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Cruella Scene-stealer Paul Walter Hauser Is Just Happy to Be Here

Photo: Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

There is perhaps no nicer man in Hollywood right now than Paul Walter Hauser. Sure, there are plenty of charming and talented people, but Hauser is so grounded and thoughtful that he’s going to update his list of the top-ten movies that blew his mind to include his new feature, Cruella, and he has put his plans to direct a feature on hold to make sure that, when the time comes, he can make everyone’s money back as a priority.

It’s unusual to meet an actor with such a complete lack of cynicism, but it’s incredibly welcome. The energy is not totally unlike that of his Cruella character, Horace, a bumbling dognapper and the butt of every joke in Craig Gillespie’s new 101 Dalmatians origin story who, above all else, wants to know everyone’s angle. He loves a party, loves a plan, and is always ready to figure out what’s in it for him. He is joined at the hip with Joel Fry’s Jasper, but where other movies might reduce this double act to a pair of useless puppets, these actors earn your attention and make sure you remember their every move. Hauser plays Horace with a wicked frown yet never loses the glee in his voice — as always, the guy is just really happy to be here.

But it’s not like Hauser needs to convince us with Cruella that he has earned a seat at the table: Gillespie called him up to offer the part after previously casting him as the infamous henchman Shawn Eckardt in I, Tonya. Nevertheless, Hauser was pretty pleased when Disney asked him to audition anyway. Having worked with the likes of Spike Lee (twice, in both BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods) and Clint Eastwood (who just cast him on instinct for Richard Jewell) and now being able to boast that he was involved in the first COVID-19 thriller ever, Songbird, Hauser knows you have to deserve it. Every job is precious — he’s not going to blow it.

During a quiet spell during the New Orleans shoot for his next project, the Apple series In With the Devil, Vulture caught up with Hauser to hear about his favorite spots for Indian food in London, the Pavlovian-response conditioning he gets from Twitter, and his 130-page screenplay for a “Marvel meets the Bible” epic.

Let’s get right into it: What came first, the director or the Dalmatians? 

Oh, boy, I love dogs. I do have a great affection for all things canine. But for me, the real draw for this movie was discovering that Craig Gillespie was doing a Disney film. Obviously, I’m a fan of Disney and much of what they put out. But having someone who I would consider to be an auteur filmmaker do a classic Disney movie, I think it’s really exciting to shake up the format.

How familiar were you with the very specific, bold culture of the movie’s 1970s London setting?

I wasn’t very familiar with the era or the geographical place. I had never been to London, or anywhere in Europe, before I shot the film. For me, it was a lot about leaning into the timelessness of Horace’s behavioral patterns. He’s really good at a few things, but he’s also kind of absentminded — like myself. There’s something inherently playful to him, even when it’s criminal or dark.

His accent is definitely playful more than anything else — I have to say, it’s a lot stronger than mine, and it’s so striking. Who and what did you draw from to really nail it? 

I’ve been a fan of accents my whole life. I love trying to parrot or mimic voices that I hear every day, whether it’s a geographical accent or just somebody with a funny voice who sells you your newspaper and your cigarettes. So I have a pretty decent ear for that, but I worked really hard to study Bob Hoskins in Hook, the film he did with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, and I really tried to mimic what he did.

I can imagine Joel Fry played a big part in getting you into character, as it feels like Horace and Jasper have a very two-bodies, one-brain kind of deal going on. Was it a case of Joel being your unofficial tour guide around London? 

He’s a very chill individual; he really derives a lot of his confidence from truth and from knowing himself and being able to read other people. He doesn’t show up trying to impress or steal the show. He’s a very smart, thoughtful, internalized actor who also just happens to have great comedy chops.

It’s kind of like Christopher Guest. People who have met Christopher Guest probably said he seemed a little straightforward. And then you see him in his roles, and he’s just off-the-wall bonkers and hilarious. So I think Joel’s an inspired actor to be around and all, but my favorite moments with him were just walking around getting Indian food or finding a jukebox and a couple of beers.

We are very proud of our Indian food in London.

I went to a place called Dishoom and had a really great meal. I love Indian food. My old roommate Vinny Chhibber, who I lived with for five or six years, is Southeast Asian and introduced me to Indian food. So when I went to London, I was so excited to try all of this awesome, fairly authentic Indian food. And then Joel took me to this bar called the Spanish Bar. It’s just a little hole in the wall down an alleyway. It was just so cute and quaint, totally off the grid, with no tourists there. I could have holed up there for three or four days, just listening to classic rock, talking to Joel and making each other laugh.

In the past year, you also starred in Songbird, which was the first thriller filmed during — and which was about — the COVID-19 pandemic. Was it as dystopian as it sounds?

That was an interesting thing that happened last summer. They said, “They want you to play this guy who’s ex-military,” and I thought, That doesn’t seem like the kind of role I would get. And then I looked and saw he was in a wheelchair — a quirky, sort of violent recluse. And I thought, Oh, well, this is a little more up my alley; the guy’s damaged. But it was a weird experience — we couldn’t touch each other, we couldn’t hang out. That was the height of the pandemic where everyone was literally standing ten feet away from each other. It was so bizarre.

You must have had some time during the pandemic to work on your screenplays — you’ve got around 20 in the works, right? 

I’m writing a biblical adaptation of an Old Testament book with my brother, Matt Hauser, who is a minister and pastor in the state of Michigan. It’s 130 pages, so it’s kind of epic — think Marvel meets the Bible. That’ll be my 20th screenplay I’ve ever written. I was all ready to direct my first feature this year, but then I had a change of heart and decided to write a new script that’s a little more low budget to ensure that I make everybody’s money back on the first film. Usually, even if the movie’s not that good, if you make everybody’s money back, you’re in good enough graces to get that second film. That matters to me. So I’m going to try to make a smaller movie and then work my way up and try to do a Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele and all these other brilliant actors turned filmmakers I admire.

A lot of your roles as an actor shed new light on these real-life guys who existed somewhat under the radar — in BlacKkKlansman and Richard Jewell and, of course, in I, Tonya. Do you have anyone else in mind that you’d love to show the world next? 

I would love to do some sort of political film at some point — I think I’d make a really great Teddy Roosevelt in the next ten or 15 years. Another one would be this wrestler named Arn Anderson. I’m still good buddies with Sebastian Stan after we worked together on I, Tonya; since then, we have been actively trying to find another movie to do together for the past couple of years. But we know it has to be to the level of I, Tonya, so he and I are looking to try and do this wrestling movie where Sebastian would play this iconic wrestler, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and I would play Arn Anderson.

Social media seems to play a big part in your decision-making process and general existence in the film industry. You get pretty involved in film discourse online, but then, admirably, you can just go cold turkey and completely switch off too. Do you still feel like the internet is an asset to your career?

I really enjoyed Twitter and Instagram and then it started taking over my life and becoming this weird Pavlovian-response mechanism whereby I constantly check in for some unconscious validation and dopamine hit, and I don’t think that’s a very healthy thing. I’ve tried to learn how to balance it. I kind of punished myself, as I had about maybe 60,000 followers on Instagram, and I just deleted the account on January 1 because I needed to step away.

But now I’m back. Some people have been hitting me up like, “Hey, you didn’t follow me back?” Or “Hey, did you check the message?” And it’s like, Well, my life has become a little busy. Part of what makes social media really tiring and difficult is it’s not just about posting — suddenly people want to use it like another text-messaging tool.

And you feel that’s quite demanding of you? 

Yeah, very, very much so. I’m happy that people are enthusiastic and that they like the stuff I’m taking part in. I can’t take credit for it at all, though; I really have been strategic about latching on to projects that I think are already great, whether I was involved or not. When I look at Cobra Kai, or Cruella, or Spike Lee movies, it’s like: These are brilliant projects that anybody would be lucky to be a part of.

On Twitter, you posted a pretty recent list of ten movies that you say blew your mind. Do you have any additions you’d now like to make on the record? 

Cruella blew my mind a little bit because I just thought it did everything well: the music, the wardrobe, the production design, the sense of humor, the heart and the drama, the casting. Like, it’s kind of crazy how many things went right that could have gone amiss. Then I also loved The Father with Anthony Hopkins; that blew my mind from an acting standpoint. Anthony Hopkins is just a genius and did something that’s incredibly tough to do as an actor. I also really enjoyed Nobody — I thought it was a cool, different take on the action genre. I thought Bob Odenkirk was very believable as an action star, which I don’t think people would have said even five years ago.

Could you see yourself in a role like that? A very grisly action lead with little comedic value? 

I would love that. I think right now, the easiest thing to latch on to would be playing a comedic sidekick or some sort of tech-support guy in one of those action movies, like Bad Boys or Mission: Impossible, but I would like to get my hands dirty. I’m really agile for a guy my size — I just lost 40 pounds for my new role in this Apple series. I hope that phone call comes, but maybe that’ll be one of the things I have to write myself.

Are there any classics you’d be particularly keen to remake? 

My buddies Aron [Gaudet] and Gita [Pullapilly], a filmmaking couple who made this movie Queenpins that I did with Kristen Bell, they said to me the other night that they were rewatching Midnight Run because Charles Grodin had just passed away. And they said, “Man, we could totally see you in a movie like this.” Maybe Robert Pattinson could be [Robert] De Niro and we’re on the run for the whole film. But I really miss timeless action movies like Die Hard, where you just get to watch somebody fight and survive and save a bunch of people’s lives in a controlled setting like that. That’s just a simple, cool action film. Studios overcomplicate movies now. You don’t need a $70 million budget. You don’t need 90 famous people in your movies. You’ve just got to do something simple really well.

So let’s end things simply. Who would win in a fight: Emma Thompson or Emma Stone? 

I think Emma Thompson comes off as being more fierce than Stone, but I also know Emma Thompson well enough to know she’s a bit of a pacifist. She’s a very peaceful woman. Emma Stone is younger and has a fire about her. So I’m going to pick Emma Stone on this one; I’m going to say Cruella de Vil. I mean, Horace is also employed by Cruella, so even if I thought otherwise, I’ve got to keep my money and look out for Horace.

How Paul Walter Hauser Steals Scenes As Cruella’s Henchman