Bill Hader's Killer New TV Show Is a Literal Dream Come True (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
"I didn't go into it going, I want to play a depressed hitman," Bill Hader says, then chuckles. "It didn't start from there." In Barry, his HBO series which premieres the first of its eight episodes on Sunday, Hader does, in fact, play a disaffected Midwest assassin who begrudgingly accepts one more job in L.A., where he meets a troupe of aspiring Hollywood hopefuls and realizes his true calling: Acting.
The short story of where Barry started is Hader had an exclusive development deal with HBO and, after leaving Saturday Night Live in 2013, he and Silicon Valley producer Alec Berg couldn't nail down an idea to pitch. "And then out of frustration, I was like, I don't know, what about, like, a hitman?" he recalls during a recent sit down at a Beverly Hills hotel. "Alec said, 'I hate that word, hitman.' It conjures up an image, like, the Tarantino guys with the two .45s and the skinny ties. And I go, 'No, no, no, no. Not that.'"
What Hader imagined was something closer to reality and, murder notwithstanding, something closer to himself. "Me playing a version of myself instead of making it a big Saturday Night Live-style character," he says. "I didn't want to do a thing that was too broad." In person, the actor is nothing like the giggling Stefon, or any of the other sketch characters he's famous for. He's soft-spoken and measured, with an affable, dry sense of humor. His wealth of knowledge about true crime helped round out the character, adding Barry's backstory as a Marine.
The idea that Barry would want to pursue acting, Hader says, came pretty quickly after that. He and Berg made Barry's first mark in L.A. a personal trainer and aspiring actor, who Barry tails to the acting class in the Valley where he ends up catching the bug. (The class is taught by Gene M. Cousineau, played by none other than Henry Winkler.) Both creators found the idea intrinsically funny. "It's a guy who lives in the shadows wanting to be in the spotlight," Hader says. "What if he achieves his goal to be an actor? He'll get killed! So, it was like, can he achieve that without getting murdered? That made us laugh."
The slightly longer origin story of Barry involves essentially Hader's entire life, everything he's experienced in his 39 years having led to this show. For example, he never took acting classes himself, but attending a friend's improv comedy show inspired Hader to first try his hand at acting. Hader had come to L.A. from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to become a filmmaker and, in the early aughts, was working various behind-the-scenes production gigs when a P.A. buddy invited him to a Second City show.
"'They're doing something,'" he remembers thinking. "I came out to L.A. to be creative and do creative things and instead, it had been five years and I'd been waking up at, like, three in the morning and working 18 hour days on film sets. It was just like, I can't really do this anymore."
Second City ultimately led to Saturday Night Live, where Hader made his debut as a featured player in 2005. "It was like going from pre-school to Harvard in the span of a month," he says. "There was this feeling at SNL that you could get fired at any moment, especially when you're a featured player and you're just getting started." The feeling -- of feeling beyond your depth and wanting so badly to belong to a community -- inspired a key scene in Barry's pilot when Hader's character goes for happy hour drinks with his fellow thespians and realizes these are his people.
"I remember Amy Poehler took us all to have a drink and it was Amy and Seth Meyers and Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz and all of these people that I'd been watching and now I'm sitting at a bar, just drinking with them" Hader says, though he recognizes, "It took me four seasons to kind of feel confident that I knew what I was doing on that show." By the time his eight-year tenure at SNL came to an end, he had found his place to the tune of dual Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor. Now, he is starting over again, and, for the first time, he's the lead of a show.
Since leaving Studio 8H, Hader has done a bit of everything -- guest starred in sitcoms, traveled to Sundance to promote his indie, lent his voice to one of Disney's animated juggernauts -- but always stayed in his supporting lane. His discernable mug was plastered on movie posters next to Amy Schumer and Kristen Wiig, but never has he been featured solo. "I've said no to leading a lot of movies, because I've been like, Well, it's my face on a poster and, uhhh,'" he stammers. "I get wishy-washy about it, for better or worse."
Barry is the project he is finally willing to be the face of, something Hader feels he can stand behind, whether people ended up liking it or not. "Hopefully down the line once I break the seal with this one, I can get a little less precious with it," he shrugs. (When asked if there is a role he regrets passing on, he laughs, "Maybe financially. But no, not like, artistically. But like, 'Oh man, they made a lot of money on that...'") And to show he is all in on Barry, the first episode marks Hader's directorial debut.
"To be honest, I freaked out when we shot the pilot," he says. "It was the first thing I directed, so all my energy was going into that. It wasn't until I was on the set of the first day that I went, Oh...I don't know how to play Barry." He laughs as he recalls the very first scene from the very first day, a bit in which Barry meets with Chechen mobsters to discuss his newest mark. Hader directed himself to play Barry as a man of few words. "Because I'm going, 'I don't know how to play the character!'" he confesses. "It worked for the scene, where I'm like, He's not going to say much."
Hader survived that first day of filming and went on to direct two additional episodes, where, yes, Barry talks. For most comedians, the triumph would be in having your very own premium cable show -- and it is for Hader, a milestone he truly processed when he saw HBO's signature static play before the pilot. ("From The Sopranos to Mr. Show to The Wire, all these things that I've loved and watched over and over, always open that way.") But he didn't set out dreaming of doing the acting thing.
"Being on set and getting to work with the DP and the production designer and all these things that I actually get really excited about, that was cool," he says. "That was big." He leans back in his chair and grins. "That was a big deal to get to do all of that." With Barry, he accomplished the goal that brought him to L.A. all those years ago: Bill Hader is a director now.