Bill Hader still has an affection for silly things, but it’s not who he is. An eight-season veteran of Saturday Night Live known for creating over-the-top characters like Vinny Vedecci, Herb Welch, and Stefon before leaving the show in 2013, Hader’s wasn’t interested in tying himself to a quirky comedy or something resembling a sketch show when he partnered with Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Silicon Valley) and HBO to create a TV show. Barry (which premieres this Sunday) is a deep and dark comedy about a depressed professional killer trying to free himself from the hold of a middle-aged and middle-American Svengali (played by Stephen Root with the surface buoyancy and underlying deviousness he does so well) and find his true calling as an actor. And while that may not fit the narrative that other people had built up in their heads for Hader’s career, that isn’t anything new.
Hader hasn’t allowed himself to fall into a rhythm since leaving SNL. There has been ample voice work, numerous cameos, time spent in the South Park writers’ room, two seasons in the Documentary Now! sandbox, and co-starring roles in two very different films as a depressive (Skeleton Twins) and a nice guy doctor (Trainwreck). Barry is something different still, something that might last awhile (only if it makes sense for the story, according to Hader), and something that had to feel real and weighty. And that’s not just because the story clicked, but because — despite Barry’s murderous lifestyle — it said a little something about Hader, where he’s been, and where his life is now.
We met with Hader at the Four Seasons in New York two days after his second time hosting SNL and discussed how that experience still frays his nerves, his pursuit of something real with Barry, his need to portray violence as hideous, art that challenges, and artists that evolve.
You’ve said that some of the anxiety that you had from your time on SNL got put into Barry. “The thing you’re good at is destroying you” is the line that you’ve used. What was at the heart of that? What were those anxieties?
The anxieties were just the actual doing of the show; it’s anticipatory anxiety. I would get anxious before a dinner party if you were having a dinner party. That kind of anxiety of, “Okay, I know at seven o’clock tonight a bunch of people are coming over. Are we going to be ready?”
SNL‘s the type of place that the minute you show up on Monday, a ticking clock starts. It doesn’t need to be that way. I don’t think it is that way for most people, but for me, a ticking clock would start in my head of like, “All right. Here we go!” All week this ticking clock is going, “Okay, you got one chance to land whatever it is that you’re doing.” I would just get myself so worked up to where if I had one line in the show I would be practicing it constantly and just freaked out. It was just a little silly. Then I got my confidence. [But] that anxiety never went away. I kind of learned to not push it away and just kind of let it happen.
How does that translate on screen with Barry? With the actual character.
The character doesn’t have anxiety, the character mostly has depression. I think where it came from was this idea of like, I was kind of naturally good at doing voices and impressions. If you can do that, the biggest place you can showcase that is on Saturday Night Live, and so I got the job. I got the dream job. But the irony was that the live television aspect of it was really hard for me. Kind of emotionally and mentally it was very difficult for me. I would get really sick, you know? I had a lot of weird medical problems and autoimmune problems and all this stuff. And so, yeah, it was just hard. It was just the stress of it that really wore me down.
Does that come back when you go back to do the show and host it?
A hundred percent. Yeah. All week I was just kind of having fun, and I love this new group a lot, but it was just very tense, you know? In order to do my job right there, I always felt like I needed to focus incredibly hard all week knowing what I’m doing and kind of running over, over, over in my mind how I’m going to do it. And then what happens is then the show starts and you just throw it all out the window, but it’s still kind of there, and then you just have fun.
With Barry, you talk about the character’s depression. Obviously, his life is not this glamorous hitman thing that we’re used to. Why was it important to bring that into the show?
I never found violence… Don’t get me wrong, I love action movies. But for this show, I thought it would be interesting to take more of a true, realistic portrayal of that. We kind of said, “Oh, what if the tone of this was like a Vanity Fair piece you’d read about a true crime? Like, what if this actually happened?” And that “violence is really terrible.” It’s very brutal. It’s awful.
The way No Country For Old Men used violence in a way that the brutality of it kind of plays into what I kind of feel like that movie is about: honor and this kind of antiquated view of what being a hero is and a man and everything. And it’s just like, “No, there’s just evil shit and then we all die.” [Laughs.] It’s kind of depressing. Even the thing that’s evil is getting fucked with by fate and all this stuff. It was kind of great.
Barry is thinking of it in those terms. Unforgiven was another movie that we talked about a lot. What violence does to you and how it hurts you. More concisely, [we wanted] to show it as a world that he wanted to get out of, we had to show it for what it is, which is very brutal and ugly. You don’t want him to be in that world, but unfortunately, it’s the thing that he’s really, really good at.
In the third episode, you have a very physical scene where you kill a guy. What’s that like, just going through those motions for you, in terms of that versus other scenes? Is it a heavier thing to do?
Oh, a hundred percent. Yeah, there’s a scene in episode three where I have to kill somebody, and it was awful. I got very kind of depressed about it. We did those scenes and then I kind of got up and walked around for a little bit. I walked down the street. I was directing the episode… [Laughs.] so they were kind of like, “Bill, we need you back.” But I said, “Oh, can you just give me a second?” I just don’t like it. I just don’t like that, but in order to do it in that way… and I think that’s why in comedies you try to, “Oh, can he kill him in a funny way?” It’s like, “Well, the guy is still dead. It’s still sad.”
It’s your first time directing. Obviously, you’ve been around. Who have you pulled lessons from?
Well, Brandon Trost shot the pilot and Paula Huidobro shot the show, and she did a phenomenal job. They both did. I learned a lot from them. I like watching old movies, and it was kind of trying to find that simple, dynamic coverage that they have in those old movies. I’d watch Billy Wilder, or John Huston or things like that. Carol Reed. Some Russian movies. Just watching those films and counting the setups, kind of like “Oh, that’s interesting.” But then a lot of it has to be kind of instinctual too.
I think because it’s television, and I only have 30 minutes to tell the story, you’ve got to be a little bit more planned with your day, but also how you visually want to tell the story. I always like to know where the light source is. I don’t like it when I watch things and I see… especially in comedy, everything has to be kind of bright. I don’t really like that. I like shadows and just kind of knowing where everything is.
It’s just making it look good, hiring people for a reason and letting them do their job. If you hire really good people — like Paula or Tyler [B. Robinson], our production designer, or Audrey [Fisher], our costume designer — you just let them do their jobs and say no or yes on things. They know what they’re doing more than I do.
Why was it important for you to direct the pilot and the second episode?
We were kind of talking about the tone of it [and how it] was so weird and specific. It would be very easy to take this and make it too broad. I just saw it in a very specific way. I wanted to be able to control that, but also I wanted to take that opportunity to finally direct, which is a thing I always wanted to do before I wanted to act.
All my heroes are filmmakers. Big comedians would come into SNL and I was always really comfortable around them. Not that I wasn’t a fan of theirs, I was a massive fan. But it wasn’t that adulation that other people on the show had. But if like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese came in, I was just totally flipping out.
Is the goal to do more directing down the road?
Yeah, I’d like to. I’d like to get a little bit more confident where I can be a bit more intuitive in my coverage.
There’s some explanation of Barry’s past. Are we going to find out more?
I don’t know. It kind of comes out as we’re writing, and we don’t know. I never understood the whole thing of like, “Well, you need to have a bible, and you need character bios for everybody,” and stuff like that, because it might change when you get to a certain thing and go, “Oh, it might be interesting that he has a twin brother.” I don’t know, you know?
You don’t have a show bible, but do you have an ending in mind?
We have an ending for Barry in mind. That was kind of part of the whole thing as we started it. Being able to do it in a way where I start one way and I know I end another way as Barry. If we get to do a full series, that’d be great because I’m playing him very specifically in the pilot for a reason because we know at the end of it he’s a different person.
This is a lot of work: directing, producing, writing, starring. I’d imagine it’s not going to leave a lot of time for other projects. Could Documentary Now! still come back?
Yeah, we’re talking about a third season. I couldn’t be in it because I’ll be working on Barry, but we did have a writers’ retreat for it. We’re kicking around ideas.
The attention to detail is what really knocks me out.
Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono deserve a ton of credit for all that. They’re unreal. Those guys are real magicians in that way. I feel like Seth [Meyers] and Fred [Armisen] and I just kind of go, “Well, it’s like Salesmen” or “It’s like Swimming To Cambodia. Good luck!” And they make it work. The Swimming To Cambodia one we did [“Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”], John Mulaney and I, that’s because a scheduling snafu happened and Fred couldn’t be in an episode because he was doing something else, and so we needed to come up with a new idea and we had three days to do it. We wrote it, shot it, and edited it, I think, within three or four days.
The War Room episode [“The Bunker”]. I remember watching that and being amazed that the soda machine matched [the original].
Yeah. That’s the production designer, Katie [Byron], and those guys. Those meetings they have, production meetings, where you go through everything: they last for like nine or ten hours on that show because you’re going, “Okay, you see the soda machine in the background? Okay. Does everybody see? Okay, we’ve got to find that soda machine or build that soda machine.” It’s Rhys and Alex caring. They hunt down the lens that they shot the movies on.
We shot Grey Gardens on the lens. They went to the Maysles Brothers’ estate and got the lens and retrofitted it onto a red camera for the thing. I know a lot of people will go, “Well, that’s weird,” but it means something, you know?
You’re not necessarily playing for the whole audience, obviously, with a soda machine that’s going to match. But for two-hundred or however many people that actually pick up on that, that really gets them where they live.
Well, you’re treating the audience with a bit of respect, you know? That they’ll understand it or get it to a degree. I remember watching Monty Python growing up and I didn’t understand any of the references, but I knew there was something funny about it. It made me want to engage in it a bit and try to understand what historical reference they were making. They had a thing called “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” where it’s the Salad Days and it just becomes a bloodbath. I just remember watching that going, “Who is Sam Peckinpah? What does that mean?” But it was so funny to me that I’d go, “Oh, so he made these movies that were very violent.” I was nine trying to figure out this stuff. If someone’s watching Documentary Now! and [they go], “This is so strange. What is this? Oh, okay, there’s a movie called Salesmen. Oh, wow. Alright. I’ll check that out.”
When I was a kid I grew up watching Dennis Miller Live. Obviously, Dennis Miller’s comedy was very…
It was not broad. It was very specific.
Yeah. Tons of references.
Which I never got when I was a 10-year-old, 11-year-old, but honestly it propelled me toward looking into those things. Any kind of comedy or any kind of thing, even comic books. Chris Claremont, just the text in those comics compared to today, it’s so much deeper.
Yeah. Yeah, same as those Alan Moore books, like when he would do Swamp Thing. You could just tell if you read the Swamp Thing comics before and after that, you went, “Wait. Wait, what happened?” Suddenly a genius walked into the room or something.
There’s a totally different level there.
Yeah. Totally. Or Matt Fraction is another guy.
Matt Fraction. Ed Brubaker. Did you ever read their Iron Fists?
No, I didn’t.
Oh, man. It’s unreal. They did Iron Fist and it was just like next level. I think they did two arcs of Iron Fist. It’s pretty great.
Sex Criminals is another book.
Yeah, where the fuck did he come up with that?
Also, just with the layering.
There’s comedy everywhere you look. You’ve got to take an extra five minutes to read every page. That’s him and Chip Zdarsky.
Fraction, I know a little bit. Yeah, he’s just… Casanova, all that stuff is just so layered and insane. It’s great.
I don’t know how you have time to read comic books.
I read a lot to kind of… I don’t know, it’s kind of, I just do it. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I read and watch movies. It’s kind of my way of… not even unwinding, but just kind of inhaling material. I don’t know why. I have kind of a compulsion with it. I’m reading James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet right now. It’s great, and I enjoy reading, but it’s not like when I write I write in some eloquent way. I can’t spell any words. [Laughs.] I say, “Like,” a lot. But it is something that I just enjoy the act of doing it. It’s kind of like very meditative.
For me, I write all day, so it’s like the last thing I want to do is fall into a book. It’s such a bad habit.
Yeah, I know. I get it, though. I’m that way with comedy. When I was at SNL, the last thing I wanted to watch was comedy. People would go, “Oh, we should watch this,” and I’d go, “Why? Let’s watch Come And See or something.” Something really fucking terrible. [Laughs]
“Let’s watch Ivan’s Childhood.”
Maybe that’s why comedians always get that reputation of being too dark, or dark and brooding because they just don’t want to watch comedy. It’s not that they’re necessarily dark… unless you are dark and brooding.
Well, no. It’s a flip side of a thing. You kind of see… Chris Rock said to me, “I love Stefon because of the sadness.” [Laughs.] You know, there’s a lot of sadness there. Yeah, he’s like a fucking weird guy, you know?
I don’t know, I think there’s a part of me that started out really liking silly stuff, and I still like silly comedy, but then as you get older more of life happens to you. People close to you get sick and die. You just get older, you know? You have kids, so you have these things that you care about more than anything in the world. If something happened to them, you’d go ballistic. You want them to be happy. There are all these new things, so when you sit down to write, the idea of writing something that seems kind of lo-fi or low stakes doesn’t seem that interesting because it’s not really what’s on your mind.
I think Barry kind of came out of that somehow, of “Okay, let’s do that.” But if I wrote Barry when I was 20, it would probably be a TV show about TV shows and movies, basically. You know what I mean? It would just be a movie about a movie. This would be coming from kind of a movie geek place. I think since I’m a little older, it’s like, “No, let’s just make it kind of real.”
Is it exciting to think about the next phase of that, 10 years from now? What your taste and what your writing style is going to be like in 10 years from now?
Yeah. Yeah, and how it changes. It sounds pretentious, but I really like reading Russian books because they really tap into a lot of that stuff, and getting the finite humanity of things. And so, I like to keep doing that while still having a good propulsive narrative.
There are certain writers, George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen, people like that who are really great at that. Tobias Wolff is another one. They write sentences and you go, “My gosh, that is such an eloquent, perfect way of [expressing] an emotion I’ve had or a feeling I’ve had that I thought I was the only person that felt that.” And I can’t write that way, but maybe I can act that way, you know? [Laughs.] Try to show it in some sort of way through acting.
It’s always kind of a struggle to stay open, not cutting yourself off from things. I’ve got a lot of friends who basically don’t want anything to do with the world and the ways that the world is changing.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Any time you find a writer or project that really seems to still be open and kind of just evolves along that way, it’s good.
Yeah, you have to. That’s the nice thing about Barry is that you can kind of watch him hopefully become a modern person. I like things that kind of change. That’s why I always like Martin Scorsese’s movies because I always felt like he had to find a personal way into the thing. Even that movie Hugo becomes about film preservation because that’s the thing he cares about, which I thought was interesting. The movies always say something about the filmmakers, or the books always say something about the author.
Barry premieres on HBO this Sunday.