Aaron Paul is at a turning point in his career. The series that made him a star, AMC’s beloved Breaking Bad, is over and Hollywood is waiting to file the 34-year-old actor into one of two categories: a one-hit-wonder; or a film-fixture. Based on his current film slate, we’re leaning towards the latter. Last week Paul’s indie family drama Hellion premiered at Sundance and word of the film, Paul’s performance, and young actor Josh Wiggins quickly spread from critic to critic. Later this year, Paul will appear in an adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, A Long Way Down, alongside Toni Collette and Imogen Poots; Need for Speed with Kid Cudi and Dominic Cooper; and Ridley Scott’s Exodus with Christian Bale.
While at Sundance, we met with Paul and Wiggins to discuss Hellion, which was written and directed by Kat Candler. Set in Texas, the film follows 13-year-old Jacob (Wiggins) who, after the death of his mother, is neglected by his distraught father, Hollis (Paul). Jacob and his friends terrorize their neighborhood in true hellion style: sneaking out, setting fires, riding dirt bikes, and bashing up cars to an impressive metal soundtrack. Jacob, however, is never depicted as soulless or really even a “bad” kid. At home, Jacob takes care of his younger brother Wes: feeding him and watching over him while their father avoids his children. When Child Services places Wes in the custody of an aunt (played by Juliette Lewis), Jacob confronts his father and devises a plan to get Wes back.
Though you wouldn’t know it, Hellion is Wiggin’s first feature film. A Texas native, the 15-year-old Wiggins has found an acting mentor in his co-star Paul.
EMMA BROWN: I apologize, I’m probably going to ask you the same questions you’ve been answering all day.
JOSH WIGGINS: That’s all right, it makes us sound smart. [laughs]
BROWN: Josh, I heard that Kat Candler discovered you through a series of YouTube videos. Can you tell me about these videos? What were you doing?
WIGGINS: It was just these little series that me and my friends made for fun. We did little Law and Order spoofs, little action videos.
BROWN: Have people started to look them up now that you’re in Hellion?
WIGGINS: I hope so.
AARON PAUL: Yeah, how many views?
WIGGINS: I don’t know; I’ll have to check. That’d be sweet. The old ones are really stupid. I’m just going to throw that out there. We started in fourth grade.
PAUL: That’s so great. And so adorable.
BROWN: Did you write them as well?
WIGGINS: We’ve written the more recent stuff, because we’ve gotten more serious about it. But it’s mostly improv. We just go off-script and do our thing.
PAUL: He’s a man of many talents.
BROWN: A lot of the musicians I talk to feel self-conscious when their early work is on YouTube. It seems like you don’t feel that way. You aren’t rushing to take them down.
WIGGINS: No, it’s nostalgia. I keep it up there for the sake of memories. It’s embarrassing, but we had fun with it.
PAUL: That’s great. That’s why you’re here.
BROWN: Paul, have you ever made an embarrassing videos early on in your career that made it onto YouTube.
PAUL: Not that I made, but there’s definitely stuff up on YouTube that I wish wasn’t there for sure. But we don’t need to talk about that. [laughs]
BROWN: Josh, how did your parents feel when Kat Candler reached out to you about Hellion?
WIGGINS: My mom, my dad—my whole family was incredibly supportive through the whole thing. I was incredibly nervous, because I get nervous for everything; before auditions I feel like I’m about to pee my pants. Family support and encouragement was really helpful.
BROWN: Hellion began as a short film. Did both of you watch the original short?
PAUL: Yes. That’s what first drew me to this project. The script was sent to me along with the short film. I saw the short and thought it was just so fantastic, and I read the script and it was beautifully honest. I loved this family just going through their struggle; I could relate. That’s why I jumped into it.
WIGGINS: My friend was in the short, the one I made the YouTube videos with, and that’s who kind of brought me in.
PAUL: Who did your friend play in the short?
WIGGINS: The names are different, but I think he was the Jacob character.
PAUL: What does he feel about you doing the film?
WIGGINS: He’s been supportive about it—it’s not like I beat him out or anything. He just didn’t want to do it. That would be really bad if that was the case.
PAUL: [laughs] That would’ve made it a little awkward.
WIGGINS: He didn’t want to do acting anymore.
PAUL: You’re so good, man.
WIGGINS: Thanks, buddy.
BROWN: What kind of father do you think Hollis was before he lost his wife?
PAUL: It was probably a gradual downhill slide until his wife’s death. I think in the beginning, he was a great father. [But] he had the aspirations of being a baseball player and those dreams kind of just faded away and he was a little upset by that and started drinking. That complicated relationships. Because before his wife died, he went on a drinking binge and it seemed like maybe he was going to leave the family—or at least the family thought that. The back story that we created was that him and his wife had this big, blow-up argument and she left, and that’s when she got in a car accident and died. So of course he blames himself for that. Even though he’s emotionally checked out, deep down, he wants to be there for his kids—he just doesn’t know how to because he’s so broken. But I’d like to think he was a good father and they did have a good, solid core before she left.
BROWN: Jacob has it pretty rough for a 13-year-old.
WIGGINS: [laughs] A little bit.
BROWN: What were your biggest concerns at age 13?
WIGGINS: Girls. Like every 13-year-old kid, really. Nothing like Jacob.
PAUL: Mine were sneaking out at night, getting on my skateboard, meeting up with local girls, being dangerous. The sweet innocence of it all—I love that. That’s what I love about the story. We were talking about films that follow the coming of age stories—young adolescence—like Stand by Me.
WIGGINS: It’s something everyone can relate to and everyone can connect with because everyone’s been that age.
BROWN: There’s a famous story about Stand By Me. They were filming the scene in which River Phoenix cries, and he just wasn’t getting it right, so Rob Reiner took him aside and told him to use a personal memory. Did you do this at all while filming some of the more intense scenes?
WIGGINS: Half of it is drawing from your own personal experiences, and then seeing what this character has gone through, and mixing them together to become your character. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Just working off Aaron and his acting ability, which we all know is phenomenal. When you bring personal stuff into it, it can stick with you. It takes a little while to get out of it. But on set, you’re super close to everyone, so you can talk to everyone and get your mind off of it.
BROWN: How long did it take you to stop thinking like Jacob?
WIGGINS: After we wrapped? I’m still thinking about Jacob. This has been such an incredible experience that just came out of nowhere and I’m not going to forget it. I’m gonna take it to my grave.
PAUL: Your first job! You were so good. I moved to L.A. when I was 17, and I thought I was good. But I wasn’t at all. [laughs] Not good at all. The comments I’d get from casting directors was, “He’s really sweet, but he’s really green.” “He just doesn’t know what he’s doing” is how I took it. It’s just trial and error. I learned from my mistakes. If I was a quarter of the actor when I was 17 that Josh is now, who knows where I’d be? But it’s really cool to see him. This is his first job, so he’s only going to grow from where he’s at now, which is such an amazing place. I’m excited. Just continue to do your quality work, because you got this, buddy.
BROWN: Do you remember your first professional role?
PAUL: Oh yeah, Kellogg’s Corn Pops commercial.
WIGGINS: Yum. YouTube?
PAUL: You can YouTube that. We can watch it together after this if you want. That was my first gig; it was great. I quit my day-to-day job, which was at a movie theater. I worked there because I could watch movies for free—I love movies, obviously. I got Corn Pops and quit that job, and I’ve been working now and living off that ever since.
BROWN: Were either of you ever hellions?
WIGGINS: [laughs] Not at all.
PAUL: Not at all. Not like this. I never blew up stuff.
HIGGINS: I never cussed or anything like that. I’m a goody-two-shoes, I still am.
PAUL: I had my first beer at 19. I was living in L.A. for two years on my own, and I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 19. I was just so focused on what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to have any distractions, because I loved girls so much. I wanted to stay focused.
For more from Sundance 2014, click here.