Richard Jewell star Paul Walter Hauser on his breakout moment: 'It's just dawning on me'

"It's just dawning on me," the 33-year-old Michigan native admits, sitting down with an old fashioned at the hotel bar. "I was crying in the hallway 45 minutes ago because I walked out of an interview with Clint and he said some really sweet words, and I was like, 'Where the hell am I? What am I doing?'"

Hauser plays the titular character in Eastwood's latest film (out Dec. 13), which follows Jewell, the security worker who gained notoriety when he discovered a bomb planted during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and went from being the hero of the story to the potential villain when the FBI named him the top suspect. Hauser is already earning accolades for his work as Jewell, whom he describes as "chivalrous and gentle," with the National Board of Review crowning him the year's Breakthrough Performance.

It's a trajectory Hauser dreamt of, but not one he ever thought would happen — and certainly not so fast. Growing up, Hauser was drawn to film, and specifically, comedy. He can list his first inspirations in record time, from Robin Williams and Chris Farley to Martin Short and Jim Carrey, but it was A Few Good Men that really opened his eyes to the possibilities of Hollywood. "That changed my perspective of what I could do someday," Hauser says. "It went from trying to make people laugh to trying to make people feel something or be afraid of me or whatever I could elicit. A Few Good Men and As Good As It Gets were the advent of me taking film seriously."

Since then, Hauser's had what he considers four "big breaks" in the business. The first was Virginia, the 2010 Dustin Lance Black film, which Hauser booked as a background actor. But after introducing himself to Black on set, he ended up landing a bigger part, the money from which he used to move to Los Angeles in November of 2009. Hauser would then spend the next five to six years doing the whole struggling-actor thing before his recurring role on DirecTV's critically acclaimed and criminally underwatched series Kingdom would give him enough money to leave Five Guys behind. That was break No. 2.

I, Tonya was No. 3, because "it was a movie that people undoubtedly were going to see," he says. And break No. 4 is Richard Jewell, his first time leading a film that people will undoubtedly see. "I felt like Kingdom was earning my bachelor's degree in acting, and then I, Tonya, BlacKkKlansman, and Richard Jewell feel like I'm working my way toward finishing my master's," he says. (For the record, he hopes break No. 5 is getting to star in a standalone movie about the Batman villain Penguin, which does not exist… yet.)

But Hauser is just starting to carve out a space for himself in Hollywood, hoping to follow in the footsteps of some of the actors he admires most: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, and Paul Giamatti, to name a few. "They're not conventional leading men, but eventually they were given leading roles," Hauser says.

The same can be said of Hauser, who, at least physically, isn't a conventional leading man. He put on 30 pounds for his role in I, Tonya and 25 to play Jewell. "We need bigger guys," he says. "We lost Chris Farley, John Belushi, James Gandolfini, and we need heavier-set people to represent the real world. If I'm pigeonholed, it's that people think I play sweet-natured ne'er-do-wells." He takes a sip of his drink before adding, "There are worse fates than that in Hollywood."

It seems to be working out so far — Hauser's already filmed parts in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods and will be seen alongside Emma Stone in 2021's Cruella. But first, the world gets to see his work as Richard Jewell, a role he feels was made for him. Or rather, as he puts it: "Jeff Bridges did a movie and the director told him, 'You couldn't screw this up if you tried. You're the guy for the role. Have you heard of the game tag? You're it,'" he says, referencing Bridges' Cecil B. DeMille acceptance speech at the 2019 Golden Globes. "And this feels like I've been tagged."