Playing a convicted murderer — and probable serial killer — is challenging enough, but playing a real-life murderer whose victims were young girls? One can imagine how Paul Walter Hauser could have had a hard time.
Adding to that, his time playing a killer on the “Black Bird” shoot was spent mostly on a prison set, delayed and extended by external calamities.
Oh, and Hauser was simultaneously trying to get sober.
It made for some dark days, indeed.
“I started going to a program while filming,” the actor says. “I was struggling with depression and having this reckless seed in me where I almost didn’t care what happened to me. That’s a scary place,” Hauser says of his need to quit alcohol and marijuana. “I got sober in the middle of the shoot and then I really got into a program that autumn. My life has changed drastically ever since. I’m a better, more reliable, children’s version of myself – to myself and other folks.”
In the fact-based Apple TV+ series, charming convicted drug dealer James “Jimmy” Keene Jr. (played by Taron Egerton) is dispatched by the FBI to the maximum-security prison holding convicted murderer Lawrence Hall (Hauser). Hall is on the verge of being released on appeal. Keene is promised his freedom if, by befriending Hall, he can locate some of the bodies of Hall’s many suspected victims. For the sunny and self-absorbed Keene, it’s a terrifying voyage into the heart of darkness that becomes a mission to keep a monster from returning to his hunting ground.
For Hauser, the production had its own perils.
“I think darkness loves company, man,” he says. “So when you’re in a town like New Orleans, which has a lot of darkness, and you pair that with playing a serial killer … yeah. Plus having depression and addictive behaviors, that’s like the devil’s playground to have something horrible happen.”
For his transformative portrayal (he lost 40 pounds and adopted an incongruously high voice), Hauser has won a Critics’ Choice Award and a Golden Globe, and is nominated for a SAG Award, as is Egerton. Hall’s story was shot chronologically, so after a few interrogation scenes, most of Hauser’s time was spent on a prison set.
“By Episode 3, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s getting real. This is our home for the next three months,’ ” he says.
Taron Egerton stars as an FBI informant in “Black Bird.”
Then the intended four-month shoot was extended for six weeks by COVID and Tropical Storm Claudette. That’s a long time to spend in a place without much light — more figuratively than literally.
“I understood the problems and feelings [Hall] had. Much of them are entirely human. The acts themselves were not human,” he says. “But I know what loneliness is like. I know what it means to feel marginalized or not included. I know what it feels like to have a brother who looks more presentable or talented,” as Hall did.
Hauser lets that soft-spoken, “human” face slip and reveals the bared teeth beneath only very late in the series, and only briefly, making those teeth seem all the sharper.
“There is that sort of quiet, strategic, deceptive thing where he has poor hygiene, poor posture, but you don’t know what he’s capable of until he [confesses]. I tried to own that dark, heinous, surreptitious thing that’s in people like him … I was like, ‘Let’s choose … when to prove that I’m bat s—.’
“I said, ‘On that last scene, I’ll give you straight takes so you have what you need, but I’m also gonna improvise and I’m gonna do some weird stuff.’ When I beat my fists against my pelvis [thrusting] and say to [Keene], ‘What that 80 women you slept with?’ and the line, ‘I’ve dug more [graves] than you’ve f—ed’; all of that is improvised. I wanted the crazy to come out and disturb Taron. Because Jimmy would be disturbed. So I just went for it.”
That’s the take the series used.
In one of their final scenes together, when Hall is hurling poisonous invective at Keene, “After the second or third take, as the guards are pulling me away, I tried to stick my fingers in Taron’s mouth as if to say, ‘I’ m gonna give you something to remember me by.’
“I’m trying to scare him for real. Taron was very patient and giving and forgiving of me. When you have another actor that’s game, you get results like that.”
By the end of the shoot, “We both just wanted to take a shower and get the hell outta New Orleans,” Hauser says with a laugh.
He can’t say enough about his co-star (and executive producer): It was Egerton who insisted Hauser be cast.
“Taron empowered me in a way no other cast member has,” he says. “The entire time, Taron made me believe in myself and didn’t look at me as this sidekick, this JV squad player; didn’t talk down to me. He treated me on an even playing field, which isn’t always the case. So I now have a different sort of confidence and self-love.
“It’s funny how the process of the shoot felt so unhealthy, but the effect was the healthiest thing I ever did.”
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