Writer-director Riley Stearns has developed a body of work that’s well known for its deadpan tone—an unsettling, distinctive addition to his already provocative stories about cult deprogramming, self-defense, and, now, cloning. Dual, Stearns’ latest, follows a young woman named Sarah (Karen Gillan) who decides to copy herself after being diagnosed with a terminal illness and is then forced to battle that clone after she won’t voluntarily agree to be “decommissioned.”
Aaron Paul stars opposite Gillan as Trent, a no-nonsense combat trainer who agrees to teach Sarah to defeat her clone using unconventional techniques—like showing her horror movies with titles such as You Only Kill The Ones You Love.
Paul recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his role in Dual, his relationship with Stearns, and the filmmaker’s distinctive voice. Paul also reflected on his iconic role of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad (a character he’ll return to in the final season of Better Call Saul) and how that opportunity has shaped his career and his choices going forward.
The A.V. Club: One of the things that really jumped out at me about Dual is how clever Riley Stearns is when it comes to tinkering with familiar storytelling conventions. Was that part of what drew you to this really unique character study?
Aaron Paul: I’ve known Riley for some time now. He’s been a buddy of mine. I’m such a huge fan of his work. He has such a unique voice. When this meeting was set up, he came over to the house and we just kind of dove into this world. I actually was thinking that he was interested in having me play Beulah [Koale]’s part, Karen’s boy [Peter], and so I was just talking to him about that. And then when he made the official offer it was for Trent, who I absolutely loved, but I never even wrapped my head around that guy because I was told that Riley was interested in me for a completely different character. But when I was told that he wanted me to play Trent, I quickly reread the script and it was an instant yes. I just loved the guy. He’s just so committed to his work. The way Riley writes is just so deadpan, which I’ve never done before which was a unique challenge but a fun one. I was jetlagged the entire time I was out in Finland. I literally landed the day before I started shooting, just because there was a bit of a struggle to get to Finland because I had lost my passport and there was a whole thing. So I got there literally the day before I started shooting. It was a beautiful time.
AVC: A movie like this really succeeds or fails on nailing that tone. I doubt Riley was giving you line readings, but how did you get to the right place in terms of tone?
AP: Once you get into his world, the set that he creates, you just kind of roll with it and just trust in it. Yeah, Riley’s not giving line readings by any means, but sometimes it’s just, “throw it away a little more,” or let’s give a little more energy here. But Riley’s writing is sort of how he is in real life. He’s not a deadpan character by any means, but he’s just very matter of fact. I think Riley truly is such a genius. I just love the man so much. And so to be able to see how he orchestrates around a set was a beautiful experience for me.
AVC: This film feels personal in a way that I wasn’t quite expecting. What was this story about for you? What were you particularly interested in exploring?
AP: With Trent, I just loved his obsession with his work. He lives and breathes that. I think he pretty much probably lives in his studio where he trains. But with Sarah, it’s just such an interesting take, just like, Oh, you want the new, fresh thing? Relationships are hard and you really have to fight to keep relationships going. And so this is an interesting take at this. It’s just like, Oh, you have a duplicate. And then you hear a great line where the clone’s like, Oh, I think I’m a size smaller than you, like a subtle little jab and it’s just so beautiful. But it’s [about] people that are in a relationship and they get presented with this shiny new toy. And they’re like, I’m gonna explore this for a little bit. And then the family starts to like the shiny new toy more as well. And it’s just, oh my god! It’s just so brutal. But I think Riley did such a beautiful job in telling an honest story in such a strange world.
AVC: It’s been fun watching all of the opportunities that you’ve had in the wake of Breaking Bad. Has there been a point where you go from being tired of talking about Jesse Pinkman to coming back to embracing him? You’ve been able to return to the role a few times and deliver so beautifully on those creative challenges.
AP: Oh, thank you so much. I feel so blessed to have Breaking Bad be such a huge part of my life, and the family that we all fell in love with—we all received and grew together out in Albuquerque—is something that I can’t imagine ever experiencing again on a film set. It was just magic. It really was. And that’s Vince Gilligan. I’m not sure if you’ve had the chance to speak with him or not, but he’s just the kindest man, so gentle, and he surrounds himself with the same sort of people. And we were telling a story that we were all so incredibly passionate about and proud of. So to be able to explore that world again with El Camino, and now we can finally talk about jumping back into Better Call Saul, it’s a blessing. And so it’s really an embarrassment of riches there, but you’re right. I am known for Pinkman.
I’ve been pounding the pavement in this industry for now 25 years. I got Breaking Bad 10 years into the game. Lots of highs and lows, more lows than highs before that. But I feel blessed that it happened, but it’s all about spreading your wings and exploring new things and hope that you make the right decisions. I’ve definitely made some misses, but I’m at a point now where I would just rather hang with my family and my growing children than be on a set. That’s just me really rolling the dice. But I feel blessed to have just worked in this industry. It’s a tough one to crack into, but I’m excited about the road ahead. I’m not desperate to jump onto just any film set. If the right thing comes along, I’ll do it. But if not, I’m happy to just be with my family and grow my booze business [laughs].