‘Black Bird’ Stars Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser on the Show’s Toughest Moments: “I Would Compare It to Coming Out of a Bad Dream”

In contrast to the way that their incarcerated characters in the tense Apple TV+ miniseries Black Bird circle one another over the course of several episodes, warily testing and probing in a cat-and-mouse game to determine just how much trust one can place in the other, Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton recognized from the outset that they were in deep together.

Indeed, the actors needed teamwork to plumb the often chilling darkness of a true-crime tale. They stand at the center of the series in their scenes together, as Egerton’s polished but convicted drug dealer Jimmy Keene seeks to shave years off his sentence by faux-befriending Hauser’s eccentric suspected serial killer Larry Hall, in hopes of learning secrets that would keep Hall behind bars. But they also needed each other’s support and good humor to help shake off the lingering shadows of the story’s more repugnant aspects.

Black Bird is, at its core, as classic a two-hander as it could be, fueled by the potent push-pull of the two characters’ alternating attraction and suspicion. Hauser and Egerton joined THR in a far less harrowing — but no less fascinating — exploration of their bond on set, speaking to how their performances took each other to places, both dark and light, that they never expected.

The two of you are really in this together, deeply. What did you discover you needed from each other to make this work the way that you wanted it to work?

PAUL WALTER HAUSER Teamwork is always about listening and trusting. Listening is Actor 101, but trusting is a whole other thing that you don’t fully learn in a university or class or something. Taron and I overcommunicating our intentions for scenes and what we needed to accomplish paired with us socializing and getting along as two people, that felt like a really healthy dynamic to get what we needed out of those scenes together.

TARON EGERTON We are naturally very enthused by each other as actors and as creatives, and the dynamic of those characters is two guys really studying and scrutinizing each other. And I think we just naturally found a groove and a familiarity. It’s really just being as interested as possible as you can be in the other person. That sense of trust, because I think particularly for Paul, but also for myself to a lesser extent, they’re both quite ugly performances at times. To do that, you have to feel that you can lead a safe dance with each other and [not] be afraid to take risks — and be quite weird at times.

HAUSER The lack of vanity is really important. Basically any acting that I like, whether I think of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Tracy Morgan in a Saturday Night Live sketch, I always go back to lack of vanity as what I’m most attracted to. And I think Taron and I both have the ability to go there and do that.

What did your scene partner’s performance bring out in your own that you didn’t expect, once you guys were going toe-to-toe on set?

EGERTON Paul ran at the darkness of that part like a charging bull rather than try to soften it or sentimentalize it or romanticize it, or try to make it in any way Hollywood. It really was very ugly at times, but it also engendered sympathy. The dynamic that I’m most proud of is that, I think, through what Paul does with [his] part, my Jimmy finds moments — and it is in the writing — of really liking him, being amused by him.

Then there’s a secondary emotion that comes after that, where there’s revulsion at the fact that it feels that way. That happens in really nice, spontaneous moments throughout the story because of the level of presence that Paul brings and the level of complete unfettered commitment to the part. When acting is really good and you’re truly listening to each other, you have moments of forgetting yourself. And then really spontaneous things happen. I really felt that happened to us often throughout the process of making our show.

HAUSER I’ve been doing this almost 11, 12 years, and there are maybe three occasions where I feel I’ve actually lost myself and been in the material deep enough with another male co-star. And Taron’s one of the three people that allowed me to get there. When I look at this show from an outside perspective, I’ve realized, “Oh, there’s an interesting emotional dance that Taron did so well” — which is that he’s portraying Jimmy Keene as a man who’s being seduced by Larry Hall, but his sense of being seduced by me is actually him seducing me.

Taron’s performance is hallmarked by being present and having a sense of neediness. Because a guy like Larry Hall looks at a guy like Jimmy Keene and thinks, “You don’t want for anything. You don’t need anything.” Then, to discover that emotionally he does need these things and he is looking for a friend — that, of course, to a lonely person like [Larry], getting that type of attention and seeing that vulnerability on display, it’s hook, line and sinker. [Jimmy] seduced him by pretending he was seduced.

Black Bird

Courtesy of Apple TV+

When you’re so deep that you’ve kind of lost yourselves, tell me about coming out of that and getting back to you. What is that experience like for both of you to come out of being that deep in character?

EGERTON I’m quite good at resetting myself, I think, but there were two occasions where I didn’t feel particularly good afterward. It’s not like you become so lost in the part that you don’t know who you are, but being unable to shed the energy of something. And Larry’s confession and description of the abduction and murder of Jessica Roach, that was a day where I think we both felt it was difficult to shed the skin of it afterward, because of the reality of it and the knowledge that it really happened — so it’s not like a really well-written bit of fantasy. You have to go home and have a bath or a shower and just try and come back down to earth, really.

There’s a scene earlier on in the show, when it’s kind of a dual-purpose thing in the third episode. I’m trying to win favor with Larry, but I’m also unleashing a lot of stress and tension, and I beat that guy up. I really didn’t like that. I don’t know if you ever had schoolyard tussles as a kid, where you have a scrap or a fight with another kid in the schoolyard and you feel very shaken and anxious afterward. I felt anxious after that day, sort of compromised by the extremity of the violence. It’s like what Paul said: You just check in with each other and acknowledge that it’s all a bit weird and a bit dark and a bit grimy.

HAUSER I would compare it to coming out of a bad dream. You can have a bad dream where you’re doing something or partaking in something or just witnessing something reprehensible, and then you wake up and you go, “Wow, I actually didn’t kill someone! Tight! I’m glad — great!” But it does take a moment, for me at least — I don’t know how everybody else is, but sometimes I need somewhere between five and 45 minutes to shake the emotional residue of whatever’s transpired in my psyche.

I will say, though, that I think I’m pretty good at it, too. When I’m being a racist piece of shit in this show, I’m being a monster. When they yell “cut,” I am quick to be like, “Let me improvise a song and pretend I’m tap-dancing and find a funny video on Instagram.” I really do fight to peel that residue off.

Tell me about those fun moments on set where you really had to go as far away from that dark material and just lighten the mood.

HAUSER We sang a lot!

EGERTON Paul’s just so funny. Paul’s got a real facility for just making everyone around laugh, crew and cast alike. And he has that natural understanding of how to eke out comedy from daily life and moment-to-moment. He was brilliant at making light when light needs to be made in what is otherwise a very dark show. We did a lot of just being very silly. Acting’s play, and we’re good at playing and we enjoyed playing. Whether it’s singing or doing a stupid dance or Paul cocking his leg up on whatever table is nearest at the time — which I tried to do myself, to diminishing comedic returns — but Paul manages to make it very, very funny.

HAUSER There were moments of wanting to make the other person uncomfortable just to see how they’d react. There was a lot of that: Give each other a hug, the hug lasts way too long.

EGERTON Way too long! (Laughs.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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