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Why Making a Show About a Hitman Finally Calmed Bill Hader Down

The former SNL star talks about hitting his mark with Barry, the HBO show he created, in which he plays a hitman with acting ambitions.

Why Making a Show About a Hitman Finally Calmed Bill Hader Down
[Photo: courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO]

Bill Hader is kicking himself. He does that a lot, it turns out, and this time it’s because of the way he directed a torture scene in his bullet-riddled HBO comedy series Barry.

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“I kinda messed it up,” he says, shrugging between bites of avocado toast during a recent interview in New York city. “If it had been more of a throwaway scene, with no heightening music, it would’ve been better. That’s what I’m learning as a director. That I look back at stuff and ask, Why? Why did I do it that way?”

Directing Barry–the show Hader co-created, stars in, writes on, and produces, but does NOT key grip–was less a source of anxiety than a chance to exorcise one.

Hader has a history of being an anxious guy. Fear heavily informed his eight-year tenure at Saturday Night Live, where he invented Halloween-worthy characters like Stefon while also serving as the show’s de facto impressionist. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he was worried from the jump about not fitting in with the comedy heroes who were now his peers, and suffered from anticipatory jitters about bombing that bordered on debilitating. When he returned to host SNL last weekend, he joked in his monologue that he had been nervous for all 210 episodes as a cast member, and that he was still nervous right that second. It wasn’t a joke. Hader’s nerves remained jangled at SNL even after he transitioned from New Guy to Old Pro.

“I had more put on my plate, and there was more of an expectation that [any given sketch with Hader] was gonna be good. That would make my anxiety go up,” he says. “I’d be like, Why are you putting that on me? I don’t know if this is gonna go good or not?”

Bill Hader [Photo: courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO]
At least something positive came out of all that stress, apart from an entire wing’s worth of Hall of Fame sketches. The pressure of SNL‘s weekly high-wire act helped inspire Barry, Hader’s new series about a hitman who gets bit by the acting bug. That fear of not seamlessly weaving into the SNL community fabric manifests in the titular hitman wanting to hit it off with the other students in his acting class.( Their acting coach is played by Henry Winkler, chewing the exact right amount of scenery).

There are other similarities between character and creator, too. As an SNL cast member, Hader had to go out onstage and kill, week after week, no matter his mood. Barry, too, is ready to stop killing on cue. The show explores what happens when the thing you’re best at doing is also destroying you, but you’re terrible at the thing you want to be doing instead. For Barry, the thing he’s terrible at is acting. For Hader, the thing he was terrible at, at least in his own mind, may have been taking the leap to create a show like Barry.

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“Barry doesn’t suffer from anxiety as much as he’s just depressed,” Hader says. “Knock on wood, I haven’t really suffered any massive depression before. I’m more in the ‘What if? What if?’ category, rather than looking back at ‘Did I get it wrong?'”

“Except for directing,” I point out.

“Yeah, except for directing,” he concedes. “But with that, it’s more like ‘Aw man,’ rather than full-on depression.

Bill Hader [Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]
The scene that spurred Hader’s most recent “Aw, man” moment as a director is already effective in its current form. One of the series regulars (no spoilers) is tied to a chair while a Chechen crime boss tortures him in a way that should make viewers wince the next time they floss. The scene manages to be brutal without entering Saw-style gore territory. It’s a shot across the bow for anyone who thought the Breaking Goodish premise of a hitman going straight would be all fun and games. It might not be the kind of thing one might expect from Hader, but then Hader hasn’t stood still long enough since leaving SNL in 2013 to provide anyone precise expectations.

The last time I spoke with him, he was at a pivotal point in his career. It was 2014, he was one year removed from SNL and taking on his first co-starring role with the quirky sibling dramedy The Skeleton Twins. Prior to that, he’d been popping up in a wide array of Apatow-adjacent stonerbait, but it remained to be seen whether he could co-carry a movie. (He could.) The following summer, Amy Schumer’s breakout hit Trainwreck proved Hader could also credibly play a romantic lead. And it was at that moment, with Trainwreck still on the horizon, that Hader began meeting with HBO about a development deal.

The only problem? He had no ideas for a series yet.

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Bill Hader and Sarah Goldberg on Harry. [Photo: courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO]
“The whole time, making Trainwreck, I was thinking, ‘Uh, what would a show be?'” Hader says.

Once filming wrapped, he came back to L.A., and his agents started hounding him about ideas. He still didn’t have anything. His agents then decided to team up Hader with another client, Alec Berg, a showrunner on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Berg and Hader started hanging out at a diner together and talking through premises. They lost about a month and a half to a concept based on a guy Hader knew from his hometown in Oklahoma before admitting that the idea was a dud. Finally, they had a breakthrough.

“It mostly came out of me saying, ‘What if I played a hitman, but like me as a hitman–‘”

“Like, Bill Hader has a second life as a hitman?” I cut him off to ask.

“No, that might actually have been better,” he says, and rethinks it. “Well, no, probably not, because nobody knows who I am. It might work with like David Lee Roth or someone like that.”

There’s no good way to break the news to gentle self-deprecator Hader that in 2018 he is far more famous and relevant than the erstwhile Van Halen frontman, so we press on. What he meant is that the idea for Barry started with Hader wanting to portray a hitman similar to his own conception of himself: not a cool person. He and Berg quickly began to figure out the character: a lonely ex-marine who now works as a hitman and hates it. Everything else flowed from there.

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Even for a man prone to nervousness, things are looking exceedingly good for Hader right now. Barry is premiering on March 25, and positive reviews are flooding in. This December, he plays the lead opposite Anna Kendrick in the Christmas comedy Noelle. (He agreed to do it mainly because of how excited his three daughters were about the movie, but it does not escape him that a hit Christmas movie will play on TBS every December until the end of time.)

Henry Winkler and Hader on Barry. [Photo: courtesy of John P. Johnson/HBO]
Considering that this year might prove even more pivotal for his career than the one leading up to Trainwreck, perhaps Hader should be a little nervous. It doesn’t seem like he is.

“People keep commenting on how calm I am,” he says. “‘Aren’t you freaked out?’ In my mind, the show’s done and there’s not much I can do. I’m proud of it and I like it a lot.”

Of course, in true Bill Hader fashion, even his tranquility has a dark side.

“The reason I’m so calm with this show coming out is that, back on SNL, one week you’d be called a genius and the next week, not only should you be fired but they should murder you,” he adds. “You just realize it’s all in waves. At the end of the day, nothing makes sense, so you should just do whatever you want and hope it works.”

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