A 400-foot stone rattlesnake, a Zuni-style nod to the local fauna, leads into the desert scrubland a few miles south of Albuquerque to Mesa del Sol, the future site of a state-of-the-art eco-city the size of Santa Fe. For now, apart from a row of skeletal luxury condos, the first of a planned 37,000 rows, Mesa del Sol is an extension road dividing 20 square miles of pitiless baked earth—the perfect place to test mega-weapons or cook high-volume meth. Off to the left, a tract of buildings that could be facilities for either is instead Albuquerque Studios, home to the set of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
“Our meth is really good product,” says the show’s star Aaron Paul as he strolls past the set’s DEA office, which is separated by some plywood and lighting rigs from the superlab where Paul’s Jesse Pinkman and his former chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), cook up the show’s blue-tinted methamphetamine. Their stand-in crank, a custom rock confectionery, tastes like cotton candy, and Paul is hooked. “It gives you a crazy buzz,” he says. “When you crush it up and snort it, it stings a little, and you get this sugary nasal drip.” A bright-eyed picture of health from an unbroken Southern Baptist home in Boise, Idaho, 32-year-old Paul is easygoing, balanced, and so good-looking that AMC executives were initially concerned that audiences wouldn’t believe him as a drug user, let alone a meth dealer. Four seasons later, Paul, whose performance on the show earned him the 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, pushes the candy ice hard. “I get everyone who comes on the show to try it. And then I see them sneaking off and taking little handfuls out of the barrels.”
Breaking Bad is entering its fifth and final season (the second half of which won’t air until late next year) as one of the most vigorously celebrated shows on television, but it wasn’t an easy sell five years ago. “AMC and Sony got so much shit before this show aired, so much hate mail, saying, ‘Shame on you,’” says Paul, acknowledging the widespread assumptions that the series would somehow glamorize meth use. “But that all stopped the moment the show aired.” Now, quite regularly, “so many recovering addicts come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for being a constant reminder of why I got sober.’ This show is just the raw, honest, brutal truth about what this drug does to people who use it, people who try to sell it, and to everyone around it.”
On the set of the car wash, where Walter White once toiled, the color-coordinated display of Little Trees air fresheners is excessive enough to cause low-level anxiety; Jesse Pinkman’s living room, meanwhile, is cluttered with worn thrift-store couches, full ashtrays, and appreciable dope. The Albuquerque replicated on Breaking Bad’s soundstage is mundane and doom-laden because, as is the case with most semi-urban areas in the American southwest, you can’t swing a dreamcatcher in the city without hitting a meth casualty. “I love Albuquerque, I do. But it’s hard to ignore that aspect here. It’s everywhere,” says Paul, whose house was recently burgled for the second time.
As an actor, Paul says he draws on personal experience, although “not necessarily from using drugs myself,” he says. “I saw someone that I deeply cared for, this beautiful, angelic creature—saw the soul just drain out of her. Suddenly she was just… gone. Once you’ve seen that up close, you begin to get it.” The class of drugs in Jesse’s world is not the sort you want to get method about. “People laugh, but whenever I’m researching a role, I go online. You can find anything on YouTube. When Jesse was using heroin for the first time, I found a video uploaded by a guy who’d just started using. He stuck a needle in his arm, started to nod, and his voice changed. It lowered a little bit. I didn’t know that happened.”
Paul leads on through Studio A, an indoor space big enough to house a helicopter (see Terminator: Salvation, also shot here), around some sculpted hedges, and into White’s home, where the family’s dining table is set for breakfast. An eerily human plastic infant in a pink onesie sits alone, askance in her chair with her arms up, staring in vain at Raisin Bran and orange juice. “That’s Baby Holly,” Paul says. “One of them, anyway.” As many as three more lurk nearby. “And that’s Baby Holly in the womb,” he adds, tapping a printout of her sonogram tacked to the fridge. He steps out of the kitchen, around matte paintings of a park and half of a Presbyterian church. “This is a great set, one of my favorites,” he says, entering through a doorway into complete darkness. “Saul’s office.” He aims his cell phone light around the sanctum of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman, White’s fantastically crooked attorney—walls papered with the U.S. Constitution, a framed diploma from the fictional University of American Samoa, and the fanny-packed shape of a roused crewmember on the couch in the corner. “You guys gotta wait your turn,” he says, before rolling over. “Popular spot,” says Paul.
Given that it’s a show about an odious, paranoia-inducing, “recreational” substance that rots people’s faces, the set is laid-back, homey even. “Vince [Gilligan] has a reputation as the kindest showrunner in Hollywood,” says Paul, pointing out a photograph of a beaming Gilligan, the show’s creator, in the production’s souvenir yearbook. “When he’s directing, at the end of a take he compliments everyone. Seriously, everyone—the actors, grips, the script supervisor…” Paul flips through the book: parties, pets, cookouts, weddings, the Breaking Bad vs. In Plain Sight softball game, a charity event organized by Cranston, who is the show’s de facto ambassador to Albuquerque. It was Paul’s onscreen chemistry, so to speak, with Cranston that saved Jesse from his slated untimely death at the end of season one. Gilligan realized it would be a terrible mistake to kill off the character, whom Paul had taken from recurring to indispensable, and the closest thing the show has to a “moral compass.” Paul says, “Bryan and I hit it off immediately. But everybody’s connection with Bryan is amazing.” As if on cue, Cranston can be seen across the studio joining a crew huddle and triggering a burst of laughter.
For his part, Paul is a man in love. It’s actually the first thing you notice about him. He’s electrified, practically trailing sparks. “Her inner beauty slaughters,” Paul says of his fiancée, Lauren Parsekian, who co-created the KIND Campaign, a program to combat female bullying. Parsekian, her co-founding partner, and their mothers travel the U.S. and Canada, raising awareness about the subject in schools. Paul joins them as often as he can. “Every day she inspires me more and more. She’s the gentlest person I’ve ever met.”
In his two new films, Decoding Annie Parker and Smashed, both to be released later this year, Paul is, respectively, the husband of a woman (Samantha Morton) dying of cancer and an alcoholic whose marriage is being destroyed by his wife’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) choice to get sober. “Both are heavy roles,” says Paul. “Obviously.” Breaking Bad has prepared him well. “I used to take myself way too seriously. I’d stay in the character as long as possible. On a show like this you’re working a minimum of 12 to 16 hours a day, then you go home and you have at most a 10- or 11-hour turnaround. So you’re almost constantly in character anyway. It worked for me, I guess, but Bryan taught me that it’s healthy to unzip the skin. It’s made me a lot more sane.” But there are some skins you can’t just unzip. With Breaking Bad’s denouement already under way, Paul says, “I’m gonna have to start stocking up on meth, for sure. Many, many bags of meth.”
Season 4 of Breaking Bad is available on DVD, and season 5 premieres on July 15.
Photography by Sheryl Nields