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Tom Hiddleston and Aaron Paul on ‘Breaking Bad,’ TV vs. Film and Humbling Auditions

Aaron Paul and Tom Hiddleston had never met before our Variety “Actors on Actors” studio. But a bromance was born even before the taping began thanks to the dartboard in the green room [yes, they’re a tad competitive]. The mutual fans peppered each other with probing questions about their projects — Hiddleston stars in AMC’s “The Night Manager,” while Paul headlines Hulu’s “The Path” — but they also found time to swap stories about auditions gone awry.

Tom Hiddleston: How did this role [on “The Path”] come to you? Did it come to you as an idea? Did it come to you as a script? I imagine you must have had so many choices at that moment.

Aaron Paul: I actually wasn’t really entertaining the idea of jumping into TV so soon. When it came to me it was about three years after we had wrapped “Breaking Bad.” It was already set up, it was picked up to series on Hulu. Michelle Monaghan was already attached and my team called me out of the blue, saying, “Listen to this: this project came in, there’s some great people behind it, we think you should take a look.” And I read the first two episodes and I just loved the world they painted for us to dive in and play within. So I sat down and talked about the arc of the first season, the arc of the series. I wanted to see if there was an end game that they were heading towards, and I loved it. Plus I love Michelle Monaghan.

Bryce Duffy

Hiddleston: She’s great.

Paul: She’s so brilliant and to play her husband was fantastic.   

Hiddleston: You both have a really strong relationship in it, too. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but already by the end of the second it’s really complex.

Paul: Yeah, it’s a pretty intense show. But I was happy to jump back into TV.

Hiddleston: I’m intrigued. It must be so difficult in the wake of “Breaking Bad,” which is such a landmark piece of work. How many years of your life were taken up in that endeavor?

Paul: It was seven years, from pilot to the finale. I was having nightmares as that guy. It really felt like he was a piece of me.

Hiddleston: And also I imagine when a season is over, and you have a break, and then you come back, do you feel like it’s like re-meeting an old friend?

Paul: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s a familiar skin to zip back on.   

Hiddleston: So you had seven years of Jesse. And then you start a new show. Is it a different creative process as you build a character, because it must be less familiar to you in a way?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely, but that’s what’s so great about TV. With film you have a hundred plus pages to kind of get to know the character that’s on the page, so then it’s up to you to really create a backstory. Maybe the back story’s already there for you, but with TV we did 62 episodes of that show, “Breaking Bad,” and so it’s such a detailed narrative. You’re not confined to a two-hour window to tell your story.

Hiddleston: So what was in “The Path” that attracted you? Was it the milieu, was it the story, was it the character?   

Paul: It was really a combination of it all. I really related to this guy, Eddie. He’s just going through a lot. He comes from a very tortured past. I do not. I come from a very loving family, but I tend to find myself gravitating towards characters that are dealing with a lot of conflict, I think.   

“By page two, I wanted to be Jonathan Pine. I just felt like I understood this man. I understood the world he was in. I understood his moral courage.”
Tom Hiddleston

Hiddleston: Well, they’re the most interesting.   

Paul: As actors there’s a lot to play with. He is madly in love with his wife, a loving father of two, and I’ve always been fascinated with religion in general, religion movements, cults. And so I just love the world that they’ve created.

Hiddleston: It’s so interesting, especially to make a show about faith in the time we live I think, because some people find it very difficult to adhere to a faith, in my experience, because we live in a world governed by reason and science. Yours is a faith-based community, right?

Paul: It’s kind of a combination. There is a ladder that they are all trying to climb. There’s 13 rungs to the ladder. And they believe that they live a life of transparency, no lies, and you need to be a good person, help one another, slowly work your way up the ladder. And by the 13th rung, their belief is you will become pure energy and light. And then live happily ever after in the garden. That’s their heaven. There’s just so many different groups of people, organizations, movements, religions providing these answers that people want their questions to be answered, and so that’s what always just fascinated me with religions in general.

Hiddleston: I’m guessing Eddie doesn’t make it to the garden by the end of the show.

Paul: I don’t know, we’ll see! What about you? You are a big, brilliant movie star. And you’ve decided to jump into the small screen with “The Night Manager.” What made you make that decision?

Hiddleston: Honestly, I’ve never really made a distinction myself between film and television, because, I think, as an actor, the work is the same. And I think audiences feel that they’re different somehow because they’re delivered differently. Because you turn your TV on or you stream it, or you watch it on a box set. And it’s in your home and you can watch it whenever you want, whereas getting in the car and going to the theater is a different thing. But as an actor, it feels like the same job, I’m sure you’d agree, having done both.

Paul: Yeah.

Hiddleston: But “The Night Manager” was a script that came to me about two years ago, and I was in the middle of shooting “Crimson Peak” with Guillermo del Toro, a period piece, set in 1901. A Gothic romance. I had just started a Shakespeare play in London, and it was so fresh and so real, and so contemporary and exciting. By page two I wanted to be Jonathan Pine.

Paul: Right.

Hiddleston: I just felt like I understood this man. I understood the world he was in. I understood his moral courage. My character, Jonathan Pine, is a former British soldier who served in the Iraq War of 2003. And you find him as the night manager of a hotel in Cairo, in the middle of the Arab Spring of 2011. Without spoiling anything, he’s recruited by MI6 to become a field agent to infiltrate the inner circle of an international arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie.   

Paul: Wow.

Hiddleston: Who, in John le Carre’s words, is the worst man in the world. And I think le Carre conceives of him as the worst man in the world because, very much like Hugh Laurie, he is charming and affable and urbane and sophisticated and you like him very much, and yet, unlike Hugh Laurie, he does some very bad things. He sells standard and chemical weapons to the highest bidder in the Middle East. Essentially, he profits from death.   

Paul: Right.

Hiddleston: And he has no moral qualms about the victims of the violence from which he profits. It’s a story about the shady deals that take place behind the corridors of power. We live in a very uncertain world, I think, where the enemies of our freedoms and Western democracy are less visible than they ever have been. And I think that’s what le Carre’s writing about. He’s suggesting that our enemies are closer to home perhaps than we realize. Working with Hugh Laurie was …

“With film you have 100-plus pages to get to know the character that’s on the page, so then it’s up to you to create the backstory.”
AARON PAUL

Paul: He’s so great.

Hiddleston: He’s such a magnificent actor. And so versatile. I got to know him as a comedian. I was a child in the ’80s. He was one of the funniest people around. But also he’s such a phenomenal actor.

Paul: Does he have his lines memorized?

Hiddleston: Hugh Laurie is the most diligent, most serious, most professional actor you could possibly work with. Woe betide the actor who is not ready to work with Hugh. He’s a true pro. Hugh has his lines memorized, sometimes lines that he’s written himself.

Paul: That’s like Hugh (Dancy) on “The Path.” I’ve never seen him with the set of sides. Which, for me, I mean I come prepared, but it’s nice to have that as a security blanket.

Hiddleston: Sure.   

Paul: But I look at Hugh… I really look up to him. I mean, he’s such a phenomenal actor, but he’s never once looked at a page of sides.

Hiddleston: It’s interesting. I always find there are some actors who come with the script completely internalized and never have to look at it, and they come very ready with ideas to pitch about staging. And other actors who are more fluid. And there’s no one way that’s better. I think some people like to feel their way through it and be spontaneous, and other people like to have thought about it before.

Paul: Right. This is a big difference that I see with TV and film. Film, the script tends to, at least in my experience, tends to somewhat stay the same, in terms of the dialogue and the story. And with TV, I’m getting pages the night before, with the scenes being completely changed. I like having my little security blanket.

Hiddleston: To your point, what was it about conflict? You said about Eddie that you’re drawn to characters that have an internal conflict?

Paul: It’s just that I love as an actor, I love feeling like I’m truly going through something inside.

Hiddleston: Yeah. 

Paul: It really makes you feel like you are doing something. At the beginning of my career I would just take anything that would help me pay my bills. I didn’t come from any money, I was struggling. I did endless amounts of commercials, and a lot of the commercials were light-hearted, funny, and you know, we joke around. And we had a good time, and it was paying my bills, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. For some reason, maybe it’s because I come from a very loving family, happy childhood, I’m madly in love with my wife. I love playing characters that are such polar opposites of …

Hiddleston: The life you have.

Paul: Of how I feel day to day. And so, I tend to be tortured, you know. And, I don’t mind it. Is that weird?

Hiddleston: No. Not at all.

Paul: Do you feel the same? I love that feeling. I love the emotional intense journey of these characters. I’m sure you’re at a place in your career where you’re not auditioning for everything. I’m sure you’re just sifting through what is presented to you on your desk. But when you were auditioning, did you have any sort of nightmarish sort of stories? Because I do. I used to go into auditions and I would just fumble through these scenes and I would apologize to the people I’m auditioning in front of. The writer’s in the room, and I’m just butchering their script. That’s the worst, when you’re apologizing for what you have just done in front of them.

Hiddleston: Auditioning was what I always found difficult, still do. I always want to preface it with, “I’ll show you what I could really do if and when you want to offer me the role.” I’m sort of holding back. Like I’m keeping my cards close to the vest in some way. It’s a weird commitment thing.

Paul: And you’re in a small, little room. You never know what the setting’s going to be like. If they’re going to want you to stay seated, which is very awkward.

Hiddleston: Especially if there’s a huge action scene that you have to do.

Paul: Yeah, you jump behind the chair, you have a gun.

Hiddleston: Yeah. Have you got any nightmare stories?

Paul: My God! I went into this audition for “Cloverfield,” which was years ago. J.J. Abrams was producing it, and I kept asking if J.J. was going to be in the room. And 100% of the time they said, “No, he’s not, he’s out of the state. He won’t be there.” And I had just worked with him, I did a small little bit part on “Mission: Impossible III.” My friend told me, “You’ve got to bring up magic to J.J., he loves magic.” So I brought up magic and he’s like, “Do you know any magic tricks?” I’m like, “No, I don’t know anything.” He’s like, “You don’t know a card trick or anything?” I’m like, “Well, I might have a card trick, but most of the time the card trick does not work.” So he then gets me to do this card trick in front of the entire crew and Tom Cruise.

Hiddleston: Oh my god.

Paul: I had not met Tom yet and he’s like, “You’ve gotta show this card trick to Tom,” and I do this trick, and it fails miserably. It’s terrible.   

Hiddleston: So everyone’s standing there kind of awkwardly…

Paul: Yeah, I’m just standing there awkwardly, and Tom’s just still smiling at me. You know Tom’s infamous smile. And he grabs my shoulders and starts shaking me and smiling, saying, “That was great.” Anyway, cut to my audition for “Cloverfield.” I walk in and J.J.’s there, and he brings up the magic trick story, and I just lose my train of thought. I have three pages of a monologue that I had memorized, and he has me tell this story about the card trick and now I’m super awkward. I start doing this monologue and I completely lose my train of thought. I stop, and I apologize to J.J., and I pull out the sides of my back pocket, my security blanket. And I just can’t do it. I just give up. And I walked out. It was awful. I’ve never given up in an audition.

Hiddleston: That was pretty honest though.

Paul: The thing is, I was so prepared. I was ready. I loved the material. I loved the monologue. It was written really well and I was excited about it. But that damn magic trick story just threw me.

Hiddleston: I’m sure J.J.’s forgiven you by now.   

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