Bill Hader on bringing his HBO hitman comedy Barry to life — and his tips on 'bad' acting
Bill Hader kills in more way than one in Barry, HBO’s eight-episode comedy about a Marine-turned-disillusioned hitman who heads to L.A. to snuff out an aspiring actor, only to wind up in a true career crisis as he finds new direction in an acting class run by a washed-up thespian played by Henry Winkler. Before this dry-humored, sad-hearted, white-knuckled surprise of a comedy sneaks onto the air this Sunday, see how Hader’s previous SNL anxiety served as unlikely inspiration for the show — and learn his secrets to pulling off “bad” acting.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were the seeds of this show rooted in playing a fish out of water hitman? Or more of a person with an unlikely occupation trying to break into an acting and find community? Or neither?
BILL HADER: It was mostly about this weird idea of this thing that you’re good at is actually destroying other people, and also this idea that the thing that you’re good at is evil. The thing you want to do — that actually can bring enjoyment to people’s lives and fulfill your own life — you’re actually really bad at…. It came from my time at SNL where I had this ability to do voices and impressions and stuff, but I had massive anxiety while I was there. I had a really hard time working through my anxiety. What I always wanted to do is write and direct and stuff like that, and when I tried that before I got SNL, it didn’t come as natural to me as doing voices and impressions. So, it’s this irony of this thing I was good at, there was another part of me that wasn’t very well-equipped for it. The thing I really wanted to do, I had to work really hard to even get a mediocre result. I directed the first three episodes, and I still feel like I could get better at it, but that was the first thing I’ve ever directed, with a real crew. That was a massive itch I got to scratch.
So, you tell HBO that you want to create, direct, and star in a show about a hitman wanting to become an actor. How would you summarize that conversation?
We walked them through the first episode, and then it was weird because we’re essentially pitching a 30-minute comedy and our reference points were Taxi Driver and Unforgiven. [Laughs.] Because it’s HBO, they didn’t bat an eye. I said, “Imagine Travis Fickle or William Munny finding salvation with the Waiting for Guffman people, but the violence was going to be very real. And it’s going to be played real. Instead of seeing it like a genre, think of it as like a Vanity Fair true crime story.”
Barry does not conjure up the typical image of a hitman. How did you aim to subvert the Hollywood stereotype of the hitman?
Making him a Marine was helpful in grounding it in some reality, like, “Okay, so how did he have this training?” We always said, “It’s as if you had a dancer that trained as a ballerina for years and went to dancing conservatory, and then couldn’t find a job, and so to make money, they become a stripper. And it’s a thing that they’re not very proud of, and they might keep hidden from the family, but they make really good money.” He has this training, and it was to serve his country — a very virtuous thing — and then he gets out, and he’s a bit lost, and he has no community, and he has no real identity, and he has no purpose anymore so the Stephen Root character [Fuches] takes advantage of that…. It was just [us] talking to Marines and understanding when people come back why they’re lost and how someone actually gets into this line of work, instead of: It’s John Wick, and he’s just rad. [Laughs.]
I know we were just talking about subverting the Hollywood stereotype, but… who are your three favorite Hollywood hit men?
There’s this Lawrence Block character named Keller who’s pretty cool. That’s about a hitman and it’s just his day-to-day job. There’s a movie called Charlie Varrick with Walter Matthau, and Joe Don Baker was a hitman who smoked a pipe in that movie. That was a good one. I always like those guys in Michael Clayton who take out Tom Wilkinson. That scene was one that I just remember showing to Alec [Berg, co-showrunner] and I was like, “The hits should feel like this, where it’s just very efficient and no frills, and we don’t need music and it’s not rad or it’s not that thing.”
How is being an actor like being a hitman? I guess for starters, we had to call you in your hotel room under your alias. We won’t reveal what that is.
Right! It’s weird. Please don’t give that out. [Laughs.] No, no one really cares. I was always very reticent, and finally people were prank-calling my room, asking me what the hottest clubs in town were. I was like, “Okay, I gotta get an alias.”… You’re living out of a suitcase on location and you’re traveling a lot. It’s a lot of missed flights. It’s a lot of sitting around waiting for a couple minutes of excitement, then more waiting, and then a couple more minutes of both concentration and excitement — and then more waiting.
How do you think you would fare as a hitman in real life?
Oh, terrible. I don’t like guns. I don’t like violence. I’m very squeamish. I hate waiting. I hate travel. When I had to shoot the guns in this show, I mean, it was like, “Hey Bill, you were closing your eyes, you were squinting, you had your head turned and you look afraid when you’re shooting a gun.” I didn’t get excited doing my firearms training. It was more of a chore. It’s nice when people would say, “Wow, I didn’t know you knew how to shoot like that?” I’m like, “I don’t!” [Laughs.] I can’t shoot to save my life.
Immediately in this story, we find ourselves rooting for Barry — who is a murderer, but one who wants out of this life. Should we be? How redemptive can his story be?
That’s why you do it on HBO — it can be complicated. In the latter episodes, Barry does some terrible stuff and people go, “Whoa. How did he ..?” People like the lead character in stories, especially in television, mostly to be redemptive or likable, and I like people who are complicated. And I also like the high stakes of life and death, so I like watching this guy trying to find redemption and that’s kind of the question: Can you find redemption after you’ve done so much evil? Is his soul damned to hell? And when you’re good at perpetrating evil, can you get out of it? Can you ever stop being good at the thing that you’re good at? Is the only reason I was put on this Earth was to be a grim reaper?
You have to play all the sides of it. That’s the thing I never like in shows or movies or books. When you’re watching something, you can tell, “Oh, that’s them being like, ‘Well, you’ve got to be likable. Yeah, the guy robs a bank but his gun wasn’t loaded!” It’s like, he’s still scaring the s— out of people with a gun, you know? “But he’s a good guy because his gun wasn’t loaded!” You go, “No, have him having a loaded gun and it’s complicated. Maybe he killed somebody. Maybe he’s got to deal with that, because that’s what happens.” It’s just finding the truth in the thing. In the writer’s room, it was just like, “What would Barry actually do here?” Sometimes we would get to things and go, “I think he’d lie.” Or, “I think he’d have to murder somebody.”
I was very clear that the violence should be very real and not funny. He kills a guy in a backyard and there was a bunch of kid toys back there, and I remember when we were shooting it, [co-creator] Alec Berg and I were saying, “If we were on a network show, it’d be like, ‘Can’t he kill him with some of the toys? Can’t it be, like, a goofy murder?” And you’re like, “No, murder’s murder. It’s terrible.” Or don’t do some Weekend at Bernie’s thing where it’s like, “Hey Barry.” “Who’s that?” “Oh, this is my friend Rod. He’s asleep.” If his journey is, “I don’t want to be murdering people anymore,” then that should be shown for what it is, which is just awful. It’s brutal. And that’s why you do it at HBO, because not only did they not question it, their heads were in kind of the same place. They were like, “Oh, it should be real.”
Some of those acting-class scenes are almost as hard to watch as the violence. How much of that is drawn from your experience breaking into Hollywood? And was there something from your past that you said, “Oh, this is definitely going in the show”?
Nothing really. I went to improv classes, and I never really had that experience, but we watched people go through that. We went in and observed some acting classes. There’s a scene in the pilot where Henry Winkler [who plays acting teacher Gene Cousineau] yells at Sarah Goldberg [who plays aspiring actor Sally] and we observed that thing. We watched that. We watched a guy do a scene from True Romance. That’s verbatim what happened in a class and we were like, “Oh man, this is lame.” [Laughs.]
The thing I connected to in the writing was like, “Oh gosh, I remember when I started at SNL, I just wanted to be a part of that community.” Because I knew I’d be a better performer and a better writer if I could just hang with these people.
Your “bad” acting in class rivals your good acting in the show.
Can you give aspiring good actors a few tips on bad acting?
With Barry, it’s different because he’s never thought about acting. The last time he did anything like this was when he was in eighth grade English and they made him read out a paragraph of To Kill a Mockingbird in class or something. That’s how he approaches it. He’s just reading out loud.
But for bad acting: it’s good to not know what to do with your hands. It’s good to overplay the simplest of emotions. Watch true-crime reenactments, because people overreact a bit more than makes sense. Another thing is either too much eye contact or zero eye contact. Also just reading lines by rote. You learn them by rote, meaning you just are learning your lines and you’ve made a decision on how to say it. [Don’t] react to your scene partner, even if they’re doing something completely different, so it doesn’t even seem like you’re in the same universe. By the way, I’ve done all of these things.
Henry Winkler shines as the acting teacher. What piece of advice did you pick up from Henry?
It was just his attitude on set. He’s such a beautiful person. He auditioned for the show, which we still couldn’t believe… Alec and I were more nervous in the audition. He was nervous and then we were both nervous, and it was just a big pile of awkward when he came in. It was a lot of no eye contact.
No one knew what to do with their hands…
No one knew what to do with their hands. Then he auditioned, he was phenomenal, and that was great. That old adage of: He took the work seriously, but he doesn’t take himself that seriously. He’s all about the other people. These young actors are in the acting class and it was a big job for them and he would go up and go, “I love what you did right there. That thing you did. I saw what you did with it, that was beautiful,” or “That was so funny.” He’s a big cheerleader.
Henry Winkler seems to be a man who’s just living life right.
Marty Short’s another one. You just go, “God, I want to live like that.” They really do stop and look at sunsets and smell flowers and go, “God, this is so great, right? Can you believe we get to do this for a living?”
The show is unexpectedly dramatic at points, starting with that monologue Barry gives about his life that Gene thinks is just improvisation. Some people may know your work in The Skeleton Twins, but were you hoping to catch people a little off-guard here?
Yeah. That was just by virtue of the idea of just saying, “Let’s play it real,” and I think probably wanting to not just be kind of sketch-y. You do it for eight years and it’s like, “Oh, let me see if I can do other things.” It’s the same thing with Documentary Now! [his faux-documentary series on IFC]. That’s, for all intents and purposes, a weird sketch show; it’s me and Fred [Armisen] playing different characters, but you try to play them a little bit more real. And it’s more behavior, which I like. It’s just by virtue of this idea that it became more dramatic.
How you would prepare viewers for the premiere episode of Barry?
I definitely would say that going in with no expectations is actually the best way to go in. [Laughs.] If you go in expecting Stefon and Fonzie — or Stefonzie — you might be disappointed. It’s not that tone. Some people read what it’s about and they go, “That’s crazy. What the hell is that?” Or people go, “That’s pretty trite.” So I’ve heard both versions. [Laughs.] I think it’s a relatable story: I have this job. Is this my offering to the world? Do I have more to offer and can I make myself happy? It’s just a guy who wants to make himself happy on some level. The other thing I’d like people to know is that it moves, you know? It’s got a lot of excitement to it. When you hear “comedy,” people go “Oh, it’s a fun episodic thing.” But this one definitely moves. There’s a lot of, “Oh s—! What happens next??”
Barry premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.