Bill Hader Created a Killer to Cope

How the ‘Barry’ star went from anxiety-prone ‘SNL’ breakout (“full-blown panic attacks, crying, the whole thing”) to HBO’s in-control assassin auteur.

Bill Hader Created a Killer to Cope - S.G.E

“Ugh, why can’t I just be chill? Just a modicum of chill. That would be great.” In his production office on the Sony lot where he is putting the final touches on the coming season of his HBO show BarryBill Hader recalls — with no small amount of angst — meeting some of his filmmaker idols as a castmember on Saturday Night Live. He would often corner the guests with breathless, fannish questions about their work. “How do you do this? How do you do that?” When Martin Scorsese came to set, “He was super nice but a bit like, ‘Easy, man, relax,’ ” Hader says. “I don’t know what I said, but I just felt the vibe from him was, ‘Please get out of my dressing room.’ It could just be in my head, but I just felt like he could smell, ‘Oh, you’re a film nerd. OK. Thanks, man.’ ” Hader says he’s had similar encounters with Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Now, after years of admiring such filmmakers to the point of mortification, Hader, 43, is becoming something more akin to a peer, taking on greater creative responsibility for one of TV’s most cinematic shows. Hader co-created Barry with Alec Berg, writes and directs most of the episodes, and is finally fulfilling the goal that brought him to Hollywood in 1999, before he got sidetracked by a detour into one of the most coveted jobs in comedy: that of auteur.


In Barry, which returns to HBO for its third season April 24, Hader plays a reluctant hitman who wants to be an actor. Barry is just really great at killing. This is not so different, Berg points out, from Hader, who became a star on SNL in his 20s almost in spite of himself, fought crippling anxiety on the live broadcasts, and really just wanted to write and direct.

“He didn’t spend six years doing ImprovOlympic or whatever it was,” Berg says. “He fell ass-backward into it. And he’s just so unbelievably good at [comedy and acting] that it just willed itself into being, and he couldn’t stop it. We both thought the idea of somebody who was incredibly naturally gifted at something that they didn’t love doing was an interesting internal struggle, the struggle of like, ‘Oh, well he should be a killer because he is great at it, but it’s eating him up.’”

On the third season of Barry, Hader directed five of the eight episodes, and on season four, which is already outlined and being written, he plans to direct every one. It’s an assumption of responsibility he’s been gunning for since he and Berg first sold HBO the pilot for Barry in 2016. At that meeting, Hader, who had directed a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, volunteered to direct the pilot, and the network said yes in the room. But as soon as the meeting was over, then-HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo called Berg, a TV veteran and executive producer on SeinfeldCurb and Silicon Valley, in his car. “[Lombardo] goes, ‘Look, I know in the room you had to say that Bill could direct it because Bill is sitting there, but there’s no one else on the phone. Can he do this?’” Berg recalls. “And I said, ‘100 percent, absolutely, there’s no doubt he can do it. And he should.’”

Lazy loaded imageAs a worried child, Hader was often told he was being overdramatic. “And it’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe I am,’” he says. “But it is very real in your head.” Paul Smith jacket, Uniqlo shirt. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVID NEEDLEMAN

Hader had communicated his ideas about visual references and tone so clearly as he and Berg were honing the idea for Barry that Berg felt confident. Hader would go on to be nominated for an Emmy for directing the pilot, and another for directing an episode in season two, a surrealist one-off that subjects Barry to extended fight sequences, first with a martial arts master and then with that man’s preteen daughter, described as a “feral mongoose.” In total, the show was nominated for 30 Primetime Emmys during its first two seasons, and both Hader and co-star Henry Winkler, who plays Barry’s acting coach, won for their performances.

When Hader pivots between acting in a scene and directing it, Winkler says, “I don’t know how it’s done, but you don’t see the seam. He goes, ‘Let’s do it again. You know what? Try this.’ And then, boom. He’s in the scene with you.” Hader has gained more confidence since his early days directing on the show, Winkler says, and lost one distracting habit. “He used to mouth your words,” Winkler says. “He knew everybody’s lines because he wrote them, he and his wonderful staff. And you would see him saying your line with you and you would have to say, ‘Bill, Bill, you’re mouthing the words again.’”

The appeal of Barry was never the acting, Hader says. “It was about figuring out what’s the story, and getting into the tone and the feel of it. And then being like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll play Barry.’”

But as an acting role, Barry has been an evolution for Hader — his second. At some point, perhaps when he played Amy Schumer’s boyfriend in Trainwreck or Kristen Wiig’s sensitive, depressed brother in the indie drama Skeleton Twins, Hader’s public image evolved from the weirdo in the ascot playing Vincent Price on SNL to that of a thinking woman’s heartthrob. But on Barry, he plays a former Marine prone to violence and capable of towering rage. It’s a role that relies on physicality and athleticism. When he first got the part, “I remember HBO being like, ‘You need to start working out,’” Hader says. “And I’m like, ‘I actually do work out. I work out three days a week, sometimes more. I work out a lot.’ I never get, ‘Wow, you look great.’ It’s always like, ‘Huh.’ Once I was like, ‘I just don’t want to be too ripped.’ [My trainer] was like, ‘I don’t think you have to worry about that.’”

Lazy loaded image



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.