There’s no doubt that Barry marks a clear waypoint in Bill Hader‘s creative life. Across the show’s three complete seasons, he went from being known primarily as a chameleonic SNL legend to one of the most critically acclaimed actors of our time and a writer and director of equal measure (our Brian Grubb calls the new season “a final performance for the ages”).
As we discussed in our recent talk, through the show, Hader has developed a specific storytelling and visual style and learned to let his insecurities have a seat at the table. With all of those benefits, then, the question that first comes to mind is why would he decide to end the show after this fourth season (which premiers Friday night on HBO)? Because the characters told him too, that’s why.
In the following interview, we discuss that, why he’s not worried about what comes next, Barry’s thoughts on heaven and hell, psyching himself up for scenes, and being a sponge when it comes to great films and filmmakers.
When did you start to feel this was probably going to be it and were there other ideas (for season 4) that you entertained before you got to that point?
I think as you’re outlining it, you kinda realize it naturally wants to end here. The cat’s out of the bag, so it feels like the ball’s rolling downhill story-wise. I don’t know. There was never a moment of, “Oh gosh, if this happened, then maybe we can keep the story going.” You could have entertained some things to keep a show going, like if it shifted and it becomes a totally different thing. More of a fugitive-type show or a guy-in-prison-type show. But that never was really interesting to me. The characters kinda dictate where it goes.
I’ll be honest, I try to keep things going probably longer than they should. Are you that kind of person or is it very easy for you to say, no, this is the conclusion and move on?
Yeah, it’s very easy (for me) to do that. I’ve kinda been like that just generally in my life. Maybe I get bored easily, I don’t know. But you just kinda go, “This feels (like) it. I think we should hit end on this.” Because my training was at Saturday Night Live, the feeling is you always know you’re going to come up with another idea or you’re going to come up with a new thing. You kinda have to. So seeing something come to an end, a conclusion is part of the process.
So there’s no existential threat of, “Oh, I’m never going to work again. I’m never going to come up with a great idea?”
Oh, that’s always there. (Laughs)
You have to push back against that?
You have to work through that. But that’s at the end of every season. You always have that. You have that every day you’re writing, “I don’t know if this works, what are we doing?” (Laughs) That self-doubt and any sort of insecurity, you got to let it in. For years, I would try to push it out and pretend it wasn’t there. And there’s something much healthier about allowing it to come in and hang out with it a bit and then work through it.
Does that make the work better, do you think? Letting that in?
Yeah, and I think it goes into the work. I think sometimes it finds its way into the story. Any sort of insecurity or these feelings, they become part of it. You find ways to put into the characters without even thinking about it sometimes.
Why is it so important that we see Barry encounter some consequences? Is it that we can’t have him be a sympathetic character?
You just walk through it beat by beat going what would honestly happen? I don’t think in the writing and when we’re editing or whenever that any of us really have that much sympathy for Barry. We all actually think he’s pretty stupid. He’s pretty dumb. And I don’t think he’s a very deep thinker. I think he likes the ideas of things.
With all the characters, you want to make them human and have something that is just a human trait. You just want them to be recognizably human. And I think in doing that, you can feel some sympathy for him because you can understand maybe, “Oh, I’ve had those feelings. I can relate in some way.” But it was important for me, during season three, to go okay, his back is against the wall, and Cousineau knows about him. So it’s only a matter of time before he yells at Sally. He gets verbally pretty awful with her in a scene. And I remember a lot of people go saying, “Oh my god, Barry’s a bad guy.” and I’m going “Yes. He killed Chris in season one. He is not a good dude.” (Laughs)
He’s not boyfriend material.
Yeah, he’s not boyfriend material. So in this season, now he is in prison and in the first couple of episodes, I feel you are seeing him doing what he does best, which is act like the victim and feel sorry for himself. And he’s seeing this thing that he wanted go away and he becomes kind of a trapped animal.
Speaking of the prison scenes, when you’re in one of these heavy scenes with an emotional outburst by yourself and you don’t have a partner to play off of, how difficult is that? How do you find your level? Like, do you need to reign yourself in?
There’s a scene in a bathroom in the first episode where I kinda lose my mind. And that first take I did I could tell even midway through it, I’m only doing this halfway through. And then I don’t know what happens, you bring the day in, you think about how tired you are and how stressful this all is. And for me, you let what we’re talking about (in); those insecurities, you allow them to come in and go, “I’m wasting everybody’s time here. I’m really not doing a good job.”
I remember the second take is the one we used and when I started that take, I did something I hadn’t done or planned: I slapped myself. And our stunt coordinator, Wade Allen, who’s a great guy, when I slapped myself, I could hear him behind the wall go, “Here we go.” (Laughs)
(Laughs) So that’s the key then to every scene now.
That’s the key, I just gotta start hitting myself, like, “Here we go. Alright, here he is! This is the guy.” And then I hurt my hand. I busted my hand in that scene. So for the subsequent scene between me and Stephen Root, if you notice, I’m only really using my right hand because my left hand is completely bandaged and got super jacked up.
Do heaven and hell exist in the world of this show and does Barry believe that it does?
I think Barry very much believes it. I think, especially this season, he is super concerned about his legacy and where he’ll end up. Later in the season, he becomes incredibly concerned. But yeah, I do think in Barry’s mind that heaven and hell exist, and it seems like he’s much more concerned with that than what is happening on Earth. (Laughs)
He’s much more concerned about what he can do to go someplace, ascend to someplace than he is like, “Well, what can I do here now in the moment to maybe make things better?” And he’s not really reflecting on, especially his anger. I don’t think that’s a thing he thinks about. He thinks (more) about these ideas of what a pious person is, I guess, than being one.
I never pick up on these things, so I enjoy asking you about this when we talk: are there any specific movies, any specific scenes in other films or TV shows set in a prison that you wanted to touch on this season? Anything that inspired anything?
No. We didn’t watch any prison movies or anything. I will say when I started the show and I directed the pilot, I watched a lot of things to get inspired. And mostly it was older movies because you have to shoot on a pretty quick schedule on television, and I knew I didn’t want to shoot with a lot of cameras. And so I’d watch old movies because I would see how they would block things and do things and make them. I’d watch something like The Asphalt Jungle or The Third Man or something, and you could count the setups and go, wow, that’s not a lot of setups. And actually, it’s a really effective scene.
And so it started out as that, and then I hope what’s happened is I feel at least that I have a style now that I like for this material. And so it was just really keeping with that style and really what dictated it was more of telling the story and what’re the emotions that are within that story and how to show it without telling it.
I would definitely agree. I don’t want to spoil those scenes because they’re further out, but the scene on the mountain — I just love the screwball comedy-infused thing of that because it’s so just calamitous. It’s like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Or even the Dave & Buster’s thing around the table.
Well, we even say Wile E. Coyote. I mean, it becomes very clear we’re doing a Wile E. Coyote thing. Those are two instances where you’re doing a thing and then as you’re doing it you realize, oh, this is from those movies. That scene at Dave & Buster’s (it’s like), “Oh. this is that scene in The Untouchables with De Niro, with the baseball bat walking around the table.” But you kinda don’t consciously do it. It’s just so embedded in your system. It’s like the end of season two. It wasn’t until I was mixing the last episode that I went, “This is a lot like Taxi Driver.” (Laughs) It’s like, oh man, I clearly like Taxi Driver.” Or Unforgiven and that whole thing. You go, oh, okay. “Oh, it’s raining. Is it raining at the end of Unforgiven? Oh, it is. Oh Bill, come on, man.” It’s just there.
Then it becomes an homage.
Yeah, exactly! It’s an homage where you don’t realize how much you’re… The only thing we consciously watched ever was the opening of Ashes and Diamonds, the Andrzej Wajda movie. That was the only thing I consciously would show the DPs, Paula Huidobro and Carl Herse to be like, I love this feeling in the opening scene of that movie, but that was it.
No matter what we do: I talk (cinematographer) Robby Müller or we’ll talk about Alex Webb photos, or we’ll talk all this stuff, and then you do it and you cut it together and you go, “Man, this looks like the Coen Brothers.” (Laughs) And I love the Coen Brothers. I remember being at SNL thinking I was doing stuff, and then I’d watch and I’d go, “God, I love Phil Hartman.” (Laughs) You can’t escape those things.
We’re all sponges with how much TV and how many movies. My parents I know did not absorb 1/50th of the pop culture stuff that I have.
No, and my kids are totally different too. Now, they don’t even watch full things. They’ll watch half a movie, stop it, and they watch a TV show, then they go back to the movie, then they watch this because it’s all streaming and I think it’s bad. It’s not healthy.
It’ll be interesting to see what the culture churns out over the next 15, 20 years.
Yeah, everybody’s growing up with a video camera in their hand.
In a way it’s good, in another it’s terrifying.
But I think there also might be you have a chance of someone and people creating a new visual language, which is really exciting. So I hope it becomes that in an interesting way, rather than lowering the bar.
Yeah. So far little mixed results.
A little mixed results. Yeah, I agree. (Laughs)
The fourth season of ‘Barry’ debuts Sunday night on HBO