Playing the morally compromised Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad” for nearly six years, Aaron Paul became accustomed to intense fan reactions, particularly online.
But he’s been eliciting a different kind of response when he logs in lately: a lot of people are irked he’s been … turning on their Xbox.
Turning on their what?
“Yeah, I guess it is funny,” he said. “Microsoft had to know it would do that, right?”
Paul is referring to a commercial he recently shot for the Xbox One in which, sitting on a couch holding a control, he describes to the viewer how he likes kicking back with some shooters when he’s not on a set shooting. “Xbox on,” he says to his console, which responds to the voice command and springs into action.
Problem is, machines don’t much care where a command is coming from. So when Paul’s voice comes through viewers’ TV screens, it has the same effect on their consoles too. All over the country the past month, Xbox units have been flickering to life, dutifully obeying Aaron Paul’s disembodied voice, like a Kubrick movie about machines slowly becoming sentient.
The phenomenon has even inspired a meme of sorts: social-media pages have lit up with messages, half annoyed and half in admiration, that “Aaron Paul keeps turning on my Xbox!”
It’s not the first time Paul has come off as an omnipotent force. Ever since he showed up as Walter White’s up-to-no-good former student in the “Breaking Bad” pilot, Paul has cast a kind of spell on viewers, looking like the guy who could be your slacker high-school buddy but who is capable of something darker and more powerful than even he imagined.
Of course, “Breaking Bad” is now about as distant a memory as Walt White’s moral compass. Besides, a TV series, especially a basic cable one, allows an actor many years to hone a character, tweaking and twisting it to their liking. Films? Not so much.
Paul learned that perhaps the hard way with “Need for Speed,” the springtime DreamWorks release in which he played a street racer trying to avenge the death of his brother. The movie was a critical and commercial dud in the U.S. (it did better overseas), and Paul seems to still be wrestling with his decision to do it.
“It was definitely a business move,” he said. “I knew I needed to do some sort of studio film when ‘Breaking Bad’ was done, just to get it out in the marketplace.”
Wearing black jeans and a hat kicked back on his head, Paul is in a downtown hotel snacking on a steak salad. He’s made a quick trip up from Atlanta, where he’s shooting his latest film role, playing a corrupt cop (law enforcement and scandal seem to go together for Paul) in John Hillcoat’s “Triple Nine.”
“Hellion” — an indie film he made shortly after “Breaking Bad” — came out recently in theaters and on VOD, and he’s eager to talk about his love for it. In Kat Candler’s feature, Paul plays a widower who’s trying to hold it together for his two sons, including a teenage juvenile delinquent, though with an alcohol problem and other issues, he fails at the task more often that not..
During one “Breaking Bad” hiatus, he also shot the ultra low-budget “Smashed,” playing an alcoholic husband opposite Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a movie that shot in the Valley over just a few weeks.
“I knew that I tend to always gravitate to the indie side of things. I love doing ‘Hellion’; I love ‘Smashed,” he said. “That’s where my heart truly lies. On a big film there’s almost no way you can meet everyone. On an indie there are 30 people, and no trailers to duck into.”
Paul is a new kind of hybrid star. He gained notoriety the old-fashioned way, with auditions and hard work, until he landed on a hit TV show. (See if you can spot him in episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Suddenly Susan’; he of course also had a featured role in a different Southwestern-set cable drama, HBO’s “Big Love.”)
But his fame is also fueled by an onlinline cultism of sorts, the actor on the receiving end of more fan letters and marriage proposals in one day than most actors receive in a lifetime. (He is married to Lauren Parsekian, a filmmaker and nonprofit worker.) His Twitter feed is an active place, where his 2 million followers can find him doing everything from pumping the work of friends to sharing an owl viral video he happens to get a kick out of.
At 34, Paul is in an unusual situation — a kind of 21st century lab experiment, if you will, testing what happens when fame strikes rather unexpectedly and you suddenly must figure out what t to do with it. He has all the cachet an actor can want. But that doesn’t mean he’s seen as a box-office draw by film producers. And it certainly doesn’t mean he’d want their roles even if he was.
It may be a champagne problem, but it’s a problem still. (The conundrum is played for comedy in the Xbox commercial, in which Paul alludes to the “role of a lifetime” and looks bored as he reads scripts sent to him.)
So besides acting, he is trying producing, and in the animated space, no less. In August Netflix will debut his “BoJack Horseman,” a show that he hopes can launch a producing career and also bring a new element to the animation renaissance.
“A lot of people get emotional in movies that are cartoons, but not in TV shows,” he said. “And this is a comedy, but I think this will hit at some heartstrings.” (Log line: A washed-out ’90s TV star who happens to be a horse lives in Hollywood and is addicted to animal tranquilizers, and has a perennial human houseguest voiced by Paul. Will Arnett plays the horse.)
Paul has an odd mix of swagger and upbeat cheer, a personality that can seem like a sunnier version of his “Breaking Bad” doppelgänger. He is reflective about his rocket ride to fame and the mixture of skill and luck that went into it.
“I got spoiled on ‘Breaking Bad,’” he said. “Playing the same guy for four or five seasons you get to really explore who the character is.” He even found himself visiting the New Mexico writers room of the (recently postponed) “Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul” and feeling nostalgic; the show shoots on the same stages as its progenitor, and he said it felt “weird not to be a part of it.”
Paul said he has looked for roles that replicate his Pinkman character, offering an insight that goes beyond the professional. “I don’t know what’s with me, why I gravitate to the more complicated people,” said the Idaho-born son of a Baptist minister. “Actually I do know what’s with me. I like to feel like I lived through something and persevered, like to feel that it’s actually happening to me.”
Just the same, Paul has gone back to the studio well, recently shooting a part in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus,” in which he plays Joshua, the latter-day leader of the Israelites. In its own way, it seems like a fitting part after Pinkman — a second banana at the start of the tale who nonetheless ends up leading his people into the Promised Land — and as he describes the part, it’s hard not to hear echoes of his former role.
“Joshua was a slave his entire life, so he’s got a lot of anger going on inside him,” Paul said. “I was very excited at the chance to do something like that.”
A moment later the actor gets up to do a Twitter chat under the hashtag #AskAaronPaul. He becomes the second-highest trending topic for a few hours, just below the World Cup.
A number of the tweets are about the Xbox commercial. Some inevitably ask if he would consider leaving his wife and marrying them.
And then some of them land a bit more seriously, like the question of user named Antonio Velázquez.
“After so many years interpreting Jesse Pinkman,” Velázquez asked, “how complicated is it to build a different character?”