The following conversation took place between Flickering Myth writer Justin Cook and BlacKkKlansman actor Paul Walter Hauser…
Today, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman hits shelves nationwide on 4K, DVD and Blu-ray (and is available for rental), and in celebration of the film’s home video release, Flickering Myth had the opportunity to talk to one of the film’s stars, Paul Walter Hauser.
Hauser, who in recent years has gained notoriety with a scene-stealing performance as Shawn Eckardt in I, Tonya and solid comedic turns in Super Troopers 2 and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, plays the role of dim-witted, white supremacist Ivanhoe; the film is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective, who set out to infiltrate Colorado Springs’ local Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1970s.
Between upcoming roles in YouTube Premium’s Cobra Kai, Nisha Ganatra’s Mindy Kaling-starring Late Night and more, it’s clear that Hauser is steadily making a name for himself and has plenty of projects on the horizon; not only that, but he is also ambitious to tackle challenging roles, ones that go outside the archetype he’s most familiar playing, as our interview made abundantly clear.
Check out our full conversation with the up-and-coming actor below, where he shares stories about working with Spike Lee & Adam Driver, the discomfort of playing a member of the KKK and how his life has changed since I, Tonya’s release…
First off, how did you get involved with BlacKkKlansman in the first place? What was the audition process like with Spike Lee?
Paul Walter Hauser: I had just come back from the Toronto Film Festival and was sort of on a high from celebrating the good reviews of I, Tonya. Two days later, I had a director’s session with Spike Lee, and I think it had to do with the response from the Toronto Film Festival about I, Tonya. So, my agent, at the time, Brian Walsh, had just, sort of, blasted all the news media about I, Tonya and got me that audition. And I was very nervous because it was Spike, and I love Spike, and I do a lot of improvisation in every role I take, at least when it calls for it. And I went in there and was like, ‘I can either do the version I really want to do or I can be timid and overly respectful of the actual writing,’ and instead I did the version I wanted to do, and I improvised and cracked jokes. Spike really understood what I was doing and really liked it — he wrote down your cell phone in the audition that was kind of crazy. He said, ‘Let me get your number, man,’ and I was like ‘If this guy took down my cell phone number, and I don’t get a part in this movie, I’m gonna be livid.’ Cause that never happens. But true to his word and his enthusiasm he cast me in the role.
What was your experience working also with Jordan Peele? Because I know that you appeared in a couple Key & Peele sketches and you guys go back a while right?
Hauser: Yeah so, Jordan and I used to have the same manager, this guy Joel Zadak, whose a really talented comedy producer and manager, so when MADTV got canceled Joel hit me up and said, ‘Ike Barinholtz and Key & Peele these guys don’t have jobs right now. You want to write a movie for one of these guys and try to get it made.’ So I wrote a movie for Key & Peele back in 2008, or something like that, 2009, and we became buddies. The movie never went, but, of course, Jordan and I stayed friends and kept in touch a little bit. And he told me at the Gospel Awards last year, he said, ‘There was no favoritism, I did not speak up on your behalf, I just got a list of the cast one day, and it said that you were in the movie, and I flipped out in my office and I was like, oh, well that’s cool.’
So, 2008, were you in college during that time?
Hauser: I was repped for literary for screenwriting when I was 20 years old while living in Michigan. So I wrote movies in high school and then sent them to companies in LA, and I got repped by this company that repped [Thomas] Lennon and [Robert Ben] Garant and Damon Wayans and all these people.
Did you have any favorite Spike Lee movies before doing this movie?
Hauser: Oh man, dude the 25th Hour that movie means so much to me. I really adore that movie and that cast is just… you know how you think about different sports teams and you look at the starting line-ups and you think, ‘Oh remember that women’s soccer team, remember that men’s NFL defensive line.’ 25th Hour was like a pairing of actors that were just, for my money, maybe the best you can get. So I adore that and then I love Do the Right Thing. I think it’s a pretty perfect movie.
So does working with a director like Spike that you respect so much as a filmmaker, does that add pressure to you in terms of just wanting to nail your role?
Hauser: It would’ve man! It should have been a terrifying affair for me, because I was a fanboy, but Spike from the outstart, at the audition, the director’s session I had, he really made me feel like you are a film geek, I am a film geek, we love telling stories, we are the same people, and that really, kind of, took the pressure off. And it helps when people laugh at your jokes, when I cracked a joke right in there, Spike would respond to it. I think that made me feel like I was a part of the team, even though my insecurities would try to tell me otherwise.
Due to the films subject matter, and constantly being on set surrounded by white supremacist and KKK memorabilia, were there times when the environment on set felt uncomfortable? Did you ever feel, stepping into the character, like it was morally challenging?
Hauser: You know what… to answer your first part of the question, the set environment was not contentious at all. The set environment was very comfortable and very homey. It was never awkward or dark or scary in that sense, but I would say the one thing I didn’t love doing was that scene where we’re all watching Birth of a Nation together. That was a day where we all felt, kind of, physically ill. It almost felt like a flu bug was cast upon everybody’s spirit, where we walked offset, and it was a little quiet and a little uncomfortable, and nobody liked that. I’ll say this too, I just think it’s interesting, from an acting standpoint, I became buddies with John David Washington while making the film, and there’s a moment where I turn to John David, and I give him a once over, and I try to make a face and walk away. There were multiple takes of that, I might have done four or five of those, and one or two of them — there wasn’t anything written, it was just ‘intimidate him.’ And there were one or two things I did while improvising that were racist, and afterwards, it really made me kind of mad at myself [about] of course I’m in character, but I’m still conjuring up the things that I’m doing. And the fact that my imagination can take me to a dark place like that of hating someone needlessly, that was frustrating and tough to think about for a couple days.
With where our country’s at today, we certainly can’t say a character like Ivanhoe is a bygone of a different era. On set, how much did Spike try to root his direction in the film’s social and political relevance today?
Hauser: I think that’s just the painful truism that endures today, I don’t think it was so overly intentional by Spike. There are certainly a couple moments that you can point at that you go, ‘Well clearly that was a rewrite moment of let’s put this in to mirror the Trump administration.’ But I would say from an attitudinal standpoint, he was just making a movie and telling a story. The fact that it so closely does mirror it is just, that’s tough, that sucks. I just rewatched Remember the Titans on my flight back to Michigan yesterday, and Remember the Titans is a great film when it comes to discussing race relations, and what was going on there is also still happening today, so I think what great films like [Remember the Titans] and BlacKkKlansman do are hold the mirror up and let you do the math on your own, and realize how painfully obvious it is that things haven’t progressed.
Remember the Titans is great. It’s one of those movies that whenever it’s on TV I just always watch it. It’s always a good time.
Hauser: Yeah it’s so snackable… I also cried like three times during it. That movie beat the crap out of me. I was crying on the flight looking like a psychopath in front of all my other passengers.
You mentioned before working with John David Washington — you and Adam Driver share a really memorable scene in the car before the attempted cross burning, and we learn about Ivan’s affinity towards C4 and blowing things up. What was you experience working with Adam on that scene and the rest of the film as well?
Hauser: Yeah, not much rehearsal or anything. That scene was funny because we were out there for 90 minutes while they were setting up the shot and assembling everything, and it was ice cold, and Adam and I had to kill time for about an hour, and we got to talk about acting and got to share some stories and just tell dirty jokes to each other and just kind of like pass the time. It was a fun little bonding moment. That’s what I remember most from that scene. I would say the actual content of the scene… you know, I got to share the screen and play with one of the great actors that are really popular right now. So it was a treat for me to do that and have that moment with him for sure.
One of the character choices about Ivanhoe that I really liked was he has a very distinctive laugh. It’s like a really perfect… I’d almost call it like a dumb guy laugh. How did you go about developing that?
Hauser: 100% honesty, here we go. I auditioned for the role that Jasper Pääkkönen got. The role of Felix. I auditioned for that, but Jasper was cast in it and Spike said I still want Paul in the movie, I’ll make him the sidekick. So I inherited the role of sidekick, and on day one of filming for me, I realized that all of my choices I had made in the audition were in sync with the character Felix, not the sidekick character. With one hour to go, before filming, I just stood in front of a mirror for an hour and tried out laughs, I tried out posture, I made faces, and what I settled on was that husky dumb laugh, with the underbite full of chewing tobacco with the head swivel and the eye squint and the hunched over look. That was all done, in about an hour before I stepped onto set. That way, I figured, I was like, ‘I’m gonna swing for the fences and if this sucks Spike will be a director and hopefully shape it and tell me, and if it’s good, then maybe it’s really good.’ So I just kind of swung for the fences on that, and what you see is a collection of my own warped mind, trying to get into the head of Ivanhoe.
It’s been a big couple of years for you, cause similar to I, Tonya there’s a lot of awards buzz surrounding BlacKkKlansman — it looks like the movie could score a Best Picture nomination — what’s it like getting caught up in this whole awards and Oscar circuit?
Hauser: You know, I have the really easy job of just sort of being a fraction of the big picture and getting to attend a couple parties here and there or take part in interviews with cool people like you, so I haven’t really felt the pressure of any of it, or had many altering shifts in my career other than, I think people know my face or know my name a little bit in my business. It’s been wonderful to be a part of really great films, and the fact that they’re getting nominated for awards is freaking nuts man. I grew up watching the Oscars, you know, crazy.
You got this mountain of praise for your work in I, Tonya as Shawn Eckardt, and he was a real scene stealer in the movie. You mentioned this sort of before, but how has your life changed both professionally and personally since that movie came out?
Hauser: (Joking) Mostly just the fact that I’ve been quietly dating Sebastian Stan, I think that’s been the biggest shift.
Hauser: Yeah I think that’s the first, I think you have the exclusive on that! No, I would say that the biggest changes in my life have been getting better auditions. There are rooms I used to not be let into that I now get to go into, audition-wise. And I would say, the occasional offer comes in, where you don’t have to audition, and somebody says, “Hey, I thought you for the idiot brother or the gas station attendant,’ and sometimes you look at that and you go, ‘Oh you just want me to keep playing idiots.’ I can do that, but I also want to be creative, and I can’t really spill any of the beans now, but there’s a role that I’m probably doing next year with a couple really talented people, and the director told me, he said, ‘I purposely wanted you for this not because you played it before, but because I think you’re capable.’ That meant a lot to me. I’m excited to try to have some diversity in the things that I do.
So I have to ask, Matt Reeves’ Batman is looking to head into production sometime next year, I know you’ve been starting this campaign to play [the Penguin]? Has there been any movement on that front, any meetings with DC?
Hauser: So, if you go to my Instagram page, you’ll see both photographic and videographic evidence of me doing the character. I think that I can do with the Penguin what Heath Ledger did with the Joker. If somebody gives me the opportunity, I’m far from the most famous choice, and I don’t know if I can put butts in seats, but I know I can give an unforgettable performance.
And then, just very quickly, Cobra Kai — is there anything you can tell us about your character on that show? It was one of my favorite TV shows of 2017.
Hauser: Yeah, those guys are terrific. All I can say is that I play a character that is of comedic relief in the show, and that I get to work opposite almost all the cast members. That’s been a real joy to get to know those folks.
Universal Home Entertainment has released BlacKkKlansman on home video today, November 6th, so those looking to view it for the first time or watch it again can do so on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and digital/rental services.
From visionary director Spike Lee comes the provocative story based on Ron Stallworth’s real life as Colorado Springs’s first African-American police officer who went undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Unbelievably, Detective Stallworth (John David Washington) and his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) penetrate the KKK at its highest levels to thwart its attempt to take over the city. Produced by the team behind the Academy-Award winning Get Out, Spike Lee uses his trademark take-no-prisoner style and humor to tell this story often missing from the history books.
Also, check out this exclusive clip from the special features for BlacKkKlansman, where the cast reveals their favorite scary movies (and talk about the scary social and political relevance of BlacKkKlansman today)…