Bill Hader Talks ‘Barry’ Dark Turns Season 3 – The Hollywood Reporter

Bill Hader, the multi-hyphenate star of barry — who won two Emmys for his leading role and this year earned a third acting nomination as well as nods for writing and directing the series — isn’t too concerned about whether his show is still a comedy . Yes, the show is rated as such, and its Emmy-nominated co-stars Anthony Carrigan and Henry Winkler deliver delightfully comedic performances as Chechen mobster NoHo Hank and washed-up drama teacher Gene Cousineau, respectively. But the show, which follows the eponymous hitman as he balances a life of crime with his aspirations to succeed in Hollywood (and live a normal life with his girlfriend, Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg, who also dreams of celebrity), has dark themes always balanced with equally dark humor. For Hader, the story comes first – the jokes, second. In a conversation with THRHader talks about the fun of creating a genre-defying show, how humor comes from poking fun at its own seriousness and barryhis literary influences.

This season has been postponed due to COVID-19. Did that give you more time to really nail season three?

For sure. It was a big advantage. I think if we had shot the original scripts, it would have been a very different season.

How?

I don’t think it would have been that sharp or thematically related. Overall, the thematic tone and everything about redemption and being forgiven – it all really came into focus when we rewrote.

This season was much darker than the first two. Was it a tonal shift you had in mind from the start, or was it something you came up with while you were crafting the season?

It’s always been that way from the beginning, especially after the end of season 2. You never want to make a decision when you’re telling a story based on your genre, where you go, “Here’s what the characters would do, but It’s a comedy so it has to be funny.” I really wanted to stay true to the characters.

This binary, whether it’s a drama or a comedy, doesn’t leave much middle ground for a show like barry.

It’s a question of marketing. If you look at a streaming platform, there are so many different categories now. I’m going to look like an old man, but it’s like going to a video store – these genres were a form of marketing that helps people make a decision: “What are you in the mood for this moment ? You don’t have that when you go to the movies; you have a horror movie next to a romantic comedy, a sci-fi movie next to a documentary. “barry isn’t really a comedy anymore,” that’s something I hear a lot, but to me it’s just about telling the story right. HBO allowed us to do that, which I’m really grateful for.

Henry Winkler

Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO

Is there a part of you that likes to play with audience expectations for this show? Dark comedy has always been there, but is it more fun to play with mixed tones?

Sometimes you get a sequence that you write as a drama or a direct action sequence. The fun comes from coming back to it multiple times and thinking, “What if this happened?” It’s kind of like sitting down and watching something with your friends, commenting on it and cracking jokes like Mystery Science Theater or something. Instead, we write these things down. An example is the motorcycle chase in episode six. There’s a moment when someone hands a giant machine gun to the guy on the motorcycle. Initially, the guy picked it up and started pulling it. It was really a big piece of action. When that moment came, I think I audibly scoffed, “There’s no way he’d be able to do that shot!” (Laughs.) [In the final cut, the motorcyclist clumsily drops the gun and veers into a car.] You have to walk away from it to then be able to comment on how lame your initial idea was.

I like this approach — the humor comes from the absurdity of the reality you’ve created.

The same thing happened in a scene between Barry and Sally. His show has been canceled and he wants to scare his boss. What can he use to help him? He’s a killer, ex-Marine, so he’s like, “I can scare him.” Initially it was written very directly and it was a bit of a scary moment [for Sally]. When we rehearsed it, Duffy Boudreau, one of the writers, said, “Do you wanna try that, really nice?” I improvised and we changed some things, but [the same dialogue] was there, the same structure was there. You get it on paper and you’re like “That makes sense” and then you get bored and start making fun of your own work.

I read that Flannery O’Connor had an influence on this season. Were there other literary or cinematographic references that inspired your writing?

Flannery O’Connor’s [short story] A good man is hard to find – people quote the line all the time: “She’d be a wonderful woman if someone put a gun to her head every day.” It’s something we can all say. At the time of death, you can become the best version of yourself, right? We used that in a scene in episode five, when Cousineau says, “I’ve changed a lot. … It takes someone pointing a gun to your head to realize what’s important in life. Liz Sarnoff, one of the screenwriters, talked about that moment in the room. But during the pandemic, I reread some of O’Connor’s stories and was incredibly moved by them. His voice is so specific, and even if some stories are so similar, it doesn’t matter. There’s something very genuine about his voice – it’s very honest and true. There’s a lot of that too in Russian literature, in Chekhov and Tolstoy: a somewhat discreet humor. I think of a scene in Anna Karenina where she returns home after falling in love with Vronsky; she sees her husband and there is a long passage about the ugliness of his ears. It’s incredibly relatable because when you’re sick of someone, suddenly every little thing about them drives you crazy. Tobias Wolff and George Saunders do the same thing: they can be incredibly funny and yet have so much humanity. This is where I would like to live as an artist.

Just as O’Connor wrote primarily about people on the fringes of the South, barry captures what it’s like to live in Los Angeles – not just the way it portrays the entertainment industry, but the city’s weird cultural corners and sprawl. What attracts you so much to Los Angeles as a writer?

I’ve lived here on and off since 1999 and was heavily involved in the industry, working as a personal assistant until now, acting and now writing and directing. Like any industry you work in for a while, you only see the things that drive you crazy. (Laughs.) You also can’t have that kind of satire without loving the place and having [experienced] some of these things yourself.

As Sally and Barry slowly find more success in their careers, does this open up more ways to satirize the entertainment industry?

Yeah. You are able to take someone who is essentially an innocent and then stare at them [discover] the man behind the curtain. I’ve seen this happen with so many friends: you come here completely in love with movies, TV and music, and then you jump into it. You learn the trade, then you [become jaded]. That’s probably why I watch so many old movies or foreign movies, and I’m such a snob. It’s like being in film school, when everyone presents their films – that’s how it feels to live in Hollywood. “Oh, so and so what’s going on, I should text them!” » (Laughs.) It’s fun, not bad, but it gets you out of it when you’re watching a movie. It’s nice to just watch TCM because for the most part all of those people are dead.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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