Half an hour into my interview with Jonah Hauer-King, the conversation turns philosophical. “How do we find purpose and meaning in life? What makes us tick? How do we deal with existential fears?” 

No, we didn’t smoke a joint before our Zoom. (Well, I didn’t, and judging by Hauer-King’s eloquence and easy charm, I don’t think he did, either.) However, there aren’t many professional actors who read Theology & Religious Studies at Cambridge University and I want to ask about his degree – namely, what made him take it in the first place? 

“Growing up as a Jewish person, I’d thought a lot about religious identity and what that means to me. Especially because Judaism is a slightly unique religion in that there are so many who don’t believe in God. It interested me how that affected my own identity.”   

According to Hauer-King, the course was “like a very broad humanities degree… It was looking at people and the way they lived their lives and the way they find meaning through the lens of religion.” He explored big questions like those in the opening paragraph; questions that also drew him to acting, even if he only made this connection in hindsight. 

“I know that probably sounds really lofty,” he says, almost apologetically. “But fundamentally that’s what stories are about.” 

Makes sense to me. Everyone’s searching for something. The question is, has he found out what makes himself tick yet?  

“I have!” He grins. “And I found out the meaning of life as well.” 

Let’s save the meaning of life for another time. What makes Jonah Hauer-King tick? “Hoovering. Cleaning. Nice food. And Arsenal.”

Jonah Hauer-King

I’ll be honest: I suspect the lad may be withholding a little here. As an undergraduate, he starred opposite Kenneth Branagh at The Garrick and still emerged with a first. In his early twenties, he played Laurie in the 2017 BBC production of Little Women. Now 28, there’s the small matter of Prince Eric in the Disney reimagining of The Little Mermaid: a lock for one of the year’s biggest films. 

Now, it’s possible someone could rack up these accomplishments while holding Bukayo Saka, smoked salmon and a nice spot of vacuum cleaning as their primary motivations, but I have my doubts. There’s too much depth to him: this is clearly someone fascinated by the world and his place within it (and possibly beyond it). But it would be rude to push and besides, it leaves something to discuss for next time. 

This time, we are starting with The Little Mermaid; Hauer-King landed Prince Eric three and a half years ago but Covid delays mean the film has only just reached cinemas. The audition process alone sounds gruelling enough. “I wish it had been a straight offer,” says Hauer-King, smiling a little ruefully. “I wish they had just phoned me up and said they’ve decided to give you this, if you fancy it.”  

Instead there was a request for a self-tape. Then another tape. Then another. “Asking me to do slightly different things every time. Different songs, different accents.” Then a meeting with the director, Rob Marshall. Then another round of auditions, this time in person. Then, finally, a screen test, Disney style, “with sets and costumes and trailers and sound department. It was a filming day, basically.”   

There were seven auditions across seven months, a deeply appropriate number for a Disney film. (Snow White and all that.) How did he feel when the offer finally arrived? 

“I was blown away. I was relieved as well because it had been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Every time I had gone in, I thought, ‘That’s probably the last time,’ and then they’d bring me back. So it was very tough on the nerves.” Fair – although with the film being so nautical, I understand the studio’s due diligence before inviting a Jonah onboard. 

Jonah Hauer-King

The day after Eric was confirmed, Hauer-King hung out with his friend and actor Harris Dickinson. A fellow member of the Disney Princes club, Dickinson played Prince Phillip in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. “He gave some sage words of advice,” says Hauer-King. “Approach it like you would any other role. Try to create a four-dimensional, interesting person.” 

The casting team chose well (I suppose that’s the point of those seven auditions). His performance has been widely praised, and he knows his Disney. He speaks enthusiastically about getting composer Alan Menken’s phone number at the London premiere.

While Eric’s role is expanded in the remake, the star of the film is the little mermaid herself – played by the young American actress Halle Bailey. Ahead of its release, The Little Mermaid endured a bout of manufactured controversy owing to some people on the internet deciding a woman of colour couldn’t portray a mythical sea creature. (The critical acclaim being lavished on Bailey suggests the people on the internet were wrong.) 

“I was just blown away by her,” says Hauer-King of Bailey. “I was so impressed that she deals with everything with such graciousness and elegance.” He notes the positive reaction to Bailey’s casting outweighed the negativity, even if the latter inevitably got more amplified. “It became more and more ridiculous the more I worked with her, the more I realised how incredible she was and how born she was for the role.” 

The 1989 Disney film was itself an adaptation of a 19th-century fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. “It’s fascinating that people didn’t mind all of the changes that were made from that,” says Hauer-King. “In that version, Ariel kills herself, I believe. Becomes a sort of air spirit and goes off with the angels. It’s an incredibly sad, dark, moving story. Quite different to the cartoon.” 

Jonah Hauer-King
Jonah Hauer-King

Very different. The prince marries another woman and the heartbroken mermaid dissolves into the sea foam and becomes a daughter of the air. Since mermaids don’t have souls (obviously), she has the chance to earn one and ultimately ascend to Heaven after 300 years of good deeds. The fairy tale was published in 1837 so we must assume the poor thing has 114 years to go. 

If you plan to invite Hauer-King over to dinner, ensure you prepare something nice. His father Jeremy King is the legendary restaurateur behind some of London’s most famous dining spots, including the Wolseley and the Delaunay. After finishing school, Jonah would wait at Brasserie Zédel while auditioning for acting roles.

“Loads of the waiters were out-of-work actors or performers so it was really fun,” he recalls. “You were on a very nocturnal schedule. I was 18, finishing work at midnight and then going out in Soho. I had a great time.” 

Is Hauer-King a good cook himself? “I’m all right, actually. Well, it depends who you ask – you should probably ask people that I cook for. But I like cooking, I enjoy it so I throw myself into it.” He can’t recall entertaining the Little Mermaid crew, although, “I definitely had Halle around a couple of times so maybe I cooked for her.” Presumably he didn’t serve seafood.  

More than hospitality, or even acting, his first love was music. His teenage years were spent playing in the indie rock band Rova; I haven’t heard their music but the name’s solid.

“Could be worse,” agrees Hauer-King. “We went through a few. Kaituma – don’t know where that came from. Foxglove.” Like the flower? “Yes. I didn't know but it turns out it's a poisonous one. Rova was named after a Beanie Baby that I had, a Red Rover. Then we thought that was a weird name so we changed it to Rova with an A.” 

Jonah Hauer-King

Aged 16, Hauer-King performed in a show called Flames Over New Jersey at the Edinburgh Festival. “I played a crooked cop just trying to make a buck for his family.” He calls the experience being “transformative”:  “I loved it on every level. It gave me a real sense of belonging within the company and I fell in love with that.” On stage, “I had an American accent. I wore a trilby hat and a rented pinstripe suit and I felt amazing.”

He started auditioning for all the school plays. The more he acted, the more he fell in love. In hindsight, he realises there was something “cathartic” in performing on stage. “I felt like I could explore some of my own vulnerabilities; be open and fragile as someone else. It didn’t have to be me. I was probably quite drawn to that.”

Playing different characters allowed the teenager to explore what it might mean to be Jonah. “It tells you a lot about yourself. But as a 17 year old, I don’t think I was thinking of that.” 

You grow more self reflective with age, right? “That’s it. Well hopefully, anyway,” 

Would he have attended university had more jobs been coming in? Who knows. They weren’t, he did, and he loved his time at Cambridge. “I felt so grateful to be at that university.” As an undergraduate he scored a West End production of The Entertainer alongside Kenneth Branagh (no biggie). These were heady days, a life opening up before his eyes; yet rather than shirk his studies, Hauer-King embraced them. 

The energy and momentum from acting ensured that “I probably worked much harder at university than I would’ve otherwise done.” He laughs. “It felt really fun to be going off and doing jobs and then coming back and throwing myself into a degree that I really loved while surrounded by friends. Looking back, that must have been quite a busy time. But I was so grateful and thrilled to be doing it.” 

Jonah Hauer-King

Among his Entertainer castmates was Phil Dunster: still in his mid-20s and several years away from Ted Lasso and career breakout. “He’s the best,” says Hauer-King. “We shared a dressing room for months on that show and I absolutely loved it. It was so fun. He’s brilliant.” 

Who was messier? “I’m not just saying this but I think we’re both quite clean. I love a hoover and a clean of the flat. For me, that’s a very meditative, chilled place. For my girlfriend, it’s probably the only reason why she’s with me. But I love a bit of hoovering, a bit of dusting, a bit of washing  with a podcast going in the background. I’m sorted.” 

Any pre-show rituals? “Nervous peeing. Back and forth. Multiple times.”

Hauer-King grins when informed that I plan to reach out to Dunster for his own memories of The Entertainer. “Remember that we shared a dressing room and got very comfortable with each other.” I’m not sure what kind of responses to expect now… “Say no more!” 

“Sharing our deepest, darkest secrets. Painting each other’s nails. Me falling in love with him and the occasional sing-along with a guitar,” messages Dunster a few days later.Has Dunster offered any advice for handling a sudden bout of fame? “Nah, man – he knows what he’s doing. He’s so good at making everyone he works with feel brilliant at their job and that’s the most important thing when he’s one of the leading roles of the company.”

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Another leading role is next: he plays the titular Tattooist of Auschwitz in the Sky adaptation of the bestselling novel. “We only finished that three weeks ago. It was really moving because so many of the actors and the creatives – our director, our DOP – were Jewish. And as I guess all Jews do, they had some direct or indirect link to the story that they were telling. It’s hard to articulate but it gave an added poignancy to the whole experience.” 

Hauer-King’s grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s after the pogroms, a few years before the Nazi invasion. They sailed from Eastern Europe to Halifax, Canada on the Lithuania. “My grandfather was a very young man at that point. He served in the air force, went to medical school and then went to San Francisco – which is where my mom grew up.” Generations later, their grandson will choose his degree partly to explore his own Jewish identity and through acting, storytelling, he will enter the concentration camp that could so easily have murdered them. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

What of the years ahead? “I’d love to just continue to work. I think any actor probably would tell you that – the insecurity of not working never goes away!” He has written a screenplay for a World War II musical called Beyond The Wire; “it’s inspired by true stories about men who started a theatre company within a prisoner of war camp.” 

The future is alive for Jonah Hauer-King. Expect him to seize every opportunity, relish each new experience –  and keep ticking along. 

The Little Mermaid is in cinemas now