He came to Los Angeles in a Toyota Corolla that had a tricky fifth gear and a trunk that filled with water whenever it rained. Aaron Paul was still Aaron Sturtevant then, a scrawny 17-year-old whose dreams were just a little bigger than Boise, the Idaho town from which he drove.
Mom was in the passenger's seat, his clothes were in the back and the balance of his bank account was about $3,000—the amount of money he'd saved from a series of random jobs; baking cookies at a mall, delivering pizzas, and dressing up as the Boise radio station mascot, a giant frog.
Now, 13 years later, there's this: a custom-made Burberry tuxedo and a limousine that will soon take him from his North Hollywood home to the 62nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. On the way over, Aaron Paul—who long ago dropped "Sturtevant" in favor of his middle name because casting directors repeatedly tripped over the pronunciation—will have a glass of Champagne to soften his nerves for that long walk down the red carpet. At 30, he is the youngest of six nominees for Best Supporting Actor in a TV drama. And, dare we say it? He also may be the most deserving.
In three seasons' time, Jesse has transformed himself from idiot assistant to something of a tragic hero.
On Breaking Bad, AMC's cult hit about Walter White, a dying man, played by Bryan Cranston, who goes from being a high-school chemistry teacher to a high-grade methamphetamine cook after getting terminal cancer, Paul plays Jesse Pinkman, the chemist's young apprentice. And in three seasons' time, Jesse has transformed himself from idiot assistant to something of a tragic hero. He's also become a walking contradiction—a recovering drug addict who still deals drugs, creating a character who we find ourselves rooting for, even though we shouldn't.
• View Our Complete Emmys Coverage.This, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan argues, is why Paul deserves a long look. "With such a strong field, comparing and contrasting levels of talent and artistry starts to feel like a pointless exercise—sort of like arguing that the Alps are better than the Rockies," he says of Paul's loaded Emmy competition, which includes Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn of Lost, as well as Andre Braugher ( Men of a Certain Age), John Slattery ( Mad Men) and Martin Short ( Damages). "In my view, Aaron Paul deserves the Emmy because—on paper—the character he plays is someone whom we wouldn't want to know in real life. We wouldn't want Jesse Pinkman marrying our daughter. We'd probably cross the street to avoid him. Yet Jesse has a soul and a heart and a conscience, and we desperately care whether he lives or dies. We wish for him to succeed. We desire his redemption. And that is all due to Aaron."
Paul says he still can't quite believe he's even in the middle of a conversation that also includes Martin Short. After all, in those early days after arriving from Idaho, commercials paid his end of the rent for a studio apartment he shared with a friend. Commercials eventually turned into bit parts on TV, often as the suspect on a cop drama until, finally, Bad came along—nothing more, at first, than a curiosity on an obscure cable network—that is, until Cranston's consecutive Emmy wins gave the show a much-needed dose of credibility.
So how does it feel to be nominated again?
"Surreal," says Paul, adding he owes a lot to Cranston. "He's made me grow so much as an actor. He's so specific, he does so much research, and he just questions everything. 'Why would my character do this? What's the point?'"
And Paul says he'll never forget the advice Cranston gave him about making the right choices off-screen as well as on. "'Don't just do something because the offer is there,'" he recounts Cranston telling him. "'Do something because you're extremely passionate about it and because you feel like you can bring something peculiar to that role.'"
So far, the young actor has taken that advice to heart—reading many scripts but so far remaining noncommittal.
Having had to say "yes" to anything that came his way for years—delivering pizzas, making cheesy commercials—makes him appreciate this Emmy moment. "I know I'm lucky," he says. "And I'm not in it for the money, or for awards, I do it because I get to transform into these other characters and be someone else for the day, or for six months, and that's what drove me out here in that really crappy car."
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Aaron Paul came to Los Angeles in 1984.
Josh Gajewski is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times and USA Weekend magazine, among others. His writing can also be found at jgink.com.