Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul has learned how to keep things light. After all, the Emmy winner spends his days playing Jesse Pinkman, a “lost kid” (in Paul’s words) with an increasingly troubled conscience who builds a meth empire with his former chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Needless to say, the show isn’t quite a happy-go-lucky comedy. Paul chatted with TIME about the show’s fifth season (which kicks off July 15), epic pranks on set and talking to his fans via pay phone.
TIME: It’s official: Breaking Bad only has 16 episodes to go. How do you feel now that you know the series is coming to an end?
Aaron Paul: It’s bittersweet, to be honest. It’s nice to know that we do have an end point, and we’re not getting cut short, so we know that we’re going to be able to complete this story, and give the fans what they want. But it’s also super devastating to know that we only have 16 hours of the show left, and for us we only have eight more episodes to read. We already did the front eight [episodes] and we’re going to start shooting the back eight at the end of November. It’s the first time that we were able to see the finish line. It’s going to be a full sprint to the finish.
What’s your perspective on the show airing two short, eight-episode seasons? Is the show changing its pace at all because of the shorter runs?
I’m so happy that it wasn’t just one long season. It just kind of keeps [the show] alive a little bit longer, and allows us to be together for that much more time. This front eight really just sets the tone. The tone of this season is eerie, just super dark. It’s not dark in a way that there’s guys’ faces being blown off — [though] there’s definitely people meeting their demise — but it’s just so eerie. It’s fascinating to watch.
It’s a dark season even for Breaking Bad? That’s saying something.
It is the darkest one yet. Hands down.
You talked about Walter’s path. What can viewers expect from Jesse this season?
Jesse, he’s always just trying to pick up the pieces, really. Because it’s only been a year since this story has began, really, in terms of our storytelling. This season it’s him trying to just keep everything together. There’s a key element they kind of forgot about that could just reveal everything, and so they need to try and cover their tracks and get things in order, so they don’t all get busted. With Jesse, he’s noticing something brewing inside of Walt. There’s something else driving him other than just the money. It all started with Walt doing this for his family. But now there’s something else growing, and Walt’s very manipulative. Walt has Jesse in the palm of his hand, and he’s just toying with him in such a creepy way. And Walt knows that he can. He can control him.
He got away with poisoning Brock with the lily of the valley.
Exactly. And he does much more in this season. You’ll see, it’s the creepiest one yet.
One of my favorite aspects of Jesse’s story is his rapport with Mike. How does their relationship evolve this season?
I think it’s common knowledge now that Jonathan Banks is definitely back. Jesse’s always looking for a mentor — he really does want to be told what to do. He needs some sort of direction in his life because he really doesn’t have any. Everyone else has kind of given up on him and left him, and he has these two fatherly figures now in his life, and he wants acceptance. Definitely the relationship grows this season between Mike and Jesse. You know, Mike and Walt don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. So it throws an interesting kind of twist into this season because they have to work together.
In such a short time frame, Jesse’s really done a 180 as a character. As an actor, how do you manage that transition?
It’s such a dream to be able to play a character that kind of transforms into someone else. All these characters on this show are constantly changing, and that’s what’s so exciting because you never see that, especially on TV. Jesse especially, he’s gone through so much within this year. He was this lost kid, kind of just floating around, and he teams up with Walter White, which was the worst [idea] possible. It completely turned his life upside down, and he almost died multiple times, and his life has been threatened, he’s lost the love of his life, and he’s now a murderer. And he almost lost a little boy. He’s battling with a lot of internal issues, a lot of internal demons as well. I think they’re really going to start playing with that in the final eight episodes.
On set, you tweeted out a pay-phone number on set for fans to call. How did that go?
It’s been so fun just to kind of talk with the fans, really have a dialogue rather than getting a random tweet here and there. I decided to just throw it out there once, and the phone didn’t stop ringing for days. It was fun, and I’m going to continue doing it. I’m starting a little web series where I’m going to record both sides of the conversation, and Bryan [Cranston] is going to be my first victim. I want to do it with different celebrities, just give fans the opportunity to do a Q&A with their favorite actor.
Do you have any standout phone calls you remember?
There are so many. There’s a lot of screaming, and some crying. People call from around the world. I talked with some people in Singapore, and in China, in Ireland, a bunch of people from the UK. There was this one question, they said, “Do you think Jesse would make a good father?” I’ve never been asked that. I go, “You know what, I think he would make an excellent father, but not right now. He’s going through a lot of stuff right now and I don’t think he’s ready to be a dad. But I think one day he would be.”
You and your castmates go to some really dark places as characters. Other than the pay phone, how do you guys keep things light on the set?
I mean, we have Bryan Cranston leading the way. He’s the biggest prankster of us all. When you’re on hour 14, and the crew is going really slowly and actors are messing up their lines, it’s good to make a joke or pull a prank on set while shooting, because laughter creates energy.
What’s been your favorite prank?
There’s this really intense scene where Bryan is bringing a gun to Jesse’s house, and he pulls out the gun and puts it on the counter and says, “You need to handle this.” We did it over and over and over again, and then there’s this [moment] where he pulls out a gun — but it’s a water gun shaped like a penis. And we’re filming, and he’s just starts shooting me in the face, and I’m trying to stay in character.
What’s next for you after Breaking Bad? What other projects are you working on?
I have a film [Smashed] coming out that debuted at Sundance. It’s going to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and then it’ll be released in theaters in mid-November. It’s a story of a young couple in love, and they’re also in love with drinking, and they’ve never known what it’s like to be sober together. Mary Elizabeth Winstead [plays the wife] and she starts to notice that her life is spiraling out of control, and she decides to try sobriety. And it kind of throws a wrench into the marriage, because they’ve never known what it’s like to be sober, and it loses its spark in a way. They try to figure out how to continue their lives without alcohol — with one trying to be sober and one continuing down his path of chaos.
From one substance to another, I guess.
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. A completely different substance, but yeah.
Do you think going forward you’ll gravitate towards that subject matter?
No, I wanna go as far away as I can. When I read Smashed I was like, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable.” It’s such an honest story, and I could relate to these characters, and that’s why I wanted to do it. But after Breaking Bad, I definitely don’t want to play someone that’s addicted to drugs. You know, I don’t want to be the next lovable drug addict or anything.
That’s a very specific niche.
Exactly. “Would you like to play a lovable drug addict?” No, I don’t wanna do it!