By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Aaron Paul went directly from shooting the much-anticipated finale of Breaking Bad to the set of DreamWorks Pictures' Need for Speed movie, which began its cross-country filming trek in Mendocino, Calif. The gig got off to a bad start when he was left stranded at 2 a.m. at the local airport, which was closed, in the rain with no cell service. During the two hours it took for his ride to show up, he had time to think, "What am I doing?"
What he did is now on the big screen. It's the latest attempt by Hollywood to turn a hit videogame franchise into a movie. Electronic Arts (EA) has sold over 140 million Need for Speed games over the last few decades, including last fall's Need for Speed: Rivals. The series allows fans to live the fantasy of driving some of the world's most expensive and exotic vehicles and put the pedal to the metal -- including Paul.
"I definitely played the games," said Paul. "I didn't realize that they had made 15 of them, and I didn't realize how successful they were, but I knew that you had this driver's perspective driving around in these crazy exotic vehicles. I knew there was no narrative, so this film is kind of working with a blank canvas in that regard."
That blank slate is what attracted stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) to this project. Waugh worked with Ford (F) to design a custom Mustang that Paul's character drives throughout the film. Waugh also chose to film the movie with all practical stunts, forgoing the special effects that successful film franchises like Fast and Furious have relied on. That meant Paul had to drive and perform many of the film's stunts (although he let the professionals handle the most daring scenes that are featured in the commercials).
"I told him if he doesn't make it as an actor he's got a stunt career ahead of him," said Waugh. "He's one of the first people I have worked with in his age bracket that actually harnesses the Steve McQueen."
It's Paul's appeal to women that Walt Disney Pictures (DIS), which is releasing the film, is counting on to boost ticket sales, complementing the influx of guys who've played the game or just love fast cars that are expected at the box office. Paul appealed to gamers last summer at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. The actor attended Electronic Arts' press conference and debuted the custom Mustang. That same car is also playable in the Need for Speed: Rivals game, which is available across platforms.
"E3 was terrifying," said Paul, who says he hates public speaking. "But standing in front of thousands of people -- in front of all those gamers -- it was fun. I was terrified, yes, but let's be honest, it was fun."
Those gamers are in for a ride that's nothing like Disney's last videogame adaptation – Jerry Bruckheimer's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Need for Speed is a throwback to the films Waugh grew up watching. It borrows the name, and some of the vehicles from the games, but little else.
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"The cars have their purpose, but when I read the script it's the story that shocked me, and their vision that shocked me even more," said Paul. "They just wanted to do a throwback to the classic '60s and '70s car culture films like Bullitt. And they wanted to do a homage to Steve McQueen. And that's not a bad thing. Steve McQueen is 'the guy's guy.'"
Paul, who plays mechanic and underground racer Tobey Marshall, hopes that this role will help establish himself as a versatile actor. Most of his fans still connect him with his portrayal of Jesse Pinkman.
"The majority of the people know me as Aaron Paul, which is great. But they also know me as playing one character, so they think that that's who I am and I couldn't be further from him. I mean he's definitely a big part of me, but I'm quite the opposite of Jesse Pinkman. It's nice to branch off and do something completely different."
If Need for Speed connects with audiences, the actor is definitely game to get behind the wheel again in the future.
As mobile device use increases, TV viewership is cratering. Games are the entertainment of the future, and free-to-play is the future of games.Oct 16, 2013 10:22 AM ET
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