TV

Bill Hader on “Barry,” Reading the Russians, and Learning to Write on “South Park”

“He went, ‘Ugh, I hate the word “hitman,” I hate what it conjures up in my mind.’ And I said ‘No, no, what if it was me?’ ”

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It’s been five years since Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live, where he’d been a cast member since 2005. In that time, the 39-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has played a man recovering from a suicide attempt in The Skeleton Twins, alongside Kristen Wiig; the love interest in Amy Schumer’s 2015 rom-com Trainwreck; and a variety of roles on the mockumentary TV series Documentary Now!, which he created with another former SNL star, Fred Armisen. This past weekend, Hader returned to Studio 8H for his second SNL hosting gig.

In Barry, a new HBO comedy created by Hader and former Seinfeld writer Alec Berg, premiering on March 25, Hader plays a former Marine-turned-hitman named Barry Berkman who discovers his true calling when he travels to Los Angeles for a job. Tasked with killing a man on behalf of a Chechen mob ring, Barry follows his target to an acting class. There, he finds his people.

Co-starring Henry Winkler as the acting coach who changes Barry’s life; Stephen Root as Fuches, Barry’s boss; and Sarah Goldberg as Sally, a fellow aspiring actor and the object of Barry’s affection, Barry is anchored by Hader’s somber, darkly comic performance. The series combines a clichéd Hollywood conceit — a hitman who’s dead inside, dulled by his time in the military — with another cliché that’s closer to home: L.A. wannabes yearning for their big break. The result is a show that subtly tests both of those familiar scenarios in surprising ways.

I spoke to Hader in February at the Midtown offices of HBO, eight blocks south of his home for eight years. “Just being on Sixth Avenue, I’m like, oh, 30 Rock’s right over there,” he remarked with a sigh. He’d flown in from L.A., where he lives with his three children, the night before, and he was still a little jet-lagged. A particularly vicious strain of the flu was snaking its way through the country. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and a black beanie, and we did not shake hands. “Just wash your hands, that’s all you can really do,” he said. “Wash your hands and don’t touch your face.”

How does it feel to be back in New York?

It’s always a bit anxiety-inducing, because this city is just about SNL for me.

You’ve talked about feeling anxious during your SNL years.

Yeah, I was very anxious. But you just try to calm down the best you can and just work through it.

Does L.A. help with that? It’s pretty chill out there, right?

Yeah, it’s pretty chill, even though you sit in your car a lot.

Watching Barry, I was thinking about your move to L.A. from Tulsa, when you were twenty. How much, if any, of the scenes with the aspiring actors came from your early years in the city?

I wanted to be a filmmaker, so it wasn’t so much “aspiring actor,” but it was still a community of people who wanted to be filmmakers and things like that. The emotions Barry is going through is a bit like how I was when I got Saturday Night Live — he’s sitting at that bar with those people and he’s like, I just want to be a part of this.

There’s a moment in the show when your character says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I just had this flash of you, Bill Hader, saying that about your time on SNL; this sense of weariness.

Yeah, yeah.

Did that play into the character?

A bit. Not when he says that in the show, necessarily, because when I said I couldn’t do SNL anymore, it was more because I had a young family and living in New York was too hard. It’s a grind after a while. I always admired people like Kenan Thompson or Fred Armisen, who seemed really chill and were just having fun. It was a real struggle for me every week. I was very, very, very nervous, and I’ve always had a lot of anxiety, since I was a kid. I was just having to work through that every week.

The idea of people saying, “Hey, you’re really good at this” — that played into Barry, that emotion: What if the thing you’re good at is destroying you? Alec [Berg] and I had another idea that was much more like the shows you would see now that would be fronted by a comedian. We like those shows, but once we were working on that, I went, “We only have 30 minutes to tell this story, and it’s just nice when there’s really high stakes, and the highest stakes are life and death, so what if I was a hitman?” And he went, “Ugh, I hate the word ‘hitman,’ I hate what it conjures up in my mind.” And I said “No, no, what if it was me?” And he started laughing.

Somehow, we got on the acting class really quick — the idea that acting classes are kind of like group therapy. The hitman world is living in the shadows, and the acting world is in the spotlight, and so you have this conflict there: If he achieves his goal, which is to be an actor, and to be a good actor, and be seen, he’ll probably get killed. You’re weirdly rooting for him to achieve something that will get him murdered.

It’s funny that Alec Berg rolled his eyes when you said “hitman” because when I first heard the description of the show, I was like, ugh, a show about a hitman.

Exactly. I get it. I mean, people said that to me — “I’m doing a show about a hitman”; “Oh, one of those.” And I’m like, yeah, but just wait. You’ll see, it’s different.

It feels like a show made by people who are really immersed in the world of film and TV. There was a lot of subtle commentary on the clichés that I thought the show was going to just propagate.

A movie we kept talking about was Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood movie. That western is all about Clint Eastwood as a retired gunslinger and they come and take him out of retirement to go find some guys and kill them. But he hates killing, and there’s a scene where he has nightmares from murdering people. And then this young kid’s like, “Oh, you’re the famous gunslinger who murdered all these people.” And he’s just totally haunted by it, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s when I drank. When I drank, I killed people, it’s fucked up, basically.” We mythologize violence in this country, and that movie’s so brilliant because you end up seeing the guy for what he is, and it’s brutal, and it’s incredibly sad. Alec and I talked about that — it should be sad.

But the thing we learned was, if you went too hard [in that direction] it started to feel didactic and a bit maudlin for us. Because Alec and I both have kids, there’s this very conscious idea of children — Barry gets the car at the beginning and there’s a car seat in the back. It’s this idea of, what are you gonna give to another generation? These things are rolling around in his head, [but] he can’t talk like that, so it’s like how, visually, can you put it in there, and maybe five people out of a thousand will maybe understand that? But for us, that meant something. It was very important to be like, no, there has to be a car seat in the back of the car.

But you don’t want to necessarily zoom in on it.

The movies I like, you kind of pick up on things, and they let you come to it a bit. That’s why you do it at HBO. I think if we were at a big network, they’d be like, “There has to be a funny fight between him and this guy, and the guy has to accidentally kill himself, because you can’t have Barry killing somebody, because we want him to be likable. You want to be able to root for him.” But he murders people. I want people to feel a bit conflicted watching him. Alec’s good friends with [Game of Thrones co-creator] David Benioff, and David Benioff watched some of the episodes and he was like, “Man, that ending of episode three is so dark.” And I thought, you made Game of Thrones!

The show is funny, it’s just that the humor doesn’t announce itself — it’s not like, “Hi, I’m a joke, and I’m here to make the scene lighter.”

I think what you’re describing is, when you start with a joke first, and go, “How do we shoehorn this moment into a scene?” It’s easier when the scene has the emotions right, and has the point right, and it can be totally straight. I always approach things more from the standpoint of, what’s a good story? What’s a story that’s interesting, and let’s just concentrate on that. If we can make a good script and a good story, I think we’re in good shape. And then after that, it’s like, so I guess I play Barry. It would be logical for me to play Barry.

Why “Barry”?

We were in the meeting pitching it [to HBO], and I said, “And his name’s, I don’t know, like, Barry.” And they laughed. Then Mike Lombardo, I remember, who was running HBO at the time, was like, “That should be the name of the show.”

It kind of sounds like a show about a goofy dad. Barry!

Look at this asshole! I like the font we have, the red font — we took forever to just figure that out. What’s a funny font?

Did you know you wanted to do a half-hour series?

I had no idea. I had the deal [with HBO] first and then it was like, well they gave me money for this deal, I have to turn in a script. Then I realized a lot of people make their living that way, not turning in anything. I remember being on a set, just freaking out: “I have to have an idea for HBO!” And people were like, “No, you don’t. You just didn’t come up with something, they deal with that all the time.” And I was like, “No, I can’t deal with that, I have to turn in something.”

How did you hook up with Alec Berg?

We have the same agent, and the agent said, “You should work with Alec Berg.” We just hit it off. I think we’re just two people that — so much of it is just doing it, and going, “Alright, let’s meet up at this diner every Tuesday.” He was doing Silicon Valley, and Tuesdays were good [for him]. So we met up at this diner at 8 a.m. every Tuesday and just ate breakfast and talked out ideas. His mentorship period came from Seinfeld, and mine, as far as a writers’ room, is South Park. We’re kind of structure guys. Some people like it to just be very free-flowing, and our attitude is, “I’ve got 30 minutes, and I don’t like wasting people’s time.”

The thing I’m very proud of when I watch this show is, these scripts are really tight. Each scene has its purpose that moves the story along. We’re not fucking around. And then to be funny on top of that and be emotional on top of that is good. You gotta have a structure. The biggest thing I learned at South Park was, Trey Parker would go up to the board and he’d have the show lined out by acts, three acts. And then he would go, “It’s all ‘and, and, and,’” and I didn’t know what that meant. He’d go, “This happens, and this happens, and this happens. It needs to be this happens, so therefore this happens, but then….” And I fucking use that all the time. It makes you crazy. Barry gets called to L.A., so therefore he goes to L.A. and he’s gotta go kill Ryan. So therefore, he goes to the Chechens, they give him his assignment, so therefore he goes to tail Ryan and kill him. But he gets to the acting class and decides he likes the acting class, so he goes and hangs with them, so he doesn’t [kill Ryan], so therefore Fuches has to come. You know? It’s all causal. Coincidences now really bother me in stories. So that person just happened to be walking by when that robbery was happening? That’s why the best movies, weirdly, are these animated movies. If you want to see perfect structure, watch those Pixar movies. And Paddington 2, I will say —

Everyone fucking loves Paddington 2!

I took my kids to see Paddington 2, and I was like, that’s a perfect movie.

What’s so great about it?

It’s exquisitely made. And it’s really sweet, and everyone in it is having a ton of fun. It has its own fairy-tale kind of logic to it, but I was always engaged. It was just incredibly charming. Also, I just really respect all those British actors because they’re not afraid to be in an ensemble, you know what I mean? I feel like sometimes in the States, I don’t know if they’re afraid, but it’s just kind of like, “Well, how big’s my part?”

There’s a real every-man-for-himself feel to it here.

And I’ve never been that way, because I came out of SNL where it was a big ensemble and you could be the lead of one sketch and the next sketch you’re a waiter saying, “Can I take your order?” Brendan Gleeson’s one of the greatest dramatic actors, [and] he’s in Paddington as this really funny curmudgeon, and you can tell he’s taking it as seriously as he would the movie Calvary or whatever. He’s really going for it! And Noah Taylor, who, I mean, god, Shine, he was unreal in that movie, and he’s like, one of the prisoners in Paddington 2. That’s a job. They’re taking it seriously, which is cool.

It seems like you’re drawn to performers or projects that don’t fit into just one category — like, the idea that not everything has to be separated into comedy and drama, etc.

Yeah, exactly, or like, you leave SNL and there’s a very clear career for you. I did Skeleton Twins, and people were like, hmm. HBO is a nice place — “We really liked Skeleton Twins, do you want to do more stuff like that?”

Your character in Skeleton Twins did remind me of Barry, because it’s a pretty somber performance but then there are moments where you’ll crack a smile or raise an eyebrow and it’s like, oh yeah, it’s Bill Hader.

They’re both depressed, but even depressed people have moments of at least trying to elevate yourself out of the swamp. The hope with Barry is that he goes someplace as a character. There is a thing on television of, keep it the same, because people are tuning in for a thing that they like. Stories change, and people change. They have a forward momentum, even if it’s some gigantic — like, I read War and Peace.

You did? When?

Like, two years ago. I just knuckled down and did it, and I think it’s because I didn’t really go to college so I read these big books and people are like, “Why are you reading that?” I don’t know!

I have a B.A. and an M.A. and I’ve never read War and Peace.

I know, it’s so dumb. My friends are like, “What are you trying to prove?” So many people like George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen, all these people talk about the Russians and how great they are and how great this book is, and I wanted to see what the hubbub is.

And?

I mean, I needed an online guide to understand a lot of the shit, the names were confusing. It was hard, it took me forever. But the one thing that stuck with me was the characters, how they changed. There are great sections of a guy going into battle and the fear he’s feeling.

The interiority.

Yeah, and like, Anna Karenina, there’s a thing where she comes back and she sees her husband that she’s not in love with anymore, and there’s just a whole thing about his ears. Do you know what I mean? His ears are getting on her nerves. This was written in the nineteenth century, and nothing’s changed. I totally relate. Picking up on little things, someone’s annoying you and you pick up on a thing —

Did you see Phantom Thread?

Yes.

The toast!

That made me laugh so hard. He’s just staring at her. But it is, it’s that thing — that’s just a part of being a human. That’s the thing I got from reading those Tolstoy books. You see it in Tolstoy, and then I see it in a Kurosawa movie, like Ikiru, and then you see it in Phantom Thread. Or, to be honest, Girls Trip. There are moments in that where I’m like, “Yeah, that’s totally true!” I totally got emotional watching Girls Trip, and it might have been because I was on a plane. But I was really moved, weirdly, by the end of that movie.

What did you take away from that?

I just liked that she stuck up for herself, and that being honest was the thing that was celebrated. And like everybody, I think Tiffany Haddish is a fucking genius. She is unbelievably funny. But you have no idea what the thing is that will affect you. The thing I’m always trying to get to in writing is, what’s the finite humanity of the thing? What’s the thing we all can say, “Right? That! That’s a real thing, right?” Have you seen Ikiru, by Kurosawa? Ikiru’s unreal. What you think would be like, a totally inspiring movie about a guy dying, the ending is just so that thing, where you’re like, “That is exactly what would happen.” And you can say it’s cynical, but I think that’s more honest.

I think that’s why Lady Bird has resonated with so many people — there are so many of those moments.

My favorite part of that movie is when she goes, “Oh, I’m from San Francisco.” People don’t change! She kind of learns her lesson, but then she’s like, “I’m from San Francisco,” she gets drunk, has to get her stomach pumped. You’re not gonna just change, that’s not the way it works. You’re gonna be dealing with that shit for the rest of your life. As a movie fan, that’s where stories lie to you, because you go, “Oh, see, I can overcome my anxiety, and I will always overcome my anxiety.”

And then the movie ends!

And you’re like, right on! I get why they do that, because a shit-ton of money’s been put into it, and if we don’t end on some sort of a happy note — it’s an age-old thing. At the same time, that’s why I think people enjoyed Lady Bird so much, because it was just so honest. The scene with Laurie Metcalf in the car, I thought, was just unreal.

For me it was the scene where they’re shopping for dresses.

Yeah, and that both guys kind of don’t work out. They’re both disappointing in different ways. It’s funny, because my daughters, so many of the things I watch with them —

How old are they?

Eight, five, and three. They want to see things that star girls. And so many of those, when you watch things starring a boy, I always felt it was like, the fate of humanity rests on you. And then when it was a girl, it’s like, you need to find a man. And the fate of humanity rests on him. The end of the thing was like, I got a boy. It wasn’t like, you saved the galaxy. Not to bash Sixteen Candles, but it was like, you got Jake Ryan. Marty McFly gets his parents back together, and he saves the world. It isn’t like, Marty McFly gets with a girl and then that’s it.

Yeah, a little while back I wrote this essay on the idea of the ingenue, this kind of role that no young female actor can avoid.

That was a thing when we showed Barry to a bunch of people and said, “Do you guys have any notes or anything in the first four episodes?” And a guy said, “I just find Sally so unlikable, she’s just such an unlikable character. She’s so mean.” And Emily Heller, one of our writers, went, “Barry kills people!” It’s the Breaking Bad thing. No one likes Skylar, and she’s dealing with a baby and a special-needs child, her husband’s lying to her, and he’s off becoming a drug lord.

But fuck her.

But fuck her. That makes no sense to me!

I recently tried rewatching Breaking Bad and after one episode I was like, I don’t think I can watch this right now.

You felt like the show made her unlikable?

I felt like if that show had premiered today, it would not have gone down as well as it did then. The way the first episode ends, with him coming home into their bed after having done all this crazy shit, and having sex with her, and she’s like, “Walter, is that you?” It made me livid.

Now he has a new vitality because he’s a bad guy and he’s gonna get off on this.

Yeah, it really turned me off. It was also not long after the election.

Well, that’s what happens. When you have a leader who is out and out racist, and will walk over certain people on the street, those people are gonna be really angry and feel threatened. And the last thing they can take is a joke, you know what I mean? That was a thing one of the South Park writers said: “We have an insult comic as a comedian, and he’s fucking it up for all the other comedians, because people are super sensitive and I totally understand why.”

Because he’s not joking.

He acts like he’s joking, but he’s not joking, and people feel threatened and feel like, “I’d be dying on the street and this guy would walk over me.” When that person is the president of the United States, it fucks with people. We saw that, because he was elected while we were writing the show.

Did that change anything?

Yeah, I mean, that scene with Sally and her agent came out of us talking, and that was a thing where I went, “I’ve never experienced this before, tell me what would happen.” And not only the female writers in the room, but the assistants, the script PA — our script PA was like, “She would say she’s sorry!”

What was it like to direct some of these episodes?

Oh, it was awesome. It was the best experience of my career. I learned so much watching Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai and Alec Berg, they have much more experience than me and they directed the other episodes. But it was like a 35-year itch that I finally got to scratch.

It didn’t let you down?

The only way it let me down was that I didn’t put any thought into the acting. When you watch the pilot, the scene with the Chechens, I don’t say a lot in that scene, because it was my first day directing and I fully was like, “I don’t know how to play Barry.” So I’m just nodding the whole time.

Barry premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

 

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