Riley Stearns’ dark satire Dual brings his signature form of dry, deadpan humor to a story about a woman in the not-too-far future who’s forced to battle her own clone to the death in order to decide who lives out the rest of her life. It’s a fascinating concept brimming with potential, and Stearns takes the film to some unexpected places as the tale unfolds.
Guardians of the Galaxy franchise actress Karen Gillan plays both Sarah and her clone. She’s joined in the film’s small cast by Breaking Bad and Westworld actor Aaron Paul, who portrays Trent, the combat trainer Sarah hires to prepare her for the fight.
Digital Trends spoke to Paul about the experience of working with Stearns and his distinctive film aesthetic, the backstory he came up with for Trent, and the surprising hip-hop dance scene he shares with Gillan in the film. The Emmy-winning actor also discussed his upcoming return to the role of Jesse Pinkman, his Breaking Bad character, in the final season of the critically acclaimed prequel series Better Call Saul.
Digital Trends: Riley Stearns has such a unique approach to dialogue and timing and storytelling. How did you adjust to that deadpan style?
Aaron Paul: I adjusted pretty seamlessly, I think. It’s obviously very different, but I’m such a huge fan of his work, so I knew what I was stepping into. Like you said, he has such a unique voice. But that unique voice is tied in to such beautiful, unique stories. And I know him. He’s a buddy of mine who I’ve known for years. When he asked me to jump on board, it was such a no-brainer for me. So while I was preparing for the role, it just felt right, you know? I’m happy, because when I got to set, it felt like I knew what I was doing, even though it is in such a strange, different environment.
Riley has indicated that some actors have a tough time acclimating to the tone he goes for in his films, but it sounds like you didn’t have much trouble with it.
Well, it was definitely an adjustment, but I knew the world I was stepping into. Maybe it helped that I know Riley. He’s not dry by any means, but in real life, he is very matter-of-fact. A lot of the dialogue, I can see Riley saying — not necessarily in that dry format, but I can see him saying it.
We don’t learn a lot about Trent in the film. Does that make things easier or more complicated on your end when you’re figuring out how to play the character?
Oh, just wait until the sequel, my friend, you’re going to learn a lot more!
I would definitely watch a sequel all about Trent!
Right? But yeah, whenever I’m diving into a project, it always helps me to get some sort of backstory, to give more layers to the guy you see on screen. For me, [Trent] lives and breathes training. In my mind, he lives at his studio and truly believes that he was born to do this. This is his calling. He’s cheap, which is nice, and he just wants to help, you know? He’s trained people for duels in the past. Some have lost, some have won, but this is his calling.
The hip-hop dance scene in the film is amazing. How did that scene come together?
Yeah, that scene was hilarious. I love that [Trent] has this secret desire to learn how to hip-hop dance. It’s just such a twist. Our dance instructor would laugh at Karen and I when we were learning the moves. She had tears falling down her face, she was laughing so hard. At one point, she told me, “I’m sorry I’m laughing, because you’re really trying.” And I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s … nice. Um …” My character’s not a pro, though, even though he’s a perfectionist and wants to get it done perfectly. So I didn’t train as much as Karen did. I shot all my stuff in four days, and there would be moments on set where I would see Karen dancing with the instructor, and I would just choose not to go in there — because Trent’s not supposed to be that good. I didn’t want to know the moves that well.
And on top of that, you had to keep a straight face while dancing, which I’m sure wasn’t easy.
Oh man, that scene, and the slow-motion fight sequence, honestly, were two of the best moments I’ve had on a film set. It was just so ridiculous, so over-the-top, and so fun. I had the best time doing them.
Your chemistry with Karen is great. Was that easy to develop within the framework of Riley’s dry, very unemotional tone for the film?
Well, we just had so much fun. I’m a huge fan of Karen and have been for many years, and I see why she has had such a beautiful career. The road ahead for her is a beautiful one, and I will always be in her cheering section. She’s just such a delight on-screen and off, so fun to work with. I hope I get to do it again with her in the future.
Your career has gone so many places since Breaking Bad, and now you’re returning to the Jesse Pinkman character again in the final season of Better Call Saul. Is it easy to get into that headspace again after so long?
Jesse will always be sort of a part of me. I lived and breathed every moment we saw on screen [in Breaking Bad] and then some. So I love the guy, and as soon as I think I’m done, I keep dipping back into that world. The Breaking Bad family — now the Better Call Saul family — is a beautiful family to be a part of. So yeah, when I got that phone call from Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould], we got on FaceTime and I knew what it was going to be about. I knew when they wanted to get on a call with me that they had some news to share.
Riley Stearns’ Dual premieres April 15 in theaters and will be available May 20 for on-demand streaming and on the AMC+ streaming service.