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Hannah Woodhead

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Sophie Rowan

Paul Walter Hauser: ‘We have to hold people in power accountable’

The star of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell talks making the step up for his first lead role.

After stealing scenes in I, Tonya, BlacKkKlansman and Late Night, Paul Walter Hauser takes centre stage in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, a typically knotty political drama centred around the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which left one person dead and over 100 more injured.

As the eponymous real-life security guard accused of masterminding the attack, Hauser gives one of the performances of the year – although for the time being he says he isn’t in it for the little gold men. LWLies caught up with Hauser in London recently, where he was filming Disney’s Cruella (in which he plays de Vil’s bumbling henchman, Horace), for a chat about working with a living legend, and why this story is more relevant than ever.

LWLies: Did you grow up watching Clint films?

Hauser: I’d be lying if I said that I grew up on a diet of Clint Eastwood. I watched a lot more comedy and silly stuff coming up, but one film that was at the forefront of my viewing was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That film was on television like every week when I was growing up. I have this vivid memory of Clint wearing that cap and having a little stoke between his teeth smoking. To me he’s this icon, like John Wayne or Elvis. Plus the fact that he had an acting career that went from TV westerns to film westerns and action films to dramas, the occasional comedy, and then directing and playing the piano, and doing the score for movies. He really is a bit of a renaissance man.

He’s done it all. And to be still doing so much at 89 is pretty amazing…

You know what I’ll be doing at 89? Nothing. I will for sure be dead. I’ll be dead as Dillinger.

How was the audition process for Richard Jewell?

So the story goes: I was in Thailand filming a Spike Lee movie, and I got a call. They say, ‘Hey, we have this TV limited series, someone made you an offer for a role. Do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘Of course, this sounds awesome.’ Then two days later I get a call saying, ‘Clint Eastwood wants you in his new movie,’ and I thought, ‘Are you sure?’ And they said that it was real, the movie isn’t set up, but they know that you have this TV offer, and they’re asking that you would decline for scheduling purposes because if the movie materialises, they want you to be the main guy. So I turned down this TV offer, while not knowing if the movie with Clint was going to happen.

The Clint movie was with Fox, Disney bought Fox, so then the movie was at Disney. But Clint’s filmmaking home was Warner Bros. So it was this whole thing between studios and lawyers and all that type of junk. So I was just waiting around, but I found out that apparently he had seen I, Tonya, he had seen BlacKkKlansman and he had liked my work in both, but that wasn’t really at the forefront of his mind.

What was at the forefront was that Geoff Miclat and Jessica Meier, his producer and casting director, they printed out a photo of me and put it next to a photo of Richard Jewell, and they like stapled it onto a cork board or whatever. And they said, ‘Hey Clint, is this your Richard Jewell?’ Half-kidding, half-serious – they just wanted to see how he would react. And he goes, ‘Yeah,’ he kind of squints, [impersonates Clint squinting] and says, ‘That’s the guy.’ So he just had an instinct, I don’t think my acting wowed him so much as he saw that I was capable of going the distance and committing. And I certainly look like the guy.

In Marie Brenner’s original Vanity Fair story about Jewell she talks about the Jay Leno remarking that Jewell looks like Shawn Eckhardt, who you played in I, Tonya.

How weird is that?

We like to think as human beings we’re unique and there’s only one person that looks like us. It’s like the doppelgänger theory.

Oh, it’s bizarre. It exists! I get it all the time where people post a photo of somebody in an airport or in a shopping mall and they’ll go, ‘Were you in St Louis, Missouri last weekend?’ And I’m like, ‘No?’ And they say, ‘Well this guy was!’ The worst is when it doesn’t look like you and it’s just like someone who looks like maybe worse than you and you’re like, ‘Oh, that guy had his pants up to his naval and he’s just spilt mustard from his hot dog on his t-shirt.’

You’re like, ‘Uh, thanks…’

Yeah, thank you so much! Never lose my number!

How did the first meeting with Clint go?

I was nervous. I took this photo of myself on the Warner Bros lot before I walked in to meet Clint and it was just me kind of freaking out. Clint put me at ease pretty quickly though. He’s just a normal guy – he’s a film fan and a storyteller and a father and he just carries himself in kind of a classical old-timer way. He can be self-deprecating, he doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke, he makes fun of himself sometimes.

What was the process like working with him?

It’s pretty organic. I don’t think it’s premeditated or strategised that much. I’m sure the filming of it is strategised, the look of it and what he wants and the intentionality of how the camera moves, the composition visually. But, as far as the acting goes, he’s pretty hands-off. He’s not telling you how to steer, he’s telling you what speed we’re going. So he’ll tell you to step on the gas or he’ll tell you to let your foot off the pedal.

One thing that surprised me, he would sometimes watch you like theatre. He wouldn’t look at the monitor, he wasn’t in video village, like eating shrimp cocktail, looking at his phone while filming. He was very engaged, sitting as far away as you are from me, three or four feet, watching me do the scene. Though it was jarring at times, to have Clint Eastwood staring at you while you’re doing a scene, there was something very warm and tender about it too. And you saw how much he cared every single day, every single scene.

Richard Jewell passed away in 2007, so you couldn’t go directly to the source. What was your preparation for the character?

I prepped it the way I would prep for any character. I don’t think my methodology or strategy changed much. It’s always: read the script two to four times and get a feel for the environment for the film, the tonality and the energy. And then look at the key moments and think about what I want to do with this. Then little by little, you find all those small things. I bet when you’re a parent, you go into it thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got to feed this thing, I can’t let this kid die, I’ve got to love it, I’ve got to give it a name, got to get it its shots, take it to the doctor, it’s got to go to school.’

You’re doing all the baseline things. And then there are the nuances, like a mom who writes a note in her kid’s lunch that says ‘I love you,’ just for the sake of saying it. There are moments as an actor where you go, ‘What is my version of the note that I leave in the lunch bag?’ The things make it special and real. Sometimes you don’t do those things for the whole audience. You do them for the five people out of 20 who are going to notice it. I think this is a movie where I was enabled the opportunity to put on those little nuances and idiosyncrasies and try to make it real.

How much did you know about Richard Jewell before you came to work on the film?

I think I was nine and a half when it happened, the summer of ’96. It was a big story but it just didn’t register with me because of my age at the time. And years later you would hear minute accounts or abbreviated accounts of the story, but it was kind of like the I, Tonya story too, people don’t remember if Nancy Kerrigan was bludgeoned by Tonya Harding, or what happened. So with Richard Jewell, people are like, ‘Wasn’t he that serial killer?’ I mean, it’s like a game of Phone right? I tell you, ‘The squirrel ran up the tree,’ and you tell someone else, then by the fifth or sixth or seventh person it’s, ‘There are curls up in the brie.’

The Richard Jewell story has been bloviated and worked into something it’s not. And what’s nice about a film or a documentary is that you get a chance to give clarity and iron those things out. I’ve been wanting to be in a movie like this for a long time. One of my favourite movies, like in my top five, is A Few Good Men. So this is totally up my alley as a moviegoer. And as an actor you dream of getting to be a small part in a movie like this, let alone the titular character.

‘The titular Richard Jewell’!

Yeah, it’s crazy! I’m not numb to it. When I get a text from Spike Lee or when I get invited to partake in a movie like this, those things still boggle my mind, they’re not normal yet.

Especially because this is your first lead role. Was that exciting? 

No, it was scary! I’m through being cool. I can’t do it, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work. Not for me. My initial reaction to this was that I felt honoured. Then I felt scared. And then, after meeting Clint and meeting everybody and seeing that they’re all normal people – they’re not weirdos or Hollywood elitists with big egos, they’re just cool storytellers – I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m okay… I have support.’ So it ended up pretty perfect, but embarking on a journey like this to play a real guy in a big, splashy Warner Bros movie, it’s crazy.

The idea of a trial by media has only become more prevalent now with social media. Do you feel like this is a contemporary story?

This is an evergreen story that unfortunately will always be relevant. People are fallible, they make mistakes. But you hope that the height of their problematic behaviour is at the mistake level. This was not the mistake level, this was not a mistake. These guys knew darn well that Richard couldn’t have done what he did without an accomplice, and him having an accomplice supersedes the “lone-bomber” profile they claim to put on him.

They clearly were in the wrong and kept proceeding with business as usual. This happens all the time, whether in a high school setting or at the height of the FBI. I don’t think it’s a political statement as a film, but I think there are political implications and we have to be aware of them. This is just bad behaviour on the part of people in power. We have to hold them accountable.

Richard Jewell is released 31 January. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

Published 28 Jan 2020

Tags: Clint Eastwood Paul Walter Hauser Richard Jewell

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