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‘Black Bird’ Star Paul Walter Hauser Explains How He Pieced Together His Chilling Performance as a Serial Killer

Plus, Hauser dishes on working with star and executive producer Taron Egerton on the Apple TV+ true-crime limited series

(Warning: This “Black Bird” post features spoilers for the show’s finale.)

Audiences and critics have been hooked on the Apple TV+ series “Black Bird,” which wraps its limited run this Friday on the streamer. 

Across its first five episodes, the six-episode series has been driven by suspense and an increasingly heightened intensity as Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton), a convicted drug supplier, attempts to lessen his jail term by befriending and eliciting a confession from Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), a suspected serial killer just days away from getting out on a technicality.

In the finale, Hauser gave a chilling performance as Larry, as he finally confessed to Jimmy he’d committed nearly two dozen murders. For once, Jimmy couldn’t hold back his real feelings in front of Larry, telling him he was sick and would lose his appeal, prompting a ferocious outburst from the disturbed man who thought Jimmy a friend. 

With all “Black Bird” episodes now available to stream on Apple TV+, Hauser took a short break away from weekend work to tell TheWrap about taking on the challenging and disturbing character, working with showrunner and writer Dennis Lehane on the piece (which is inspired by Keene’s real story), and forming a close bond on set with Egerton, whom he would happily work with again.

“Oh, I love him,” Hauser said. “I would jump at the chance to work with him. Like, if he were the next James Bond, and I was, like, a Bond villain, nothing would make me happier than something like that.”

TheWrap: Let’s talk about Episode 5 a little bit. What was the mood like on set? Because obviously that’s a pretty heavy episode for both you and Taron to do.

Paul Walter Hauser: I think there was a lot of commonsensical reactionary behavior from the crew. People weren’t as chatty. People weren’t showing each other tweets, or memes. It was very much everyone in their place, as few people as possible and everyone was quiet and respectful, which as the actor[s] having to do all the stuff, me and Taron really appreciated.

All I can say is that I did a movie called “BlacKkKlansmen,” where I play a racist idiot, and there was a day where me and Adam Driver and Topher Grace, all these guys, we [had] to watch the movie “Birth of a Nation” and cheer for it and say really disgusting things. And when that day was done, we all felt, I think, physically ill. Not like, “Oh, I’ve got to take a shower.” More like, “I think I’m going to throw up.” And the day we shot that scene in Episode 5 at the end, that was a sort of day where I felt physically ill.

Because you have a lot of dialogue that is uninterrupted in that episode, did it feel like a theater production in some ways?

Yeah, I mean, they really wanted it to be a “one-er.” They wanted to get it in a single shot. And I thought: Wow, how effective if we could do that. It’s like the audience is having to sit with Taron Egerton and feel how he feels watching me do my thing. So yeah, I thought it was a great shot. But doing it, you know, having to time it out properly – just keep in mind while I’m acting with Taron, out of the peripheral of my left eye, I’m forced to know where the camera is to make sure I stick the landing…. That was a challenge, for sure.

I talked to Dennis at the start of the season, and he mentioned Taron was one of the folks that really fought for you to get this role. And for me, that prompted the question of why you wanted to do the role they fought really hard for you to get. You’re playing a serial killer. What made you want to tackle that challenge? 

I’m trying to think of the best way to say this, because I know what you mean, there’s a weird connotation: Why would you do a character like this?

I mean, you can be the most light hearted person in the world, but you’re going to have to think about some very horrible things and commit the lines to memory to do this.

I just looked at all my favorite actors, and I fall in line with them. So Peter Sarsgaard “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Lovelace.” Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards” and “Green Mile.” Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” and “99 Homes.” These are my guys, these are my Brandos, De Niros, Pacinos, Sidney Poitiers. So I kind of follow the playbook of not being afraid of doing something grisly and awful.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have limits. There are things I wouldn’t do on camera. But if it’s me just recounting something grisly and disgusting for the sake of a narrative that’s thoughtfully dramatic…. I think it’s worth my time and worth my talent. Going into it, though, you’ve just got to commit to anything you’re doing. Good acting is really just, you’ve got to convince yourself and commit and not be afraid to go there. Because if you half step in or you half ass it, audiences are way too smart. They’re going to see it and then they’re going to rip you apart.

There’s been plenty said about Larry’s voice. I’m less interested in the voice and more interested in essentially the focus that Larry has in your scenes, and how he kind of disappears at certain points in time. How did you calibrate that?

Some of those moments where Larry spaces out, that’s all in Dennis’ writing. He wanted those moments of mental detachment; he sculpted those. And then, how to play that, it’s tricky. I think while playing Larry, a lot of what I’m doing is just what I would refer to as “gainful disposition” or “selfish disposition.” You’re not really moving to the flow of social traffic; you’re in your own world the entire time. When you’re in your own world the entire time, similar to Kathy Bates in “Misery,” you’re sort of in your own flow state, and you’re really unencumbered by the things around you, for the most part. Sometimes, when I was playing Larry, I would react to something because I thought: Oh, people would think I should react. Not because I’m actually bothered or surprised or interested. So you’re constantly kind of performing in line within the guy. That’s that selfish disposition.

How far down the wormhole did you go into Google while researching this character? 

It was like 15% research, 85% Dennis’ scripts. There’s no video footage of the guy that I was given. I didn’t bother to go meet him in the prison in the Carolinas or wherever he is. It was very much Dennis’  brilliant writing and my warped creativity.

I would love to hear a little bit about what your relationship was like with Taron when you two were on set, actor to actor.

Everybody’s different. I’m very bro-y with men and women that I work opposite. I immediately try to make them my sibling. So, with Taron, it was like, “Let’s go have some cocktails. Let’s play each other our favorite songs off of music streaming apps. Let’s go to the gym and workout together and then grab a sandwich and go see a movie in the theater.” It was a lot of immediate socializing early on. And then as we got into the work, we were just so tired. We barely saw each other off set because we were just in go mode all the time, especially Taron. He had to keep up that physicality.

Taron had the lion’s share of physical work there, so he was exhausted, too. That was off set. On set, we tried to be overly communicative and kind and loving toward each other. And I always defer to him, you know? I always looked at him as No. 1, and I was No. 2. That’s just how I treated him on set. I deferred to him in every sense. And part of that’s him being a producer. I tried to honor the fact that this guy’s producing the show, too. I need to show him the respect he’s earned.

“Black Bird” is streaming now on Apple TV+.