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On HBO's 'Barry,' Bill Hader Asks, 'Can You Change Your Nature?'

By Terry Gross | FA
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Hader co-created and stars as a hitman who enrolls in acting classes in the dark comedy series. In the second season, Barry struggled to express himself as an actor — while keeping his past a secret.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bill Hader, became famous as a performer and writer on "Saturday Night Live" for his original characters like Stefon and his impressions of people like Vincent Price. Now Hader stars in the HBO series "Barry," which he co-created, co-writes, and he serves as one of the directors. Seasons 1 and 2 are available on demand, and the show's been renewed for a third. Last year, after Season 1, Hader won the Emmy for best lead actor in a comedy series.

Hader plays Barry, a Marine who's suffered from depression and PTSD ever since returning from Afghanistan. After feeling useless back home, he became a hit man doing what he knew he was good at, shooting people. One hit he's assigned is in LA, where his job is to kill a young man who's having an affair with the wife of the crime boss. As Barry pursues his target, who's a personal trainer and acting student, Barry sits in on the acting class, ends up doing a scene and thinks maybe he can transform his life by becoming an actor.

In this scene from Season 1, Barry asks the acting teacher, Gene Cousineau, if he can join the class. Cousineau is played by Henry Winkler, who also won an Emmy last year for his performance in "Barry."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

BILL HADER: (As Barry) Mr. Cousineau, I was wondering, do you think I was good enough to be in your class?

HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) No, Barry. I don't. What you did was dog [expletive]. I mean really, really awful. Dumb acting, I call it. Do you know why? Because acting is truth, and I saw no truth. So here's my advice to you. You go back to whatever nook of the world you call home, and you do whatever it is you're good at. Because this is not it.

HADER: (As Barry) You want to know what I'm good at? I'm good at killing people. You know, when I got back from Afghanistan, I was really depressed. You know, like, I didn't leave my house for months. And this friend of my dad's, he's - he's like an uncle to me - he helped me out, and he gave me a purpose. He told me that what I was good at over there could be useful here. And it's a job. You know? The money's good. And these people I take out, like, they're bad people. But lately, you know, I've - like, I'm not sleeping, and - that depressed feeling's back, you know? Like - like, I know there's more to me than that. But maybe - I don't know - maybe it's not. Maybe this is all I'm good at. Anyway, forget it. Sorry to bother you.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) What's that from?

HADER: (As Barry) What?

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Are you telling me that was an improvisation? Interesting. The story's nonsense, but there's something to work with. My class is not cheap.

HADER: (As Barry) That's not a problem.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in cash.

HADER: (As Barry) Yeah.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in advance.

HADER: (As Barry) I can do that.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Next class, tomorrow, 2:00 p.m. We start on time.

HADER: (As Barry) Absolutely.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) What's your last name again?

HADER: (As Barry) Block. Barry Block.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in advance.

HADER: (As Barry) Yeah. No. I know.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Gene M. Cousineau. I look forward to this journey.

GROSS: (Laughter), Bill Hader, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: I love the series.

HADER: Hi.

GROSS: Well, that clip kind of summarizes part of what the first season was about, Barry knowing that he's a good hit man but truly wanting a different life. And he has trouble speaking the truth onstage. But when he speaks it offstage, like he did in that scene, people don't always believe him 'cause he seems so preposterous.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: And that's a kind of constant thing in the series. When people, like, act the truth, people don't necessarily want to hear it. When they act the more, you know, stage version of the truth, that's a distortion of the truth, people, like, give him accolades. (Laughter).

HADER: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. I always find that's true, especially in art in general. It's the kind of harsh reality of something. You know, I think you could - kind of a cynical way - well, it doesn't really sell, and things like that, which might be true. But I think also what we in the writers' room when we talked about it was, you know, Alec Berg, who co-created the show with me, we realized, you know, people just don't like hearing about it. (Laughter) You know? People like a nice story.

GROSS: It's a bummer. (Laughter).

HADER: (Laughter), It's a bummer. Yeah. We - that was the thing we kept saying. It was like, that was a bummer. Yeah. That was, like, it was a real bummer. And so yeah, a lot of times, you know, in Season 2, the whole Henry Winkler's character, the acting coach Gene Cousineau, makes them do a truth exercise - talk about your deepest truth of who made you who you are. And to be honest and real, that makes you an artist. And how, one, that's really hard to do, and two, do people even really want to hear that?

GROSS: Yeah. How did the idea of a hit man who wants to be an actor get started? Like, what was the germ of that idea?

HADER: Alec Berg and I were kind of put together by our mutual agent. This is back in 2014.

GROSS: So you weren't buddies? Like, somebody, like, played matchmaker?

HADER: I knew him. Yeah, someone played matchmaker, and it worked. (Laughter). Yeah. But we were in the same comedy circles and stuff like that. But we thought, well, let's go. And, you know, I had this deal at HBO and - to make a show, but I didn't know what the show was. And then we would sit, and we talked about one idea for a while. And we realized that, you know, it was kind of an idea that didn't have any stakes to it. We realized, like, we had a great pilot episode. And then when we thought of what would be other episodes, we didn't have anything. (Laughter). It was just kind of...

GROSS: So what was that first idea?

HADER: It was essentially me playing someone I grew up with in Tulsa, Okla. It was kind of the character - I was in a movie called "Hot Rod," and the character I played in "Hot Rod," it was kind of, like, a version of that guy. And it was very much, like, a day-in-the-life, kind of meandering thing of this kind of wayward guy in Oklahoma. And it just was boring. (Laughter). You know? Like, I just was like, I can't really get into this. I mean, we have bits. There's comedy bits. But where's the emotion? Where's the story? And really, where are the stakes to it, you know? And so we kind of had this breakfast, I remember, a bummer breakfast, right, where we both were - like, kind of separately went, I don't think this idea works. It's kind of - doesn't really hold water. And I go, it should be stakes. And I remember he said, you know, life and death. You know, that's the ultimate, right, death? You know? And I just said, well, what if I was a hit man? And he went, ugh...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...I hate hit men. And then he said, hit man's like dog catcher. There's more in television and movies than there are in real life. You know? There's not - hit man, what is that? You know? I go, but what if it was me, you know? And it's not a guy - it's not, you know, the kind of cool guy with two guns in his hands with the long tie. Like, what if we - you know, and the black tie and the suit. You know, what if we made it real? And we talked about that. And then - I'm not joking - we suddenly both got fixated on the idea of him being an actor. I don't know why. I don't know where it came from. We just both started talking about him taking an acting class.

And we - and I remember specifically, Alec going, hit man who wants to be an actor? That's funny. That's good. You know? And then we started seeing these interesting correlations of the conflict within that of, you know, a hit man wants to be in the shadows, but an actor wants to be in the spotlight. A hitman wants to be anonymous, but actors want to be known. A hitman wants to suppress his emotions, where an actor wants to constantly be, you know, harnessing their emotions and all these things. So it was a funny - it just seemed, you know, the acorn, the seed of the idea could, you know, give us a tree that'd, you know, give us a lot of interesting stories and different branches and places to go off to.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Hader. He's the co-creator, the star, co-writer and a director of the HBO series "Barry." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "TRANSITIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Hader. He first became known for his work as a performer and writer on "Saturday Night Live." And now he's the co-creator, star, co-writer, co-producer and one of the directors of the HBO series "Barry." And he plays a Marine who served in Afghanistan and returns home with a very guilty conscience. And when he comes home, the best work he can find is using the skill he has and becoming a hitman. But on his way to carrying out an assignment as a hitman in LA, he decides he really wants to be an actor and access all the emotions that he's been blocking.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Yes. Sounds improbable, yes.

HADER: You know, when you say it, you're like, oh, man...

GROSS: What? (Laughter).

HADER: ...I can't believe HBO said yes to this (laughter).

GROSS: No, but I love it because if it ends up having - like, it has a lot of humor, but it also has, like, a surprising amount of emotional depth. So...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And that leads us to the next clip I want to play. You know, in the second season, there is a kind of twist on the first clip that we played, where Barry is telling his acting teacher, Henry Winkler, that, you know, his buddy - that Barry's buddy was shot in Afghanistan when Barry was a Marine there, and Barry took revenge and killed the man he thought was the shooter, but it was the wrong man. And he suffered from guilt ever since. But what he's not confessing in the scene is, A, that he's a hitman, and, B, that he's killed Cousineau's girlfriend Janice, who was a cop and was onto the fact that Barry was a hitman. That happened in season one.

So in this part, Barry is telling his teacher, Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler, about the emotional aftermath of shooting the wrong man in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) And then they sent me to a hospital in Germany, and a family friend pulled some strings and got me discharged. After that, I didn't feel like I deserved a good life.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Holy [expletive]. Who else did you tell this story to?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) In class, no one.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Good. So here's my advice. You never tell that story again as long as you live 'cause basically, you killed somebody. And you got away with it.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) See? This is why I don't want to tell you. This is why I don't want to tell you 'cause you're going to look at me differently. You're going to look at me like I'm a murderer, like I'm a violent piece of [expletive].

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Listen to me. I have a son. I was terrible to this son. I was cruel. I was selfish. And there's nothing I can do to change that. But I don't want to be that guy anymore. And I pray that human beings can change their nature because if we can't, then you and I are in deep trouble.

GROSS: That's a scene from the HBO series "Barry" with my guest Bill Hader and Henry Winkler. And Bill Hader co-created, co-writes and also directs several episodes of the series. So that's just such a great scene about - now that we've told you you have to be honest, make sure you hide the truth. Another question raised in that clip that we just heard are, you know, are we capable of change? Can we change our nature?

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that a question you ask yourself a lot? I know...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I ask that question...

HADER: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...All the time.

HADER: You constantly - yeah, you're kind of going am I stuck...

GROSS: Yes.

HADER: Am I stuck with these tools? Am I stuck with these neuroses? Am I stuck with...

GROSS: Yes, yes.

HADER: ...This personality thing?

GROSS: Yes.

HADER: Can I change it? And you keep falling back into it. And it's a part of life. As you get older, you start to get a little bit more, I think, worried about it 'cause you go, oh, I'm still doing - still doing that, you know? Like, I still have, the - you know, these problems or whatever. And, you know, again, it's like I said. The writers room on "Barry" can just be, like - it feels like a group therapy session, where everybody kind of talks about, you know, I'm not going to name names or, you know, link things but, you know, things like oh, I have a tendency to exaggerate or lie, or I have a tendency to be emotionally cold. I have a, you know - these things that you see in your parents and you see in other people and your relatives. You know, a lot of people I know will get together with their siblings and be like, do you do that? Yeah, I do that. Remember mom would do that, you know? And it's like, oh, no. I can't shake that, you know? And can you shake that? And so it's more interesting to start a season with a question. You know, can you change your nature? - and try to figure it out while you're writing, you know, instead of having like a - in my mind, you know, a full theme of, you know, starting with an answer and trying to prove that. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm. I sometimes think as therapy - of therapy as being a kind of a - as holding out hope that they're - that you are capable of some change, that...

HADER: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: ...Change is possible.

HADER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's just the hope to keep working towards it and knowing like, OK. I'm going to fall back, But I'm aware of it.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

HADER: OK, that's a good thing. I'm aware of it.

GROSS: Was writing on "Saturday Night Live" - did that involve the same kind of emotional, like, vulnerability and sharing that you're describing happens in the writers room for "Barry?"

HADER: No.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: That was more like, here's a dumb idea we have. And how do we, you know - I mean, if it was a satirical thing - but never the kind of emotional stuff, in my experience there - but it was more of a - if you're going into more of a satire, kind of going, like, is this a thing, you know what I mean? Is - are we satirizing something that, you know, is an actual problem or worth being satirized or - you know? And so sometimes you would be like, oh, I've experienced that, or, I know that feeling, or, I've seen that commercial, or, I saw that, you know, thing or whatever it is. And you just want to make sure that it holds water in some way, but never the - I mean, yeah. No, I don't think sketch comedy would lend itself to, like, a sketch about, can you change your nature?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So one of the pleasures of watching "Barry" is that there's a lot of intentionally bad acting in it and some intentionally bad, like, monologues in it because it's about acting students who, you know, don't necessarily know what they're doing yet. And of course, Barry doesn't really know how to act yet. Sometimes he really nails it because it's so consonant with the emotions that he's feeling at the moment, but other times, he doesn't get it at all.

My favorite not-getting-it-at-all moment is when he does a short scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross," and it's the very famous scene. It's Alec Baldwin's scene where he's, like, the guy from headquarters who comes in to tell all these scam artists who are selling, like, terrible real estate - like, worthless real estate by phone to people - and he comes in to tell them that, like, unless they shape up, they're fired. So...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: So the first thing I want to do is play Alec Baldwin doing the role.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: OK. So here's Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross." And this is a David Mamet play and then movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Blake) Put that coffee down. Coffee's for closers only. You think I'm [expletive] with you? I'm here from downtown. I'm here from Mitch and Murray. And I'm here on a mission of mercy. Your name's Levene?

JACK LEMMON: (As Shelley Levene) Yeah.

BALDWIN: (As Blake) You call yourself a salesman, you son of a b****?

ED HARRIS: (As Dave Moss) I don't got to listen to this s***.

BALDWIN: (As Blake) You certainly don't, pal, 'cause the good news is you're fired. The bad news is you've got - all of you've got just one week to regain your job, starting with tonight - starting with tonight's sit. Oh. Have I got your attention now? Good, 'cause we're adding a little something to this month's sales contest as you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize - a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture?

GROSS: OK. Now let's hear how you do it, Bill Hader, portraying Barry, who is in acting class. He wants to be a good actor. He doesn't really know how to do it. So here is Barry doing that scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Can you put that coffee down? Coffee's for closers only. You call yourself a salesman? You son of a b****. Hi, I'm from downtown. I'm from Mitch and Murray. So you've got - all of you got just one week to regain your jobs, starting with tonight. OK. We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see what second prize is? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. But I've worked down a little...

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) OK. OK. No, no, no. I - stop. I'm not kidding. You're making me nauseous.

HADER: (Laughter) You're making me nauseous. Yeah.

GROSS: That is so funny. So can you talk about deciding to do a really bad version of that very famous scene and the kind of, like, good-natured, like, I'm-here-to-give-you-prizes attitude that you have in acting it?

HADER: Yeah. He doesn't understand the context of it at all. Well, that was a thing that - it was helpful in the writing - was we said, we need to get the - Barry's problem in that episode is that he couldn't stand up for himself against Fuches, the Stephen Root character. And so he...

GROSS: The guy who's assigned to him - his hit - you know...

HADER: Yeah, his...

GROSS: His handler as a hit man - yeah.

HADER: His - yeah - his hit man agent, if you will, who's constantly bullying him to do stuff. And we - I remember Alec and I talking and saying that he should learn how to do this in the acting class. The acting class should be the venue where he goes and learns how to be a more assertive person. And in writing that scene, then you go, well, he needs to start off as not very assertive, and Cousineau needs to tell him how to be assertive in the scene. But then he can take that into the real world.

And so it was just working backwards. So then it was like, OK, well, how's he going to be - not be assertive? So he should do a scene and not be assertive. And then I think I pitched, what if he did the Alec Baldwin scene, but nice? And everyone laughed, and there you are.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Hader, co-creator, co-writer and star of the HBO dark comedy series "Barry." After a break, we'll talk about the anxiety and panic attacks he dealt with performing live on "Saturday Night Live" when he was a cast member. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Bill Hader, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member. Now he's the star of the HBO series "Barry," which he co-created, co-writes and serves as one of the directors. Seasons 1 and 2 are available on demand. The show's been renewed for a third season.

Hader plays Barry, a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan and returned with PTSD - and no sense of purpose in life - until a friend of the family convinced him to use his marksmanship skills to become a hitman. A man he's assigned to kill has been taking acting classes, which leads Barry to sit in on the class. Barry wants to be part of that world and starts taking the class himself. The teacher stresses that actors must draw on their past and express the truth. Throughout the series, we see how impossible it is for Barry to express the truth because he's hiding his guilt for certain actions in Afghanistan and for the murders he's been hired to commit.

So I want to get back to the idea of, you know, acting as truth-telling, as telling some, like, emotional truth and drawing that emotional truth from deep within yourself. So did you ever go through that kind of soul-searching as an actor? You didn't go to acting school, right?

HADER: No, I went to Second City LA. I just - I learned just improv. But not - I never took an acting class, really, like the one that's in the show.

GROSS: So, like, what kinds of experiences or secondhand experiences are you basing that class on where it's all about, like, getting to the emotional truth? And sometimes, like, the acting teacher will emotionally push one of the students to the edge to get them to the point where they're ready to, like, be emotionally naked on stage.

HADER: Well, we - I mean, we went to acting classes and audited them and stood - sat in the back.

GROSS: Oh, as research for the series.

HADER: As research for the series, yeah (laughter). So it was weird. Alec kind of looked at me weird. I'm like, we got to go, you know, do some research on acting classes. And he went, Bill, you're an actor (laughter). Like, I know, but I don't know these classes.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And then at some point, Alec just had to go because some of the people would recognize, me and it would be weird and - what is he doing here? And so Alec would kind of go by himself. But we saw - in the pilot, there's a scene between Henry Winkler, who plays Cousineau, and Sarah Goldberg, who plays Sally Reed...

GROSS: One of the students.

HADER: ...Where - one of the students - where he berates her into getting the right emotional response. And we - Alec saw that.

GROSS: Oh, really?

HADER: He ended up calling me, saying, I just saw this thing where this guy just went after this actress hard to get her to this place. And then she started doing the scene, and she was really, you know, crying and so thankful for him for getting her there, you know, and all this stuff. And he said it was very strange.

GROSS: Yeah, the acting teacher in the series, the Henry Winkler character - Henry Winkler basically says to the acting student, you know what I call that? That's fake acting. And he's...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Really, like, mean. But then...

HADER: Oh, yeah. He calls her babe and chick and...

GROSS: ...But then she gives this, like, really brilliant performance afterwards. Yeah.

HADER: Well, he discloses a private conversation they had to the class. He says, isn't that what you told me? That, you know, you don't think you can make it? And he...

GROSS: Right.

HADER: ...Starts belittling her, and she starts crying. You know, she's betrayed. He's telling the whole class this thing she don't want anybody to know about. And then he says, don't think. Just do the scene. And then everyone went, wow, that was so beautiful. But it was a great way of introducing the world of this for Barry, as this guy who's kind of emotionally closed off, of going, oh, I need someone to do that. I need that for some reason. I need someone to access an emotion that I'm too afraid to kind of look at. I know I need this on some level.

GROSS: The first time I interviewed you, I didn't know about this, but apparently, when you were on "Saturday Night Live," you had a lot of anxiety about performing live and even had, like, a panic attack, I think, while the show was on while you were...

HADER: Yeah. On the air, I had a panic attack.

GROSS: ...While you were doing a bit playing Julian Assange.

HADER: Yeah, I was doing - playing Julian Assange during a panic attack. It was fun.

GROSS: Can you describe what happened then?

HADER: Yeah. I was doing Julian Assange. It was Jeff Bridges hosting. And I don't know what happened, but I suddenly went, I can't breathe. It felt like - it just felt like I was dying. I just - that's the only way I could describe it. It just - the panic - I think it was a bit of exhaustion and also I've - I'm a very naturally anxious person. You know, I'm always - and in some ways, it's good because when I'm directing a thing, I'm eight steps ahead of things, and I'm trying to make sure things are in order and things like that.

You know, we talk about the things that we wish we could change in ourselves. And, you know, I'm very, very anxious. And it could kind of make me slightly isolated or not being in the moment in a thing. And on "Saturday Night Live," I felt like the majority of my time there, especially in the first half of it at least, I wasn't in the moment. I was very, very, very nervous - heart palpitations, sweating. I would get dizzy. I would - you know, I remember once, it got to the point where I became completely convinced that either a piece of equipment was going to fall on me or that someone was going to storm the stage, that someone from the audience was going to run up on stage...

GROSS: Well, that seemed like...

HADER: ...And, like, attack us.

GROSS: ...Unusual things to worry - like 'cause...

HADER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it got crazy. It got a little...

GROSS: I thought you'd be worrying about, you know, like, I'm going to forget my lines. I didn't...

HADER: No, and you forget your lines and things.

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: It went from that to that. So once I started getting into these other things, then I started doing, like, TM and - you know, you take, you know, medication. You go to a therapist. You know, I really, you know - exercise, changing my diet - I mean, all these things to try to get this under control. And, you know, it's just acknowledging it, you know? You just kind of go, that's not happening, you know? Relax.

But I think it got to a really bad place. And I think in "Barry," it's not so much the anxiety of it. It was more of this idea that I was naturally good at impressions. I was telling Alec Berg this when we were just starting, right? I go, you know, I was always good at impressions, but what I always wanted to do was write and direct. I moved out to Los Angeles 20 years ago to be a writer-director. And I was a production assistant, and I did all these things. And, you know, I was a crew guy forever and then kind of happened - you know, in a fluky way got on "Saturday Night Live," you know? Megan Mullally saw me in a show. I got on "Saturday Night Live," and I was not prepared for it.

And I was saying it's so ironic that all the things I was writing and directing were never really - all the short films I made were never very that good. And the scripts I were writing was - they were not good. I had a lot to learn. But I could kind of just do impressions, and the irony was that the show I did the impressions on - it was, like, slowly destroying me because of the anxiety of having to perform in front of a bunch of - in front of the nation. You know, I just, it's - I still get - I hosted a year ago, and I was a wreck. And I told Alec this, and he went, I think that - I think that's the show. It's about a guy who thinks, you know, the thing he's naturally good at is destroying him but the thing he wants to do he's not very good at (laughter), you know? And he goes, well, that's an emotion you understand. We can write that.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Hader, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and writer. He's the co-creator and star of the HBO series "Barry." We'll pick up where we left off after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTREAL SONG, "GRONLANDIC EDIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bill Hader, co-creator and star of the HBO series "Barry." When we left off, we were talking about his years as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and the anxiety and panic attacks he dealt with because the show was live in front of an audience.

You know, it's funny when you're - when someone like me is at home watching "Saturday Night Live," watching the performers do really funny things, I'm thinking like, God, they're so lucky. They're having such a good time doing this. You can see what a good time they're having doing this. And you're telling me that, like, it was not - the performance part was not enjoyable. It was kind of terrifying.

HADER: Yeah, I think that's - well, towards the end, I started laughing a lot in sketches, especially when I played the Stefon character and things like that.

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: And that was - it was funny, but it was also releasing a lot of that anxiety and kind of going, what's the worst that could happen right now?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

HADER: Oh, wow, the phone just went off in here - not my cell phone, it's the phone in the...

GROSS: A phone in the - wow, how did that happen?

HADER: I don't know. Maybe they're calling me to get me out of here.

GROSS: Yeah, I think that's it, Bill (laughter).

HADER: Yeah, that's it. It's like - it's Lorne Michaels. Shut up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: No. All right, I'll start over. Well, actually, I say that - I joke about Lorne but, actually, he didn't mind the laughing because he said, if you were laughing about something that wasn't funny, I would be annoyed with you. But what you're saying is so ridiculous and funny it's enjoyable to watch. But I think the reason John Mulaney would do that - he would put things on the cue cards that I hadn't seen or he would tell me about it as I was walking out.

GROSS: This was when you were playing Stefon.

HADER: Stefon, yeah - is that I was so wound tight beforehand. And what I always wanted to do with my hands when I was on set playing - doing sketch was what Stefon does, which is cover my face. I always wanted to put my head down. So if you watch - go back and watch me, my hands are constantly wanting to cover my face, especially on Update. I remember playing John Malkovich, and my hand was in front of my face the entire time. And Doug Abeles who ran Update came up and was like, dude, you got to put your hand down I can't see your face. Why is your hand up in front your face? And I'm like, 'cause I'm terrified. I'm having a panic attack. I mean, not a panic attack but I just - I just would get so charged up. I would get so anxious about going out, so, yeah.

GROSS: Did everyone on the show know about that?

HADER: Some people knew about it. I think - I'll be totally honest. And I would - I don't blame them. I think some people thought I was just being dramatic (laughter), which I don't blame them because it was this kind of - before everything, I think people got a bit like, all right, Bill. Relax, you know? You know, not talking a lot, staring down at my feet. I would just get - or towards the end, I would try to just go, oh, there it is. You know, that's your friend. You know, don't fight it. Just go, OK, there's the anxious feeling. Like, let's just - just let it attack you and - but don't fight it because when you fight it, it gets worse.

GROSS: So did you ever think, like, this kind of acting, this kind of live acting in front of an audience was bad for you and, therefore, you should stop doing it?

HADER: Yeah, but I was getting more successful at it. Like, more people were noticing me from the show. So it was this weird thing where, you know, it takes time to kind of hit on that show for some people. And I definitely - it wasn't until the kind of end of my time there that people - I would get recognized for it or whatever. But, yeah, I've been asked to like - for instance, I've been asked to host award shows, and I always say no because I'm like, oh, I can't. I just - it's too - it'd be too nerve-wracking.

GROSS: So I have to ask you about your eyes. On "Saturday Night Live," you always - you have very big eyes. And you're one of those people who can, like, raise one eyebrow.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And on "Saturday Night Live," you always used your eyes great for comic effect. On "Barry," staring into your eyes - like, when I look at your eyes on "Barry," like, sometimes, your eyes are saying, like, thousand-yard stare - the stare of a soldier who's seen combat too long. Sometimes, it's a stare of someone with just, like, so much existential dread. And sometimes, it's the stare of somebody who has just become overtaken by rage and anger. And I wonder if you think about your eyes at all or whether it just kind of happens that your eyes communicate so much.

HADER: Yeah, I don't think about it at all. Thanks for saying that. That's a nice compliment. It's funny you say that because I always - there was a funny thing that happened with one of our editors, Kyle Reiter, where we were watching episode four. And I just went, do I have any other facial expressions? (Laughter) I just have the same facial expression this whole show. I just look angry. And he played this clip, and it's me. He plays the take. I do the take. And then you hear our director of that episode, Liza Johnson, going, that was great, Bill. Do you want to do another one? And I go, no. No, I'm good. I think we got it, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And he's like, do - you know, do another take man (laughter).

GROSS: Did you?

HADER: No. No, I would always do - I always do, like, two takes. I'm, like, did I say everything right? Are we good? OK, let's move on, you know?

GROSS: Is that because you want to save time and money and get everything made on time and...

HADER: Yeah. I just am like - I'm - and I mean this - it's hard to talk about this without, like, sounding like, you know, you're being modest or whatever. I'm quoting Alec on this. Alec is always like - as far as writing, I - he said, you're the only performer, writer that I know that can't write for himself. I always am writing for - I write best for Sally, NoHo Hank, Cousineau, Fuches. But as far as the Barry stuff is concerned, we're always coming around to Barry kind of last, you know? Episode seven of this season, till, I think, two weeks before we shot it, Barry had no storyline. It was just like, what's he doing? He's just kind of hanging out. And Alec had to be like, Barry has no storyline. The show's called "Barry." What is he doing? But I was so focused on, you know, Fuches and Cousineau and, you know, Sally and her agent and all these other things that I wasn't even thinking about it. And then we were like, well, what if you got an audition? And then we kind of added that in at the 11th hour, that whole storyline.

But yeah, I am the same way as an actor too. I kind of like go, is everybody happy with that? OK, we can move on. You know, I'm not a - I'm not precious. I'm weirdly - I like very few - in the edit, I like fewer choices. I kind of like having to be forced to make a decision as opposed to, you know, when I was in my early 20s, these ideas - I thought it was so romantic that Stanley Kubrick would shoot 150 takes.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And now I'm like, that's crazy (laughter). Why would you do that? That makes - and now that I've done it, I'm like, wait. That's insane, you know? You don't need to do that.

GROSS: Just watching the takes is going to take forever.

HADER: Yeah, but it doesn't - I think there's this thing of - the director is one actor who has to stop acting, so they pummel them to death with a lot of takes. And I just feel like that's someone who's not really respecting an actor and also someone that - all you have to say is, hey, could you try this, you know? (Laughter) Could you do less?

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Hader, and he is the co-creator, star, co-writer, producer, also directs episodes of the HBO series "Barry." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK'S "WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Bill Hader, who first became famous for his work as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live." And now he's the co-creator, star, writer, co-producer, one of the directors of the HBO series "Barry," where he plays a Marine who served in Afghanistan, comes home, uses his skills to become a hitman but learns during one of his assignments that what he really wants to do is act. And he's always asking himself, can he change his nature?

Because there are flashbacks to Barry when he was a Marine in Afghanistan and because he's now a hitman, there's a fair amount of, like, guns and shooting in the series. And a couple of people that I've read have compared moments of "Barry" to moments of "Taxi Driver." And in the last episode of the second season, there's actually shots that really look like the end of "Taxi Driver," going up the stairs and the long hallway and everything. But one comparison I will make between you and Travis Bickle, De Niro's character in "Taxi Driver," is that both he and you, when there is a gun in your hand or his hand, you become just, like, rigid.

HADER: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: You become, like, so stiff when you're carrying a gun.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you - I mean, I don't think I'm reading that into it. I think you just kind of stiffen when the gun is in your hand.

HADER: Yeah. Yeah, I don't - and I don't know. I don't know if that's the character or if that's me. I'm not a big - I don't like guns, so - I'm uncomfortable with them. You know, a lot of people go, oh, did you take shoot - you know, get to go train with a gun? Was that fun and everything? And I go, no, they just kind of tell me what to do for that scene, or there's fake guns that I can break apart that are actually made of wood and Velcro that I can do stuff with.

But I do think that - I mean, the "Taxi Driver" thing is very - I mean, that's one of my favorite movies. And when we were doing the mix for episode 8, where there is a big kind of "Taxi Driver" type climax at the end of the Season 2, I went, oh, man. You know, your influences go in there, and then you realize it while you're in - you know, at the very end of the process. You're like, oh, I clearly like "Taxi Driver." There it is.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And you don't realize it. It's like being a musician and hearing a song and being like, oh, I really like the Beatles. But, yeah, I always felt like the relationship to violence in this show - again, you didn't want it to be glib. You want it to be - and I think "Taxi Driver" did that well, too, of showing the kind of reality of it, you know, and the kind of - he's - at the end of "Taxi Driver," he's doing, quote, unquote - it's irony of, like, this virtuous act of saving this girl. But it's - you know, it's terrifying. There's nothing heroic about it at all. He's - you know, he's a crazy person...

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: ...You know?

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: And it's a homicide. You know, people keep forgetting after he does all that, he tries to kill himself, but he can't. He doesn't want to live anymore.

GROSS: Well, he takes his bloody finger and puts it to his temple and shoots.

HADER: Yeah, yeah, to the cops. I mean, he's - it's about a guy who doesn't want to live anymore, and then, you know, he's hailed as a hero. And I like that. You know, it's like the clip you played earlier. He says, you know, I don't want to be a violent person. I don't want to see - you to see me as a violent person. And then, you know, he is at the end, you know? And it's, like, hopefully, the feeling in that last, you know, shootout is one of disappointment, you know, and Barry of like - come on, man, you know? But I've also met people - it's weird, you know? I've met people who, you know, come up to me, and they go, oh, man, that ending was rad, you know? You know, it's like, I'm so glad he, you know, blew those guys away. That was rad. And I've had three female journalists say to me, I've never found you attractive, but in this show, when you're shooting people, you look very attractive.

GROSS: That's odd.

HADER: Yeah. And Alec loves that when that happens, though, because he always goes, you've never found him attractive.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And I'm like, could we not just focus on that part (laughter), you know? But how weird is that? It's very strange. It's a weird thing that I've - for some people, you know? And again, not saying this is everybody. I'm not making a generalization, but it's something I've experienced in making a show where you can't help how people are going to perceive the thing, you know? And, you know, when we're making it and I'm shooting it, I think, oh, people should be disappointed in Barry and how kind of dark and sad this is, that he can't fight his nature and that this is his true nature. It's his performance. It's his truth performance, as we always thought of that - that end shootout. And, yeah, and then people construe it however you - however they want.

GROSS: I remember the last time you were on the show, you talked about how, when you were a child, you and your father watched a lot of movies. And some of them were really violent films like Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" and "The Wild Bunch." What impression did those violent films make on you when you were young?

HADER: You know, it's interesting. You know, when you're young - yeah. You know, it's like kids - I don't know kids now, but, you know, that old - like, you know, you play army, and you play cowboy or, you know, some extension of being shot and falling down and, you know, all that. And then I think the movie that had the biggest impact on me would be - you know, "Taxi Driver" would be one because that shootout was not that. It wasn't - I find, when I watch those Sam Peckinpah movies now, it feels too...

GROSS: Stylized.

HADER: ...Stylized and a little glamorous in a weird way. It's kind of weirdly reveling in it in some way. I like "Wild Bunch" to a degree. "Straw Dogs" doesn't really hold up for me on a lot - for a lot of reasons. But "Taxi Driver," though, was the thing that I saw that I went, whoa. OK, that feels real. There's a scene in "Taxi Driver" where he shoots Harvey Keitel where he says, suck on this. And he shoots him. And there's nothing glamorous about it. The camera is across the street. It's almost like the point of view of someone sitting on the stoop across the street. And you're watching two guys talk in a doorway across the street, and one guy shoots the other guy, you know? And then that guy then - DeNiro just walks over and sits down, so now it's just - you and the shooter are the only two people on the street. And it's very chilling, and I remember seeing that at the age of 11 or 12 or something and going, oh, man. That - there's something that just feels real about this. So you - it was hard to go back to those other movies, you know?

GROSS: Who did you see "Taxi Driver" with at that age?

HADER: My dad.

GROSS: What did he tell you about? What did he have to say about the film?

HADER: He really - he goes, this is, like, one of the best movies ever made (laughter). He let me kind of just decide on my own what I thought. My parents were very young. I would - I mean, I have kids now. At that age, I wouldn't let them watch "Taxi Driver," but he did. I mean, the other - "Taxi Driver" wasn't the worst one. I mean, I saw "A Clockwork Orange" when I was 12, and that was another one that is a really tough movie, man. That's a - it's rough, but the nature of violence - and he would show me these things and go, you know, hey, you know this is wrong, right? It was never like you would watch "Taxi Driver" and "Clockwork Orange" and think it was cool. It was more of - this is awful, but there is something to gain about human nature here.

GROSS: Bill Hader, it's been great to talk with you again. I regret that our time is up. I look forward to Season 3 of "Barry." Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

HADER: Yeah. Thank you. This...

GROSS: Bill Hader is a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member. He now stars in the HBO comedy series "Barry," which he co-created. Seasons 1 and 2 are available on demand, and the show has been renewed for a third season.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD HERRMANN'S "PHONE CALL")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Ava DuVernay, producer, writer and director of the Netflix series "When They See Us," which dramatizes the story of the Central Park Five, or our interview with geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson about medical care for elder adults, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD HERRMANN'S "PHONE CALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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