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
Shirley Manson has fired a handgun twice in her life. The first time was about three minutes ago, with her eyes closed. The second was just now, eyes open.
She peers down the firing lane at her target, a paper silhouette of a man with a single bullet hole at the center of his sternum. A kill shot. “I don’t know if I like this,” says the 45-year-old Edinburgh native, the Walther P99 still smoldering in her hand. “It’s a bit intense.” She hadn’t expected flames, for one. She lays the gun down in the booth, grabs a broom kept handy for sweeping up shell casings, and begins to tidy up the place. “In retrospect, maybe we should have gone with the little bullets,” she says, regretting her earlier decision to use the powerful 9mm over the peewee .22 round.
The reinforced door to the range opens, admitting a young, sane-looking, Australian couple with a Glock 19. They were told the Glock’s modest kick is gentle enough for children to fire (no more tears!), but they’ll be “working up to a .357,” they say by way of polite conversation before moving on, lightly titillated, to open fire from a neighboring booth. Dressed unassumingly—practically, even—in Chelsea ankle boots, a striped tunic under a black hoodie vest, oversize safety goggles, and 2-pound plastic earmuffs, Manson doesn’t exactly blend in at a shooting range in Burbank in the middle of a weekday afternoon. The few regulars hadn’t quite noticed her yet, but the Australians instantly recognize her. They might have shied away if not for Manson’s warm greeting. “They seem nice. Normal,” Manson says, just audible over escalating gunfire. “Right?”
Garbage, the multi-platinum rock band that Manson has fronted since 1994, recently finished recording their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People—their first since 2005’s Bleed Like Me. While touring for that release, they announced an abrupt and “indefinite hiatus,” a workhorse among indirect phrases. (Music business—exhausting, absurd. These things happen.)
The band’s inactivity didn’t mean rest for Manson. “I was making a solo album, but I was still signed to Geffen [Records],” where executives insisted she make a record that sounded “like Annie Lennox,” she says. “That’s when I knew I was fucked. It made me want to stop playing music, and I did.” At a cocktail party in Los Angeles, before she’d had much time to stew in her discontent, television producer Josh Friedman offered her an audition for a part on his new series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. She took him up on it, earning a lead role as homicidal liquid-robot CEO Catherine Weaver. No one was more baffled than Manson. “I wasn’t good,” she says, refusing to concede anything further than, “I got better, maybe. But it was an amazing experience. I was like a kid on set.” Despite generally favorable reviews, the show was canceled after two seasons. (TV business—unpredictable, ruthless. These things happen.)
“When it finished, I didn’t know what to do,” Manson says. “I didn’t even know where to start. Then I realized: I want to make music with my band, that’s what I want.” Out this spring, the band’s new album calls to mind their earlier records primarily because, 12 million record sales later, Garbage, a band with nothing left to prove, placed a saucer of Shut The Fuck Up outside their studio door and made the record they felt like making. “It’s rekindled our childlike wonder for making records,” she says. “All the other stuff, we just let go. We went back to the music that excited us in the beginning.” The collection of tracks bursts with unmitigated, joyous homage: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Clash, and Bowie—“lots of Bowie, actually. Cocteau Twins. The Pretenders. We’re not coming out say- ing, Hey, we’re the new shit. We know all the hot sounds. We don’t. We don’t go to clubs anymore, and we’re not sitting around listening to underground dubstep.”
Reflecting on the band’s newfound maturity, she adds, “I don’t know. Maybe that’s not cool, but I’m not a cool person I’m hot. I get passionate, excited. If I meet someone who’s ‘cool’ with me, I’ll fuck- ing laugh in their face. Are you kidding me right now? Fucking blow me.”
Manson was 29 when Garbage’s first album came out. “I felt old at that age, ironically enough,” she says. “I was already older than my peers, thinking, I look ancient, I feel ancient, everybody else is like 18, 19. It’s a position I’m accustomed to being in.” Leaving aside the fact that at that time you could still buy a mobile phone that required a handle and a separate antenna, when Garbage’s last album came out “The Facebook” was just another Harvard idea wedging its way through Yale. “I feel like the tiger in the jungle who’s allowed to keep doing business because the younger tigers allow her to operate, and I feel grateful. But I don’t want to pretend I’m young. I’m not going to play that game. I’m not going to freeze my face to sell a record. That’s a trap set for women.”
Madonna, she says, is the most obvious example: “The tabloids complain about her looking old, and people laugh at her for that. Then Madonna goes and fixes her face, and they laugh at her for that. Even thought they begrudgingly say she looks amazing, they’ll still laugh at her for trying to look young. Then she steps out, looking amazing, and the tabloids go and blow up a picture of her aging hand. Nobody’s doing that to George Clooney, blowing up pictures of his hands! I look at these magazines, and I want to say to them, What’s your point? That she’s aged? Does that surprise you? Or is your ‘point’ an attempt to undercut what she’s achieved? I think it is, even if it’s on a subconscious level. And you probably wouldn’t turn down those hands if they were grabbing you under the table, you fucking idiots.”
Two booths down, a very serious man slides a very serious Luger from a fleece-lined attaché. “The thing I’ve learned over the past seven years,” she says, paying no mind to the Luger- brandishing possible psycho a few steps away, “is how hard it is for anybody to succeed in this music industry.” The pace of life in the pop world, and the actual workload of a successful pop star, have always been almost inhumanly demanding, however cushy it might seem. Billie Holiday was cooking up a tuna can full of heroin just to get up in the morning back when half of American homes didn’t have a television. The modern A-list pop star is tweeting for her life.
“To me, what’s happening with Rihanna is really disturbing. Don’t get me wrong—I love Rihanna—but what’s happening to her is what happened to Britney [Spears]. Record companies are overworking these girls, just pushing them and pushing them. It’s like taking a winning racehorse and stabbing it in the neck over and over with steroids. The companies are preying on these young girls, who are valuing themselves according to how many followers they have on Facebook. There’s press about how Rihanna’s about to collapse from exhaustion, and yet she’s about to put out a new record. It’s madness.”
The first target, fully aerated, flutters along its electrical track to the booth, and Manson takes it down from the clips. We’ve been working the neck and left shoulder pretty hard. Her diagnosis: “Dead.”
It’s impossible not to notice that the guy with the Luger is lining up silencers and miscellaneous tactical items on a towel with schizophrenic precision, while his compatriot has affixed an infrared scope to his .357 Magnum, now ready for uses other than self-defense. You’d have to be a fool to feel totally safe in here right now. Manson is discreetly examining our neighbors. “I’m surprised we’re not wearing vests, or something.”
We’re down to our last dozen rounds. “It’s just totally alien, all this,” Manson says, scanning the room. “Nobody in Scotland has a gun. We just have lots of fist fights and crying.”
“Yeah, totally. Seems like it, anyway,” she says with a shrug. “In the UK, it’s still a shock when someone uses a gun. I was watching CNN earlier about the shooting at Virginia Tech yesterday—it wasn’t even the lead story.” She shoots the silhouette in the head. “The world is a scary place,” she says.
Driving home from the shooting range in Burbank, traffic is worse then usual due to an armed man who charged into the middle of the intersection at Hollywood and Vine and began firing randomly into passing cars.
Styling by Gena Tuso.
Photography by Matt Irwin