Bill Hader delivered the most revelatory TV performance of the year, playing a hit man in HBO’S Barry. Now he’s ready to be terrorized by a clown
Give Bill Hader an Emmy!
my 84-year-old mother has a crush on Bill Hader. This is surprising; she’s more of a Tom Hardy girl. But when she watched HBO’S Barry, the half-hour show Hader co-created with Alec Berg, she became a little obsessed. She hadn’t watched the comedian during his eight seasons on Saturday Night Live or seen the films Trainwreck or Superbad. She did not, in other words, decide to watch Barry because of Hader; she watched because it was about a contract killer. (She’s also a crime and murder girl.)
At the end of the pilot, as Hader and Berg broke down the episode for viewers, my mother finally heard the high-pitched voice and giggle familiar to his fans. She burst into laughter, delighted by the disparity between the buff (for Hader), deepvoiced former Marine he plays and the outright nerd he is in real life. “How does he do that?” she asked. “You mean sound like Kermit the frog?” asks Hader when I bring up her response. “I’m attractive to people of that age,” he adds. “Tell your mother I’m single again.”
No other TV performance this year has produced a double take like Hader’s in Barry. He’s done drama before, in the critically praised 2014 film The Skeleton Twins, co-starring Kristen Wiig. And even his most frivolous SNL characters had an edgy tension, between the native Oklahoman’s extreme, unassuming likability and a watchful anxiety (blame the smirk, the furtive eyes, the gymnastic brows with their eternally skeptical arch). But Barry is something different—as funny as a truly dark show can be. Credited with expanding the possibilities of the half-hour comedy, the show manages, as one critic put it, “to encompass the nausea of thrillers and the mortal tension of thoughtful suspense.”
Hader plays Barry Berwick, a veteran of Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition is exploited by a family friend, Fuches (Stephen Root), who employs the former Marine to murder small-time crooks. When a hit takes Barry to L.A., he stumbles into an acting class filled with sweetly desperate wannabes.
“Once we got into this idea of a hit man taking an acting class, we noticed some weird parallels, of working in the shadows but wanting to live in the spotlight,” says Hader. “You have to be emotionally available as an actor, and as a killer you have to be completely closed off emotionally.” At the same time, he adds, Barry couldn’t be “a glassy-eyed cypher. You see something roiling beneath the surface.”
From the start, Hader and Berg were intent on sidestepping glib: Killing, says Hader, is not funny. “What Barry does is really fucked up. He’s a sad person.” The two creators were more interested in the challenge of capturing two opposite tones and playing both as real. A big influence for Barry was William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood in his 1992 Western, Unforgiven. “The idea of violence and how it destroys you and eats up your soul,” says Hader. “The first conversation I had with Alec was, What if Munny’s therapy for learning how to be a human being was joining the acting group in Waiting for Guffman?”
Too bad death follows Barry wherever he goes. In Season 1, that comes via a motley crew of Chechen mobsters. The show’s superb ensemble (particularly Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg and Paula Newsome) includes the scene-stealing Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, an inexplicably sunny, juice box–loving sidekick to the Chechen boss. Hank is modeled on the sort of unflappably helpful guy who works at a genius bar in an Apple store. “It’s why he always wears a polo shirt,” says Hader. Carrigan got the part because of “the look on his face when he was listening during the audition. He was so earnest—it made us laugh really hard.”
Hader and Berg are currently writing Season 2, which they promise will be even darker—a prospect that seems impossible given the Season 1 finale, which set up the possibility that, as well intentioned and normal as Barry would like to believe he is, he might simply be a psychopath.
Hader says he isn’t in any hurry to spell out his character’s past, which is something of a mystery. “I always get restless in TV shows or books where you take a pause in the narrative to find out about somebody, and it’s usually explaining why is this person the way they are,” he says. ”I look at it from the viewpoint of meeting somebody. People don’t immediately provide total context—you know, ‘Here’s my wound.’” Hader giggles. “You learn that after a couple of years, if ever. That’s what makes people interesting.”
Emmy award nominations will
likely rain down on Barry. Hader, who should be a lock for an acting nod (he got three for SNL), will almost certainly get one for writing as well. (He won in that category for South Park after consulting for one season.)
When the Emmy nominations are announced on July 12, the actor will be on the set of the sequel to the 2017 blockbuster It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic in which the eponymous clown terrorizes seven children. They’re grown up in the sequel, and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) suggested to director Andy Muschietti that Hader play his character, Richie Tozier. “Andy calls me and says, ‘Finn would love it if you would play Richie,’” says Hader. “I said, ‘I don’t know, Finn, but I would hate to bum him out.’”
The longtime King fan couldn’t be happier about the role. “When I was a kid, my grandfather took me to a bookstore to buy Red Badge of Courage for school,” says Hader. “After I found it, he said, ‘Why don’t you get a book for yourself?’ I started walking towards the young adult section, and he said, ‘No, look for something in adult fiction.’” He chose Salem’s Lot, which he devoured in a week. “I still have the copy, with little mustard stains on it,” he says. The Shining was next, then It, which, at 1,138 pages, “took a whole summer.”
It was King’s novels that inspired the adolescent Hader “to pull my parents’ old Selectric out of the closet and start writing horror stories. It was like other kids hearing the Beatles for the first time and picking up a guitar.”
He’s become email friends with Owen King, one of the author’s two sons, both of whom are “phenomenal writers,” says Hader. “I told Owen I was doing It. He wrote back, ‘Watch out for the clown.’”
“What if Unforgiven’s William Munny learned how to be a human being by joining the acting group in Waiting for Guffman?”
CRIMINAL MINDS Clockwise from top: Barry’s Hader, Root, Glenn Fleshler and Carrigan; an SNL sketch with Fred Armisen and Elton John; and Hader, whom a trainer helped bulk up for Barry. “I play a Marine,” he says, “but I’m most deɿnitely not a Marine.”