Who Is Shawn Eckardt? Paul Walter Hauser Steals Every Scene as Harding's Bodyguard in 'I, Tonya'

Paul Walter Hauser, one of the stars of "I, Tonya" Courtesy of Neon

The life of Tonya Harding, at least as depicted in the critically acclaimed black comedy I, Tonya, is a tragedy, the result of emotionally and physically abusive relationships in the champion ice skater's life. When the real-life events played out in the media, though, the public saw a white-trash farce—a shockingly inept scheme to ruin skating princess Nancy Kerrigan's Olympic dreams hatched by jealous interloper Harding and her low-class husband, Jeff Gillooly

Lurking in the background was Harding's self-anointed "bodyguard," Shawn Eckardt, a slovenly fabulist. (Chris Farley filled Eckardt's tracksuit in an SNL bit in 1994.) The media allowed him to air his version of events: that of an innocent caught in Harding and Gillooly's nefarious web. It was their idea, he said, to kneecap Kerrigan. Harding and Gillooly always maintained that Eckardt orchestrated the sad-sack assault.

In I, Tonya, which opens nationwide on January 19, Eckardt is a figure of ridicule—a delusional, obese freeloader living in his parents' basement—but actor Paul Walter Hauser skips a plunge into the slapstick bathos for something more nuanced. His Eckardt, while brutally funny, is an avatar for America in the age of alternate facts: a pathetic man-child, desperate for validation, who varnishes his inadequacies with cockiness and bravado. He tells best bud Gillooly that he's a secret agent; he tells an interviewer that he was recognized as an espionage expert in "a travel magazine." When confronted with the reality that none of that is true, Eckardt responds, with wholly unearned confidence, that it is.

"People who are stone-cold immovably delusional are probably people that didn't have great relationships and feel slighted," Hauser told Newsweek. "This is their way of taking a stand and putting a stick in the ground and saying, 'This is who I am. I'm right, even if I'm wrong.'"

Twenty-odd years ago, that kind of bluster was novel: If confronted with proof that disproves your claims, of course you admitted defeat. Today, however, there's no shame in debating the size of inauguration crowds in the face of head-count data and photo evidence. Or contending, as Newt Gingrich did during the 2016 presidential campaign, that feelings are as important as facts…when arguing about facts.

In that way, Eckardt was decades ahead of his time. Hauser, whose credits include episodes of Key and Peele and Spike Lee's forthcoming Black Klansman, says that when he read the script, he connected with "the severity with which Eckardt believed everything." But when the 31-year-old Michigan native investigated Eckardt, he found...not much. "The more digging I did, the more you learn he had nothing going for him but his own made-up reality," said Hauser.

Shawn Eric Eckardt (L), bodyguard of figure skater Tonya Harding, and fellow defendant Derrick Smith (R) are joined by Smith's attorney Robert Goffredi 14 January 1994 as they face Judge Donald Londer during their arraignment on charges of conspiracy to commit assault in the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan. CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images

What makes the actor stand out, though, in a film stacked with bravura performances (including Margot Robbie and the Golden Globe-winning Allison Janney) is his ability to turn Eckardt into something more than a caricature. Director Craig Gillespie praised Hauser, his "secret weapon," for delivering "an entertaining performance with such humanity."

Some of the Eckhardt's best moments, the ones that made his loony tunes character relatable, were Hauser ad libs. At one point, Eckhardt, who naturally lives in the basement of his parents' house, yells up to his mother to make a call: "It's local, Ma!," he screams. Later, he orders her to bring shortbread for the FBI agents interrogating him, improvising the line, "I shouldn't even be saying his name... Derek." It's uncomfortable watching Eckardt because we all know someone like him.

"Paul never made fun of Shawn. He absolutely understood the humor but he never was commenting on it," screenwriter Steven Rogers told Newsweek. "He played the part dead honestly, as if Shawn thought he was the smartest person in the room.

Paul Walter Hauser at the BAFTA Tea Party held at The Four Seasons Los Angeles in Beverly Hills on January 6, 2018. Birdie Thompson/AdMedia/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

As for Hauser, he just loved the rare freedom Eckhardt offered him as an actor. "I got to take ownership on delusion and get away with it," he said. "In my daily life, I'm always struggling to be a better adult, to come to terms with reality. To show up on set for five or six hours and be completely out of touch with reality, or a piece of it, is fun in some sick way that I'm sure a therapist would have a lot of fun deconstructing."

The real-life Eckardt's story, by the way, had a tragic end. He was found guilty of racketeering and sentenced to 18 months. (Gillooly did time too; Harding was barred from skating for life.) When he was released, he changed his name to Brian Sean Griffith and died of natural causes, at 40, in 2007.