Paul Walter Hauser previews his disturbing turn as a suspected serial killer in Black Bird
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When the role of suspected serial killer Larry Hall crossed Paul Walter Hauser's path, it was an "immediate yes" for the actor, as long as it met one major criteria.
"To be honest, I don't know that I would've even signed on, had it been a gross-out serial killer story," Hauser admits.
Thankfully for the star, Black Bird is a six-episode, gritty, suspenseful psychological thriller developed and executive produced by Dennis Lehane (premiering July 8 on Apple TV+). Inspired by a real story, and based on the memoir In with the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene and Hillel Levin, it follows Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) as he begins a 10-year prison sentence. Jimmy is promptly handed an incredible offer: If he can elicit a confession from suspected killer Larry Hall, he will be freed. Completing this mission becomes the challenge of a lifetime.
Hauser says he likens the project more to the Edward Norton-starring 1996 thriller Primal Fear than a true crime series — which he's more than okay with. "The older I get, the less interested I am in watching true crime because the world is in such a place," he says. "But I think what we did here is we're telling a story about a relationship, and it's really an undercover kind of crime story. So we don't get into the ooey-gooey, 'let me show you the gory detail' stuff. It's really more of a psychological drama, and that's the kind of thing I watch as often as possible."
The Richard Jewell star is no stranger to playing the "bad guy" (or the wrongfully accused one, in the case of Jewell) — having done so in the likes of I, Tonya; Cruella; and BlacKkKlansman. Still, playing Hall, who was only ever officially charged with the 1993 kidnapping of a young murder victim, but according to experts is believed to have killed up to 40 more women, might have posed Hauser's most dark and disturbing challenge yet.
To pull it off, Hauser first had to physically transform into Hall. The actor says he lost about 40 pounds for the role, and he credits the hair and makeup teams led by Katherine Gordon and Nana Fischer with creating Hall's shaggy, greasy hair, mottled skin, and the infamous muttonchop sideburns (the killer calls them "burnsides") he donned as part of his Civil War reenactments.
Hall's voice, which is quite a bit higher in register than Hauser's, immediately stands out when watching the series. So do his various unsettling mannerisms — including a giggle that is pure nightmare fuel. Crafting all of that was a little trickier than the physical transformation. When it came to the voice, Hauser could only find "10 to 15 seconds of composite audio" on YouTube to pull from, and the little he did hear shocked him.
"When Mahershala Ali did that film Green Book, the real guy he was playing, he said the register was so high-pitched that he had to kind of cut it in half to make it believable and also not distracting for the viewer in the film, and I kind of did the same thing with Larry," Hauser says. "Larry's real voice is, from what I heard, pretty wildly high-pitched and distracting. So what you see is me at like a seven, seven-and-a-half rather than the 10 of absurdity in his vocal tone."
For Hall's physicality, Hauser just had to honor "the text and the contextual clues" he got from photographs. "I really just had to kind of go to my laboratory and construct this character based on the writing and based on what Taron was doing," Hauser says.
All of that was a cakewalk compared to having to inhabit the mind of a killer for six months. No method acting here, however. Hauser says he shook off his character as much as possible at the end of the day. "When I would go home, I would watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I would play Super NES Nintendo video games with my assistant. I would find ways to get out of Larry and to just be a simpleton and enjoy things because it is not fun on the day when you have to feel the emotions he felt."
He continues, "It's no different from when I did BlacKkKlansman, when I played a racist — I don't like playing these things. It's not like I get any enjoyment out of it, but if I'm going to be any good at my job, it has to be honest. So I have to get as close as I can to those feelings in those moments. And that's not fun at all. That sucks."
All that said, Hauser is ultimately a self-described "comedically-inclined individual," who would try at times to keep things light on set, especially between himself and Egerton. "I try to bond with all my cast members. That's just how I am," Hauser explains. "Let me cook you dinner. Let's go do Top Golf. Let's see a movie during the day, whatever. And I think it adds to the work," he admits. He hit it off with Richard Jewell costar Sam Rockwell and I, Tonya costar Sebastian Stan, he shares as examples. "Taron and I felt that way about this process, and we immediately dove deep and had serious, hard conversations about our personal lives. And we watched movies together and we had a few drinks and we very much bonded immediately, knowing this is going to be a big one. We've got to make sure that we give of ourselves to give on screen."
In fact, it's this bond he forged with Egerton — whom he shares most of his scenes with in the series — that just might be the part he loved most about making Black Bird. "My favorite takeaway from the entire experience was finding out that Taron Egerton and I both loved the movie The Muppet Christmas Carol and we randomly started sending each other videos of us singing songs from The Muppet Christmas Carol. Just want to offer that up, because that's a real thing," he says with a laugh.
Might those videos ever be offered up, too? Says Hauser, "We'll see. Got to get that beautiful Brit's permission."
In addition to Egerton and Hauser, Black Bird stars Greg Kinnear, Ray Liotta, and Sepideh Moafi. The first two episodes hit Apple TV+ July 8, with the final four airing weekly afterwards.
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