Few people remember Richard Jewell as the hero that he was. “Richard Jewell,” written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood, aims to right that wrong.
In Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, as a security guard at Centennial Olympic Park, Jewell saved countless lives by moving a crowd of people away from a suspicious backpack he’d spotted. It turned out to be a bomb.
But his moment in the sun was soon eclipsed when word got out that the FBI considered him a possible suspect. His every quality was turned against him, including his relationship with his mother, Bobi; “wanna-be cop who lives with his mother” fit a certain profile. For several months, Richard and Bobi were hounded, virtual prisoners in their apartment, until he was cleared. Richard died in 2007, four years after the real bomber was caught.
The true story was news even to the film’s stars. “I didn’t know a thing. I was 9½ when it happened,” says Paul Walter Hauser, who played Richard. Turning to Kathy Bates, who played Bobi, he asks, “What about you?”
“I was probably 50 by then, but I didn’t,” Bates replies. She only remembers that Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch that year.
The two sit together during a junket for the film, chatting easily, a few days before Bates was to receive a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal. They have forged their own bond separate from Richard and Bobi; they’re peers, if one peer still can’t believe he gets to hang out with Kathy Bates.
“Richard Jewell” is Hauser’s first star turn; he’s known primarily for comedic roles and supporting parts in “BlacKkKlansman” and “I, Tonya.” He calls Richard, who was devoted to law enforcement, “a simple-living man, but not simple-minded.” Bates plays Bobi with a fierce love mixed with frustration that her son won’t fight his treatment at the hands of the FBI, particularly agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm). Sam Rockwell plays Richard’s friend and lawyer, Watson Bryant.
The real Bryant was one of many resources the actors turned to for information about their characters. Bobi also made herself available. “You see some of these photos of Bobi and Richard, and you really get a feel for who he was,” Hauser says. “He had this insane thing thrust upon him. The closer we got to it, it was just nauseating how bad it was.”
“The very thing that was his unique quality, his vigilance, that saved hundreds, was turned against him as a weapon,” Bates replies.
After the bombing, Bobi got to bask briefly in her son’s heroism before it was all ripped away. “I think that weighed heavily on Paul,” says Bates.
Recalls Hauser, “Watson and Bobi saw the film, and they had the reaction that a lot of people had — you laugh a little, you feel outraged, and you cry, and that’s what we wanted to elicit. But what was really tough was hearing that they felt like for two hours they had Richard back.”
“Really? Oh, my God,” Bates says.
Hauser nods. “It’s like a compliment by way of gut-punch. I had nothing to say in response, I was just so sad. I can’t imagine what that feels like.”
Bates met with Bobi before filming. “I went through the script with her, and a few times she teared up. It’s still very raw, after 23 years. In some ways she reminded me of my own mom. At one point I said, ‘I just hope I do well by you,’ and she just went —” here Bates wriggles herself up straight, and beams: “‘Just be me!’ And I looked at her, and I thought, ‘Oh, lady, if I could do that, I’d have 18 Academy Awards by now!’ I felt a tremendous responsibility. The greatest gift was finding out that she loved the movie.”
Discussing Eastwood’s methods, they refute his reputation for shooting only one or two takes per scene. “Clint leaves it open, and he lets it breathe, and he gets it, and he knows he’s got it, and then he can move on,” Bates says. “It’s economical, it’s real, and it’s not theatrical. One of the first nights, I was so nervous with him, and he said, ‘Trust me. You know, I’ve been doing this for a while.’ He’s not this taciturn, removed kind of dude.”
Hauser adds, “The directors I like working with the most are the ones that kind of let you play until you get a boo-boo, and then they tell you how to recalibrate.”
The two had scant rehearsal time to create their relationship, “but I kinda knew we were going to be good dance partners,” Hauser says of Bates and Rockwell.
“Yeah, me too,” Bates responds, adding that at first she was thrown off by all the improv they did. “I’m not very confident about comedy, so you guys taught me a lot.”
Some of the most powerful moments between them were when the two characters would embrace. “The times that you comforted me as your mom, that always dropped me in,” she tells him.
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During those hugs, “I would kind of drag my thumb across her knuckles, like I was petting her with my thumb,” Hauser notes. “That’s something I do with my own mom. So doing it to her was — “ he pauses, choked up for a moment. “That was helpful.”
Bates reaches out to him. “Oh, darlin’.”
Hauser says to Bates, “She’s like you. She’s fun, but she’s strong, and she’s got a big heart.”