Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul discuss their cutthroat relationship on ‘Breaking Bad’

Through much of the third season of “Breaking Bad,” partners in crime Walter White and Jesse Pinkman took separate journeys. Walt beat cancer (for the time being) but lost his wife when she learned he was cooking and dealing drugs. And Jesse, following the overdose death of his girlfriend, came out of rehab determined to embrace the bleak truth about his place in the world.

Those parallel stories left little for actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul to do together, much to the dismay of series creator Vince Gilligan.

“These two guys together really are a force,” Gilligan says. “The plot takes us where it takes us, but we knew we had to get Bryan and Aaron back together again.”

And so they did, fashioning an explosive, end-of-the-season reunion that takes the AMC series to darker places than Gilligan ever imagined it would go.

That goes for his actors too. Cranston, a two-time Emmy winner for playing the high school chemistry teacher who winds up on the wrong side of the law (and loving it), and Emmy-nominee Paul, playing the former student and sloppy meth maker whom Walt partners up with, readily admit they never know where the show is heading.

“A lot of ‘Oh, my Gods’ are spoken every time we get a script,” Cranston says

Together, Cranston, 54, and Paul, 30, fall into the same sort of teacher-protégé dynamic that their characters have on the show — with a couple of notable differences. Their conflicts are manufactured and always good-natured. And, to the best of our knowledge, they aren’t on the run from drug cartels or law enforcement authorities, which may explain why they were so relaxed during a recent conversation in Beverly Hills.

Vince Gilligan calls Walt and Jesse “The Odd Couple” for the 21st century.

Paul: Opposites attract. It was there from the first scene we shot outside a bank.

Cranston: That dialogue was essentially the core of the relationship. Jesse: “You are not like anything I remember in school. What are you, like, 60?” And me: “Fifty!”

Paul: [recalling further dialogue from the scene] “Are you crazy? If you’re crazy, I need to know that.”

Cranston: “The Odd Couple” only works if they’re justifiably together. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t need each other. I need him to show me the ropes of the street. He needs me because we’re making the best meth and he’s making money. So that naturally put us together, but it doesn’t mean you coalesce well. Jesse is an idiot.

Paul: A lovable idiot.

Cranston: From Walt’s end, you baffle me with the depth of your ignorance. And me, you’re probably saying, “He’s such an old fart. He only has one way of doing things.” Our music is different, our points of reference, our desires, our foundations.

Paul: Yet they’re both very lonely at times. All they have is each other in a strange way.

Cranston: Walt’s not immune to Jesse’s boyish charms. Jesse needs direction. At the beginning, it served me to give him that direction. [He quotes one particularly gruesome episode] “I told you specifically to get the plastic tub. Why? Because if you put the body in porcelain, it will be eaten away and now we’re cleaning up liquefied human remains.” But now I begrudgingly feel for him. I don’t think Walt would admit it. But it’s there.

Paul: Both of these guys are obviously in a lot of denial about what they’re doing. What’s interesting about this season is that Jesse accepts the fact that he is, truly, a bad person. At least, he thinks he is.

Right. Because maybe he isn’t. Vince has often referred to Jesse as the moral center of the show. [Cranston becomes visibly agitated.] Does that assessment bother you, Bryan?

Cranston: It doesn’t bother me. It confuses me. If Jesse Pinkman is the moral center of the show, society is in deep trouble. He’s the guy looking for the shortcut in life. He doesn’t want to work hard. Maybe Jesse is the center for how life really is. People would love to be rich, but they’re looking for the easy way. Who wouldn’t want to win the lottery? Just to score.

Initially, Vince planned for Jesse to overdose at the end of the first season …

Paul: Yeah, and the producers, the entire cast, to this day will come up to me and ask, “Did you read the next episode?” “I haven’t got it yet.” “Oh? Ooooh … OK.” And then they’ll walk away. And my mind is racing.

Cranston: I bumped into Justin Timberlake. “Oh, I love the show! I love the show!” “You should come on the show.” “I’d love to!” “I’m going to hold you to that.” Then I came back and pitched an idea where Justin Timberlake comes on the show. “He’s Jesse’s cousin, only he’s even darker and stranger. And he and Jesse have a showdown, and, all of a sudden, Justin kills Aaron Paul.” And you can see Aaron’s eyes start to widen …

Paul: He just kept going. And I’m like, “That’s not a good idea. What are you talking about? Yeah, I know it’s Justin Timberlake. JT. But … no.”

Cranston: He’s a damn good actor, though. Maybe we could have him come on for the musical version of “Breaking Bad.” Just break out in song like “Glee.”

Vince says that Walter has been bad for Jesse, but Bryan has been a great example for you, Aaron.

Paul: One hundred percent. I’ve grown so much, not just as an actor, but as a human being. Bryan is very giving. I’ve learned from him that it’s not so much about what you’re saying, it’s about listening and understanding what the other person is saying. Every little thing he does is so honest and true.

(There’s a long pause, and Paul looks at Cranston expectantly.)

Cranston: I’m sorry. I zoned out.

Paul: Whenever we do interviews together, he’s like, “Make sure I’m on the pedestal I deserve to be on.”

Cranston: And be sure to clean off the pedestal while you’re at it.