Emmys: Bill Hader and Jharrel Jerome on Portraying Trauma, Performing Stunts and Finding Trust in Directors

Bill Hader and Jharrel Jerome Emmys
Dan Doperalski for Variety

This Emmy season Bill Hader and Jharrel Jerome portrayed men living with deep trauma. In “Barry,” Hader’s titular character has PTSD from his experience in war, details of which were finally fully fleshed out in the second season of the HBO comedy. Meanwhile in “When They See Us,” Jerome’s Korey Wise was wrongly convicted of a heinous assault and sent to Rikers Island at age 16 and then spent 12 years literally growing up behind bars. But although both men have to dig deep for dramatic work, off-set they are quick to laugh.

When Variety brought them together, Jerome was eager to tell Hader how many of his friends would think “it’s insane” that they were sitting together because “Black people love ‘Superbad.’ Hader joked about his age and the quirks he’s picked up from being a multi-hyphenate (he also writes, produces and directs “Barry” and scored writing and directing noms this year). And both talked about the importance of feeling trust in directors.

Do you work differently for the moments you have to play actual traumatic events, versus the moments that surround them, where they’re less of a plot point but still very much an integral emotion to the scene?

Jharrel Jerome: For me, the best way to understand my character is to have the full trajectory of everything he’s gone through, his given circumstances before and what he’s about to lead into. So in terms of playing Korey, it was a little different because young and old Korey are two completely different beings, considering what he went through. But I think while I was doing the young Korey, it was good to keep in mind who he was going to become.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Bill Hader: You have a tougher job because you’re honoring who it’s based on. I always find that to be so tough on a whole other level, whereas with “Barry” we can shift and change as we’re writing and everything. Starting out with the character, we always knew — by virtue of being this hitman who was unsatisfied in his life and everything — that he had some trauma there. I didn’t necessarily know what the trauma was until we were writing Season 2 specifically. I remember being very conscious in Season 1 of not playing anger too much because in my head, he was not really in that place yet. It was more of a new soul who feels terrible, and there’s a lot of sadness and inner rage but nothing directed at other people. So sometimes I’m conscious of that. And I don’t know if you’ve felt this, but where you kind of go, “I don’t want to do the same move much.” I feel that, especially in TV shows, they go, “Oh they’re doing that thing again.” So in Season 2, we wanted to see Barry rage. And I kind of take it as when you hang out with somebody: They want to show you the best version of themselves, and you kind of go, “Oh they’re that person,” but then you know them for a year, and you suddenly see them get emotional, and you’re like, “Oh you have that gear.”

Jerome: It’s who you’ve always been, you just haven’t showed it yet.

Hader: Yeah, you’re holding onto it or something. So you try to treat the audience that way.

Bill, as a multi-hyphenate you are so immersed in “Barry”; what are the checks and balances you need for perspective, but also to keep things fresh and exciting?

Hader: You kind of sense it, but the other thing is listening to the writers’ room. That’s why Alec Berg and my partnership is so good: I am kind of the right-brained, “What if we had a little girl who jumps on a whatever?” and he’s more logical. But I think that helps. You’ve got to be listening — to him, your writers, the actors, your editors, everybody at some point along the way. In Season 2, I would go, “I think it’s this,” and they would go, “Mmm, really?” So, “what do you think? Let’s try that.” I will say, in Season 2, one time in the writers’ room I said, “What if Barry became a viral video?” And all of the writers were like, “All right, Dad.” I was like, “What? Why?” They were like, “We’re not doing a viral video, old man.” But you have to have that to be able to be comfortable and you have to listen to that, otherwise why are they all there?

Jharrel, how did Korey’s story being a true one, and one the audience thought they knew from news coverage, affect how much freedom you had with the character?

Jerome: You can search the entire incident, but you won’t find Korey making jokes, laughing, hanging out with a girl online — but that’s who he is. He was human before they tried to dehumanize him for all of those years. The toughest part, even more than the solitary scene and a lot of the assault scenes, was trying to figure out his nuances as a kid in Harlem. I did tie in a lot of my friends and how they act; we’re from the Bronx, so we have a lot of that same energy, and we try to be cool even if we’re not. The internet or any of the files that Ava [DuVernay] sent me had nothing about that so that was tricky.

Both of these shows require incredible emotional challenges but also physical ones, given the amount of stunts in “Barry” Season 2 and the way you had to bulk up to play the older Korey, Jharrel.

Jerome: I had three weeks. I gained eight-and-a-half pounds and lost 2% body weight.

Hader: Wow. To be 21, man. I can’t do that. I’m 41!

How do you choose what to do yourselves, practically, as opposed to a stunt double or relying on effects in post, and what do you feel doing it practically adds to your experience?

Jerome: I think it turns film into theater for a second. For some of the scenes, like the fight in the laundry room, I did my own stunts. I got to work with a stunt coordinator and really throw punches and make noises with my body. It reminded me of class in high school with random exercises. And then it also helps that on “action” you’re not just on the floor trying to find the emotions; it’s fun to be sweaty and be breathing heavy.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Hader: In the first episode of Season 2 when you see Barry in Afghanistan, that was this guy Duffy who’s a Marine and a trainer to the stars, and he was there showing me how to shoot. But for the “ronny/lily” episode, because I was directing it, I wrote that Barry had a stocking cap over his face. I needed a stunt guy; I wasn’t going to have him beat the s— out of me for 30 minutes.

Jerome: Why not?

Hader: You can do it. My lower back went out just from standing. I was doing the vacuum cord the other day, and I was on the ground. You’re going to be there, man. Laugh now, but in 20 years I’m going to call you and say, “How’s your back? Remember when you did that fight scene in the laundry?” No, but seriously, for the part of Barry, I remember when we got the pilot, we walked out and Alec Berg went, “Hey man, we’re going to shoot the pilot. He’s a Marine. You’ve got to go to a f—ing gym.” So then I went to the gym and I worked out crazy hard and did the whole thing, and I came in and told them about the trainer, and so many people went, “That’s cool man, when are you going to start doing it?” “I’ve been doing it for six months!”

What poses the bigger challenge to you at this stage in your careers: the emotional or physical work?

Jerome: Oh boy, my career started yesterday, so I have no idea!

Hader: I guess it’s all character specific. I don’t try to think about it too much because then you try to overthink things. I think the best version of things is when you get it and it’s kind of buried in there and suddenly you’re reacting.

Jerome: I agree.

Hader: One of the best things about writing and directing and co-showrunning and everything is I’m so making sure of all of these other aspects that when they’re like, “Bill, get on your mark,” I’m like, “Oh shoot, I have to act.” But for some reason, that fear — that nervousness or whatever — goes away because you’re not thinking about it. And that has been helpful in a way where I’m just reacting to these great actors.

Jerome: I have a question for you: When you’re directing, do you direct yourself in front of the other actors?

Hader: I have Alec Berg there or another writer or even my 1st AD Gavin Kleintop, and I just kind of look over and go, “Yeah?” And usually Alec will go, “I think we should do another one.”

Jerome: Well how can you know?

Hader: Yeah, I think I sometimes drive the other actors nuts because Stephen Root and Henry Winkler told me — and I don’t realize I’m doing it — that when we’re doing the scene and they’re doing their lines, I’m [mouthing the lines too]. Because I’m watching them going, “Are we getting the right information out? Are we hitting that?”

Jerome: That’s you as a director talking.

Hader: Yeah. There was this scene at the end of Season 2, Episode 2 where I come back to my apartment and Stephen Root’s waiting for me, and we did the scene a couple of times and rehearsed it, and Stephen was like, “You’re doing the thing with your mouth.” And I was like, “I know, it’s just not feeling right.” And Alec walked over to me and said, “I think we wrote this wrong.” Everyone was just staring at us, and we went over to a laptop — and we have a very funny photo of us writing it and Stephen kind of peeking over. We fully threw it out. Hiro Murai was directing, and he was like, “Well cool, but do you think it’s going this way and that way?” And yeah, coverage was the same, so we didn’t have to change the lighting, but we f—ed this up. You need a good partner. I don’t know if this is the way you are, but I look over and I’m like, “Are you happy? OK I’m good.”

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Jerome: I’m the way you are. I trust people seeing it more.

Hader: Do you like watching yourself?

Jerome: I’m not like, “Whoa, shut it off, get it out of my face,” but I do have that thing where this is cringey a little bit because you’re always thinking you could have made a different choice. I must say, though, that watching “When They See Us” was the first time I felt like I wasn’t seeing myself on-screen.

Hader: Really? Oh that’s interesting. You got caught up?

Jerome: In the story and for Korey. The fact that I know him in real life and I could pause and pick up the phone and go, “Hey, are you OK?” It hit me very hard, and I was crying even though I knew what the next scene and the line was. It was like hearing it for the first time.

Hader: Wow. That is a massive honor as an artist. I’ve never had the experience of getting to do that to the extent you’re saying, playing a real person and honoring their thing. It’s very powerful.

What is the key to trusting the people around you so you know it’s going to work?

Hader: I think you just feel it out, but honestly you really don’t know until you see the thing. Like with “Pineapple Express,” I showed up in the trailer and it was all ’40s, and I was like, “What are we doing?” I thought it was going to get cut, that those guys just had f— off money and were shooting anything. Then I saw the movie, and the minute the logo came up in black and white, I was like, “F—!” And it’s cool: Over 10 years later people are still talking about it.

Jerome: Yeah, what Bill said. It’s a feeling that something is right and when you hear that “Cut” you step out of it and you just go, “That felt good.”

Hader: But you also have worked with two of the best directors in the world right now.

Jerome: Absolutely. My very first experience was “Moonlight,” so Barry Jenkins was my first director, and then maybe four or five directors later came Ava DuVernay. I’ve definitely been blessed by directors who know what they want. But when you’re studying someone real, you have to paint it as how he lived it, so it’s like he’s directing you more than anyone else. It was Korey directing my performance because I had to be as close to him as I could.