Whether he's General Custer, a jaded assistant manager at a run-down theme park, a bootlicking studio executive, BB-8, or Adolf Hitler, Bill Hader has solidified his place as one of the funniest and most reliable character actors working today. At least as early as 2014's The Skeleton Twins, though, Hader's also shown his capacity for dramatic roles. Sundays on HBO, you can watch him leap into proper leading-man status with Barry, the new series he co-created with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Alec Berg.
In Barry, Hader plays a depressive hitman who finds a sense of purpose in a Los Angeles acting class. Coal-black gallows humor and a rising body-count punctuate the silliness inherent to the fish-out-of-water story, especially since that “fish” is a man capable of extreme violence and the “water” is LA's vapid acting scene. Barry also flips comedy’s tasteless flair for gun violence on its ear, something Hader was hyper-conscious of as mass shootings continue to afflict the country. "There’s something irresponsible in trying to turn people getting guns and blowing stuff up into something humorous, and we wanted to avoid that," Hader told VICE.
I hopped on the phone with the chameleonic comedian to discuss Barry, how SNL’s punishing schedule took a toll on his health, and why portrayals of gun violence in film and on TV could use some reexamining.
VICE: HBO’s current comedy series lineup—Silicon Valley, Insecure, Crashing, and Veep—is overall lighthearted and easily digestible. Was Barry's pitch-black humor and brutal violence a tough sell?
Bill Hader: HBO was very cool and understanding from the beginning. I actually thought it was going to be a lot harder. They were just so open and immediately on the same page as Alec [Berg] and I. They understood the emotion of the show, which was, "Barry is dead inside from killing people for a living and he needs an emotional breakthrough. He finds it through this acting class he stumbles upon while following a man he’s been hired to kill." And they said they wanted the violence to be pretty real. There was never a moment where HBO went, “Wait what are you guys doing here?”
What was it like having sole authorship of the character and universe you built with Barry, compared to working off of the dress rehearsal-approved characters of SNL or the pre-existing pastiche of Documentary Now!?
It was a lot different with the emotional weight. Oddly, the closest I had had to it before was working at South Park. What I learned from Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] was how they were always concerned with what the emotion was with the characters. What’s Cartman going through? What led Kyle to this emotion? So it was character on top of the bigger satirical point we’re trying to make. It’s a long conversation. As long as it came from character, it made sense. So for Barry, it was basically discovering who Barry was as we were moving along, as opposed to writing a big character bio beforehand. I learned who Barry was while we were writing it. Sometimes that conversation goes five minutes, sometimes the conversation goes for three days.
The first three episodes of Barry mark your first time as a director. Did you have any trouble directing yourself?
God, I don’t like watching myself. That was a big problem. I never watched any of my SNL tapes. If I was in a movie, I’d just walk the red carpet, then leave and go have dinner with my publicist, then we’d come back for the party. I don’t like sitting and watching the thing. I had to get over that in order to direct and cut Barry. What helped me was just to objectively look at the guy as a character, and not getting caught up in stuff like, My face looks stupid! Man, I’m working out and eating well I’m still fucking fat! [Laughs] It’s all this self-conscious shit I have. But I learned to put that aside and do what’s best for the story.
Many of the other episodes were written and/or directed by women. Were you actively aware of the dialogue surrounding inclusion riders and gender parity while casting and staffing your writers' room?
I’m not gonna say that it wasn’t brought up, because it’s a big conversation even more now than it was just a year ago, and it’s a long overdue one. But the casting and staffing on Barry happened organically. Sure we wanted the best people for the job, but we were also mindful of who even gets those opportunities to begin with.
Like, for example, they sent me a bunch of director of photography reels and I responded to this one and I went, “Wow, who’s that?" “Oh her name’s Paula Huidobro. She’s from Mexico and she works with Emmanuel Lubezki.” And I went, “Oh, can I meet her? Because this stuff’s great." And they hired her. Her work was so good that we needed her. And same goes for Paula Newsome, who came and read for the part of Detective Moss [who's on Barry’s tail]. She was just so great. So, yeah, it was a combination of it coming together naturally and those conversations.
In Barry, there’s this thematic conflict of doing what you love versus doing what you’re good at. Barry is an excellent hitman, but the work leaves him dead on the inside. He finds that acting makes him feel alive, even if he sucks at it at first. Can we read this as autobiographical in the way SNL took a toll on you?
It came from SNL's schedule. It’s a schedule that’s hard on most people, but for my specific mental makeup it was just incredibly difficult for me. I was always incredibly anxious. It was this weird thing that I had the ability to do voices and impressions and perform when I had never thought of being an actor, you know?
Barry the character is clearly battling anxiety and depression, and Barry the show portrays that with a surprising amount of empathy.
There was all this self-doubt. I went from doing classes at Second City just to having something creative going on, then suddenly I was thrust into Saturday Night Live. I kept thinking, I don’t belong here. What helped was having that sense of community—Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Amy Poehler—telling me that I did belong. Barry’s life is defined by being isolated, and he finally gets that sense of community from the people in the acting class.
Barry is lost in his own body, just an ex-Marine obeying orders or else he will be killed. Was there an impossible standard to live up to on the SNL stage? Like you’re doing these live- audience-approved characters instead of the stuff you wanted to?
There is that aspect of me being trapped in this thing. I think everyone there could tell I was nervous. I tried to keep it to myself as much as I could, but you could tell in my performances— especially in the first five years—that I was a wreck. I wasn’t sleeping three days before we went on air. I can’t sleep. I started developing weird autoimmune problems. It was incredibly hard on me. I started going to therapy. I started doing transcendental meditation. Anything I could do to calm me down. Going from coffee in the morning then switching to green tea. Whatever it was, just trying to get me through the week.
There's nothing sexy or stylized about the gun violence in Barry. It’s cold and unsparing. Most comedies tend to make gunplay feel slapstick or overly cool, which is last thing we need in the wake of multiple school shootings and marches for gun control.
That was, without a doubt, a conscious choice. I always wanted this to feel like this was the world that Barry’s in and he fucking hates it. He wanted to get out of it. So on a story level, you want to portray that violent world as terrible. I said in our first meeting on HBO that the violence has to be real and brutal, and not cool in any way. I think that’s the best way to kind of try to understand what he’s going through. How can I do this to people? No one should be good at killing like this. This fucking sucks.
Every country has access to violent video games and movies, but America is the only country with this frequency of gun deaths. I don’t think violent imagery is the sole cause of people being violent, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it had at least some influence in desensitizing us.
Don’t get me wrong, I love action movies and horror movies and creature movies, but the older I get, anything with too many guns or a young girl in her underwear, I just find distasteful. I don’t want to watch that because that’s really what’s on the news now. There needs to be [healthier] escapism. I feel like, sometimes with gun violence in certain movies, they amp it up for reasons that don’t serve the story. I just don’t agree with that. When it’s rad and the guy’s got two guns, and then another gun flips out of that one and that thing shoots in slow-mo, like, Look how badass this is!—I don’t find it badass at all.
I’ve noticed that the older I have gotten as well. The ease with which kids can get guns, plus this steady consumption of violence on-screen. Maybe, just maybe, this shit might be in the wrong hands.
I know what you mean. I remember having to do gun training for Superbad and going to a shooting range. I was already really uncomfortable to begin with, but then next to me were these 13-year-old kids with a gun. They had a Glock and they’re holding it sideways and they’re shooting at the thing, going crazy. Like that’s normal behavior. It was so weird, man.
That’s so fucked up.
So it was very important to me to show that this show wasn’t that. I think if we took this show somewhere else, I could see a network note that said, “Hey, just for tone, could we make the killing funny?” No. The killing’s not funny. It’s sad and it actually takes a long time. It means that when people get shot in real life, nothing turns into slow motion and nothing about it is rad. Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, had a little reel on his phone that was people really getting shot, and he would show it to the stunt guys and say, "This what you have to do." A lot of it is just doing nothing, because the lights go out. Stunt guys—and it’s not their fault—they’re trained to do these big crazy motions, like when they’re lit up by a machine gun. They do that dance thing. And when they showed it to me, I was like “No, no, no. Like, life comes out of your body.”
Jesus. Well, I’m sorry we had to take this conversation about your very funny show to such a dark place.
[Laughs] It’s OK. This shit is so sad. So I’m glad Barry doesn’t have any of that. You shouldn’t be like, “Fuck yeah! That was rad!” Because this character is still rad at fucking killing people. I don’t want that. Nobody should.
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