When you meet Aaron Paul, he's pretty much as you would expect him to be: a compact bundle of energy who is gracious to a fault and eager to talk to you about anything.
Including what kind of an eater he was when he was a kid, the fact that he's the ultimate "get" in a new survey that matches participants with their ideal celebrity drinking buddy or his latest project, if it happens to come up.
There are few people Paul's age who have handled the sort of success he has had as well as he does. You're more likely to read about him inviting fans to join him at a movie he's going to see via Twitter — or hear about his charitable work like when he raised $1.8 million for The Kind Campaign, an anti-bullying organization — than you are about him getting arrested for drunken driving.
You get the impression the actor has paid his dues, knows that luck and his talent have been instrumental in his success and that he's ready to pay it forward in any way he can.
On a stopover recently in Chicago during a publicity tour for his new film "Need for Speed," Paul sat down with me to talk about this project. Though the director of the film, Scott Waugh, was present and compared him to Steve McQueen — a move that seems calculated to sell the movie — the actor is more like James Cagney. He's physically compact, yet formidable and able to spring into action at any time. And so full of energy that I was concerned his chair wouldn't be able to contain him.
I asked Paul, who is coming off the vast popularity of his role in "Breaking Bad," why this film adaptation of a video game would be his initial project in his bid for big screen stardom.
"Well, when it landed on my desk, I didn't want to read it and didn't for a long time," Paul said, stretching back to scratch his head, a rather sheepish grin spreading on his face, knowing he ran the risk of insulting the director sitting next to him. "I was a fan of the game, but I've never been a fan of movies based on video games.
"But once I did start reading it, I realized there was much more going on in the story and that this wasn't going to be just another car chase movie. Then I got in touch with this guy and was convinced I wanted to do it."
"This guy," who Paul jerked his thumb at in an overly casual manner, is Waugh, a second-generation stuntman who with only one directorial credit under his belt ("Act of Valor") had some definite ideas about the direction he wanted to take the film.
I asked him if one of his main concerns was being able to make a feature centered on fast cars that was distinctive from the wildly popular "Fast and Furious" franchise.
"I never gave it a thought really," he said, shifting his thin frame about while rubbing his perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. "I didn't want to have to worry about being something they weren't, so I just focused on 'Speed.'
"I knew for sure that I wanted to do everything in camera. I didn't want to use any computer effects. I'm a firm believer that there's no reason to use CGI unless you're doing a sci-fi movie. The audience can tell when something is real on screen and when it's not, and I think that adds a certain tension to the story. You won't see the cars doing anything in the movie that they can't really do."
The result of this approach is palpable. The film hearkens back to the classic action features of the late 1960s and early '70s that were built around fast cars and daring drivers. A nearly tactile sense of danger that emanates from the screen.
It's no accident that a clip from the McQueen feature "Bullitt" is playing in the background in an early scene at a drive-in theater
With this in mind, I asked Paul how doing all of the driving in this manner affected his performance.
"It makes it so much easier," he said. "When you're going down the road at 120 mph, you can't really think. You simply react, and that's really what acting is all about. So that added realism helps every part of the movie."
To prepare for the part, Paul and other actors who spent time behind the wheel trained at Willow Springs International Raceway under the tutelage of veteran stunt drivers. They learned the ins and outs where making radical maneuvers are concerned.
So did being in the film and taking these lessons make Paul a more aggressive driver?
"Actually, the opposite is true. I'm a more careful driver now because I can see what happens," he said. "One of the misconceptions about this driving school is that it teaches you only how to take turns at 70 mph. What it really does is show you how to get out of hairy situations safely. Really, everyone should be taught these things."
While he might be more cautious on the road, one gets the sense that this won't be the case for his career. He already has three other films in the can and set for release in 2014.When I pointed out that there will be no shortage of him on the big screen this year, Paul said modestly, "I hope people don't get sick of me."
I assured him that won't be the case, and when I got up to leave, shake his hand and thank him for his time, the actor said, "No, man, thank you."
I couldn't help but feel as though he meant it.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Fast facts: 3 more films Aaron Paul stars in this year
You're not likely to find a more eclectic trio:
"A Long Way Down," which features Aaron Paul's "Need for Speed" co-star Imogen Poots, is a dramedy based on a Nick Hornby novel about four depressed souls who meet on New Year's Eve and form an impromptu support group to help keep each other afloat in difficult times.
The independent feature "Hellion," which stars Paul (right) as a negligent parent who must rein in his wild child of a teenage son.
"Exodus," in which the actor will portray Joshua, the successor to Christian Bale's Moses.
— Chuck Koplinski