My favorite actor right now is Paul Walter Hauser.
Who is Paul Walter Hauser? Let me tell you. His notable film credits to date include Richard Jewell, in which he was Richard Jewell; I, Tonya, in which he played a criminal auteur named Shawn; and Cruella, in which he was Bob Hoskins. He also made me laugh in a sketch in the most recent season of I Think You Should Leave. He was raised in Saginaw, Michigan, and his father is a Lutheran minister. He loves professional wrestling, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and his wife. I am consistently surprised at the Twitter topics he decides to engage with. There are other movies he’s been in and things to tell you about him, but I’m not great at consuming content, just at following my heart.
I think he’s underrated at the moment, but I know that’s a bit sweaty as arguments go, a bit tedious. The whys and hows of an actor’s career don’t make sense in a way I can authoritatively convey. I’m also not going to try to convince you that this is the actor we need right now, the actor you have been completely missing out on, the next person we’re all going to be obsessed with. Paul Walter Hauser is not the counterargument to the world’s depression. Art’s consolation is sadly temporary.
Instead, I will say: Paul Walter Hauser is really good. Brad Pitt agrees. Some other people on the internet agree, and often they say so, which is really nice to see.
Paul’s performances make me feel things I am thankful to feel. His villainous bodyguard in I, Tonya renewed my flagging interest in a classic comedic trope: the dud who thinks he’s already a king. It’s a great feeling to laugh at something you thought had lost its surprise. I’m not the biggest fan of the movie, which I think is a rude approximation of real people, but Paul is too good to ignore. As real-life goof Shawn Eckhardt, he manages to be completely ineffectual while also prompting great chaos, embodying the whole tragedy of the Tonya Harding story in very few scenes. He blinks and squints and sometimes shuts his eyes entirely when he talks, which has the charm of revealing something you’ve always noticed about some people but never put into words. When finally he opens those eyes wide, you really know shit’s hit the fan. When he says, “I know a guy, shouldn’t even be saying his name,” then leans in and barely stage-whispers, “Derek,” forgive my language but Jesus Christ. That timing! He is a bright star of charisma, in an awful knit sweater.
I cried several times watching him as Richard Jewell. Real tears, not emoji tears. I love that flawed movie, and Paul is undeniably impressive in it. His portrayal transcends what Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner called the real Jewell’s “porcine blankness”; via actorly alchemy, something wordless within him emerges to form a complete person. He made me think, not passingly, about how imperfect decency can be. How every person can think they were made for something else, and how their aspirations are not wholly who they are. He made me think: do we all deserve redemption, and what does it matter if we do? He made me wonder: wait, am I a Republican? (No.)
(Caveat: I could not finish Cruella, with all respect to Paul’s pitch-perfect cockney troll. I do appreciate him, but he is not a shaman. Even he cannot redeem a movie that felt to me like dropping a lead weight in a swimming pool.)
I am mostly affected by Paul Walter Hauser’s earnestness. It’s a forceful quality that can be both funny and upsetting. I also think I’m reacting to an absence of condescension. Knowing Paul’s interactions with meanies on Twitter, I think he’d hate to be roped into a comparison that makes other actors look bad. He’s a good Christian, it seems like, and I want to respect that so I won’t name names. (Two of the names were in Hillbilly Elegy, and they rhyme with Ben Dose and Blamey Badams.) I just think that absence of condescension is rare, and the sign of a good artist.
Part of it is his physical presence, which he changes often and sometimes subtly. In the movies I’ve mentioned, the other characters call him callously horrible things, all because of his weight and size. In I, Tonya, he is called a tub of guts. In Richard Jewell, there are many nods to Jewell’s overeating and resulting eventual heart failure. I think it’s important to note what Paul does with these moments, because he takes them seriously and doesn’t reduce them to cliche or pillory.
For instance, his I, Tonya character always sits with inscrutable commitment and intent, no matter where he is. He thinks he is Marlon Brando at the beginning of The Godfather, but he’s just in the backseat of a car. His chin and jaw are always soft, but his brow is tense and twisted. Despite this, despite his actual role as a bodyguard, you never get the sense anyone has ever been scared of him. He can be imposing without aggression, as if he has learned to move through the world with too much care. He is uniquely great at playing a person who’s capable of squeezing the breath out of you, when he’s just trying to give you a hug.
In Richard Jewell, his character undergoes tremendous stress, and his physicality transforms. He loses control over his impact on others. He becomes so overwhelming in everyone’s imagination that people get angry or belligerent or cruel; even the ones who love him unconditionally, like his mother, step back from his concern, in nervous fear. It’s masterful that in spite of the characters’ reactions to him, you believe Richard, first and foremost. He’s not going to hurt anyone. Even though his character has an absurd collection of guns, and he loves authority a bit too much, the way he holds himself reminds you that he is trying to be good. That’s something you can’t teach, honestly.
Character actors are a dying commodity, with studio preferences trending toward bland gym rats, steroids, and capped teeth, or sexuality that’s more like a virgin’s description of the act than the act itself. When you’re watching the latest thing on your streaming platform of choice, it’s rare to feel like you’re not watching a dramatic interpretation of a contract. I think this is a good thing about Paul Walter Hauser, even when he is in one of those latest things: he is always someone I feel like I’ve met before, not a product I’ve decided to buy. Even in a Disney film, he is a version of a person. It feels like what movies are supposed to be, and not what they mostly are.
What is it about Paul Walter Hauser? What is the quality that draws you to someone, regardless of what they look like, what they’re doing, or what they look like when they’re doing it? Is it novelty, or charisma? Is it the delight inherent in absurdity, or the craft of acting? Is it just what’s known as presence? He just… is… there! And you suddenly want to know everything about him. Or I do, anyway.
Paul Walter Hauser’s presence is never one note, and that’s what is so exciting to me about him. Could he play a bad guy, not like in Cruella but a genuinely bad person? I sort of think not, it would be too sad, and also he seems like too much of a sweetie. But then what do I know? I only know for sure that he is capable of surprising me. I like to think he could do it if he was up for it. Someone with his talent should be given the chance.
Jen Vafidis is a writer in Brooklyn.