Richard Jewell actor Paul Walter Hauser talks to Screen about how he coped with playing a suspected serial killer in Apple TV+ limited series Black Bird.
Apple TV+ six-part limited series Black Bird covers some dark ground, based, as it is, on the true crime story of Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a policeman’s son, tasked with eliciting a confession from suspected serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) while both were inmates in a maximum-security prison.
So maybe it’s not surprising that Hauser, previously best known for playing the title character in Clint Eastwood’s 2019 feature Richard Jewell, remembers his stint on the show as “a pretty rough time”. Inhabiting what Hauser describes as “the unenviable skin” of Larry Hall — whose creepy demeanour seems to hint at much graver crimes than the kidnapping for which he’s been convicted — was itself a burden. And imitating the real Hall’s high-pitched vocal timbre was, says the actor, “exhausting. I hated doing the voice”.
A five-and-a-half month shoot over the summer of 2021 in New Orleans — with locations including a real but vacated prison — posed challenges of its own, including a bout of Covid for Hauser and a hurricane evacuation from Louisiana to the neighbouring state of Texas.
On top of all that, Hauser admits, “I wasn’t in a very good place mentally and emotionally when I took on the role. It was Covid, I was overmedicating with marijuana and alcohol.”
Though he was, he insists, always sober on set, the drinking was a way to “blow off steam” after intense days playing Hall who, in real life, has now spent 28 years in prison and has confessed to 15 murders, only to later recant each admission. And Hauser’s self-medicating ended while Black Bird was still in production. “I started going to some meetings to help me with my addiction,” he reports, “and got sober in the middle of the shoot.”
There were, of course, benefits to working on the show, adapted from Keene and Hillel Levin’s book ‘In With The Devil’, produced by Apple Studios and co-starring Greg Kinnear, the late Ray Liotta and Sepideh Moafi. In their highly charged scenes together, Hauser and Egerton “gave each other all we had,” says the former. “You hope that whoever you work with has the capacity and the latitude to let you try things and Taron was absolutely that type of generous collaborator.”
Working with series showrunner Dennis Lehane was another big plus. Lehane, also an acclaimed crime novelist, is “the best writer I’ve worked with in Hollywood in the 13-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this,” enthuses Hauser.
Since the series’ streaming launch last summer, the trials and tribulations have paid off in the form of limited series supporting actor Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards for Hauser, now seen as a front runner for the Emmy in that category (where Kinnear and Liotta are also considered contenders, with Egerton predicted for lead actor).
Needing, as he puts it, a “palette cleanse” after Black Bird, Hauser, now sober for more than a year and a half, has lately been tapping into his comedy background, which includes appearances in TV’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Reno 911! as well as 2017 indie feature I, Tonya and recent Disney live-action prequel Cruella.
Hauser co-starred with Sydney Sweeney in comedic indie neo-Western Americana, which premiered at the SXSW festival, and will soon be seen in the second season of Apple TV+ mystery comedy series The Afterparty. He’s also just completed filming a small role in The Instigators, director Doug Liman’s latest with Matt Damon, which Hauser describes as “a gritty yet silly ensemble comedy”.
And he recently finished work with writing partner Julian Sergi (best known for his recurring role in streaming hit Ramy) on a screenplay for “a throwback action comedy”. Though he plans to play one of the story’s two protagonists himself, the long-in-the-works script, which will be offered to producers once the Hollywood writers’ strike ends, is part of Hauser’s attempt “to break into the writing/producing game”.
As his career progresses, Hauser hopes doing comedies won’t preclude taking darker, dramatic roles as well. In late 2019, the then 33-year-old actor’s quietly moving performance in Richard Jewell, which earned him that year’s US National Board of Review breakthrough performance award, seemed set to lead to more dramatic roles, until Covid shut most production down and, for a while, seemed to arrest his career momentum.
Now, a high-profile streaming series might do what the favourably reviewed but commercially disappointing Clint Eastwood feature only promised. While Richard Jewell was “the best filming experience of my life,” Black Bird, Hauser says, will be “much more of a tipping point as far as people believing I can take on these difficult roles.”