Outside of Bakersfield California is the Willow Springs International Raceway. That's where Aaron Paul strapped in behind the wheels of some really, really fast cars and started learning how to drive - I mean really, professionally drive - for his new movie, Need For Speed. Director Scott Waugh had a vision for his movie, and that vision involved practical car stunts featuring the real actors behind the wheel as much as possible, and so Paul had to get used to going insanely fast and doing some impressive manuevers.
"His first day working on this movie, we took him out to Willow Springs and he was drifting cars, doing 360s and 180s," Waugh said when I visited the edit bay for Need For Speed. "it was really funny because our instructor came up to me and said, ‘If this acting shit don’t work for him, he could work in stunts.’ I said, ‘I think he’s going to do all right with the acting thing.'"
For Waugh having both - the acting and the driving - was key. "He was good behind the wheel which meant I could put the camera places you normally couldn’t with an actor."
For Paul that truth - the fact that he was actually behind the wheel of a car going very, very fast - forced him to act in a whole new way. "You’re like, “Holy sh-t, I’m driving 140 miles an hour.” You don’t have to put on a face. I just try and look as calm as possible because for my character it’s normal. For me, not so much, but it’s a blast."
This is a big movie for Paul; he's coming off the career-defining Breaking Bad, where his Jesse Pinkman became one of our most beloved TV characters. We look at Aaron Paul and we subconsciously hear "Mr. White" coming out of his mouth. For the actor this movie - a lighter, more action-oriented story - is a fine palate cleanser. "I want to steer as far away from Jesse Pinkman as possible. During the shooting of Breaking Bad, everyone was trying to get me to play a drug addict in their films. 'We can see that you can do this, so why don’t you try it again here?' For me, I wanted to do something as far away from that as possible. I’ve never done something like this, this sort of character, and I jumped at the opportunity.With Breaking Bad I lived and breathed every moment as Jesse. I loved the kid. I miss him so much, but … you know," he said.
Of course Jesse isn't gone totally - the Breaking Bad finale had the excellent juxtaposition of Jesse driving off from Walt's final act of carnage cutting to a Need For Speed ad. "He’s fine! He’s doing okay!" Paul chirped. "I’m so glad Jesse was able to drive off after that."
Okay, so let's take a step back. Aaron Paul went to stunt school and learned how to drive fast and crazy. He's sitting in the car in many of the scenes of the movie. But is he really driving in every single amazing practical stunt? Scott Waugh, the director of Need For Speed, comes from a famed stunt family - surely he wouldn't put his own people out of work just to get a pretty face in the windshield, would he?
It turns out that for some of the crazier stunts Paul is sitting behind the wheel... but that wheel isn't actually doing anything. Aaron Paul doesn't pretend otherwise:
"We had these things we called pod cars that I’d never seen before. But Tanner Faust, my stuntman - who’s fucking crazy, but I trust my life in his hands - he would be on top of the car, in the back, actually controlling the car. So the wheel doesn’t work, the gas doesn’t work, and the brake pedal does not work. So there were moments where I was like, 'Tanner, you’re driving way too close,' but I’m flying and trying to pretend, but he’s controlling everything so it was like the most realistic video game possible."
Which is fitting because Need For Speed is based on a video game... one without a main character or any sort of standard narrative. It's just a racing game where you progress up a ladder to new tracks and unlock newer, better cars.
"With this we had a blank canvas to work with," said Paul. "What we had to do was have fast cars, and that’s it. That’s it. They put a great story behind it and Scott had a distinct vision. He said, 'I want to do a throwback to the classic 60s, 70s car culture. And I want you to watch every Steve McQueen movie out there.' And I was like, 'Yes, let’s do it.' And he wanted to make sure that when people are watching this film they’re not being fooled, they’re not being lied to. People can watch it and say, 'Oh my god. That shit is actually happening.' And they did it all practical, they wanted it to feel like you’re in the car driving, and that’s what you feel like when you play the game."
All of that practical stuff comes back to the stunt drivers. You meet these guys and you realize they're a different breed altogether. Aaron Paul was impressed every day he was on set with them. "I never experienced anything like it. You walk onto set and you’re walking through a very thick cloud of testosterone. You can see it. But it was perfect for this movie. And I walked away knowing that it’s a family, it’s a brotherhood. And they’re all just out of their minds, but in the coolest way possible."
There's this one jump in the movie, what they call a grasshopper, where a car comes racing down the highway and then leaps over whole lanes of traffic and lands off the road; it's a major stunt and it looks incredible on film. That's one of those stunts that separates the men - the stunt men - from the actors. Aaron Paul wasn't behind the wheel that day, but he was there on set to see what happened.
"I went to set to watch that and Troy did that stunt, and there is this calm, a quiet that went across the set ramping up to this moment, because he actually did it," Paul said with obvious reverance. "He’s flying down the freeway, going up the embankment and then flying over three or four lanes of traffic — everyone’s in those cars as well — and landing. Everyone’s huddling around Troy, saying, 'I’ll see you on the other side. I’ll see you on the other side.' His dad there’s, he’s a third-generation stuntman, and I’m thinking something could seriously go wrong here, because he is so high off the ground. But it was all good."
It's hard not to be impressed seeing that, and it left a big mark on Aaron Paul. "Scott said, 'Hey, if this acting thing doesn’t work out, we’ll bring you on with open arms,' and I’m strongly considering it because doing this shit is so much fun. The adrenaline’s going. I’m not going to do the grasshopper stunt, or drive off a cliff, but yeah."