Two-time Emmy award winner Aaron Paul stars in “Need for Speed,” Scott Waugh’s new kickass movie about honor, friendship and loyalty based on the video game franchise. Tobey Marshall (Paul) runs his family’s auto shop and races the underground street circuit with his buddies on weekends, but his whole world is turned upside down when he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He sets out on a cross-country race against time to bring down his enemies no matter what the cost. Opening March 14th, the film also stars Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Dakota Johnson, Harrison Gilbertson and Michael Keaton.
At a roundtable interview at the film’s recent press day, Paul talked about his character, how much of the actual driving he did, growing up on dirt bikes, his first car, his reaction when he initially read the script, the most difficult driving scene for him to pull off in the film, training with professional drivers, owning a ’65 Shelby Cobra, his working relationship with Waugh, life after “Breaking Bad,” staying friends with Bryan Cranston, his love of all things Steve McQueen, getting a No Bitch clause, and his thoughts on the possibility of a franchise.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: Is there a certain disposition that you felt the character needed to have to embody this guy who’s the best racer?
AARON PAUL: Yeah. I think it’s real confidence and just drive. I’m so used to playing a character that’s so broken and tortured and just lonely and sad. So it was nice to jump into a different skin of a guy that’s really confident and driven and very focused. I think he needed to have all those qualities.
Q: How much of the actual driving did you do? And do you consider yourself as sort of a daredevil in real life?
PAUL: Well first of all, driving. I did quite a bit of my own driving. I didn’t do the grasshopper jump, obviously, and I didn’t drive off the cliff. When I was driving fast and weaving through cars on freeways, that was me. I did a lot of the sliding around. That was the main thing. When Scott Waugh talked to me about this movie, he said, “If you want to do it, great, but I’m going to need you to learn how to drive these cars. I need the audience to know that you’re in the driver’s seat.” He didn’t want to lie to the audience. He didn’t use any CGI and all of the stunts were practical. They actually happened. Daredevil? I think so. Maybe. A little bit. Not like these guys I don’t think.
Q: Did you do roller coasters, motorcycles or anything like that?
PAUL: Oh yeah. I grew up on dirt bikes when I was a kid. My buddy, my next door neighbor, had a whole dirt bike track for a backyard, but these are like little 50s. It’s not crazy bikes.
Q: What do you remember about your first year of driving? Did you get into any accidents or tickets?
PAUL: Not so much. I was just happy that I was just able to drive on my own. It was a 1982 Toyota Corolla. Anytime it rained, the trunk would fill up with water. It was a manual stick-shift and it was terrible. I had to skip from the 1st to the 3rd gear because the 2nd just didn’t work, but I loved that car so much, and it got me from point A to point B.
Q: What were some of your preconceptions or your initial impressions of the script when you read it, and how did it change as you were getting into the character?
PAUL: To be honest, when I saw the “Need For Speed” script on my desk, I thought to myself, “Oh no.” Before I read it, I did not expect much from it. Nothing against the game, the game is great and super fun. They’ve made 18 of them. They definitely know what they’re doing, and now they’re making it into a movie. What’s so great about “Need For Speed,” the video game had no narrative so we could really put any story we wanted to the name “Need For Speed,” as long as we were using the same sort of dynamics used in the game, just as long as we were using super fast cars and we put the audience in the driver’s seat. I thought they put out a really great, honest, fun, touching story. When I started reading the script, I was instantly invested in these characters. I cared about these characters, and then after I was done reading it, it was such a fun ride and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
Q: What was the most difficult driving scene you shot and how did it work?
PAUL: Probably the most difficult for me technically, there was a shot that I knew they wanted before we even started shooting, because on the track they had me practice it so much. On the day, it’s me flying over the bridge. After Pete falls off the bridge and dies, it’s when Tobey flips the car around. So I had to flip the car around, bring the car back, and fly the camera about 75-80 miles an hour. Then I had to pull the E-brake and have it slide almost to a 180 and stop within inches from the lens. That was a little scary because I didn’t want to hit our camera guy. And it wasn’t our camera guy during this particular shot, it was Scott, our director. He took the camera, because I don’t think any of the cameramen wanted to be in that position, and so Scott’s holding it. First take I came about 15 feet shy of the camera. He came up to me and said “Listen, I need you within inches of the matte box. I need the audience to know that this is you driving. I can’t even see you 15 feet away.” I go, “Okay.” He’s like, “If you hit me, don’t worry about it. I’ll just roll over the hood of the car.” “Uh, okay.” That didn’t make me feel better about the situation. He’s like, “If you go past your mark, don’t worry about it. I’ll just sense it and I’ll roll over the car.” And so, by the 3rd take, I got it within about this far (meaning inches) from the matte box. That was probably the most nervous I was.
Q: How deeply did you have to go into the notions of mechanics, engineering, and the nuts and bolts of car repair and car upgrades?
PAUL: In all honesty, I didn’t go too heavy into that element of it. I went really heavy into the racing element, just the pure passion of driving. That’s really it.
Q: Do you have to go through a type of training?
PAUL: Yeah, that was the thing. Right when I signed on to do it, the first thing was to get out on the track as often as I could. Those were long track days. That was from sunrise to sunset, all day long.
Q: Were you working with professional drivers?
PAUL: Yeah. It was Lance Gilbert, who was our stunt coordinator. He’s 3rd generation stunt man and he’s just a badass. He just lives and breathes stunts. He just really knows what he’s doing. The people that run the track, they have a whole school out there. When I have kids, I’ll definitely send them to this track, because the first few days were really just learning how to get out of problematic situations, and that’s what they wanted. Their main priority was safety.
Q: Do you want to own a Shelby now?
PAUL: I do, but I’ve owned it for years. I have a ’65 Shelby Cobra, and I love it.
Q: How was your working relationship with Scott and how much freedom did you have as an actor to just improvise or move the comma around as it were?
PAUL: You know, in all honesty, everything was on the page. It was. Working with Scott, you get on set and he’s just a big kid working with his favorite toys. It was such a fun working environment, but he had a very specific structure that he wanted to stay on. He wanted to do a throwback to the classic films that he believes really started the genre, such as “Bullitt,” “Vanishing Point,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” all of these films that had no CG. They had to do their own stunts because there was no such thing as CG back then. He said that we could improvise if we wanted to, if we felt like it was necessary, but most of us stuck to the page. Scott Mescudi who plays Benny improvised quite a bit and I thought that it was just so brilliant.
Q: What was it like working with the rest of the cast, especially with Imogen [Poots] since you’re with her in the car for most of the movie.
PAUL: Yeah. I just dragged Imogen along with me. I was doing a film with her in London called “A Long Way Down” when this offer came in, and then they said that the top female choice was Imogen. I already knew that I loved her so much, and we got along so well, and the idea of being stuck in a car with her for 80% of the movie was great. So I’m like, “Yes, pick her. That’s a great choice.” So she had some meetings and decided to come play with us. The entire Marshall Motors crew, we instantly connected when we got on set. We’re still very, very close.
Q: The post-Breaking Bad life, what is it like? Is it much different? Do you still talk to Bryan Cranston much?
PAUL: Yeah, I do. I just talked to Bryan the other day. It’s been good. We’re such a family on that show, and I hope it stays that way for as long as possible, but I know Bryan and I will be friends until one of us dies.
Q: You mentioned the classic car movies, and they show “Bullitt” obviously. Do you have a favorite car or driver from one of those movies that inspired you?
PAUL: Yeah, Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen is such a badass, and I’ve thought that for a very long time. I’ve been into cars ever since I could remember. I was always asking my uncle if he could drive me around in his ’67 Mustang, and I thought he was so cool. I think I just try to watch all things Steve McQueen, not act like Steve McQueen but just take bits and pieces from him.
Q: Well I talked to you actually during the edit bay visit, and I mentioned to you getting a No Bitch Clause.
Q: Recently the Rick James Bitch sketch turned 10 years old, and now you seem to have the Throne of Bitch.
PAUL: The Bitch Throne. Yeah.
Q: Do people come up to you and say it inappropriately? Or appropriately? Do you mete out your bitches?
PAUL: I do actually. Usually it’s very kind. They’re like “Oh my God, yo bitch! Hey, how are you?” And then I’m like, “Hey, yo, what’s up bitch!” But then sometimes people are screaming it loud, and I might be walking from my dinner table to the restroom in a restaurant, and a guy will be a little drunk and just start screaming “Hey bitch!” Those people I tend to ignore.
Q: Since you’re a car guy, what’s the top speed you’ve driven in your personal life?
PAUL: I’m not really sure. There was a closed track I was on for an Audi race car event that I was a part of. I went maybe 135, maybe 140, and then I did a Lamborghini event which I think top was about 150, 160. It was all on a closed track. On this film, the top speed while shooting was probably about 125, for me, but then when they wanted the cars to be going around 180, they got the stunt men and women in there.
Q: Obviously with “The Fast & the Furious” going on and on, does the notion of returning for more appeal to you? Is that something that you considered before you signed onto something like this?
PAUL: Yeah, that’s another big part of it, and the reason why I was a little hesitant. Of course, if this film does well, they as a studio would definitely like to do more. After reading the script, I thought it was such a fun ride. And then, working with this great group of people, if it does well and they wanted to do more, I know I can speak for pretty much everyone involved that we would love to get the band back together and do it all over again.