Bill Hader: ‘Barry’

Hosted by

Emmy-winning actor Bill Hader. Photo credit: Robert Trachtenberg

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back Emmy-winning actor Bill Hader, who is also the co-creator of the HBO series “Barry,” which has just returned for its third season. Hader also was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” for eight seasons. Hader tells The Treatment one of the keys to the distinctive tone of “Barry” is taking away the idea of genre. He says the third season deals more directly with the consequences of several of the characters’ actions. And he explains why when writing the show, Barry is often the last character he thinks about.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment.  I'm Elvis Mitchell.  It's always good to have an old friend do the show, especially someone I haven't talked to in a very long time.  When I last spoke to Bill Hader, he was an Emmy contender. He is now an Emmy winner. The third season of his unusual and incredibly satisfying show “Barry” is on HBO. This third season really seems to be a season about people accepting responsibility.

Bill Hader: Yeah, it's kind of people realizing there are consequences. That was definitely a thing. When we started writing, the first day of writing season three, you never start with themes, but the ideas tended to go towards consequences.

KCRW: I was wondering how you emotionally follow up the second season, which ended in a really explosive way emotionally and physically and just make it really about almost all the main characters on the show: Barry or Noho Hank or Sally having to become, in some way, an adult and accept responsibility for their actions, even to some extent, Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler. Everybody has to sort of say, Oh, well, I have to own up to who I am and what I've done.

Hader: Yeah, it's true. It's funny how when you sit down to write these things, and you go, Okay, how do we not just keep repeating ourselves? When you have a very concept-y kind of show--you say hitman takes an acting class– that has kind of a concept to it, and then the whole thing with the show is always trying to take the genre out of it, make it more about people, bringing more of a level of humanity to it. And in doing that, the concept slowly morphed. 

The first day writing season three, one of the first things I said was, well, let's get rid of the acting class. By taking that out, then everything else wasn't connected to anything. It kind of freed us up a bit to really focus on the characters. And, in doing so, I think it gradually became about consequences, forgiveness, apologies. All these things came up very naturally.

KCRW: It's so funny, because it really felt almost 12 step-like in this way, people making amends.

Hader: Yeah. It's funny that it happened that way. I'm laughing because it's not until you do interviews like this that you really see it that way. And you're like, Oh, yeah, you're right. You know, when you're writing it, you're so kind of in: well, what would this person do next? What would Gene want here? Or you start to find interesting parallels. There's a scene where Gene and Barry are talking, and Barry says, you know, we're very similar. We've all done bad things in our lives. And it's like, Oh, that's interesting. And then that builds and becomes more of a through line. 

KCRW: Barry is this innocent, who has this incredible ability to read people, and there's a scene when he's talking to Gene. He basically reads what a bad actor he is, but I won't go into specifics. And I love that that thing, no matter what he's going through, this sort of weather vane he has about being able to see who people are in ways that they can't, is always there.

Hader: Yeah, and that he can't do that with himself necessarily. Or is that the question? When you're writing these things, you're like, Well, how self aware? Is he because he thinks he's self aware? But are you ever really self aware? Or even if you are self aware, do you stop making those same mistakes? No, not really. Like how much denial is he in? There's a bunch of different kinds of things that come up that I think the thing that we always try not to do is answer the question. You pose it, and then the interesting thing is writing scenes about it. And then maybe in that, there's a truth. But an absolute kind of thing never is that interesting.

KCRW: [Barry] is always asking people to tell him what they think he is. He's looking for some kind of definition from other people.

Hader: Yeah, that's true. I can kind of relate to that. There'd been a time in my life of not being sure of who you are and needing to be defined by other people or something. I understand that on some level. 

Where were you, Elvis? That would have been really helpful in the writer's room. Why didn't we just have you sitting in the corner being like, oh, what's happening is this. Because if you watched me try to explain this to the writers, it would just be like, Oh, no. I'm just flailing. 

KCRW: Really? 

Hader: Not really, I mean, a little bit, you kind of flail around. You're searching. I always say, Okay, if I was playing this character, here are the questions I would ask. And that's interesting to have in a writers’ room because a lot of times in writers’ rooms, and I do the same thing, it becomes very plot-y, or you pitch things that are like, really interesting scenes, like, Oh, my God, wouldn't it be cool…which I think is all great. But you have to balance that with the character. So I do think sometimes we'll find something really fun, and then I come in and kind of kill it by saying, well, if I'm playing Sally, I'm going like, what am I doing right now? Aren't I worried about X, Y, Z, or maybe we get to another level, and then we do rehearsals, and then the actors have their chance at it. And the actors then bring it up to another level, where they'll come up and say things like, oh, yeah, that's great. Yeah, let's try that.

KCRW: In some ways, immediate goals shift for people, but in a lot of ways they don't for these characters, and what you're talking about, I think, is kind of the essential truth of who these people are. And you've got to always keep that in mind, don't you?

Hader: Yeah, you always have to figure out how are they growing or evolving? What's happening with them, and make sure that there's a fork in the road, and one road for some of these characters clearly leads to a better place and the other road clearly leads to hell. And people take hell for some reason. Sometimes, hell is comfortable. Depending on where you come from, it's like a warm blanket. You know, it's like, well, that I understand. Salvation, I don't really understand, so it's a little freaky for me. So you know what? I'm gonna go down to hell.

KCRW: In this season, there's a scene where Sally, who's now a showrunner, says something about a line that she doesn't want to repeat. And you realize that line she doesn't repeat is basically this thing that's informed her character. As you were talking about people wrapping themselves in this blanket of discomfort, and self awareness or lack thereof, that scene really just gave me chills seeing it.

Hader: You do that in life. Her art is more self aware than she is. And that happens, where you watch something you've made, and you go, Oh, my God, it's right there. You know, I'm looking at it. I made this thing, and I'm looking right at it. This is about this thing that I'm experiencing, but I don't know it.

KCRW: I've seen so many characters that you've done, especially on SNL, with people who just talk too much and don't hear what they're saying as they're talking. That's Sally and it's Gene, and it's Noho Hank. It's even to some extent Fuches. And Barry isn't that person. I can sort of see that trap that we've talked about before, that some of these characters you've created and played are people who just don't know when to shut up.

Hader: I think that's probably why I find the other characters more interesting. It's funny because when we're writing the show, Barry's the last thing we end up writing. At least once a season so far, we've had a moment where someone will go, Hey, Barry's not really in the show.

He's not really in episode seven of season two, where Barry auditions for Jay Roach and Allison Jones. We came up with all that two weeks before we shot the episode because initially, it was like, he was just walking around, literally just moping around. And then we were doing a rewrite, and one of the writers said, you know, Barry doesn't really do anything this episode. And we were in pre-production meetings for the episode.

KCRW: Oh, my gosh.

Hader: [I said] Oh, yeah, I guess he doesn't. And we're all sitting there kind of looking at each other. And so this pre-production meeting kind of turned into a writers' meeting, which gave Aida Rogers, our producer, a heart attack, because then we're going well, maybe he does this, and she's going Oh, Jesus, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, we gotta build this. And then finally, it was like, what if he gets an audition because he's the right height? And not because of: if he's a good actor or not. It's solely because they're looking for someone who's 6'2". 

And then that kind of opened up the whole thing and in his relationship with Sally, and it's like, oh, we have Sally getting mad. Now, she has a reason for being mad. And this episode, she kind of spins out, and there was never a reason for her to spin out. So you find that one thing, and then it locks into place, and then you're like, oh, this now makes sense. The whole scene with Cousineau where he's teaching me for the audition, and helping me and the whole Jay Roach stuff, all that was like a week. It was thrown together really fast.

KCRW: I think Barry's an interesting character because he's somebody who doesn't want to be seen who's taking on this endeavor where he has to be seen all the time. And I just thought that was so rife with possibility, both sort of comic and tragic, that Barry is the first thing you would try to crack in all these episodes.

Hader: It's a weird kind of impossible scenario for someone. I definitely think when Alec Berg and I first talked about the idea, that was one of the things that immediately drew us to it, which was like, oh, a hitman. Someone who lives in the shadows and needs to be anonymous decides to be an actor, which is someone who lives in the spotlight and wants to be known. Like those two things don't go together. That's really, like you said, really funny. But the interesting thing about this new season is that idea morphed into something else. We've watched it go from seasons one and two, and when you start writing season three, you're going, well, are we still talking about the same ideas? Or, again, we don't really talk in terms of themes, but it's kind of like, where is he at? And is that a thing that's important to him anymore?

KCRW: So much of the show in terms of characters is about compartmentalization. People can step very easily from one area to another. But for Barry, he's got these very strict lines drawn around his two lives, and they start to bleed into each other. And the other thing the show is about so often is people having no confidence, except that one thing they can do well, be it acting or murder. 

Hader: I agree, and I think that's where the show came about. When I was on “Saturday Night Live,” the one thing that growing up I had confidence in was that I was funny. I was never very good at school. I watched a ton of movies and read a lot of books, but I knew I was good at making people laugh, and I could do voices and stuff. And then I got insanely lucky and got a chance to audition for SNL, and I got it. And then the live aspect of the show was incredibly difficult for me.

I would talk to Alec Berg about that, and then it was like, Oh, what if it's about putting that emotion into this scenario where it's a guy who the thing that he's good at is murdering people and how that hurts you? But you're right. It is kind of also with Sally and Gene and Fuches. Stephen Root is amazing. I think the thing he's good at is manipulating people. And Noho Hank is polite. He's lovely. And then it's like, yeah, what happens when those things are challenged?

KCRW: This season it's happening where this messiness of trying to find your art is spilling over into everybody's lives in ways that I think makes the show much more interesting. Just watching Barry's ability to become like Gene or like Sally, where he's learning how to manipulate in ways that seem to surprise him. 

Hader: Yeah, I'm always wondering how self-aware he is. And he's definitely in a lot of denial this season. But yeah, when we're writing, it's always just finding that balance, which is really difficult, of going: this works as a story. And you're kind of always hoping the characters are driving the story. But is it honest? Is it honest for that person?

There's a scene with Barry and Sally in episode two that's really hard to watch for some people, but I think it's just honest. At least for me, when I watch things or read things, I feel like when people are kind of hedging and wanting you to like somebody and you're just not going to that honest place, I feel cheated.

KCRW: This season, Barry seems to be becoming more like those people where there's a spillage into these parts of himself that he kept sectioned away. And to me, that's what's making this season so much more interesting that you don't have that kind of support from the acting class. 

Hader: Yeah, this season was like writing a different show at times because most TV shows it's like, oh, well, then you go to the acting class, and it was like doing "Cheers" and saying, Okay, we're getting rid of the bar this season. And it's like, now we're just gonna follow Sam around, and we're going to deal with his s--t. Like, what? There's something fun about it in a way and very liberating about it, but also it was hard. It forced you in a way to have to ask harder questions about the characters and the situations. And this idea of forgiveness just started to bubble up. This idea of forgiveness having to be earned, and how much of that is within us? How much of that is in the culture right now. Most of it, especially the last part of the season, was vastly rewritten during COVID. This stuff can't help but seep into it, in some way.

KCRW: I feel like it's kind of a show about addiction in its way, and you were touching on that, talking about how people like revisiting hell because it's comfortable. And there are speeches that Barry gives to Gene in this season that are almost like classic 12-step conversations: “this is your second chance.” But the desperation, subtextually, as Barry is saying this to him, he's trying to believe it himself as he's saying it.

Hader: Season two, we did talk about it in terms of: Barry is an alcoholic. Instead of drinking, it's murdering people. And it's kind of like him realizing, oh, this wasn't a thing that I wasn't manipulated by Fuches; this is a thing that has always been a way I've been accepted my whole life. The first time I ever felt like I was accepted and that I was good at something was when I murdered somebody. And there's an addiction to feeling accepted, and feeling like look, I'm good at something, and also, he's got, to put it lightly, rage issues. Season two is him being like, on the wagon, and then the last scene of season two was him going on a binge. He falls off the wagon big time. And that just helped us again, emotionally, the shame that he's feeling even I think while that end sequence is happening, there's a lot of shame. I want to hurt myself. There's something kind of suicidal about it, that addiction thing is very much there. But again, it was never a conscious thing. 

These characters are always trying to deal with themselves. Someone asked me, what would be a good tagline for the season? And I was like, uh, the chickens have come home to roost? Like, it's just about there's consequences. And as you get older, you start to realize this s--t about yourself. You see patterns in your behavior or things that you do and that you want to change. And that's kind of what everybody on some level is dealing with.

KCRW: The thing that manifests itself, in a lot of ways in the show, is that there's a constant surprise. And there's something abrupt that happens, almost every third scene that sort of catches people off guard. And this thing I know about you, whether you admit to yourself or not, is that you kind of have a low threshold for boredom.

Hader: It drives the writing room crazy because I'm like, Alright, I've seen this scene. We're like, movie nerds. It's like, I've seen this scene. And it's like, yeah, it works for a reason, Bill. 

KCRW: And that's where this element of fear plays into it because these surprises are constantly making people stand and recognize how they respond to scary circumstances. Given that you trimmed away a lot of the stuff that might be the rubric of easy comedy from the first couple of seasons, it makes those surprises feel all the more, I think, chilling in this third season.

Hader: Yeah, people often talk about the tone of the show, and how do you get that tone? I don't know if this makes sense, but taking the genre out of it has always been a big thing of not thinking of it in terms of genre. I think what brought us into it was genre. But, as Alec said, when I said, what if it's a hitman, and he said a hitman is like a dog catcher; it's a thing that only exists in movies. It's not a real profession. But it came in as genre, and it's like stripping away the genre, and it's not comedy, it's not a drama. You're just kind of following these things along. 

What we tend to do in writing is we usually write the first drafts when we're in the writers’ room, it's usually the most dramatic version of it. And then almost like an episode of “Mystery Science Theater,” you read through it, and then you start making jokes. A good example, that was in season two, was when they first meet Esther. Initially, it was just a scene where Noho Hank and Cristobal are talking to the Burmese boss, Esther, and we wrote it very straight. That scene was that way forever, and then finally, when they were reading it, I was like, what if she just puts a knife in her hand to show how tough she is, and Hank goes, Oh, sweet baby Jesus. It's like that stuff. That tends to be how the humor starts to enter into it. And then conversely, when you do stuff that's humorous, then I start to get antsy in that way, too. And then you start to go, wouldn't it be interesting if this suddenly happened now, that can take you off guard? The “ronny/lily” episode, the violence in that, the way it erupted was kind of like that.

KCRW: If it weren't so violent, it would be almost slapstick.

Hader: Yeah, it's almost like a slapstick thing that then you go, No, you gotta push it further, so it's not too slapstick-y. And then when we started shooting it, it was like, Oh, it hurts, you know? There's no music to it. It felt different.

KCRW: When I saw that, I told you that I thought it was an incredible piece of staging because by that point, we know very well that it’s not just funny anymore. And by this third season, when those same kinds of abrupt shocks happen, those surprises, they're not just funny. We know these people well enough now that there's an extra level of drama or hurt or understanding comprehension from us, because we now have an emotional attachment, so it's almost like the writing has become kind of cleaner.

Hader: I agree. Yeah, I think stripping away stuff is a good way of putting it. It's like, you meet somebody, and the first season is a bit like a first date. You're just like, Hey, look how funny I am. And then it's like we know you, and this is what it is. Sally is a good example. When you first meet her in the show, it's like she's this ingenue, and she's very talented and sweet. And she takes him in and she's helpful, and he has a crush on her and everything. And then as you get to know her, you're like, oh my gosh, she's really self-involved. and she's hyper ambitious and all that. And when you say, Well, what if she gets her own show? What's that gonna be like? The mask is down. All those kind of pleasantries are gone; you know her now. And now it's like, okay, well, we have to write for this new version of her and go deeper with the character.

Again, it's that thing of: if I'm playing Sally, here's the questions I'm asking. And then Sara Goldberg asks 20 more questions that are equally interesting and better and we get to something I think, that's just deeper, for lack of a better word.



Rebecca Mooney