Move over, McQueen: Aaron Paul stars in ‘Need for Speed’

Few television shows have enthralled a generation of viewers as quickly and totally as AMC’s “Breaking Bad” did in its five tension and tragedy filled seasons. Similarly, there have been few TV actors who experienced such a meteoric rise to fame as Aaron Paul, who played inciting character Jesse Pinkman on the show. Although Paul had been racking up numerous credits for single episode roles in “CSI,” “ER,” “Veronica Mars” and others, and even a recurring spot on HBO’s “Big Love,” it is his stint playing an emotional wreck of a drug dealer that will serve as his legacy for years to come. Cashing in on his newly minted superstardom, Paul is making the leap onto the big screen in director Scott Waugh’s “Need for Speed.”

Yes, it is based on the popular Electronic Arts video game series, but don’t discount it as unworthy of any serious discussion. This is Waugh’s second film as director (his first major motion picture was 2012’s “Act of Valor”), and he is a man with petrol in his veins. His father, Fred Waugh, has stunt credits in 86 Hollywood movies, and Scott followed in his father’s path, working as a stuntman and coordinator from the 80s until 2005. In directing “Need for Speed,” he envisioned the perfect opportunity to pay homage to the classic car movies he grew up with.

“I was so lucky, man,” he said, sitting next to Paul in a roundtable interview. “I grew up on that planet my whole life and I didn’t know any difference.”

“Need for Speed” tells a story of heartbreak and revenge, a vicious cycle that is set in motion when Tobey Marshall, played by Paul, is betrayed by the conniving Formula One star Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). What follows is a cross-country jaunt and a quest of sorts, with Tobey risking his life to make things right again.

The same uncalculated poise that makes Paul a hot topic among gossip tabloids and internet message boards was on full blast from the moment he walked into the room. He entered carrying a tray of fruit for himself and us interviewers – he was “freakin’ starving,” – and still managed to make a spectacle of it. Whether it’s his personality, fame or a little of both, Paul is seemingly a natural at commanding attention in the least pretentious way possible. Given his upbringing in rural Emmett, Idaho, it’s no surprise that he remains humble in the face of noteriety. This trait benefits the character of Tobey, who also comes from humble roots and whose style is very much understated.

In keeping with the spirit of films like “Bullit” and “American Graffiti,” Waugh’s primary goal for the movie was to forgo the computer-generated effects that have saturated big-budget movies for years, and instead rely on raw talent. That doesn’t mean he settled for garden variety chase scenes either – “Need for Speed” includes a sequence in which a Ford Mustang vaults across a four lane interstate, a scene where said Mustang gets hoisted in the air via helicopter, and goosebump-inducing highspeed chases. And that’s but the tip of the iceberg.

“He wanted to do an homage to what we think is one of the greatest car movies ever, [“Bullit”],” Paul said. “Films back then couldn’t rely on CGI or green screen, so everything was captured in camera. That excited me.”

This proved to be the motivating factor for getting Paul involved with the film.

“After reading the script, I was like, ‘that’s impossible, you can’t drive a car off a cliff and be caught by a helicopter, you can’t capture that in camera,'” Paul said. “I figured the studio would not allow that to happen, but they did, and that’s why I wanted to jump on board.”

Equally impressive as the cast – which features Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. rapper Kid Cudi) and Dominic Cooper, among others – was the cast of exotic supercars, including the Bugatti Veyron, the Saleen S7, Koenigsegg Agera and more. That condensed list alone is worth at least a few million dollars. Now consider that many of the stunts performed in these cars were at the hands of the actors, including Paul’s love interest Imogen Poots, who did not have her driver’s license when filming began. Now you must be interested. Despite this risky method of filmmaking, the body count for cars was zero.

“You don’t wanna destroy several million dollars,” Paul said.

Naturally, the conversation eventually switched to Paul’s transition into “Need for Speed,” hot off the heels of the final season of “Breaking Bad.” Indeed, the two projects were completed back to back.

“I started this film the day after we wrapped shooting on the final episode,” Paul explained. “After the final shot, they had a small little charter plane waiting for me It was such a crazy thing.”

Paul has stated in previous interviews that he sees himself as primarily a character actor, and not someone fit for a leading role (this is but one facet of his humble charm). Ironically, in the eyes of Waugh, this made him perfect for the role of Tobey, a smalltown gearhead whose morality overpowers his talent. His role as Tobey remains right in line with Paul’s past credits, in which he often plays emotionally scarred, tragically disaffected characters, and he’s completely fine with that.

“I would like to branch out,” he said. “But for some reason I always gravitate towards characters that are affected by life … I like zipping on skins that kinda make me feel deep emotions and make the audience feel emotions. I was playing a character for six seasons; I loved him so much, but he was so damaged, broken and lonely, struggling to keep his head above water … But my day to day I feel pretty happy, I’m madly in love. It’s nice to jump into something like that.”

Paul is refreshingly humble for a newly minted A-list actor, although in casting “Need for Speed,” Waugh saw him as an icon in the making.

“When I was looking to cast the Tobey Marshall lead, for me it was all about who was that next Steve McQueen,” he said. “I was the alien on Earth who had not seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ but when I saw his reel, I was like, ‘oh my god.’ I knew Aaron was exactly who we were looking for.”

“Thanks for casting me, by the way,” Paul responded wryly.

“Need for Speed” will debut in theaters Friday, March 14.