Bill Hader’s HBO series “Barry” is technically a half-hour comedy, but since his character is a hitman who decides he wants to become an actor, it does get very violent.
“We wanted to be very real and for what it is,” Hader said at Variety‘s Tune In! TV Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday. “We wanted the violence to be incredibly real because it should be a world that he doesn’t want to be in anymore.”
Of course, HBO was on-board for that, he shared with moderator Daniel Holloway, Variety‘s senior TV reporter, and a room full of industry insiders. It wasn’t just about making the violence look real, but also making sure it came from a real place in the character’s life.
“We didn’t want it to be a show about TV shows or movies,” Hader continued. “[So we thought] ‘What is the real thing? What would it really be?’ He would have been a vet — a former marine who had training. ‘Oh, that brings an interesting thing to the character, the experience there of trying to find yourself.’ …Maybe it’s being a parent or something, but I just don’t like violence being for laughs.”
After a screening of the first four episodes of the HBO comedy, Hader shared that an agent stood up and said he thought the Sally character (played by Sarah Goldberg) was “kind of irredeemable.” But Emily Heller, one of the show’s writers and producers, countered, Hader recalled.
“Barry’s a murderer!” he said she yelled back. “Barry kills people, but she’s unlikable because she’s ambitious!?”
The writers’ room of “Barry” was about 50% female, which Hader said “just shaped up that way,” but ended up being integral to informing perspective of characters, especially Sally.
Addressing a scene mid-way through the season in which Sally goes to an agent’s office and he hits on her, Hader admitted the idea that she would apologize in the moment came from the women in the room who said that was a common reaction. And when Sally’s laptop was broken and the men in the writers’ room wanted Barry to buy her a new one, it was the women in the room to point out it was creepy.
“We were like, ‘It is?'” he laughed. “They said, ‘You sleep with a guy once and he buys you a laptop — head for the hills.’ And we were like, ‘That’s interesting, OK.'”
Hader co-created “Barry” with Alec Berg after the premium cabler gave him a development deal. He shared that the duo would “meet at a diner once a week” and worked on the same idea for two months.
“At the end of two months we said, ‘This idea is terrible, let’s not do this.’ And out of frustration I said, ‘What if I was a hitman?'” Hader said.
Berg wasn’t into it right away, though.
“Alec said, ‘Oh I hate hitmen. There are more hitmen in movies and TV than in real life,'” Hader said.
But what ultimately sold them both was the juxtaposition of the character’s life when Hader said he would decide to become an actor in the series. After all, a hitman has to live “in the shadows” and be “anonymous” and “emotionally keep [himself] down and distant,” Hander pointed out, while “acting is the polar opposite.”
“You want to be known, your emotions are constantly on the surface so you can access them and stuff. We noticed the parallels,” Hader said, noting they felt “the seed of the idea could grow a lot of interesting things.”
A hitman’s world is high stakes and very real drama that has to be unseen, while the acting world is “zero stakes and high drama,” Hader added.
Hader and Berg pitched the show to HBO as “What if Clint Eastwood’s character in ‘Unforgiven’ found his humanity in the people from ‘Waiting for Guffman?’ Or if the guy from ‘Taxi Driver’ hung out with [characters from] ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and it was like his therapy?”
Hader also directed the first three episodes of “Barry” this season and has plans to direct “at least two” more in Season 2. He didn’t want to reveal much about the season, other than the fact that he’s doing it is keeping him from doing the new run of “Documentary Now.” But he did share that “the second season goes a little bit more interior [into Barry].”
“The thing that we learned from [U.S. Marine Sergeant] Jake Wood is that so many people come back and they don’t have an identity anymore. When you’re in the Marines, you’re a rank, and you’re a community of soldiers…and every day you have a purpose,” Hader said. “So we gave Barry a new name…a new community in the acting class, and a new purpose.”
Barry thought what he was born to do was killing and destroying, but now, Hader continued, he thinks his purpose is “being an actor so I could get in touch with myself.”
“He’s a terrible actor. But I understand that emotion,” he said.