Monday, 27 May 2024

Paul Walter Hauser

America’s most brilliant actor and how he does it

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A crash course in methodology. Paul Walter Hauser is loved for his scene-stealing appearances playing an array of flawed eccentrics and endearing misfits from the heartlands of America. Underneath the surface of each character is a level of technical skill so finessed and fine-tuned, it’s like observing the inner workings of a Swiss watch.

From Fantastic Man n° 35 — 2022
Photography by DANIEL SHEA

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Legend has it that when Marlon Brando took a theatre class taught by Stella Adler at the New School in New York, a routine exercise in that room led him to define the philosophy of a generation of actors. Adler asked her students to become a flock of chickens waiting for an atomic bomb to drop (it was the 1940s). Most of them squawked and clucked in panic, nervously flapping their bird arms. Brando centred himself on the floor quietly, confusing the renowned teacher. He got comfortable and prepared to lay an imaginary egg. “What does a chicken know of bombs?”

Adler and her Studio of Acting, Sandford Meisner with his Meisner Technique, Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, the Group Theatre ensemble – all these theatrical forces alternately collaborated, argued and competed with each other to ultimately define the modern expectations we have of an actor today. All originate in the system, or method, of one man: Konstantin Stanislavski. His idea of the “magic if” posed a straightforward question to every actor, on any stage, in any production: What if all this were real? What if the chalice really contained poison or the gun really had a bullet in it? He taught students to imagine a potential threat or a wish fulfilled and, just as importantly, to retrieve a past one – to use feelings they already had, even ones they’d boxed up and hidden away from themselves. He built his theory of method acting on our ability to recall emotion, and to get there by looking for deeply personal subjective triggers that would allow us to release that emotion on demand in front of an audience or a camera.

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Paul Walter Hauser excels in the art of being everybody.

According to modern adaptations of Stanislavski’s teaching, we all have a “release object” – a prompt or trigger that will allow us to access a particular feeling or state of mind. Personal traumas are a popular one. Actors can often train themselves to remember the moment a loved one died, or the depths of addiction or abandonment. It’s also useful to be able to recall a moment of the first blush of love, for example, or intense happiness, or even embarrassment. This trigger might be a scent, a phrase, or a memory of a place. For actor Paul Walter Hauser, it is always music – whether he’s blasting it, performing it or creating it. At a photo shoot in downtown Los Angeles one Sunday morning in March, this is on full display as Paul sits lightly on a barstool and listens to ‘A Little Bit of Everything’, the notably miserable 2011 hit by the folk-rock group Dawes. He is getting into the role of a teary androgynous character with a feathery grey-blonde bob and a beige shirt. The song plays, and affect rushes to his face. Tears quickly start to pool around his eyes, and he holds up a delicate, brave smile.

“I asked them to play that song on repeat,” Paul tells me when we speak a few days later. “They asked me if I wanted to use fake tears, but something in me was rejecting that idea. Acting, for me, has to be authentic, so even if I’m acting for a picture, I can’t fake my tears. That song brings me back down to earth and reminds me of more human things, and suddenly I start thinking about family and about fears and about God, and that makes me cry and gets me there for the picture. If I can fully inhabit the character instead of trying to please people, the moment will be incredible, but if I’m trying to people- please, it’ll read that way on camera, and we’ll have a hollow performance.”



Paul Walter Hauser has spent the last decade fleshing out a handful of richly paradoxical, twistedly sincere types. He is the riotous teenager-at-heart (as Stingray, a ruthless karate champion and box-store employee in the after-school series ‘Cobra Kai’), the blue-collar vigilante (as the eponymous well-meaning former cop struggling with a miscarriage of justice in ‘Richard Jewell’), the fumbling, disreputable accomplice (Ivanhoe, a blunt, mouth breathing Ku Klux Klan member in ‘BlacKkKlansman’), and the ambitious but incompetent schemer (Shawn, the self-appointed bodyguard for the ice-skating princess America relished hating in ‘I, Tonya’). He has perfected a withholding stare that lingers long enough for heavy realisations to creep over his features, which he has adapted to serve him in his catalogue of disparate roles. In each performance, whether he is playing someone serious and unironic or a total goofball, the level of finesse and character study that has gone into the role is always apparent.

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In the 2019 legal drama ‘Richard Jewell’, in easily his biggest role to date, Paul plays the titular lead, a nerdy and socially awkward ex-police officer who stood accused of planting the backpack bomb he discovered at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics. Overnight, Jewell goes from a movingly earnest American hero who lives at home with his mother to public enemy number one. Paul’s performance seems fully lived-in. His Jewell is lonely, vulnerable and conflicted under the burden of a media onslaught and pressure from crooked authorities, whom he simultaneously idolises. Paul’s performance was uniformly praised by critics for its nuance and force. His peers, too, paid attention. When asked at the 2020 Golden Globes to pick his favourite performance of the year, Brad Pitt singled Paul out despite his having been overlooked by the judges for that year’s awards. “What he gave, the degree of difficulty in what he gave, what he did with it. It was really surprising for me. I was teared up.”

Throughout the shooting of ‘Richard Jewell’, music remained the key mechanism that enabled Paul to embody his character, as well as helping him to navigate the intense weirdness of finding himself the lead in a major Hollywood production directed by Clint Eastwood. “I would blare Kendrick Lamar and Elevation Worship music on the way to the set every morning, because it would get me to a place where I could say to myself, ‘Yeah, I’m worthy of starring in an Eastwood movie that cost $45 million to make.’ Because you need that – unless you are so the shit that you’re, like, ‘I deserve it.’ I mean, good for that person. I wish I could do that. But, for me, I need a cold beverage and a playlist. If I can have a can of LaCroix and Run the Jewels, or worship music and a coldbrew coffee, I feel like I can do anything.”



Raised in Saginaw, Michigan, as the third of four children of a Lutheran pastor and a school administrator, Paul credits his upbringing, more than anything, for shaping him. “I had a weird childhood,” he says. “We lived in a bad neighbourhood, but we had a lush church and school community. So Monday through Saturday it was like ‘The Wire’, where we knew gang members and had people break into our home. Crazy shit. Things you saw on the news. And on Sunday it was like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’, where I’m wearing suspenders and eating doughnut holes and talking to senior citizens. That duality is what makes me who I am to my core. That and overcompensating for a lack of self-love, for sure.” Paul first started doing theatre in high school and was performing stand-up comedy and writing screenplays by the time he was 16. He was also class president for two years, worked on the school newspaper and sang in the choir. “I was very Max Fischer from ‘Rushmore’ when it came to extracurriculars,” he says, citing Wes Anderson’s stressed-out young overachiever.

He followed that up with stints at UCB Theatre in LA and ImprovOlympic in Chicago. “I fucked around for a while and didn’t really know what I was doing,” Paul says. “I auditioned to be a background actor in a movie and talked to the director on set, and he let me audition for a speaking part.” The film was ‘Virginia’, a 2010 comedy about a woman having an affair with an ambitious sheriff. “I got the sixth biggest part in the movie on my first film. It was pretty clutch, pretty absurd.” Ever since, Paul has largely been classified as a “character actor.” It’s a recognizable tier of stardom, but not all that easy to pin down. In the literal sense, all actors embody characters.

However, character actors are distinct in that they play supporting figures who are often offbeat, eccentric if not downright strange. It can be a complicated space to navigate. Some revel in such categorisation; Harry Dean Stanton is said to have often picked his roles based on whichever character had the fewest lines. Others find it limiting and feel it creates a ceiling for actors who aren’t deemed young or traditional enough to play leading roles in the often brutal mechanics of Hollywood star-making. But without the added pressure of playing the lead, character actors are free to be the scene-stealers, the underdogs. Their roles are often challenging and interesting, and many of Hollywood’s most recognisable and celebrated leads (Viola Davis, Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell, to name a few) started out as character actors, using these complex, attention-grabbing performances as stepping stones to top billing.

Paul seems to just want to act, and to be recognised for being very good at it. He has already built up an enviable portfolio of unforgettable roles, including the lead spot in a major Hollywood production, along with a slew of praise from critics and industry peers. However, he admits that sometimes it can be difficult finding one’s way within the Hollywood ecosystem. “The work is everything I dreamed it would be. Improvising with Vince Vaughn and Charlie Day [in ‘Queenpins’ and ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’], doing monologues and crying with Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates [in ‘Richard Jewell’] – that’s been exactly what I hoped it would be. But the career stuff is still very elusive. I’m in the in-between place right now where people know my face but don’t know my name. Or they know my name, but they want to cast Jonah Hill or Paul Dano or Jesse Plemons. So it’s very weird for me to try to navigate. I want to advance my career, but I don’t know how to do that.”



During the photo shoot, the tearful individual is one of many characters Paul flits through over the course of the day. They come thick and fast, possessing him in quick succession. He’s a playful country-music queen, giving cover-girl poses in wispy, butter-blonde tresses, all-American blue jeans and a classic cowboy hat. (He requests Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ for that one.) A few moments later he’s a slump-shouldered retail worker, having slipped into quiet driving loafers and jeans. His clear-rimmed glasses hang from a beaded chain around his neck, like a Duane Hanson sculpture come to life. A quick change into a wig and an absurdly oversized yellow cable-knit sweater, in which he poses statuesquely, and he’s a 1980s country-club antagonist or a mid-noughties Bushwick hipster. At one point he seamlessly breaks into a few bars of his own hip-hop lyrics. “I just feel phoney baloney / No faith in myself, so I’ll put it in money / I got 50 on black and red / I’m sick, not dead / Hold up, a better version of me is coming / If you dance on a rooftop’s edge, don’t be shocked if you plummet.” Paul is releasing ‘Murder for Higher’, an EP of his music, soon under the name Signet Ringer.

There is no tension between transitions, no hard stops or starts. Imagine an actor entering character and it’s easy to picture the process as a binary on-and-off switch. A pause, a shaking of the limbs and head and a deep exhale before a silent countdown: three, two, one, go. With Paul it is more of a seamless valley of gentle on-ramps and off-ramps. He dresses up, listens to the right song, chats a little with people, has a drink, and at some imperceptible moment he will have become someone else.



When the sun hits its bleak maximum brightness in mid-afternoon, Paul decides it’s time to take advantage of the natural lighting to squint deeply and stir up some trouble on Pico Boulevard’s busy sidewalk. Donning a crisp shirt and tie, a generously pleated pair of khakis and a bad attitude, he finishes off his look with a menacing piece of broken wood. He’s the unfulfilled regional office manager, the guy stuck behind you in traffic, late for a meeting he doesn’t want to go to. A little portable speaker joins Paul just out of the frame, so he can scream along to Audioslave’s ‘Show Me How to Live’. At times he appears close to darting in front of traffic or breaking the camera. People give him a wide berth. Later, after the character has been safely consigned to memory and frames of film, Paul breaks down the motivation. “When I was this guy, the RNC [Republican National Convention] anger-lust guy, I had to weird out some strangers on the street, because if it makes it real and uncomfortable for passers-by, it makes it real and uncomfortable for me.”

At what point does adding in little details and tics start to take away from a character? It’s a fine line that the actor walks across, with realism on one side and caricature on the other. “Sometimes you don’t know! I pulled Spike Lee aside on the set of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ during the first or second week of shooting, and I go, ‘Hey man, if at some point this starts to feel like ‘MADtv’ or ‘Saturday Night Live’, tell me,’” Paul recalls. “Spike goes, ‘No, you’re doing a great job.’ There were many moments on that set where I wondered whether we were going too far or were getting unrealistic, and since then I’ve been very careful about practising restraint in drama and severing restraint in comedy, and that’s pretty tough.”

Is it more demanding for an actor to play lighter, happier characters or villains, depressives and victims? “People say that comedy is harder than drama because comedy requires something more innate than just being able to feel,” Paul says. “It’s more about comprehension than adaption. But, having said that, I find drama way harder to do, because it’s not just about keeping it real, it’s about crafting a character. Comedy can be born out of circumstance, but drama often comes from a character, whether that’s Robert Duvall’s recovering alcoholic in ‘Tender Mercies’ or Ryan Gosling’s recovering addict in ‘Half Nelson’.” He stops himself and laughs. “I just named two addicts.”

The actor is forthcoming about his own struggles with sobriety and mental health, as well as the amount of work it takes to stay in a good place. “I have a life coach out of Georgia named Diamond Dallas Page, whose DDP Yoga helped me to drop 40 pounds to play a serial killer [in the upcoming series ‘In with the Devil’], and I’m using it to drop another 60 pounds just for myself.” He also works with Danny Joe, a health, wellness and spirituality coach in Los Angeles. “He’s my true north. Every time I’m tripping, I go to him, tell him what’s going on, and within 45 seconds he can tell what I’m thinking, where I’ve gone wrong and what I need to do to reconnect in the healthiest manner. I’ve had three, four people in my life who are, like, doctorate-level in their vocations, and they’ve been my guardian angels. They’ve been alongside me and have offered to help me. I help them back in certain ways, too, but the undeserved love and the dedication to wanting to see me survive…” Paul pauses. “I’ve dealt with a lot of self-hatred and a lot of health problems, and people have really just rallied around me and given me their hearts and their time and their wisdom in a big way. I’m crazy grateful for that.”

The release of his debut EP as Signet Ringer is planned for later this year, which Paul aims to follow with a full album to mark the first anniversary of his sobriety. “I’d love to play Ronnie van Zant from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who died in a plane crash. I’d love to play Teddy Roosevelt. Or Mick Foley, a WWE wrestler who did a lot of violent stuff to himself to gain the adoration of millions. I’d just love to play more flawed, interesting individuals, because that’s who I am at heart. I’m a flawed but unique person who feels a lot of feelings and is equal parts teddy bear and probably grizzly bear, though I tend to only claw at myself.”

As he flies through the last few looks of the day, Paul needs David Bowie to get to the finish line. While the deep synths of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ vibrate through the room, he becomes an androgynous ’90s grunge idol, all blue mohair, heavy eyeliner, eyebrows and peroxide-blonde hair. As he cycles through postures, accents, hand movements and demeanours, the crew do their best to suppress their laughter. Paul turns to Daniel, the photographer, for a little direction. “Do you want me to pose, or just live?”

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Photographic assistance by Graham Walzer, Annabel Snoxall and Michael Hernandez. Styling assistance by Megan King. Grooming by Nana Fischer at The Milton Agency using Boy de Chanel Foundation. Production by Webber Represents. Special thanks to Ted “Dad” Green.