SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains details from Friday’s Black Bird series finale.
When Apple TV+’s six-episode psychological thriller Black Bird reached its conclusion on Friday, one of the criminals at its center was redeemed—the other, condemned.
The episode titled “You Promised” finds drug dealer turned FBI informant Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) getting increasingly aggressive, in his quest to get answers out of Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser)—the serial confessor revealed to be a serial killer, who won’t reveal where his bodies are buried.
In a bid to get home to his ailing father Big Jim (Ray Liotta), who in this episode is seen suffering a stroke, Jimmy looks to use Larry’s ego against him via a bit of reverse psychology. Larry, he says, is a liar—a teller of tall tales full of rapes and murders that he hasn’t, in fact, committed. In this way, he triggers the killer’s rage, which leads him to draw out a map displaying the locations of his victims’ bodies for Jimmy to see.
At this point, Jimmy makes one final attempt at appealing to Larry’s humanity—imploring him to go public with his knowledge of the victims’ whereabouts, so that their loved ones can come to some sort of peace. But of course, Larry is about to appeal his current prison sentence, and wouldn’t risk his freedom for anyone. He teases Jimmy, telling him that he’s dug graves for almost all of his victims that no one will ever find, which sends Jimmy into a rage of his own, leading him to reveal that his friendship with Larry has been a fraud, and that he’s been working to make sure he will never again see the outside world. Larry charges Jimmy, full of fury, before the two are separated by prison guards.
Hall ultimately loses his appeal and returns to prison for life, with Keene getting his sentence for narcotics trafficking commuted. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Larry is visited by his brother Gary (Jake McLaughlin), who has finally come to accept the reality of who his brother is, telling him to confess to his crimes in full, and to give up the location of his victims. We learn in the show’s epilogue that while Larry eventually confessed to 15 murders at his brother’s behest to “do the right thing,” he later recanted all confessions, with not one of his burial sites having yet been unearthed.
A changed man after his experiences with Larry, Jimmy is reunited with his father and is able to spend five more years with him before his passing from a heart attack in 2004. He launches a successful career in business after getting out of prison, and continues to aid law enforcement in profiling serial killers to this day.
Black Bird was adapted from the true crime memoir In with the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption by James Keene and Hillel Levin. The limited series, also starring Sepideh Moafi and Greg Kinnear, was produced for Apple TV+ by Apple Studios. Dennis Lehane developed it and exec produced alongside Egerton, Keene, Kary Antholis, Michaël R. Roskam, Richard Plepler via Eden Productions, Bradley Thomas, Dan Friedkin and Ryan Friedkin via Imperative Entertainment, and Alexandra Milchan and Scott Lambert via EMJAG Productions.
With their strong performances in the Apple series, both Egerton and Hauser have established themselves as likely contenders for Emmy noms in 2023. So, ahead of the Black Bird finale’s streaming debut, TBEN caught up with the latter star, who breaks down its events, at the same time discussing his experience working with the late Liotta in a finale fantasy sequence, his upcoming film National Anthem and role in The Afterparty Season 2, and a recent move into hip-hop, which has had him performing under the moniker Signet Ringer.
TBEN: What were your first impressions of the final script for Black Bird? Were you presented with all of them at once, or when did you receive it?
PAUL WALTER HAUSER: I don’t recall the exact moment of when I read Episode 6, but I know that when I read it, I was very endeared to it because I’m a huge fan of the movie A Few Good Men. You know, Chris Farley and Martin Short and all these guys made me want to entertain people, but A Few Good Men made me want to be an actor. Reading that scene in which Jimmy and Larry have that showdown in the workshop, it felt very much like Tom Cruise outing Jack Nicholson, and Nicholson just losing his mind, so I was kind of mirroring that in my head and thought, “At least now I know the tonal dynamic.”
As it pertained to the story, it’s kind of letting the air out. The audience has been holding their breath for five episodes, wanting to take action and feeling this injustice and the disgust of the content of the show, and then we have this cathartic, shared moment.
TBEN: Tell us more about playing Larry’s outburst of violence in that showdown with Jimmy.
HAUSER: That was one of the last things we shot, for obvious reasons, toward the end of the shoot. We were about five and a half months in, and I was exhausted, and so was Taron. We both just wanted to be done with this show, but we felt the pressure of the scenes. We were really exhausted and feeling the adversarial nature, and I just let myself go.
My favorite kind of acting has always been the people that lack vanity, who aren’t afraid to kind of get ugly. And I think that in comedy and drama, lack of vanity and commitment is everything to me, from what I watch to what I perform. So, in that scene, I just had to let crazy be crazy and not worry about being judged. Because I don’t want people to see me like that. I want people to see me like you saw me last night [at the premiere of Sony’s Bullet Train]. I’m wearing a cool outfit and I’m walking a red carpet with my wife. That’s how we all want to be seen. [Laughs] But to have to suddenly start beating my body with my fists and saying disgusting things, and salivating and screaming curse words like that, that’s hard to do. I didn’t enjoy it, and after I watched the scene, the first time I saw it, I was kind of emotional and I immediately called my therapist and called my sponsor. And I had to kind of work through it. Because I knew it was me playing him, but I didn’t see myself. That’s never happened before, and it kind of scared me, and I felt really guilty for some reason.
TBEN: It’s a great accomplishment, really, to lose yourself in a role to that extent—and what a rich role it is. I have to imagine writing this strong doesn’t come along too often.
HAUSER: I think you’re right. I’ve had a weird career trajectory where I could have easily been #5 on the call sheet of a three-camera sitcom and had a really good life, just making people laugh and doing jokes. But for some reason, God has allowed me to work with Spike Lee and Craig Gillespie and Clint Eastwood, and now Dennis Lahane. It’s definitely a special position to be in when you’re working with someone of that caliber. I think without that writing, Black Bird doesn’t see any form of success; it just gets lost in the shuffle.
TBEN: Larry is someone who contains multitudes—at his core, a deceiver equally dedicated to deceiving himself. How did you grapple, over the course of the series, with the contradictions within him?
HAUSER: I’m a very spiritual guy in real life, and I’ve always felt that evil’s highest honor is deception. I think evil working for evil—be it in the classical sense like a serial killer, or the non-classical, like a politician who chooses money over the good of human beings—with deception always comes sort of an unknown betrayal. The person deceiving other people is also deceiving themselves. They feel comfortable in that, but they’re actually being tortured as much as anyone, and I think Larry is that. I think he’s deceiving people, but he himself has been deceived in the greatest of ways. And then, in the most obvious of ways, where it’s like in real life, Jimmy Keene would never, never be friends with Larry Hall. And Larry knows that. But like any of us, the moment that he feels seen, that’s when he lets his guard down and starts to be deceived by Jimmy. That’s when the game turns on him, and we see it in culture all the time. When a man cheats on his spouse, it’s rarely because he hates his spouse, and it’s rarely because he’s found his soulmate. It’s usually that in a moment, or fragments of moments, that person that he chooses, he felt seen by. And that feeling seen is scarily powerful. So, that’s what I would equate to Larry’s deceptive moves, and then his own upheaval.
As far as controlling that performance and knowing how to play every [moment], that’s just about commitment to choice. Because if I’m midway through the show, we’re filming, and I suddenly feel like doing something different than what I’ve already set out to do as my psychological trajectory, then you have an uneven performance and it’s all over the place. So, any younger actors, or actors who might be reading this piece, I implore them, make your choices early and be bold, you know? Act boldly because even when a performance is off-kilter, we would all rather it be specific than ambiguous.
TBEN: What went into your final scene with Jake McLaughlin, who plays Gary?
HAUSER: I really like that actor. He was fun to work with, and he’s just got a really good heart and kind of a no-BS meter in his head. But the scene is powerful because for me at least, playing Larry, it was the first time where I cognitively said, “Oh, he knows [he’s a] monster.” Because before, it says that Larry tried to kill himself. There’s a little title card that says that after the appeal didn’t go through. In my mind, he didn’t try to kill himself because he knew he was guilty and felt bad; he tried to kill himself because he didn’t want to live that life in prison anymore. So, when his brother Gary says, “You did do all this stuff, you are guilty. You need help,” that’s the first time that Larry has to face reality and sort of sever the delusion. And it’s from the hand and mouth of the person he loves the most.
TBEN: From the person who is cutting ties with his own delusions about his brother…
HAUSER: Yeah. That was really emotionally charged scene, and I think Jake and I were both lucky that we had a dance partner who knew how to do it delicately and thoughtfully.
TBEN: Obviously, Larry has been in prison for a long time now. But what is it like to know that this serial killer you played on television is still out there, and could conceivably hear about the show?
HAUSER: It reminds me of Christine Bale in The Fighter, when he’s watching his own documentary about smoking crack in the prison with the other guys…You know, I doubt there will be a screening of Black Bird in the penitentiary. I hope not.
A lot of people have said to me, “Did you meet Larry? Did you ever want to meet him? Did you try reaching out?” And the answer is simply no. I don’t want to leave myself open to any dark inhabitants beyond the actual teleplays written by Dennis. But having said that, if for any reason the authorities—the FBI, whoever—if they ever thought that me sitting down with him and visiting him in prison one or more times, if they thought that that could lead to some form of closure for the families, where we could siphon information out of him…I would be willing to do that if they thought it would help. But that’s the only instance where I’d ever want to meet the guy.
TBEN: If you could go the Jimmy Keene route, in other words…
HAUSER: Yeah. Let Larry be Jimmy. [Laughs] Let me walk in with my stress and see if I can charm him into admitting some of this stuff. But I’ve got to be honest. Part of me wonders if he even knows what he did. It’s been decades, he’s been lying the whole time and he clearly has some sort of disorder and infraction of mind. So, it’s like, at this point, is there any point in trying to get anything out of him? Would he even know what the hell to say?
TBEN: That also speaks to what I imagine is most difficult with a character like Larry. While you can perhaps come to understand his motivations to a degree, it doesn’t seem as though you can ever fully see into the mind of a psychopath.
HAUSER: It’s funny, too…When people have been interviewing me, they kind of foolishly say, “Did you study any serial killers to play Larry?” And it’s like, “Of course I didn’t. Because Larry’s not Charlie Manson. Larry’s not Jeffrey Dahmer.” Like, what would be the point of studying them to play my guy? It seems kind of antithetical.
But having said that, I think the way into a character, whether they’re good or evil, is just to find commonality. I remember researching Hitler and Osama bin Laden years ago for some sort of paper or whatever, and I vividly remember finding out that these guys come from families where they wanted to be artists and architects and stuff. They very much wanted different jobs than the sort of psychotic, dictator thing they became. So, I just think you have to go at it from a perspective of, what do these people want? It’s not about, “They killed a bunch of people.” What does Larry want? I think Larry desperately wanted to feel seen and understood, loved, and partaking in some sort of camaraderie and affection, and that marred with some combination of evil in his upbringing, that’s what concocted the Larry Hall we know in the show.
TBEN: You got to share the screen with the late, great Ray Liotta briefly in a fantasy sequence that opens the finale. How was your experience working with him?
HAUSER: You know, it’s funny. I’ve been doing this thing where I’ve been writing down all my favorite dramas and comedies. I’m making a comprehensive list of like my hundred favorite of every genre, and Ray Liotta’s in five of my favorite dramas in my hundred list. He’s in Field of Dreams, Cop Land, Goodfellas, The Place Beyond the Pines, and I think I’m forgetting one.
But I’m a big fan of Ray, and I knew I didn’t have much to do with him in the show, but I was so grateful that I got to make him laugh and ask some questions. I asked him a question about the driveway scene in Goodfellas where he hits the guy in the nose with the butt of the gun. I said to him, “He bleeds so quickly. Did that actor just have fake blood on his hand, and when you hit him, he turns and grabs his nose?” Like, I asked him a logistical question about the makeup effects. [Laughs] I didn’t ask him, “What was it like working with Bob [De Niro] or Marty [Scorsese]?” Instead, I’m like, “How did they get him to bleed so much?” Such a silly question, but Ray and I liked each other. For whatever reason, I always get along really well with the actor emeritus people. I had fun working with people like Ed Harris and M.C. Gainey and Ray Liotta. I love these guys.
It was a joy to work with him. I think Ray did some of the best work of his career in the show, thanks to Dennis’ writing and he and Taron’s chemistry. I’m really proud of his performance, and I hope people don’t mourn mourn it so much as watch it and go, “Wow. Ray was great. He was good until the last drop.” You know what I mean? The last sip of Ray Liotta was as good as the first, and that’s something to really be proud of, man. Not a lot of us will be able to say that.
TBEN: What would you say you took away from the story of Black Bird, from a thematic standpoint?
HAUSER: Thematically, I think without pandering to the politics of those that read this, it does have a lot to say about toxic masculinity. Men are so broken. You know, all people are. There’s a God-sized hole in everybody, I think. But men are so broken in an interesting way in which they’re told that they have to live as G.I. Joe or He-Man or something, and aren’t able to really be vulnerable and show gentleness and sweetness without being judged in some stereotypical format. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I hope I hope men get to watch [the show] and walk away with realizing, we need to look at our hands and realize what we’ve done, whether we’re active or complicit.
These interviews can be tricky because you don’t want to sound like you’re being lofty or trying to sound like you’re doing more than you’re truly doing. But I just mean to say, the older I get, the more I realize the deep concern with the stereotype of masculinity. And I think Jimmy and Larry are both living some version of that stereotype. One is trying to prove that he’s commanding, and the other is like, “I ooze commanding. I am commanding.”
Really, when I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s new album…[it’s] almost like a complimentary piece to this show because it’s hearing this man talk about how he has to confront the fact that he’s an abuse survivor, and confront the fact that he’s ruined relationships, and confront the fact that he’s trying to break generational curses and live a different lifestyle than his ancestors. It’s all this rich stuff, and I think it has a lot to say about toxic masculinity, and I really pair that with our show, where I think we have something to say, and a mirror to hold up to culture.
TBEN: As we speak, you’re on your way to the set of The Afterparty Season 2. What can you tell us about your experience coming in as a new cast member?
HAUSER: It’s so fun, man. After doing a show like Black Bird, I need to do some comedy, honestly, for myself. I’m a huge fan of Chris Miller and Phil Lord. I thought what they did with those Lego movies and 21 Jump Street, they always elevate comedy and make it so much more than it could be. So, I looked at it as an opportunity to work with those guys who are smart that do comedy, and the cast is just outlandishly funny. Every day, I’m getting to improvise with Anna Konkle from PEN15, and John Cho, and Tiffany Haddish, and Jack Whitehall. It’s just this crazy good group of people who are kindhearted and funny.
So, this show’s been very healing for me, that I get to just make people laugh and kind of have adult summer camp every day.
TBEN: What can you tell us about the film National Anthem that you have coming up?
HAUSER: I really love that movie. I can’t say much. What I will say is, I loved the screenplay by Tony Tost, who also directed it. I looked at the role that they were offering me, which is opposite Sydney Sweeney, who’s amazing, and I kind of thought to myself, why are they offering me this? I feel like they could go out to someone much bigger than me, like Miles Teller or something. You know, the writing’s so rich, and the character’s so good. Why do they want me?
And then I showed up and had the time of my life making it, and became buddies of Sydney and Simon Rex, and all these cool people. I haven’t seen a cut of the film yet, but I hear it’s picture locked over at Bron Studios, and they’re probably looking for a festival or something, is my guess. But man, I can’t wait for you to see it because it feels like a special movie. I feel like Tony Tost could be the next really fun auteur, where you get to watch all this stuff, and every time you watch his stuff, it feels like a Tony Tost event.
TBEN: I know you’ve ventured into music, rapping under the moniker Signet Ringer. What has the work there afforded you that’s new, and the inspiration behind that move?
HAUSER: I just love hip hop. You know, I mentioned Kendrick earlier. I love Kendrick. I love. Run The Jewels, Chance the Rapper. I just love that genre, and I thought I had something to contribute… I don’t know how to describe my music. [Laughs] I guess it’s like hip hop meets gospel. It’s like if a Christian rapper said the F word a bunch. But basically, it’s just me journaling some of my feelings and experiences.
My debut EP is called Murder for Higher. It’s just me journaling out loud and talking about matters of faith and culture, and it’s me being equal parts self-deprecating and scathingly angry. You know, it’s a mesh of who I am, and in a way, it’s got a lot of theatricality. So, if you like my acting and are a fan of what I do, you’ll find a lot [to] enjoy in my music, as well.