An actor catches ‘Big,’ ‘Bad’ breaks

From a distance of 135 yards, the golfer saw his ball vanish into the earth. Then he saw a screaming Aaron Paul who had suddenly appeared from behind a tree after witnessing the hole-in-one, boots leaping, arms flailing, his voice slicing the air: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

If you don’t know who Paul is, neither did Guy Adams, the West Hollywood resident who’d just hit the magic shot. But Paul is well known to the 1.3 million viewers of AMC’s critically acclaimed “Breaking Bad,” which wraps its second season on Sunday night, and the 5 million viewers of HBO’s “Big Love.”

“I feel inspired,” said the 29-year-old from Idaho who looked more rock star than golfer with those boots, skinny jeans and a faded Elvis T-shirt beneath a black jacket. “I feel like I’m going to do better now.”

And better he did on a recent outing, getting pars on three of his final six holes on the nine-hole, par-3 course in Los Feliz to finish the day at 7-over -- he used to play here with some buddies, but they often threw the ball instead of using their clubs.


After golf, Paul discussed his acting career with a slight shake of the head. “I’m just so fortunate, first of all just to be working,” he said, “but it’s such a dream to be working on two great shows and playing polar-opposite characters.”

On “Big Love,” he plays Scott, a buttoned-up, bespectacled suitor to a polygamist’s daughter trying to distance herself from that life. On “Breaking Bad,” he portrays Jesse, the younger and somewhat thuggish business partner to Bryan Cranston’s Walter.

Paul’s character on “Bad” treads the edge of a cliff, dealing drugs on a scale so large that it nearly gets him killed. In fact, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, did actually plan to off Jesse at the end of the first season, but decided against it because of Paul’s appeal. “He just has this certain puppy-dog sort of vulnerability.”

So Gilligan instead put the puppy through hell. In the second season, Jesse has been beaten up, stuffed into a trunk, dropped into a port-a-potty and shot up with drugs. A recent episode had him taking heroin with his girlfriend, who then died in her sleep. The story line reminds Paul of his younger days in L.A., when he was close to a young woman who became addicted to cocaine and crystal methamphetamine -- the drug his TV character cooks and deals.


“This was someone I really cared for, such a beautiful, angelic heart, and once she started using, I literally saw her soul disappear,” he said.

He tried to convince her to get clean and even went so far as to throw her drugs away. None of it worked. “It was devastating to me and we eventually lost total contact,” he said. “And Jesse feels 100% responsible for his girlfriend’s demise, and I definitely triggered that emotion, that feeling that I couldn’t get this person who was close to me off of it. It’s crazy that I ended up doing a show about that.”

When asked if he partook in any drugs, he started an answer, then stopped. “I don’t know if my parents are going to read this,” he said. He’s the son of a Baptist minister.

But then he started again, admitting that, “Yeah, I was around that scene quite a bit and it’s almost impossible not to, um, not to experiment a little bit,” he said. “But I quickly, quickly realized this was absolutely not for me. And I just saw how people acted, what people felt like the day after. And the key -- I’ll say it again -- was this beautiful flower literally wilting away in front of your eyes and blowing away in the wind.


“That’s why I love that I’m able to actually portray this role now, and I hope to God I’m doing it justice because it needs to be genuine, it needs to be true. This show absolutely does not glamorize crystal meth. It shows the dark, devastating side.”

His parents, Robert and Darla Sturtevant (Aaron uses his middle name because casting directors often stumbled over “Sturtevant”), save articles on their son in a scrapbook, starting with a newspaper story about Darla giving birth to a 5-pound, 2-ounce baby boy in the bathroom at home in the summer of ’79; Aaron was a month premature.

And on this day, Robert Sturtevant said by phone from Boise that he’d gone to a gas station in the morning for a USA Today piece featuring his son. He purchased three of the four copies he saw. “I wanted to buy all four but I thought that’d be bad taste,” he said.

That night, the article was passed around -- all four of Paul’s older siblings were over for a family dinner, a weekly tradition. “You know, we’re from a small town and are a very close-knit family, and it was really frightening when Aaron was going to Los Angeles, to the big bad world,” Darla Sturtevant said. “But we would have never been able to say no.”


And then he started showing up on his parents’ TV set -- first in commercials, then in various episodic dramas and now every week on cable. “Neither one of us gets used to seeing him pop up on TV,” Darla Sturtevant said, her husband of 38 years beside her. “This is what he’s wanted to do from the time he was little.”

The next day, Darla Sturtevant celebrated her 57th birthday. The same group of her kids was expected for dinner, but then she found herself in the kitchen, looking up from the stove.

Aaron stood in the living room, having flown in as a surprise. This time, he wasn’t the one who screamed.