From Saginaw to Spike Lee, Paul Walter Hauser finds his way

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was Christmas Eve 2018 when Paul Walter Hauser got a call from Spike Lee.

Hauser was visiting family in his hometown Saginaw and was sleeping one off from the night before when around 12:30 p.m. the white noise app on his phone was interrupted by a phone call from the director, whom he had recently worked with on “BlacKkKlansman.”

Actor Paul Walter Hauser, in front of a sign for the annual Old Saginaw City Lawn Chair Film Festival, in hometown Saginaw, Michigan on June 9, 2020.

“I jump out of bed and I try to act like I wasn’t sleeping and I’m like, ‘what up, Spike?’” says Hauser during a recent phone call. “He goes, ‘where you at?’ I go, ‘Saginaw.’ He goes, ‘Sag-i-naw! It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,’ and he’s quoting ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel to me.

“He goes, ‘what are you doing March and April?’ I go, ‘nothing.’ He goes, ‘I’ve got a part for you in my movie! We’re shooting Thailand and Vietnam. Get ready,’ and he hangs up. I’m like, ‘what?’”

Hauser took the role in the movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” which premieres Friday on Netflix. A series of incidents surrounding the film, whether fate or coincidence, reaffirmed the actor’s faith and solidified his path, which took him from mid-Michigan dreamer to big screen believer, working with some of the world’s top filmmakers.

Later that day, head still spinning, Hauser went to see Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” with his parents. When he got out of the movie, the script for “Da 5 Bloods” was waiting for him in his email.

While filming the Vietnam tale, he was contacted by Eastwood’s people about taking the lead role in “Richard Jewell,” the story of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta and the security guard-turned-hero-turned-suspect who found himself unwittingly caught inside a turbulent news scandal. The film was released in December and earned Hauser the best reviews of his career, as well as a Breakthrough Performance award from the National Board of Review.

Paul Walter Hauser and Clint Eastwood on the set of "Richard Jewell."

For Hauser, the son of a Lutheran pastor who is vocal about his faith, the way the two projects intertwined is proof of a higher power.

“I’ve had too many weird things happen in my life to deny the existence of God,” says Hauser, who is currently in Saginaw with family while the coronavirus pandemic has shut down Hollywood. “To deny the existence of God would be to give myself a little too much credit.”

Family approach

These days, Hollywood is giving Hauser plenty of credit.

The 33-year-old has been pounding the pavement in the acting world for more than a decade, and after several years of bit TV parts and work in small projects, he found his breakout role as Shawn Eckardt, the dimwitted goon who clubbed ice skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee in 2017’s comic-drama “I, Tonya.” Hauser played the part with a mix of delusion and sweetness and stole scenes from his co-stars. 

Paul Walter Hauser and Sebastian Stan in "I, Tonya."

It was after “I, Tonya” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival that Hauser got a call about an audition for Spike Lee for “BlacKkKlansman.”

“I went into that and I just gave it my all,” says Hauser, who has been a fan of Spike Lee since he saw the director’s “25th Hour” when he was 16. “I had a really good audition in front of Spike, I improvised and made a bunch of stuff up, and Spike was into it. He really kind of got me. He wrote down my cellphone number in the audition, that’s how well it went, and he gave me a bro hug at the end. When I walked out, I said, ‘dude, if I don’t get this part, I’m going to kill somebody.’”

He got the part, and Spike invited him back for “Da 5 Bloods,” which tells the tale of a group of black Vietnam vets who return to the jungle to finish up unsettled business. Hauser plays a volunteer for a peace organization who becomes a not altogether willing participant in their journey.

Mélanie Thierry, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser and Jonathan Majors in "Da 5 Bloods."

Hauser says his connection to Spike revolves around their family-style approach to work.

“When you’re on the set of one of Spike’s movies, there are people that have been with him for five years, 10 years, 25 years, and that’s kind of how my life is,” Hauser says. “I keep friends for a long time and I kind of have a surrogate family out of all the people that I work with.”

Paul Walter Hauser and Spike Lee.

In Los Angeles, Hauser throws parties where 40 to 50 people crowd into his apartment, “which is not very big,” he says. “And we eat pizza and drink wine and catch up with each other, but now it’s to the point where everybody knows everybody. That’s kind of how Spike is. He has that family where everybody knows everybody.”

Getting a laugh

Hauser was born in Grand Rapids and grew up in Saginaw, the third of four children. Faith has always been a big part of his life — his father is a fifth-generation pastor, his older brother Matthew a sixth- — and he became obsessed with movies after seeing “Home Alone” as a child at Saginaw’s Cinema and Suds, a second-run movie house where he recalls patrons around him smoking cigarettes and drinking beers. To young Hauser, “it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life,” he says.

Older brother Matthew watched Hauser do impressions of actors and lines from movies even as a kid and knew his brother was eventually headed to Hollywood. 

"I honestly think it was as early as 3 or 4, all of us — his siblings and my mom and dad — would tell other people, 'this kid's going to be an actor.' We could see that much personality in him," he says. "It wasn't that he was just an attention-seeking kid, but it was clear he had a lot going on upstairs and it was coming out in some really creative ways early on." 

Hauser began acting in church plays as a child, and in 5th grade he appeared in a production playing the role of a bully whose job it was to taunt the lead character. He and a friend improvised dialogue and background actions and earned laughs from the pews, a turning point for the youngster.

“Just hearing the audience laughing at us, at stuff we made up, that was a really pivotal moment for me,” says Hauser, who describes himself as someone who never grew up. “That was like oh, I can create laughter and I can create an atmosphere.”

Actor Paul Walter Hauser in front of a Corvette flower garden in front of Dynamic Corvettes in hometown Saginaw, Michigan on June 9, 2020.

He continued appearing in plays through his high school years at Valley Lutheran High School, and by then he was a full-on “movie buff film nerd,” his words. At 16, he saw Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” and Daniel Day Lewis’ searing performance as the villainous Bill the Butcher scared the bejeezus out of him.

“It was so epic, and I was so afraid of Daniel Day Lewis,” says Hauser, whose views of good and evil come from both the Bible and his love of professional wrestling. “I think that was a big turning point for me wanting to watch more serious films and to figure out how to not just be a stage actor and make people laugh but be a great actor, like Daniel Day Lewis, who can make you afraid of him.”

After a brief flirtation with college and a move to Chicago where he started performing stand-up comedy — he auditioned for NBC's "Last Comic Standing," and “SNL” is still a dream for the actor — in 2009 Hauser found himself back in Michigan. On a lark, he and a few friends signed up to be extras on “What's Wrong With Virginia,” a small indie film written and directed by Dustin Lance Black that was filming in the Holland area.

Paul Walter Hauser auditioning for "Last Comic Standing."

Black had recently won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk.” While on set, Hauser saw his moment and decided to congratulate Black on the win and on his speech, which he dedicated to LGBTQ youth.

“I walked up to him and said exactly what I was thinking, which was, ‘I love that you’re advocating for gay youth and letting them feel loved and not abandoned, and I love that you make good movies,’” says Hauser. “And if I never met him again, I got to meet an Oscar winner in my home state and tell him what I thought for 25 seconds.”

Those 25 seconds were a bit of a gamble — extras are typically meant to be seen, not to be heard — but Hauser didn’t see it as such, and said he was motivated by “pure love.” That love was returned: Black gave him a featured role in the film (later titled "Virginia"), which starred Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Emma Roberts and Toby Jones, and it led Hauser on his path.

Hauser still texts Black once a year and thanks him for giving him his break.

Persevering in Hollywood 

He booked small roles on shows such as "Community," "It's Always Sunny in Phildelphia" and "Key and Peele," but there were plenty of bumps on the road ahead; Hauser crashed on friends’ floors, worked fast food gigs and saw his dream yanked away from him more than once.

Actor Paul Walter Hauser, behind the Old Town Furniture store, in hometown Saginaw, Michigan on June 9, 2020.

In 2013, he had three TV gigs booked and watched as all were rescinded in a one-week time period. Hope was running thin, so much so that in May of that year he posted to Instagram a picture of the word “hope” with the caption, “how do I get it back?”   

But he kept plugging away, and his brother Matthew says his tenacity came from being married to his dream from an early age. 

"If you really believe that you are destined for something, you just keep going until it happens," he says. 

Hauser eventually landed a recurring role on “Kingdom,” a respected but little-seen drama that aired on AT&T’s Audience Network. That gave him steady work (not to mention a steady paycheck) and tided him over until “I, Tonya” hit in 2017.

With “I, Tonya,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Richard Jewell,” Hauser has carved a place for himself playing — again, his words — “endearing ne’er do wells and lovable losers.” But he’s got more in the bag, he says, along with screenplays he’s written, short films he’s directed and plans to delve further into the comedy and drama worlds.

Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone and Joel Fry in "Cruella."

He has a role in “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie’s upcoming Cruelle de Vil prequel “Cruella,” with Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, he’s attached to star as a wannabe pro wrestler in “Danger Gods” and he recently wrapped filming for a Netflix project that he’s excited about but for the moment is keeping quiet.

Most importantly, the hope he once described as gone he now has in abundance.   

“Oh, yeah, man,” Hauser says with confidence, "the hope is back.”


'Da 5 Bloods'

Rated R: for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language

Running time: 154 minutes

Debuts Friday on Netflix