Bill Hader is everywhere and seemingly capable of doing everything. Not only is he one of the most versatile performers to come out of Saturday Night Live, but also one of the most relatable. He has this neighborly quality where he just seems like the guy who you see wandering the aisles of your local super market who may stop you and ask if you know what aisle the corn is in. He just so happens to be one of the most popular comedic talents working today.
Once heralded by Bill Murray as doing “the best work anyone ever did,” on Saturday Night Live, Hader has consistently proven himself that he has what it takes to hold together whatever T.V. show or movie it may be. He has that glue-like quality where no matter what craziness may be going on around him, he just keeps on moving. He is reliable as a performer, which can be seen in his co-starring performances in Superbad, Tropic Thunder, Hot Rod, Inside Out, The Skeleton Twins, or Trainwreck. With Barry, we see the glue come into his own, and have to hold together an entire show with an extremely talented ensemble cast that includes Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, and Sarah Goldberg. And he does it as effortlessly as one can.
The premise of Barry is simple enough, really. Bill Hader plays Barry, a former marine turned hitman who really wants out of that world, and discovers his love of acting when accidentally stumbling into a class taught by Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau. The idea of a hitman thinking taking up a job that requires you to show your face constantly and expose every vulnerable being inside of yourself may get a chuckle, but it’s what that show does with the premise that makes it work. It’s not your typical hitman story, nor is it your typical comedy. It becomes this unique, singular thing that hasn’t really been seen before.
We recently spoke to Bill Hader on the phone about all things Barry, how his character evolves throughout the second season, directing for the first time, balancing many different genres, how his love of film influences how he looks at the process, and being known as the “king of the gameshow host” on SNL. A few times throughout our interview, his phone wound up cutting out and he would have to call back, which he did apologize for multiple times. There’s nothing more relatable than that, truthfully. Even the biggest television star can have a call dropped.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about sort of the evolution of Barry in season two and how much more comfortable he seems to be getting as an actor. It seems as if he’s getting better in some aspects.
Yeah, I think he’s trying to better himself. But I think his confidence to get up onstage is getting a little bit better. I don’t think he’s a good actor yet. [laughs] But his enthusiasm I think is also driven by his denial of who he is. “If I just don’t think about that other stuff and I just focus on this acting stuff, maybe the other stuff will kind of go away.”
Did you guys initially set out to do the “fish out of water” thing with this series? Was that conscious an effort?
Yeah, it’s more of just like what’s a feeling that Alec (Berg, the co-creator) and I can both relate to. And that’s the feeling of being put into a position where you feel a bit… Like when I first got Saturday Night Live, I felt like I wasn’t really prepared for it and I felt like, yeah, a fish out of water or just that they were going to see that I was a fraud, you know? [laughs]. And you kind of go “Gosh, I don’t have the experience that other people have on the show.” And so it was more of just trying to write to that feeling.
I think what works most is that you don’t rush into his success. There’s some shows that may be quick to show his improvement by season two. But everything feels a lot more organic here and not try to have him change at an unbelievably fast rate.
Yeah, you have to try to be honest with it and truthful. And the truthful thing is I don’t think he would suddenly become great. I don’t think that was ever part of the discussion.
Exactly. And, speaking of keeping it truthful, one of the more poignant moments is in the first episode of this season, Barry has to use his past to enhance his character onstage, while also having the dilemma of just how much of the truth he wishes to expose right then.
And also how you lie to yourself. It’s the truth, but it’s a lie. Like you want to tell the whole truth. And then the whole question is “Is that truth what the town of Hollywood wants?” Or not just Hollywood but people in general when they sit down to watch something. People who work all day and then they sit down to watch something, is that what they want to see? Being an artist, telling the truth and then getting into this really dark part of yourself, is that what’s interesting? And it might be fulfilling for you but it might not necessarily be something that people want to like sit down and watch. So that becomes a thing, I think, as the season progresses. Honest and raw and real versus blatant entertaining when dealing with your truth.
Last season also saw your debut as a director. Do you think it’s easier for a director to have come from that world of acting?
Yeah, I think so because you kind of know what everyone’s going through to a degree and know how it can make even the most self-assured people very insecure. And having to kind of expose yourself and trying to commit to a thing and you feel silly. You feel really silly. So you’re just kind of hopefully creating an atmosphere where it’s okay and you can try things and if it doesn’t work that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’ve fallen on my face so many times when shooting something or trying something new and luckily it’s just been things with a good editor who’s said “Oh, that was terrible. That can’t go in the movie or the T.V. show.” So yeah you’re always trying stuff.
You’ve talked about in interviews just how massive of a film buff you are. As a new director, and someone working behind the camera just as much as in front of it here, do you find when you look at a film now you look at it differently from a new technical side? Do you have more of an appreciation?
I think I see more kind of technical stuff. When you’re watching it and you’re going “Oh, that’s probably a techno-crane.” Like in Roma that big shot where she goes out into the water at the end of the movie. You kind of go “Oh, that’s a techno-crane. And we have to shoot it at this time of day because look where the sun is.” And stuff that leaks in and now that you’re on set, you kind of know. It’s like little dumb things where you go “You know, there’s a lot of lamps on in this room.” And how the DP turned all the lamps on in a room just to light it. And you’re like “Would you ever have all the lamps on in a room?” Or you’ll go “God that wall back there is really blank. Wouldn’t they want to put art up on that wall just to break it up a bit?” It’s these little things that when you actually are in production and shooting that you’re noticing that other people wouldn’t notice and probably wouldn’t care about but you start noticing it.
Was there any difficulty trying to figure out the perfect way to blend together the comedy, drama, and action elements when writing the show? Do you go out of your way to make sure the more comedic moments are treated as seriously as they are?
I think it’s just following the emotion. We don’t even think about it in those terms. It’s kind of like we write it and then usually a scene is too dramatic when we initially write it, because we’re just trying to have the story make sense. And then as we do more passes, it’s kind of like Alec and I will start adding some comedy to it. And then as you’re shooting it and rehearsing it you come up with ideas and say “Oh, that could be funny. Let’s try that.” And then when you’re editing it, you’re doing it all over again. You’re adding comedy, taking it out. “Oh no, this scene should be more dramatic.” And it really is just instinctual. You’re watching it going “Yeah, that works.” You try something else and it doesn’t work. But we never kind of go into it going “Alright, let’s make it really funny and really sad at the same time.” And it came out that way.
How is it on set, as far as ad-libbing goes? I know within the cast there’s quite a few who are seasoned with improvisation. Is there a loose enough vibe to give way to that?
Sometimes, yeah. Not like full scenes or anything. Not like when you do an [Judd] Apatow movie and you improvise a whole new idea. The people like Anthony Carrigan who plays NoHo Hank. He kind of will take the dialogue and make it his own. He kind of understands the character now better than we do, so he’ll improvise a lot of stuff that we’ll keep. But it’s always within where the story is, so he’s adding a line here, a line there. We’re not that precious about our dialogue, but we are precious about the story. And we are kind of like “Well, we just need this information. This information needs to get across. However you guys want to do it you can do it that way. But this is the information because it effects all these other things coming down the road.” What the information is isn’t up for grabs. When we rehearse that can happen. Like we will rehearse and then the rehearsal will find something that’s more interesting and say “Oh, if the scene now is about this, that makes these things later more interesting and we can change that to that.”
As an actor, how do you go about perfecting having to exude the quieter moments of Barry, the character? Did that take some getting used to?
Yeah. Big time. It was very hard to show how the wheels are turning in an interesting way and not in a boring way. It’s a harder thing to do. You don’t want to emote too much or not enough. It’s a balance.
Did it get any easier to discover that by this season?
It’s all kind of instinctual. I don’t, as my co-stars will probably tell you, I don’t usually know my lines that well when we first start rehearsing the scene. But the minute we go on, I start to remember my lines a little bit. Even though I write the stuff. I would be a terrible theater actor because it’s dialogue with the writer’s saying it, and I’m just not that way. I kind of like it to feel more immediate and real like you’re watching behavior as opposed to something that’s much more theatrical.
And so now with It 2 coming out, in which you play adult Richie Tozier, do you feel like there’s any other genre that you feel like you have to tackle? Coming from a comedy and sketch background where you parody every genre, it may help a bit I imagine to prepare you?
I guess so, yeah. I don’t even look at it in terms of genre, so much as what’s the character you’re playing and what’s their deal. I think it’s more of just whatever the genre is and having fun with it. Playing it a certain way as opposed to thinking “Oh, it’s a horror movie. I have to play it like I’m in a horror movie.” Or if it’s a romantic comedy, I have to play it like it’s a romantic comedy. I just play it like they’re people.
I get that. And so last month, you returned to Saturday Night Live on John Mulaney’s episode to reprise your role as the host of What’s That Name. You’ve been long considered the king of hosting the gameshows on SNL. Would you ever consider hosting an actual gameshow at some point down the road?
No, no. I wouldn’t do that. [laughs] The one I’m doing, I don’t know if that guy even exists anymore. It’s kind of like an old school game show host. I never really watched game shows. It was more just the idea of it. It’s a very sketch-y idea of what a game show host is. Like I’ve probably seen more sketches about game shows than actual game shows.
They’re really embedded into culture, the sketch gameshow. Now having been so many years removed from SNL, do you still find yourself having those infamous nightmares where it’s Saturday night and you don’t know what you’re doing in a sketch? I’ve been told by quite a few cast members that is a common thread, years after they finish their run.
Yeah. I think we all do. You kind of wake up and go “What was I thinking?” [laughs]. I always have one that I’ve been thrown into a sketch but the cue cards are different and I don’t know who I’m impersonating. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you have the nightmare about going to school in your underwear. But it’s forever.
Barry airs Sundays at 10pm EST