Paul Walter Hauser is almost unrecognizable in the Apple TV+ thriller Black Bird. The character actor, mostly known for comedic roles, embodies real-life serial killer Larry Hall with a truly creepy smile, those distinctive sideburns, and a high-pitched speaking voice.
Created by Dennis Lehane, the show follows narcotics dealer Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) on a mission to get Larry to admit to his crimes in exchange for his freedom. But Larry is perpetual liar, making it difficult to get an honest confession out of him, which sets off a frightening cat-and-mouse game. Even in a year when true crime shows have dominated much of the TV landscape, Black Bird is standout, and Hauser’s performance—we can’t stress this enough—is a jarring, powerful one.
To mark the show’s finale on August 5, The A.V. Club spoke to Hauser about how he prepared to play Larry, his experiences of working with Egerton and Ray Liotta (who plays Jimmy’s father), and the toll this character took on him.
The A.V. Club: This is one of your first forays into true crime. Are you a fan of the genre?
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Paul Walter Hauser: Absolutely. Some of my favorite TV shows and movies are true-crime stories. I love The Wire, which deals with real things happening in Baltimore and other cities daily. My favorite David Fincher film of all time is Zodiac. So I always wanted to play someone in this type of world, whether it’s a cop, a killer, or a journalist. Black Bird ended up being the best-case scenario for me. I get to spit out Dennis Lehane’s amazing words and work opposite actors like Taron Egerton, Ray Liotta, and Greg Kinnear.
AVC: Was the writing your source of inspiration when you were working out how to play Larry Hall? Or were there other similar dark performances you looked up to?
PWH: I didn’t call upon any other performances I can think of. A lot of it was Dennis’ writing and my own warped creativity. I do a lot of people watching, not actor watching but behavioral watching. That goes into everything I do. I once heard Michael Keaton talk about how instead of ripping off other actors, he rips off people he met, like an auto mechanic he met as a teenager or his golfing buddies or something like that. It’s kind of what I do too. I look at people I’ve met and think about how, for example, Larry is socially awkward, so what are some tricks I’ve seen in socially awkward people? You match those choices with what’s happening in the scene and what you want to portray in the story. Dennis Lehane is the one who is buying the groceries and giving me the brilliant recipe, but then it’s my job to doctor it with how I’m going to burn the ends or stir in the paprika. It’s my job to make people pause while they’re chewing and ask, “What the hell am I tasting?”
AVC: That’s quite a way to phrase your performance, which is extremely disquieting. What was difficult about playing someone as dark as Larry Hall?
PWH: What wasn’t difficult about it should be the question. It was tough. I also have to say, I wanted to be as good as my scene partner, and Taron is a very good actor. It was a ton of pressure also because this script was Dennis’ baby, and Apple had spent quite a lot of money on it. As for playing a serial killer, my buddy Cameron Britton brilliantly did Mindhunter, where he played Ed Kemper. It was my favorite serial-killer performance since Anthony Hopkins. But the only way I can differentiate my approach is to block out all those performances and think about what I have to do. Having singular focus and trusting your instinct becomes the real way to get things done.
AVC: I’m so glad you brought up Mindhunter. Like it, Black Bird hinges on the creepy, uncomfortable conversations between its protagonists. In that vein, what was it like to build the chemistry, so to speak, between Larry and Jimmy over six episodes?
PWH: I’m very intentional about spending time with my co-stars off-set. Taron and I had a lot of male bonding in the way of movie watching and cocktail drinking. We became buddies before we shot together. That makes all the difference. It was the same with Sebastian Stan before I, Tonya, or Sam Rockwell before Richard Jewell. The more we bond off camera, the better the work is onscreen.
AVC: Let’s talk about the finale. Jimmy has a nightmare featuring a brief scene with you and Ray Liotta. It’s the only moment we see Larry and Big Jim together. What was that experience like?
PWH: It was truly awesome. If you ask me what my 10 favorite movies of all time are, Field Of Dreams and Goodfellas are on the list. He’s an iconic guy. Not in an “I’ve won five Oscars” kind of way, but he’s iconic to the audiences. Some people are iconic to the business or have their faces all over magazines, but Ray Liotta is iconic to the people’s hearts. That’s vastly important to me. Ray was one of those guys who the acting community adored. It was a joy to work with him, albeit briefly. He was generous with his time. He asked me questions about my life and answered whatever I was asking him. I remember there was one particularly icky line I can’t recall now, and it did not make the cut either, but I ad-libbed it during the scene. When they yelled cut, he looked at me, started cackling, and said, “You are one sick puppy.” Getting a rise out of Ray and getting him to laugh or cringe meant a lot to me.
AVC: The five episodes prior have led to Jimmy and Larry’s intense confrontation when Jimmy tells him how he feels in the finale, and Larry understands their friendship was never real. Can you walk me through what it was like to go at each other verbally and physically?
PWH: To be honest, we filmed that scene at the end of our shoot. We were exhausted and sick of each other, not because we didn’t like each other, but because we had been performing intense material in close quarters for a long time. The shoot took an extra month and a half because of COVID, a hurricane, and other delays out of our hands. We both had to give up on other opportunities to complete this show. It’s hard not to be rambly about it right now, but I will say we were tired. We were as deeply in character as one can be and knew we had to go for it. I told Taron in some regard that I’m going to do whatever I need to in this scene; I’m not going to hold back. And he understood that. Ninety-five percent of what we did was us going off in sync.
So much of it was about keeping the scene fresh after we had to do like 10 or however many times we did it in a row. There’s a moment where I started beating my inner thighs with my fist to simulate Larry’s sad, child-like interpretation of what it would be like to have sex. In the two takes I did it in, I hit myself hard and didn’t think about it. I woke up the next morning and had two giant purple bruises there. Multiple internal, mental, and sometimes physical bruises can happen with a role sometimes.
There were also some choices I made when Larry is attacking Jimmy. I stuck my fingers in Taron’s mouth in a couple of takes. I improvised and shouted some psychotic, derogatory things when the guards dragged Jimmy away, and they kept it in the final shot. Looking back, I’m most proud of the finale scene because I went all out for it. Having said that, doing it took a toll on me.
AVC: Yeah, it must be taxing to switch back and forth from when you’re filming to when you’re done for the day.
PWH: I thought, “I’m going to shed Larry the second I get off the set.” But if you ask the people who were around me, they might tell you a different story and that it had a negative effect on me. I was walking around with a bit of a dark cloud on my head. While doing the show, I was in a dark personal state too. I actually got sober while filming it. I’m very proud of Black Bird, but I don’t think I’d play such a dark character again anytime soon unless it were in a superhero movie, where the villains can be cartoonish.
AVC: What was the goal behind your final Black Bird scene, when Gary admits he thinks Larry is a killer and Larry breaks down? His brother telling him this feels like the last straw.
PWH: I interpret that scene as Larry being outed for who he is for the first time. Even when Jimmy says, “You’re a murderer” and “You’re a sicko,” it doesn’t register for Larry that his friend calls him a monster. For him, he just feels betrayed then. It isn’t until Gary says it to him that he has to accept the truth. In real life, Larry did confess to murders and rapes to his brother, and of course, he recanted it later. I looked at it like this is the moment he goes, ”Oh shit, it’s all real.”
AVC: We have to talk about Larry’s distinct, high-pitched voice. What was the process of getting it right and then maintaining it for six episodes?
PWH: One of the hardest things to do as an actor, in my opinion, is to maintain a vocal choice throughout a project. I’ve had to do it for a few things like Cruella and Richard Jewell. This one I would refer to as an emotional or psychological accent. I started off being a little more in my voice, and then I started blending to his true register in episodes two and three. The high-pitched thing is how he sounded for real. If anything, I diluted it to make it more digestible.
Dennis and I decided that he dropped his register vocally when he’s being himself; when he’s trying to say something he doesn’t mean, it will go high. We all change our vocal choices without realizing it. I never talk to a total stranger like I talk to a loved one. With Larry, he unconsciously changes to a higher register when he’s saying something full of shit, like the monologue in episode four when he’s talking about, “Oh, what a world it was, we had malt shops and candy stores and cheerleaders.” But it’s not what he grew up with. It’s a chronic illness; he didn’t live in the real world but forced his ideation upon everyone.