Bill Hader on the Dark Arts of Running an HBO Show

We spoke to Hader about season two of ‘Barry,’ auteur film theory, and how being a cop in 'Superbad' helped him prepare for the most interesting role of his career.
bill hader, dark arts of running an HBO show
All images courtesy of HBO. 

The first time we see Bill Hader in season two of Barry, he emerges from the darkest of backstage corridors and creeps onto the lighted stage of a third-rate LA acting class. It’s the perfect metaphor for a character trying to crawl out from under his own shadow and into the light of art.

In September, Hader walked onto a far brighter stage, accepting his first Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of Barry Berkman, a very broken, very violent Marine-turned-hitman-turned-aspiring actor. Much like the character he portrays, Hader pushed himself out of his comfort zone creatively by starring, writing, directing, and executive producing Barry, which relentlessly taps into the depths of human depravity and violence. (And it’s funny, too.)


It’s a risk that has obviously paid off, but one that blurs the line between comedy and drama, inverting the usual laugh-to-cry ratio of dark comedies and leaning far closer to the dark side of that equation. The show, like Hader, manages to be funny while subverting any Stefon-becomes-a-hitman expectation, discreetly moving the goalpost on what can be considered a comedy.

Season two continues in this vain, but only doubles down on darkness, as Barry continues an admirable but clumsy swing at redemption, creating pain and trauma for the people who care about him the most. We spoke to Hader about the innateness of human evil, auteur film theory, and how being a cop in Superbad helped him prepare for the most interesting role of his career.

VICE: Do you relate to Barry Berkman?
Bill Hader: I relate to him in certain ways—the feeling of wanting community. I’ve felt lonely in my life, there’s been things like that for me. You have to figure out the Venn diagram of you and the character is and try to play that.

So, there is some overlap?
Yes, it’s just that I’ve never murdered anybody.

How do you play such a violent character without casting judgement on him?
You have to find something personal in there somewhere. Even when I played the cop in Superbad, you’ve got to find that thing where it’s like, “Did you ever have that friend and they don’t like you as much as you like them?” and it’s like “Yeah, I have felt that way!” That was the relationship with McLovin, like, “This kid is a super close friend of mine and I clearly am putting more into this friendship than he is.” It felt that way in real life, so you just play that. And it's between a cop and a nerdy 17-year-old, that’s all you need.


Barry is a bit of a teenager himself.
Yeah, he’s 15.

Why 15?
That’s when you’re the most angsty and trying to be an individual, but you’re also really naive as to how the world works. He’s very much a new soul. There’s a sense of wonder to him, like when he sees actors in an acting class and he’s like, “These are definitely the best actors I’ve ever seen in my life,” because he hasn’t really thought about it all that much. In this season, he thinks he can plagiarize Braveheart, because he thinks people haven’t really seen this movie. That’s when I like him the most, when we’re writing him a bit naive.

Barry is working out a lot of his emotional issues through pop culture and acting. Is that something you’ve done in your life?
I get a lot out of reading books, watching films, or listening to music. I think it touches a certain thing inside of you where you can get some sort of insight into yourself or a problem you’re having. The biggest reason why you respond to something, I think, is relatability. It makes people even more interested when people go into a dark place or a sad place or a place that’s really uncomfortable and you lean into it, because there is a part to you that relates to it. Then you say, “Wow, this person is actually saying it through their art!” There’s something weirdly relatable to it, but you don’t really know why it is, it’s hard to intellectualize because it’s a feeling.


I found myself stuck in this weird feedback loop watching Barry . You, Bill Hader, are working things out by playing Barry Berkman, an aspiring actor who is working things out through art, and then I’m working out my own personal shit by watching you on the show.
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what happens. You watch a movie about a character who’s lonely and then you kind of go, “Oh, I’ve felt that way.” It’s these very private moments. You see something like A Woman Under the Influence, and you feel like you’re seeing such personal, private moments with these people. It’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s true and honest, you just kind of know and it therefore becomes relatable in some way. You can, as you say, put your own shit into it somehow. Have you seen A Woman Under the Influence?

I have not.
It’s pretty wonderful. It’s by John Cassavetes. You kind of go, “Well, I’ve never done any of the things in this movie, but there’s inklings of these feelings that I’ve had or I’ve seen.”

There are plenty of references to auteur filmmakers like Kurosawa and Scorsese in the show. Was this a chance to put on that hat and have total creative control?
I don’t think the auteur thing is a real thing. There’s a lot of people who make this stuff. I love directors like Martin Scorsese and Kurosawa, who had real stamps that they put on movies. I’m not saying that they didn’t have styles, but the idea that one person makes a thing—so many people make those movies and so many artists work on it who add something to it that you never anticipated. They make it beautiful and make it better. They plus it; whether it’s an actor or whatever. I’m in charge and saying, “Here’s how I think it should go,” but these other people are plussing it.


I’ve always thought the whole “One man, one film” thing was weird. That might come from a time when movies were done by committee and I do like things with a strong vision behind them. You watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie and you go, “Wow! That’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie!” There’s a very strong vision behind it and I dig that, but there’s a lot of people working on those movies.

Why write, produce, direct, and star in a show?
To me, it’s like one job. It’s like one thing that you’re trying to do. I’m just trying to tell a story. I don’t see it in terms of, “Oh my god! I have to do this job!” I think if I did do that, I would just go crazy. It’s just wanting to see a story through in a way. Being able to direct is a lot of fun, like episode five of this season I directed and it’s almost like a weird bottle episode. It’s fun to stretch as a performer or writer or whatever. We’re lucky enough to control the tone, but we would never in a million years would say we’re “auteurs.” All of the actors are adding to it, we have an entire writers’ room of amazing people writing on it, our editors, all these artists add to it in a way that we would never know how to do.


It’s still pretty ambitious. Is that something you needed to prove to yourself?
No. It really was just an idea. It was never a vain thing or “Look what I can do” thing. It’s more like, “This story is so cool and I can see it in my head—how to do it and do it the right way.” I’m at a place where I can own my own little corner of the sandbox. Me and Alex Berg were like, “Cool! We have this little corner here to play in and do it our way!” But it’s all driven by story, it’s not at all about me.


Is Barry a study of masculinity?
We don’t really think of it as studying masculinity, but it kind of comes out that way. It’s more like we’re studying violence and it’s a guy. It’s more about inherent darkness or inherent violence within masculinity. But it’s also kind of everybody, you know? Everybody has this weird propensity to be violent, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be physical violence, but mental or psychological violence too. That is just a part of the species. It’s a scary thing that everyone has this ability, if pushed, to do that and to perpetrate that. And then other people are victims of that. [ Fellow showrunner] Alec Berg and I find certain aspects of masculinity silly, so it’s just fun to write about.

The trope of the hitman with one last job is pretty played out at this point. Why employ this storytelling mechanism?
That was always a big dicey thing for us. I told Alec Berg, “What if I play a hitman?” and he said, “There are more hitmen in movies, books, and television shows than there are in real life.” Everyone could kind of see what the bad, glib version of this show is, with people dying and it’s kind of funny. We wanted to show the effects of all this one these people and more grounded in a real way. But these tropes become tropes because they work for a reason; there’s like three or four other shows out there about assassins right now [ laughs]. Clearly it’s a thing that people gravitate to, so what we try to do is go, “OK, here’s what you’re expecting as a genre and make it a hitman thing and take the genre out of it.” I remember telling the writers, “Think of this as a Vanity Fair true crime story, like this actually happened, so how would we write that?”


Why are audiences drawn to such disturbing themes?
I have no idea. Barry is like a bad person trying to be good. It might be something that people are just constantly wrestling with in their lives and trying to figure out their own shit. Like you said, you were working out your own shit during the show. We don’t know that that’s going to happen, we’re just kind of putting our own weird shit into the show and so obviously there’s kind of a universal thing there that people are dealing with.

Is Barry redeemable?
I don’t know if he’s ever really fully redeemable, but he’s trying. I think that’s something people feel in their lives, like, “How do I ever come back from that?” What are the choices though? To try to be redeemed or do you just accept that you’re irredeemable? But what kind of life do you lead when you come to that conclusion? I don’t know what the answer is and I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

So you’re making art?
We would never say that because it sounds super pretentious, but yeah [ laughs]. That’s the hardest thing, because you’ve got to be honest, but then at the same time you sound like a pretentious fuck if you say, “Well, we’re artists.”

It’s even more even pretentious than “auteur.”
Yes! Actually, no! Auteur is way more pretentious. Auteur is really fucking pretentious. Artist is an actual thing. It means you create something. Auteur is kind of saying, “I’m the man!” Auteur is automatically a presumption of importance.


Are you a dark guy?
No. I have a dark sense of humour and the thing’s that I’m drawn to sometimes can be pretty dark. I don’t tend to see myself writing a romantic comedy or something. It’s not a thing I’m interested in. I love acting in them, like Trainwreck, but when it comes to creating stuff, I tend to be drawn to darker, or, you could say, more bigger question type things.

Which are inevitably dark.
Yeah, you get into more existential things people see that as sad [ laughs]. On the other side of that is love. I’m interested in what love does to people and the good and bad of that emotion, I think that’s a very interesting thing to look at.

The balance between comedy and drama on Barry is bizarre and mesmerizing. Do you have to consciously put in jokes?
It’s usually pretty straight and then we get bored and then we start adding jokes, because we’re like, “OK, there should be some humour in here at some point.” ( laughs) You need to know that there’s humans you’re dealing with and start dramatic. You get the arc there and then you start adding jokes and almost because you’re a little bored.


Do you have an arc planned out for the series or is it one season at a time?
It’s one season at a time. We have little benchmarks or tentpole scenes down the road, like “What if this happened?” But it’s never completely thought out.

Any advice for people like Barry or yourself, who want to try things that are out of their comfort zone creatively?
You have to learn to fail and not be afraid of it. When we pitched Barry and told people what Barry’s about—a hitman who wants to be an actor—they’d say, “Oh, I know what that’s going to be, the guy who plays Stefon and the guy from Silicon Valley, it’s going to be this wacky, glib thing.” It’s a combination of not being afraid of failing and also feeling like that person is not wrong, they’re just seeing it differently. Or, you might be wrong and you have to own up to that.

That’s great advice.
I think we’re in this weird time right now where everything is a weird kind of absolute and black and white and good or bad or thumbs up thumbs down or whatever. That’s not the way art should work. It’s more complex making this stuff; it’s messy and weird. You’re just trying to understand it. My biggest thing is just be wrong fast and learn to fail and you’re going to be OK.

I hope so. Thanks for helping me work out some of my shit with your TV show.
You’re welcome.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.