Last Monday night, Jonah Hauer-King lapped up praise at the premiere of The Little Mermaid in his hometown of London, posing for flashing cameras in his bespoke Ralph Lauren suit, embracing his new role as Disney’s latest live-action heartthrob. But at that moment, his mom came along to bring him back down to earth with a memory from his past (as mothers tend to do). “She reminded me of when I used to sit on the sofa with my two older sisters, watching The Little Mermaid,” Hauer-King tells W days after the premiere. “It was one of the only time we’d all shut up.”
The anecdote illuminates the surreal, full-circle moment in which the actor finds himself—while also reminding Hauer-King of his beginnings. But in truth, the actor really doesn’t need to be humbled. Despite the immense attention he’s received ahead of The Little Mermaid’s release this weekend, the British actor maintains a laid-back air. He isn’t pompous and ready to brag about his recent successes, nor is he overly confident, though he could easily be all those things. Instead, he comes across as modest and appreciative—like a true prince should.
On Friday, when the live-action remake of the Disney classic hits theaters worldwide and Hauer-King officially becomes synonymous with Prince Eric, his life will likely change forever. Up until this point, the actor has stuck to smaller projects, playing Laurie in a Little Women miniseries for PBS and starring in the BBC World War II drama World on Fire. Maybe it’s because of this low profile that, when Hauer-King received the self-tape request for the role of Eric, he didn’t think much of it. “It was such a long shot, and I was realistic about my chances, so it didn’t feel like a big deal,” he says. Hauer-King heard the rumors of the A-list stars allegedly up for the role (Harry Styles’s name was thrown about quite a bit), but he remained stoic throughout the process. “I just thought, ‘Well yeah, that makes sense,’” he says of the Styles rumors. “Maybe, if I’d shown up to a screen test and I was next to pop stars and famous actors, I’d have felt nervous, but luckily that didn’t happen.”
The film’s director, Rob Marshall, was likely impressed by Hauer-King’s calm demeanor, along with his endurance, as he pushed through the seven-month audition process filled with numerous self-tapes, which called for the actor to present Prince Eric in different accents, and sing a variety of songs (“Everything from West Side Story and Rent to Amy Winehouse,” he says). An in-person meeting with Marshall and a screen test with Halle Bailey sealed the deal for Hauer-King, and in November 2019, he was offered the part. Even after all that work, though, Hauer-King still couldn’t believe it ended in his favor. After getting off the phone with Marshall, the actor recalls sitting alone with the news and slowly convincing himself it was all a dream. “I texted the number that called me and wrote, ‘Hi, this is Jonah. Is this Rob Marshall? Have I gone crazy? Did that just happen?’” Luckily, Marshall responded right away, solidifying the reality of the situation. “He was probably wondering if he’d just cast an insane person,” Hauer-King says with a laugh. “But I was overjoyed.”
Growing up, Hauer-King—the son of an actress-turned-therapist and restaurateur—knew he wanted to be a performer. Initially, he was drawn to music; as a teenager, he formed the indie rock band Rova with his friends. Immediately, Hauer-King felt drawn toward the spotlight. “I didn’t let anyone else sing,” he recalls. “I had to be the front man.” When he was 16, he helped his friend put on a play at a theater festival, and suddenly his interests shifted from the concert stage to a more theatrical one. “I loved the acting part, but I also loved being part of a company,” he says. “It gave me a real sense of creative belonging.” Hauer-King brought that momentum home, got an agent, and put his dreams of going to university on hold. After a stagnant year, however, he rethought his plan and enrolled at Cambridge University to study theology and religion.
Hauer-King is hesitant to call his decision to get a degree a “backup plan.” “If I had done medicine or law, I reckon that would’ve been an obvious backup,” he says. “But I was never going to be a priest or rabbi.” Still, it’s possible his religious studies have aided him in his acting endeavors. The actor recently finished work on the adaption of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, in which he plays Lale Sokolov, a Jewish man imprisoned at Auschwitz who is forced to tattoo identification numbers on his fellow prisoners. “It was a surreal experience, having your head shaved every day and putting on that prison uniform and going to an Auschwitz set,” he says. It’s clear he feels a responsibility to tell the story in a respectful manner. Hauer-King’s Jewish grandfather fled Poland in the 1930s and ended up in Canada, where he served in the Air Force during WWII. The actor worked hard to create distance between himself and the role, but admitted to struggling at times. “Because of my own personal connections to that time, it just felt impossible for it not to be hugely impactful and draining.”
For now, though, Hauer-King is in the more upbeat Prince Eric state of mind, eager to speak about The Little Mermaid and his costar Bailey. He isn’t shy when it comes to singing her praises, speaking on “her elegance and grace,” as well as the connection they formed while filming in London. “She was my closest friend throughout filming,” he says. The two bonded over their journey as young actors, and handling the pressure of such a closely watched film. “We both had feelings of insecurity and overwhelm,” he says. “We could try to communicate them to others, but we knew the both of us had the best understanding of it. We leaned on each other quite a lot.”
He’s also focused on the future which, unsurprisingly, is looking bright. In addition to The Tattooist, the actor has a number of projects on the horizon, including the development of Beyond the Wire, a film based on a screenplay he wrote during lockdown about WWII prisoners of war who start a theater company. Speaking of theater: Hauer-King is “really, really keen” on a return to the stage, which is where he originally fell in love with acting as a teen. As of now, he has no plans to head back to the West End, but he did promise to keep me posted. “I was actually just sent a play and I’m going to read it tomorrow,” he says with some excitement in his voice. “I’ll give you a shout if it’s any good.”