‘Barry’ Star Bill Hader Talks the Show’s Dark Turns: “You Never Want To Make a Decision Based on What Your Genre Is”

Bill Hader, the multihyphenate star of Barry — who has earned two Emmys for his leading role and this year earned a third acting nomination as well as nods for writing and directing on the series — doesn’t get too hung up on whether his show is still a comedy. Yes, the show is classified as such, and his Emmy-nominated co-stars Anthony Carrigan and Henry Winkler respectively deliver delightfully comic performances as Chechen mobster NoHo Hank and washed-up acting teacher Gene Cousineau. But the show, which follows the eponymous hitman as he balances a life of crime with his aspirations to make it in Hollywood (and live a normal life with his girlfriend, Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg, who also has dreams of stardom), has always balanced dark themes with equally dark humor. For Hader, the story comes first — the jokes, second. In a conversation with THR, Hader speaks about the fun of creating a show that defies genre, how the humor comes from making fun of his own self-seriousness and Barry‘s literary influences.

This season was postponed because of COVID-19. Did that give you extra time to really nail down season three?

For sure. It was a big benefit. I think if we shot the original scripts, it would have been a very different season.

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In what way?

I don’t think it would have been as sharp or thematically linked. Overall, the thematic tone and everything about redemption and who deserves to be forgiven — that all really focused when we were rewriting.

This season was much darker than the first two. Was that a tonal shift you had in mind from the beginning, or was that something you found as you were crafting the season?

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It was always that way from the beginning, especially after the way season two ended. You never want to make a decision when you’re telling a story based on what your genre is, where you go, “Here’s what the characters would do, but it’s a comedy so it has to be funny.” I really wanted to stay true to the characters.

That binary, being either a drama or a comedy, doesn’t leave a lot of middle ground for a show like Barry.

It’s a marketing thing. If you look at a streaming platform, there are so many different categories now. I’m going to sound like an old man, but it’s like going to a video store — those genres were a form of marketing that helps people make a decision: “What are you in the mood for right now?” You don’t have that when you go to a movie theater; you have a horror movie next to a romantic comedy, a sci-fi movie next to a documentary. “Barry is not really a comedy anymore” is something I hear a lot, but to me, it’s just about telling the story correctly. HBO has allowed us to do that, which I’m really grateful for.

Henry Winkler

Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO

Is there any part of you that likes to play with the expectations the audience has for this show? The dark comedy has always been there, but is it more fun to play around with the mixed tones?

Sometimes you get a sequence together that you write as a straight drama or a straight action sequence. The fun comes from going back over it a couple of times and thinking, “What if this happens?” It’s sort of like sitting around and watching something with your friends, commenting on it and making jokes like Mystery Science Theater or something. Instead, we’re writing those things in. One example is the motorcycle chase in episode six. There’s a moment when someone hands off a giant machine gun to the guy on the motorcycle. Initially, the guy took it and started firing it. It was very much a big action set piece. When that moment came, I think I audibly scoffed: “There’s no way he would be able to make that shot!” (Laughs.) [In the final cut, the motorcyclist clumsily drops the gun and veers into a car.] You have to get away from it so then you can comment on how kind of lame your initial idea was.

I like that approach — the humor comes from the absurdity of the reality you’ve created.

The same thing happened in a scene between Barry and Sally. Her show has been canceled, and he wants to scare her boss. What can he use to help her? He’s a killer, a former Marine, so he’s like, “I can freak her out.” Initially that was written very straight and kind of a scary moment [for Sally]. When we were rehearsing it, Duffy Boudreau, one of the writers, was like, “Do you want to try this, like, really sweet?” I improvised some, and we changed some things, but [the same dialogue] was there, the same structure was there. You get it on paper and are like, “This makes sense,” and then you get bored and start making fun of your own work.

I’ve read that Flannery O’Connor was an influence on this season. Were there other literary or cinematic references that inspired your writing?

Flannery O’Connor’s [short story] A Good Man Is Hard to Find — people quote the line all the time: “She’d be a wonderful woman if someone held a gun to her head every day.” It’s something we all can say. At the moment of death, you can become the best version of yourself, right? We used that in a scene in episode five, when Cousineau says, “I have done a lot of changing. … It takes someone putting a gun to your head to realize what’s important in life.” Liz Sarnoff, one of the writers, talked about that moment in the room. But during the pandemic, I reread some of O’Connor’s stories and was incredibly moved by them. Her voice is so specific, and even though some of the stories are so similar, it doesn’t matter. There’s something very genuine about her voice — it’s very honest and true. There’s a lot of that in Russian literature, too, in Chekhov and Tolstoy: a humor that’s kind of understated. I think of a scene in Anna Karenina where she comes home after falling in love with Vronsky; she sees her husband and there’s a long passage about how ugly his ears are. It’s incredibly relatable because when you’re sick of somebody, suddenly every little thing about them drives you crazy. Tobias Wolff and George Saunders do the same thing: They can be so incredibly funny while having so much humanity. That’s where I would like to live as an artist.

Just like O’Connor wrote primarily about people on the fringes in the South, Barry captures what it’s like to live in Los Angeles — not just the way it depicts the entertainment industry but the weird cultural corners of the city and its sprawl. What’s so appealing to you about Los Angeles as a writer?

I’ve lived here off and on since 1999 and was very much in the industry, working as a PA all the way up to now, being an actor and now writing and directing. Like any industry that you work in for a while, you just see the things that drive you crazy. (Laughs.) You also can’t have that kind of satire without loving the place and having [experienced] some of those things yourself.

As Sally and Barry slowly find more success in their careers, does that open up more ways to satirize the entertainment industry?

Yeah. You’re able to take someone who’s essentially an innocent and then watch them [discover] the man behind the curtain. I’ve seen this happen with so many friends: You come here completely enamored with movies and television and music, and then you get into it. You learn the business, and then you [become jaded]. That’s probably why I watch so many old movies or foreign movies, and I’m such a snob. It’s like being in film school, when everybody presents their films — that’s how it feels living in Hollywood. “Oh, so-and-so’s got this going on, I should text them!” (Laughs.) That’s fun, not bad, but it does take you out of it when you watch a movie. It’s nice to just watch TCM because for the most part, all of those people are dead.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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