“Most overnight successes take about 10 years,” says Paul Walter Hauser as he sits down for one of his first major interviews after the film that has put his name on lips all over Hollywood, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, has screened for the first time. “That’s what they say. You have to get that kind of mileage before you’re truly ready to take on a Spike Lee or a Clint Eastwood.”
Indeed, the road that would lead him here—and to his standout supporting turns in Lee’s BlacKkKlansman last year, and I, Tonya before that—took almost exactly that long. In 2009, he was taking his first steps in cinema on the set of Dustin Lance Black’s Virginia, which starred Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris. He had signed up to be an extra on the movie, which shot in his home state of Michigan. “I just wanted to be on a movie set. I just wanted to experience it.”
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Perhaps it was his naivety to the protocol of a set, where extras are generally considered better seen than heard, but while he worked on that job, he saw an opportunity to approach Black, and he took it. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to say hi.’ He had just won the Oscar for Milk, and I loved Milk. I said, ‘Congrats on your win; I loved your speech. I’m a Christian, so when you said God doesn’t hate gay people in your speech to the LGBTQ+ youth, that meant the world to me. Thank you for saying what you said and congrats on the film.’”
It hadn’t been an intentionally ambitious move; Hauser genuinely wanted to express his appreciation and expected it would end there. But Black took his name down and told him that there might be a meatier part in the movie for him. “I ended up booking number six on the call sheet, behind Amy Madigan, Toby Jones, Emma Roberts, all these people. I went from a background extra to making 10 grand and hanging out with Jennifer Connelly. It was an overly idealistic, charmed first outing in the film business.”
He moved to LA shortly after that, taking an apartment not far from Hollywood & Highland; a movie mecca for a film geek from Saginaw. His luck kept coming. He booked roles in Community and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and he booked a pilot with Larry Charles. His career was going exactly as he had dreamed on many movie nights back home watching teen comedies with his buddies. He had been writing screenplays from the age of 16 and cutting his teeth with theater and stand-up comedy. “I always wanted to be that funny young guy who people were like, ‘This is the next Belushi or Farley.’ I watched John Goodman in Barton Fink, or Paul Giamatti stealing a scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I would think, That’s me in 10 or 12 years.”
After 14 months in Hollywood, he was sure he was on track. And then… “Insert poop emoji,” Hauser laughs. The work dried up, and with it the money. As quickly as he had arrived in Hollywood, he found himself back in Michigan. He worked at a bowling alley and a butcher shop to make ends meet. People would approach him and say, “Hey, I just saw you on TV. Why are you giving me my bowling shoes?”
It was a deflating experience. “But in reality, thank God it happened this way, because I think I learned a lot. I was humbled a number of times. It made me grow up and mature, and I came to appreciate how difficult it actually is.”
The story goes that the casting director on Richard Jewell pinned Hauser’s photo to the noticeboard in the production office, as a model for the type of actor they needed to play Jewell, the Virginian security officer who first spotted a suspect package that led to the bombing of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, GA. He had been hailed a hero, before a source at the FBI leaked to the press that they were investigating his possible complicity in the bombing. And while he would eventually be exonerated, he endured months of scrutiny and invasions of privacy at the hands of law enforcement and the press.
When Eastwood saw Hauser’s photo, the younger actor says now, he was sure he’d found his man. “I looked like I could have been his brother or his cousin,” Hauser says. When he got the call from Eastwood’s team it was an offer; he didn’t have to audition. “I was freaking out. But the people he works with, like his producers Jessica Meier and Tim Moore, they kept pulling me aside and saying, ‘He works off instinct. He believes in his instinct and he’s right nine times out of 10.’”
There was something else, too. A detail that was missed until the movie was shown for the first time. It is based on the Vanity Fair article about Jewell’s case by Marie Brennan, which contains a small note about a joke Jay Leno had made during the initial flurry of press accusing Jewell. Leno has said that Jewell “had a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan”. He is referring to Shawn Eckhardt, the character Hauser would go on to play in I, Tonya, which dramatizes the “whacking” of Kerrigan. “That was the weirdest thing,” says Hauser now. “It doesn’t matter what you believe—and everyone believes something different—but I think there’s something to be said for fate. You look at a moment like that and it almost feels like God is winking at you. Nudging you.”
The pace was breakneck. Hauser didn’t have much of an opportunity to doubt Eastwood’s instinct. He had seen Eastwood’s last movie, The Mule, and wondered what it must be like to work with him, only a few months before he got the call about Richard Jewell. That was last Christmas. He had six weeks between his first meeting with Eastwood and his first scene on set. “I’m good buddies with [Sam] Rockwell now that we shot this, and he was telling me he had four months to prepare for Three Billboards,” Hauser marvels. And then he shrugs. “I can clap myself on the back, like, ‘Look at what I did in six weeks,’ but the reality is either you get it, or you don’t at some point.”
Instead he trusted in the very same instinct that led Eastwood. “I knew from jump street, just from looking at photographs of the guy and reading the script, that I was this dude. It doesn’t make me special. Everyone is the dude or woman for the moment they’re in sometimes. And that’s why I believe in fate and believe in God. I think there are things that are out of your circumstances. There are other forces, and you have to either relent and accept, dive in and immerse, or you can fight against it and probably be more aggravated than is necessary.”
It is no spoiler, given the relentless pressure we feel on Jewell as his life is pulled apart by his public accusation, that there is a moment in the film at which his kettle overboils, and Hauser delivers a charged speech that encapsulates the injustice he is facing. It is as redolent of classic Hollywood as anything in Eastwood’s recent oeuvre; a true, “you can’t handle the truth” beat. It was scheduled late into the shoot because, says Hauser, “You can’t phone that in. It’s too big of a moment for that.”
He appreciated that Eastwood, and Billy Ray’s script, didn’t hold back; that it was as unashamedly grandstanding as it needed to be, because, by that point in the film, we are desperate for Jewell to be afforded a chance to raise his voice. “There are filmmakers who are so absorbed by public opinion that it feels like they’re walking a tightrope,” Hauser says. “Now, there’s a whole generation of tightrope walkers. But Clint is still stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, reading the paper while drinking a coffee. We need filmmakers like that. Not to say you don’t have to be self-aware. You have to be empathetic. But I think there’s something to be said for making a classic film moment like that.”
Hauser still harbors ambitions to step behind the camera himself. Working with one of cinema’s iconic movie stars on their 40th movie behind the camera has only strengthened that resolve. He has, he says, 20 feature screenplays in the bag, ready to go. “But I kind of want to crawl,” he says. “I would love to make a low-budget, sub-$1 million movie. People are like, ‘Now that you’re in big movies, you can get $5 million; you can make your Garden State.’ But I kind of don’t want to. I want to prove I can crawl before I walk.”
What’s on the agenda? “Probably a dark comedy set at Christmas,” Hauser hints. “Because I’m this jolly person who has a big heart, but I’m also sort of a curmudgeon and a psychopath. I would love to tell some story that somehow represents all corners of me.”
For now, though, the calls from Hollywood’s elite keep coming. He must be getting used to them, but it’s with an earned sense of pride that Hauser relates a phone call he received on Christmas Eve last year, after he had gone home to Saginaw for the holiday. It was noon, and he was still asleep when his phone rang after a late night out with the high school buddies he’d grown up watching movies with. The caller ID said, “Spike Lee.”
“I’m like, Why is Spike Lee calling me on Christmas Eve?” Hauser laughs. “I told him I was in Saginaw and he goes, ‘You know why I know Saginaw, right?’ And he starts singing the Simon & Garfunkel song, ‘America’ at me. ‘It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.’ I’m like… What is happening right now? Spike Lee is singing Simon & Garfunkel in my ear. It felt like I was still in a dream or something.”
In fact, he was offered a role in another movie; Lee’s upcoming Netflix picture Da 5 Bloods. A decade after Hauser began the long journey to his overnight success, his moment is in front of him.
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