wanted to, if we felt like it was necessary but most of it is kind of stuck to the page. I think Benny, Scott Mescudi, he improvised quite a bit and I thought that it was just so brilliant.
What was it like working with the rest of the cast, especially with Imogen Poots, since you’re with her in the car for most of the movie.
I just dragged Imogen along with me. I was doing a film with her in London called A Long Way Down when this offer came in, and then they said that the top female choice was Imogen. I already knew that I loved her so much, and we got along so well, and the idea of being stuck with a car with her for 80 percent of the movie was great. So I’m like yes, pick her, that’s a great choice. So she had some meetings and decided to come play with us. The entire Marshall Motors crew, we instantly connected when we got on set. We’re still very, very close.
Outside of this film, what’s your post-Breaking Bad life like? Is it much different?
I just talked to Bryan [Cranston] the other day. It’s been good. We’re such a family on that show, and I hope it stays that way for as long as possible, but I know Bryan and I will be friends until one of us dies.
You mentioned the classic car movies, and they show Bullitt in the film. Do you have a favorite car or driver from one of those movies that kind of inspired you?
I think Steve McQueen. I think Steve McQueen is such a badass, and I’ve thought that for a very long time. I’ve been into cars ever since I could remember. I was always asking my uncle if he could drive me around in his ’67 Mustang, and I thought he was so cool. I think I just try to watch all things Steve McQueen, not act like Steve McQueen but you know, just take bits and pieces from…
The movie characterizes him at the beginning as a racer as “patient.” Is there a certain disposition that you felt like the character needed to have to embody the idea of being the best racer?
I think it’s real confidence and just drive. I’m so used to playing a character that’s so broken and tortured and just lonely and sad. So it was kind of nice to jump into a different skin of a guy that’s really confident and driven and very focused. So I think he needed to have all those qualities.
Given that the Fast and the Furious series continues to live on, is the notion of continuing on something that you considered before you signed onto something like this?
That’s another big part of it, and the reason why I was a little hesitant. Of course, if this film does well, they as a studio would definitely like to do more. After reading the script, I thought it was such a fun ride and then working with this great group of people, if it does well and they want to do more, I know I can speak for pretty much everyone involved that we would love to get the band back together and do it all over again.
Need For Speed opens today nationwide.