Paul Walter Hauser on ‘Black Bird’ and Getting Inside the Mind of a Killer

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In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day. 

Anyone familiar with Paul Walter Hauser from lighthearted fare like “Cobra Kai” and “Cruella” might be surprised to learn that his performance on the Apple TV+ true crime series “Black Bird” is one of the most unnerving in recent history. But for Hauser, taking on the role of real-life serial killer Larry Hall—which has earned him a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award, plus an individual SAG nomination—was simply a matter of leveling up. 

“I really liken my acting to how Dave Grohl talks about music; like, you can be classically trained or you can just suck and then get good,” he says. “I don’t think I ever sucked sucked, but I definitely wasn’t where I am now. I think it’s trial and error, and you just absorb and you do. I think what I lacked in craft and performance intellect I had in recklessness and fearlessness.” 

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Hauser takes us behind his chilling performance and what it taught him about acting—and himself.

“Black Bird” taught Hauser that playing risky roles can be rewarding. 

“I think I’ve learned that fearlessness is always going to be your greatest ally in performing. There’s some duality when you make a choice to do a role. One part is: Well, I really want to work, and I’m just going to tell them I know how to do this thing, whether I believe it or not. But at the same time, the other side of that coin is: I’m never going to do something that I don’t stand by or believe I will find a way to do. It’s not a lie, but there is a premeditated faith and fearlessness that walks into some of these roles. Some are so obvious and easy; it’s not like I need to do research for the movie ‘Late Night.’ I don’t have to do research to go in and goof off on a show like ‘Cobra Kai.’ But [‘Black Bird’] is one of those things where I know I could have talked myself out of, but I was like, No, no. I look enough like [Larry Hall]; they need somebody. This is really a good opportunity for me to stretch and prove that I can do dramatic acting.”

Black Bird“Black Bird” Courtesy Apple TV+

For high-stakes scenes, Hauser went deep inside the mind of his character.  

“I do what I call layered thought, or mental multitasking. Where in a scene, it’s not just about the scene. I’m thinking about five things at once. And that can be really great and produce cool results, and it can also be really hard to pull off. If you don’t pull it off, I feel like people can see. Audiences are really smart nowadays. 

There were moments in the show where I’m thinking the following: This prison food tastes really good; I actually like it. I feel like I’m at home. Slash, I’m kind of attracted to Jimmy Keene [played by Taron Egerton] a little bit. I’m not gay, but I’m attracted to him; and there’s something alluring about him, and I hope I can become alluring to him. Slash, I’m thinking about wanting to tell him a story about how I killed this woman, but I don’t want to interrupt his story. All those thoughts are going in a blender, and you don’t know how they’re going to come out; but if you’re present, they usually come out good.”

If you see a chance to make a scene better, trust your instincts.  

“When Nisha Ganatra directed me in ‘Late Night’ with Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, we had a scene where we’re supposed to be rushing back to our chairs because Emma Thompson’s [character is] coming back into the building. We’re all afraid of her. We have one or two takes where we do it, and I’m like, Dude, there needs to be something else here. It’s not because I’m the director—it’s because I’m instinctually like, This doesn’t feel funny enough to me. So without telling Nisha Ganatra, I just told the camera operator: ‘When I come back in, I’m going to do a pratfall; make sure you capture it.’ Take three or four, I do that, and Nisha ran in the room with the producers, and they’re like, ‘Are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, no, it’s fine. I did that on purpose.’ They were like, ‘Would you mind doing it again?’ 

I’m always trying to find those things. Why would you not, if you care about the movie and you have an idea that could be good? Now, if you’re doing it out of some egocentric: ‘Look at me—my parents never watched me on the swing’ type of mentality, that’s a whole other thing. But if you just love storytelling and you have an instinct and an idea that could be good, you should lean into that.”

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Hauser:

This episode is sponsored by HBO Max.