With ‘Need for Speed,’ Aaron Paul’s career shifting into overdrive
Published: March 11, 2014 02:01PM
Updated: March 13, 2014 04:34PM
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This image released by DreamWorks II shows Aaron Paul in a scene from “Need for Speed.” (AP Photo/DreamWorks II, Melinda Sue Gordon)

Steer clear of the obvious, and surprise not just your fans but yourself.

That seems to be the career mantra for Aaron Paul, the talented Emmy-winning actor best known for having played jumpy meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

It also explains why he choose his new film role, “Need for Speed.” Still riding a huge high from “Bad’s” heralded five-season run, Paul has raced off into an unexpected direction.

In the high-octane chase flick, which opens Friday, the 34-year-old Idaho native buckles up and floors it as an action star in a thrill ride that unabashedly celebrates iconic cinematic car chases of the past. “Speed” features loud and real crashes, not those just manufactured as CG, and the result is that you feel like you’re really sweating bullets (or would that be bullitts?) right there in the driver’s seat.

The role of Tobey Marshall marks a departure for the likable actor known for independent movies such as “Smashed,” along with a diverse slate of roles that include the horror remake “The Last House on the Left.”

“From each project to each project I always try to do something that’s completely different, [something] that pushes my own limits, that make me a little more nervous inside,” says Paul, sitting next to director and producer Scott Waugh at Waterbar, a stylish San Francisco restaurant, during a recent press trip. The cushy spot, which offers a killer view of the Bay Bridge, couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for promoting “Speed,” since the city figures into some of the film’s auto crunching. Other familiar Northern California spots make guest appearances and provide just the right hairpin twists and turns along scenic roads.

Steven Spielberg, whose DreamWorks studio made the film, liked Paul for the part, which marks the actor’s first leading role in a big-budgeted production.

Paul admits to he was reluctant to even look at the script, which arrived while he was filming a movie in London, because of its video-game origins.

“That’s why I was hesitant to read it,” he said. “Uh, it’s been done before. I instantly thought of ‘Fast and the Furious.’ And I think a lot of people are going to think ‘Fast and the Furious,’ but after reading the script the only comparison we have with that is that we have cars, and really,” he says, looking at Waugh, “it’s a completely different thing.”

Paul, a self-described “car guy,” said he enjoyed the “Furious” films, and as he read the “Need for Speed” script and connected with its characters, his attitude shifted out of neutral and into overdrive. He eventually took to the racetrack to train and has revealed some real “wheel skills,” according to Waugh, so much so that he set a new speed record as a celebrity racer on the BBC series “Top Gear.”

While there’s romance and a redemption storyline, it’s really car chase aficionados who will be overjoyed with “Need for Speed,” which Waugh has outfitted with references to classic chases that ranged from the 1968 Steve McQueen-starring “Bullitt” to 1991’s female-powered “Thelma & Louise.” Waugh even filmed at key locations featured in those films.

“There’s Easter eggs everywhere,” Waugh says, referring to the cinematic car chases featured. “There are some really obscure ones that are going to take some serious investigating to catch.”

Before meeting with the press, Paul and Waugh made a surprise appearance at an advance San Francisco screening the night prior. Paul strolled in wearing jeans and a T-shirt to answer questions, all the time noshing on nachos. It’s that everyman quality that makes the actor so disarmingly appealing off camera.

He is equally genuine in his responses and well-known for talking to fans whom he recently invited to join him at the Cheers bar in Boston.

“Without fans this business would not exist,” he says. “I wouldn’t have a job.”

He remembers how it feels to meet someone you admire and then find out they’re a jerk. He also recalls being impressed by how gracious some were.

“So when I can, I try to give back and sometimes I have to take a moment to myself and I’ll shake their hands and say, ‘thank you but no pictures today.’ But most of the time I invite it. … It’s just nice to meet people who are truly giving me a job.”

And will one of those jobs include being in the “Breaking Bad” prequel planned by co-creator Vince Gilligan called “Better Call Saul”?

Paul say he’s very excited about that show and that “hopefully they’ll have me be a part of it.”

Even if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll see more of him in the near future, from a supporting part in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” to the release of the Sundance favorite “Hellion,” a drama he co-executive produced, and others in between.