Bill Hader is known for doing impressions, but right now he’s about to change your impression of him.
In his eight-year tenure on Saturday Night Live, during which he earned an Emmy nomination, Hader ably assumed the forms of a staggering array of personages, from Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, and Vincent Price, to the UPS guy and Julian Assange. (He also co-created Stefon, a Weekend Update correspondent whose musings on New York’s hottest and most preposterous night spots became a cultural phenomenon). Surprisingly, though, the man of 1000 faces never set out to do impressions. He only discovered an aptitude for them during the SNL audition process–which came early enough in his career to make some comedy lifers bristle with self-loathing. In fact, Hader originally set out to be a filmmaker. But judging from the outcome of his shift toward sketch comedy, it’s easy to imagine he’ll flourish in his next creative role.
The actor and writer, who left SNL in 2013, can currently be seen in two films, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and The Skeleton Twins. Neither is like any project he has appeared in before, but it’s the latter that will permanently alter public perception of him. Skeleton Twins, which won Best Screenplay at Sundance last January, is a heartbreaking film about family and suicide that also manages the neat trick of being deeply funny. In his first lead role, Hader plays a Hollywood outsider whose failed attempt to take his own life leads to a reunion with his estranged twin (former SNL-cohort, Kristen Wiig), who has problems of her own. It’s a revelatory performance that builds on the comedic timing and expressive nuance he cultivated at SNL, and hints at big things to come.
Lest anyone think Hader is only interested in dramatic-tinged work, though, next year he’ll play the romantic lead opposite Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, which Schumer wrote and Judd Apatow directed. Before long, perhaps aspiring young impressionists will have a “Hader” on deck. In the meantime, the actor spoke with Co.Create about how he made his recent pivot, and what might’ve happened had he not.
Growing up as a movie nerd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bill Hader decided to forsake college and move to Los Angeles. He was not immediately greeted with a three-picture deal. Instead, he worked for several years in bottom-rung Hollywood jobs.
“I kind of romanticized what it was like to be a writer and director when I was in my early twenties,” Hader says. “Working as a production assistant knocked that right out of me. I realized, ‘Oh, this is just a business. It’s a job. You come here and you make things.’ I always thought it came from some special place. Then I realized that if you apply yourself, you get paid to do it and suddenly you’ll be doing it on a daily basis.”
Although he was making a living as a crew guy, a P.A., and later an assistant editor on reality shows, Hader felt that he wasn’t really doing anything fulfilling. So he decided to shake things up.
“When you move to L.A. or New York, it’s easy to get a little lost and forget your original goal. I tried making a short film. I put some money into it, and watched the footage back, and just thought, ‘This is terrible.’ It didn’t really come together, and I was too embarrassed to show it to anybody. Then my longtime girlfriend and I broke up too. So I knew I had to do something new just to have a change of pace in my life. When I saw a friend do this show at Second City, where he was taking classes, it seemed like the thing to do. I knew every Saturday I’d have someplace to go and do something creative.”
What started as a hobby soon became something more. Hader proved to be both a natural and a quick study. The sketch group he joined out of Second City began doing shows around L.A. Eventually, one of their performances caught the attention of comedic actress Megan Mullally, who mentioned Hader to SNL overlord Lorne Michaels. The young performer was asked to audition, and soon found himself going, as he likes to describe it, from preschool to Harvard. He felt out of his depth in this talent pool, but he was hardly the first.
“Dan Aykroyd sat me down at an after party and told me what my whole career was going to be,” Hader says. “He said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen: your first couple years, you’re going to be on unsteady ground, you’re going to think you’re gonna be fired at any moment, and the audience will not know you. It’s your job to get the audience to know you and like you. Then the audience will know you, you’ll go out to your mark and get a little applause break because they know you, then you can start doing weird things and they’ll go with you. You’ll do that for a couple years and get to a place where you’re just clocking in. You’ll get to a place where you come in, do your impression, do your character, play a game show host, do whatever’s needed of you, do it really well–you’re a pro at it–and then you clock out and go home.’ He said, ‘Once you know you’re just clocking in, though, it’s time to leave.’ And that’s exactly how it went. He told me that my third show.”
During his summers off from Saturday Night Live, Hader began going to South Park retreats–where the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker would bring a select group of writers to come up with story and gag ideas for the impending season. It was a chance to branch out and hone his skills at writing longer material.
“When I met Judd Apatow, he told me I should start writing screenplays,” Hader says. “They’d be really bad at first, but the more I did it, the better I’d get. Again, it was taking all that romanticism out of it and just going and doing something. I ended up writing one for Judd that we decided not to do, but it was a great experience of learning how to write. One of the reasons I started working at South Park, actually, was that I wanted to learn how to structure things and how to tell a story. Sketch comedy is good for writing jokes and I’m not really good at writing jokes. But at South Park, we had to tell stories that were driven by emotion, which was Trey’s whole thing. Follow the emotion. What’s Cartman’s emotion? What’s Kyle’s emotion? It’s all about figuring it out and finding the story that makes sense. Also finding inspired comedy bits to put in that help drive the story forward, so it’s not just tangential comedy for comedy’s sake. I also learn a lot about writing from being an actor, because every part, I want to make it a fun part for someone to play. I want every person to have a reason to be alive.”
After a string of brief roles in comedies like Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Hader wanted to make a change. He told his agent he thought it was time to do a drama, and was met with both bad news and a possible way forward.
“At first, my agent said, ‘Nobody really sees you that way–they just see you as a guy who does impressions on SNL,'” Hader recalls. “He thought maybe the way to change that was go do a dramatic table read, which is when a script needs money and the producers want to hear it out loud so they give it to a casting director, who puts together a cool table read. And so I did one, and at the table was Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper, Greta Gerwig, Paul Dano, and myself. I felt out of place. But the casting director thought I was good and she happened to also be working on Skeleton Twins, so she recommended me for [male lead] Milo. Craig Johnson, the director, said ‘Really? Bill Hader?’ He agreed to meet with me, but he didn’t see it. Then we met and we got along well and he said he saw something in me, some vulnerability he was excited about that he thought would be good for the character. I got the job in 2010, and Craig Johnson spent two years getting the money. Then the actress who was going to play Maggie [the female lead] dropped out. When Kristen [Wiig] said yes, we instantly got the money.”
At the Comedy Central Roast of James Franco in 2013, Hader performed in character as the President of Hollywood, the tracksuit-wearing deity responsible for all show business success and failure. He spared nobody on the dais, least of all the guy beneath the wig–describing ‘Bill Hader’ as the kind of actor you call when you need a best friend’s best friend to ask an exposition question and fuck off for the rest of the movie. Behind closed doors, though, Hader was making the kind of choices that would ensure nobody could ever make such an accusation again.
“There had been talk about a Stefon movie,” he says. “It was a very cordial thing of Lorne Michaels coming to me and [then-SNL writer] John Mulaney and saying ‘Paramount is asking about this. What do you guys think?’ He pretty much just left it up to us. ‘You are the guys who are gonna have to write it, so you decide.’ John and I pretty quickly said no. Because in our mind, it never worked as a sketch. It was a nice thing that lived on Weekend Update, and it should probably only live on SNL and that’s that. I’d rather do things like Skeleton Twins and Eleanor Rigby. And Trainwreck too–somehow I’m the romantic lead in that one. But people think they want a Stefon movie, and then they’d actually see the movie poster and say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want that at all.'”