There were a half-dozen actors in contention for December’s Up-and-Comer of the Month honors, and there was plenty of discussion among the Tracking Board staff, but in the end, we kept coming back to I, TONYA star Paul Walter Hauser, who has been criminally overshadowed by his more famous co-stars this season.
While Margot Robbie and Allison Janney are both fantastic in the film and deserve all the critical love coming their way, you can’t discount Hauser’s turn as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya Harding’s bumbling bodyguard who fancied himself an “international operative” and ultimately served as the mastermind behind the attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
Hauser slays with every single one of his lines. When I showed I, Tonya to family members over Thanksgiving, they cracked up every time he opened his mouth. Our own Drew McWeeny wrote that Hauser’s performance “is an all-timer, never tipping over into the Saturday Night Live-style parody that would be so easy with a character as real-life outrageous as Eckhardt.”
The fact is, heavy guys are rarely given the opportunity to shine in Hollywood, but Hauser used his size to his advantage in playing Eckhardt, and he holds his own against his more experienced co-stars. The Tracking Board spoke with Hauser prior to the film’s limited release, and he was full of entertaining stories about working with Robbie and Stan. Enjoy!
What sparked your passion for acting, and why did you decide to get into this crazy business?
Well, I have three siblings, I’m one of four, so to just be heard and have your voice heard inside the family and out, you kind of have to have something to set you apart, because you’re competing for time with everybody else. I think my way in was comedy. So when I was a little kid, I was kind of big on mugging for the cameras and speaking without a filter, and I was sort of this roly-poly funny little kid who just wasn’t afraid of groups or crowds and stuff, and I think that led me to theater and falling in love with theater, and then falling in love with film. As a pre-teen, I discovered Rob Reiner movies, and Sidney Lumet and Christopher Guest, and I just fell in love with them.
Tell me about the audition process with director Craig Gillespie and how you were discovered for this role.
I had been filming a pilot in Vancouver with a bunch of amazing people and we were wrapping, I think I had two days left when I got an email [about I, Tonya] that said ‘hey, you have an audition with the director. He’s the director of Lars and the Real Girl, the script was on the Black List, written by Steven Rogers, and it’s a biopic starring Margot Robbie. So in my head, I’m like, this is the project I want but probably won’t get. They’ll probably give it to Josh Gad or Jonah Hill or somebody. But I memorized 13-pages off-book and went in cool as a cucumber. I figured I had nothing to lose and I should just be myself and go in with confidence. I just had two auditions — a director’s session up against a bunch of random guys and then a call-back, where it was just so Craig could see if I took direction well and looked malleable and stuff.
So you didn’t have to read with Sebastian Stan to see if you guys had chemistry, since you share so many scenes in the film?
No, not at all. There was no chem stuff for me or anybody else. I heard that my audition tape was passed around to everybody including Sebastian [Stan] and Margot and her husband, and everybody gave the thumbs-up at the same time. It was a crazy blessing to show up and find out how cool they were. There’s that thing of like, if you tell me I’m working with James Franco, I know a ton of James Franco’s work and I know that he does comedy, but Sebastian Stan is such a beautiful man who has done intense work. I’m like, I don’t know what this could be like, and then you meet him and he’s the most humble and funny and chill person that you could be working with, and that kind of made it incredibly easy, because we got along really, really quickly, I felt.
So how did it feel when you got the call that you’d won the part? How do you celebrate a big victory like that?
My buddy Joshua Hoover, he’s a character around my age and my type. He was Fat Joey on The Walking Dead. He’d put a self tape in for this movie, and he and I were both like, “dude, if I don’t get it I hope you get it.” We were kind of rooting for each other, and he and I were heading to a concert for this band called The Rocket Summer, one of our favorite bands. So he’s coming to pick me up and 10 minutes before he picks me up to take me to this concert, I get the call from my reps. They’re all over the phone, Joel Zadak and Bryan Walsh, these guys I’ve been with for a while, and they said “you got the movie.” They were stunned and freaking out. They were freaking out more than me because they’re like, “dude, this is the kind of role that can start a career. This can really launch you into something and give you the opportunity you’ve been fighting for.” And when I hung up, I acted like everything was calm, but then I started crying and I thanked God and thanked Jesus. And then my buddy picked me up, and as he rolls up, my face is all blotchy from crying, and he’s like, “what happened?” He figured somebody died. And I go, “I got the part in I, Tonya.” We’re in a Corvette or whatever and we put the top down and were speeding down the highway, blaring music and heading to the concert celebrating. It was like a scene out of a movie or something. It was crazy.
What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career so far?
Early on I went to college for about 10 minutes at a school called Concordia University of Chicago, and I just dropped out. I was friends with some guys from MadTV and ended up writing a movie for them when MadTV got canceled. I was like, so I’m writing a movie for MadTV cast members, I should drop out of school, since this is kind of what you would go to school for. So while I was at school that last semester, all I was doing was drinking and watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with all my friends on campus. We would get together and watch that show religiously and drink cheap beer, and then when I moved to LA, within the first year I booked a guest star role on It’s Always Sunny. It was such a pinch-me moment to be on the set of a show that I watched all the time with my friends, improvising with Charlie Day and Danny DeVito and these people, and then getting to call all my buddies and be like, “yo, you know that show we used to sit in our underwear and drink Coors Light and watch? I’m on the show!” That was a fun pinch-me moment, of which there have been several, but that was the one that meant a lot early on.
Well that answers my next question. I was going to ask you, of all the guest star roles you’ve done, what has been your favorite?
I think It’s Always Sunny is a fun street-cred thing, but there was a show I did called The Night Shift, which was an NBC medical drama. On paper, it didn’t seem like the kind of show I’d be interested in, but the people on that show are incredible. I got to go to Albuquerque for 10 days and eat green chili in every single meal I had, and hang out with crazy fun people. That was a crazy, fun time, too.
Is there an actor whose career you’d like to emulate?
Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s kind of my go-to. My favorite actor is Daniel Day-Lewis, just because he has a flawless, dedicated nature about him for which I don’t have the intellect or the patience. But I would say the guys I grew up watching who I wanted to be like were Phil Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Sam Rockwell — guys who were oddly-shaped character actors who might headline an independent film or something.
On that note, have you seen Phantom Thread yet?
No, I haven’t. Phantom Thread is kind of my Star Wars.
I’m surprised you haven’t been invited to a screening or sent a DVD!
Dude, I’m paid up. I paid my dues on the SAG-AFTRA website weeks ago and I haven’t gotten a screener yet. I’m pretty geeked when those discs come in the mail, man. It’s like Chance the Rapper came out with a new song that he did on Colbert called “First World Problems.” One of the lines was, “three verses, hell yes. I still ain’t get my Grammys in the mail yet.” I was like, “well I don’t have a Grammy in the mail, but I do have Phantom Thread coming, and I’d better get it!”
OK, this next question is important. This movie is told from multiple points of view, so what is your take on “the incident”?
In my opinion, and in the opinion of some of the filmmakers too, obviously, Tonya knew about death threats or hate mail being sent. She was privy to that and kind of gave an off-handed thumbs up to it. She, and I think maybe even Jeff, had no idea that Shawn Eckhardt was going to try and mastermind an attack of a physical nature. So is Tonya at fault? Yes, she is, but I think she’s way more of an accessory than a perpetrator, and the fact that she was kicked out of the Figure Skating Association or whatever it was called, I think that’s really, really sad, actually. I wish that hadn’t happened.
I love that scene. She’s so good that I cried watching it.
Can I tell you a quick story about that scene? There were a lot of times on this film where you’d come to set, and you know, it’s so crazy shooting a movie in 31 days with like, $10 million bucks, and it’s a biopic with stuff like action sequences. It was just such a headache that everybody took in stride and they were pretty indefatigable and jolly the whole way through, but it was a lot of work, and there were days where I’d show up and they’d be like, “hey, we’re pushing your scene to Wednesday. We’ll get you a ride back to the hotel.” And I didn’t want to go back to the hotel! I’m like, if Margot Robbie is acting opposite Allison Janney or Sebastian Stan and there’s free food, why would I not just go to my adult Disneyland and stay on set all day? So there were days where I just stayed and watched, and that was one of those days, when she did the courtroom scene. It was like, 2.5 to 3.5 hours of work, and instead of going back to my trailer or going to the hotel, I just stayed and sat behind the monitor and I watched Margot Robbie teach an acting class, essentially. What she did in that scene was just brilliant and getting to watch her do it, I’ll never forget that.
You’re playing the mastermind, in a sense, of the Nancy Kerrigan attack in I, Tonya and your next film, Black Klansman, will see you playing a member of the KKK. Are you worried about being type-cast as a bad guy, and are you eager to play the hero for once?
One of my close friends in the business is a character actor by the name of M.C. Gainey, who was in Con Air and Lost. I love M.C. He and I did a show called Kingdom together and he told me, “you’re just like me, brother. You’re a teddy bear, but they’re gonna keep putting knives and guns in your hand.” He was basically warning me, this is your fate. I think Jeff Daniels is even more of where I can see myself landing, where you can play a schlub or you can play a collegiate, you can play a villain or you can play somebody’s dad and be just as believable as an everyman. I think that’s where I’m aiming. And if for some reason I play a lot of villain roles, I mean, I’m doing it opposite Margot Robbie and getting directed by Spike Lee. It’s like, shit, I’ll take whatever they give me if that’s good of a situation, you know. I won’t be too picky at this point.
Are you in the middle of Black Klansman now, or have you wrapped? I’m curious what to expect from that film.
They wrapped this week, and I wrapped about two weeks ago, and I really enjoyed my time on that film. I worked with these guys Ryan Eggold and John David Washington and Adam Driver and Jasper Pääkkönen, and these guys are really, really great actors who all brought something different, so I think the dynamic onscreen, I’m hoping we replicated the believability and uncomfortability you get from watching a film like Mississippi Burning. Because you rewatch that film and it’s Michael Rooker and Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gailard Sartain, and you have all these guys who are kind of off-putting in this dark setting, and I really think we recreated something like that.
What was it like working with Spike Lee and Jordan Peele on that film, and how was it different from working with Craig Gillespie on a figure skating movie?
Well, Jordan and I go way back. We had the same manager for like a decade, so I used to write movies for Jordan and Keegan Michael-Key, and they put me in some of their Key & Peele sketches.I’m in one of those sketches where Jordan plays a burn victim at a comedy club and he can’t take getting made fun of. So I knew Jordan, and that was a blessing just to share the same project as him again for the first time in a while. He’s blown up since, of course. And with Spike, I didn’t know what to think. I was intimidated. But with the audition process, I just kind of went for it and kind of did the same thing I did with I, Tonya, where I went in confident and kind of left it all at the door and we got along well. I think that’s my thing… I really love working with great directors and sort of bringing a lot to the table, and I hope that’s sort of what my career is defined by. I hope I’m the guy who shows up, does his job, exceeds expectations and takes direction. But I’ll tell you what. I was so, so scared to work with Spike Lee because of who he is, and he was teddy bear, man. He was bro-hugging me all day, giggling off-camera at my improvisation and my ad-libs. It was everything I had hoped it would be.
I noticed some Director credits on your IMDb profile. I assume acting is your focus right now, but is filmmaking still among your ambitions?
Acting is what pays my bills right now, but I love screenwriting. I’m 31 years old but I’ve been writing screenplays since I was 16 years old, so I’ve amassed about 15 features and 5 original pilots, and I’m just sort of biding my time until people give a crap about me and then maybe I can be like, “hey, I’m also a writer and director. Look at my stuff!” I just directed a short called Kiss Me When I’m Down and another one entitled Messy, so those will both be available sometime next year on YouTube and Vimeo, and those are pieces I’m super proud of. We made them for next to no money with really terrific people. The way that Philip Seymour Hoffman did Jack Goes Boating or the way that the Duplass brothers pump out smaller films with close friends, that’s sort of what I’d like to do.
As an actor, is it harder for a bigger guy like yourself in Hollywood, or does your size play to your advantage?
The more I think about it, the more I think it’s probably an advantage, even though I desire a much healthier life for my health and for my future and for my dating purposes. I have these friends who are just brilliant actors but they’re thin and they’re very attractive, and they have a much harder road than me I’ve found out, where it’s tougher to stick out in a sea of beautiful people, even when you’re brilliant. And me, I kind of have this look and it immediately puts you in a different category and almost affords you better options, I think. I’m probably 270 and when I got the part in I, Tonya I was 263. I put on about 28 pounds and shot up to like, 290-291 or something when I got the role, so I’ve been taking that off. I would love to be like, 230 or 225 and just be a little bit shlubby. Guys like Jonah Hill, they lose a lot of weight and their life is better for it, but it’s tough, man. I love Jonah in Superbad and shlubby, chubby guys. You want people to be healthy, so that has to be number one, obviously, so I root for those people to get healthy as well as myself. But I’ll probably always be the out of shape guy, unless some crazy shit happens, Jeff! You might see me pull some Chris Pratt shit one day and find my Guardians of the Galaxy or my Zero Dark Thirty.
That’s my next question! Is there a superhero or comic book villain you’d like to play, or at least audition for?
In my current state, in my dream — and I already told Margot this, because she’s part of the DC Universe, so I’m already in her ear about it — I wanna play The Penguin, man! You’ve seen it done by Burgess Meredith and he was, you know, sort of quirky and curmudgeonly, and then you saw Danny DeVito do it and he looked like something out of a nightmare. I want to do the Christopher Nolan version of Penguin, where he plays somebody who’s very, very bothersome and sort of has a Marlon Brando edge to it. I have a take on it which I can’t translate over the phone but dude, I want to do my Penguin really bad. And then if somebody thought of me for something else, because I don’t know comic books that well, I’m obviously open to that. I would love to do something in that world.
What’s next for you?
Well, I wrapped Black Klansman and I wrapped a small part in Super Troopers 2, which comes out on April 20, so I’m sort of just looking for another job, to be completely honest. It’s a weird time because I’m celebrating I, Tonya, but I don’t really have a job in the new year, so I’m just hoping the film does well and people love it, and I hope they remember me when they go to cast this stuff.
Last question. At 7-6, do the Detroit Lions make the NFL playoffs?
I’ll tell ya what, Matt Stafford is such a promising quarterback, I wish that the rest of the team was playing at his level. But I say they make the playoffs. Somebody’s got to! I’m actually a Packer fan, because I’m a backstabbing bastard and I don’t root for the Lions even though I’m from Michigan, but my boy Aaron Rodgers is out, man, so I’ve been rooting for the Lions and I hope they make it to the playoffs. So I say “yes.”
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief