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Bill Hader’s Winding Road From Stefon to the Dark Laughs of ‘Barry’

Bill Hader Variety Cover Story
PETER YANG for Variety

If not for “Up All Night With Rhonda Shear,” there would be no “Barry.” A linear precursor to binge viewing, USA’s horror-movie schlock block, which ran from late evening to early morning in the 1990s, attracted no small number of teens who had nothing better to do on a Friday or Saturday night. Bill Hader was one of them.

At 15, sitting in his parents’ house in Tulsa, Okla., the future “Saturday Night Live” comic and Golden Globe nominee was watching “Up All Night” when, at 2 a.m., “The Evil Dead” came on. The cinematic power of Sam Raimi running really fast after actors through heavy vegetation inspired him.

“The next day I got my dad’s video camera and started chasing my sisters around like those shots in ‘The Evil Dead,’” Hader says. It was the first time he picked up a camera. “It was like you’re listening to Rush, and then suddenly you hear punk music and you go, ‘Oh, wow. I don’t have to be a virtuoso and have a lot of money to do something crazy effective.’”

Hader’s work is now at its most crazy effective ever, though his DIY days are long past him. With “Barry” — the series that he co-created and that won him a best comedy actor Emmy last September — he has HBO money, a cast that includes veteran actors Henry Winkler (who also won an Emmy) and Stephen Root and a trusted collaborator and showrunner in Alec Berg.

Hader is writing, directing and starring in an oddball show that would have been impossible to get on TV a decade and a half ago, and shooting it on the same Paramount-lot stage where Norma Desmond goes to meet Cecil B. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard.” Draped across the outside of Stage 18, known as the DeMille Stage, is a giant banner congratulating Hader on his Emmy.

Hader, 40, is considered a Golden Globe frontrunner for his work in the title role in “Barry” as an uncharismatic hit man who wanders into a North Hollywood acting class and finds what he thinks is his true calling.

The past year has been the biggest of Hader’s career. Although “Barry,” which is gearing up for its second season, has won multiple awards, drawn broad praise and elevated its co-creator and star to leading-man status, success has come at a personal cost. As he enters a particularly intense period, Hader is looking at his life and recalibrating his career.

But first there’s work to be done. Sitting in the show’s production office at Paramount, Hader has just finished shooting a scene with Sarah Goldberg in which Barry and Goldberg’s less murderous thesp, Sally, warm up for a performance. The real-life actors struggled until they improvised a twist.

“If we had done it as scripted, it would have been fine,” Hader says. “But both Sarah and I were feeling like it wasn’t really working. Then we found this really funny thing where she started screaming, getting herself pumped up for a scene. It was hilarious.”

Hader is bone tired. He props his feet up on the desk. The scene with Goldberg is the first in a grueling stretch in which he will direct episodes five and eight of the new season. Though they will air non-consecutively, the two installments will be shot together and out of sequence, mostly for location reasons.

When Hader directed the opening three episodes of “Barry,” it was the first time he had helmed anything professionally. He met with no resistance from Berg or HBO.

“The tone of this show is a very difficult tone to get right,” HBO programming president Casey Bloys says. “I think having somebody like Bill embody the lead, direct and serve as the writer along with Alec is so important. There are so many places for him to control things that set the tone for the entire show.”

The premise for “Barry” is ludicrous. It invites notions of a sweet laugher about a wiseguy breaking good. During development, Hader grew weary of people saying, “Oh, so it’s ‘Get Shorty’?”

But “Barry” has more in common with “Dog Day Afternoon” than it does with any broad crime comedy — if “Dog Day Afternoon” were really funny. The comedic moments are grounded, such as when Hader earnestly misdelivers the “Always be closing” monologue from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” And the dark elements are pitch dark. In Season 1, Barry murders a friend and fellow war veteran, then is nearly consumed by guilt — an emotion he’s not used to feeling. When he pulls himself back from the brink, only to kill again out of naked self-interest, it’s the viewer who feels guilty for having laughed with and rooted for him.

“There were people who saw the pilot of ‘Barry’ who were like, ‘What are you doing?’” Hader says. “Friends of mine in comedy and big producers. I asked for notes, and it was like, ‘No, man. You can’t do that with this.’ We had a screening of the first four episodes for a bunch of people, and it was a bit ‘What the f— is that?’ I just don’t think it was what anyone expected.”

The subverted expectations worked in the show’s favor. “Barry” was a fixture on critics’ best-of-the-year lists. In addition to its Emmy haul, it has racked up guild awards and garnered Golden Globe nominations for Hader, Winkler and the show. It has also been a critical hit at a time of transition at HBO.

“We had ‘Veep,’ ‘Girls’ and ‘Silicon Valley’ come through at all around the same time,” Bloys says. “Certain shows stand for the kind of quality that you’re trying to achieve overall. It’s nice to have ‘Barry’ doing that for us.”

“Barry” has redefined Hader professionally.

Before the first season met with success, Hader’s highest-profile post-“SNL” projects were the feature film “Trainwreck,” in which he played supportive boyfriend to Amy Schumer’s hot mess, and mockumentary anthology “Documentary Now!” — critically beloved but marooned on marginal cable channel IFC.

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PETER YANG for Variety

At “Saturday Night Live,” where he was a cast member from 2005 to 2013, he worked alongside a strong group of peers that included Seth Meyers, Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg. With his ability to do impressions, he was a high-value utility player in the Phil Hartman tradition. His signature creation, weirdo nightlife correspondent Stefon, is one of the rare “SNL” recurring characters that didn’t outstay its welcome. When Hader returned to the show as host last year, his reprisal of Stefon was the highlight.

But he has conflicted feelings about his time on the show. Even six years after leaving, he doesn’t watch his “SNL” work.

“Any time someone says things to me that I don’t understand, I go, ‘Did I say that on “SNL”?’” he says. “I never saw any of the stuff I did. I think a nanny showed my kids Stefon, or the Californians or something. They came in and were like, ‘Dad, look at this.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. There I am.’”

Hader didn’t feel comfortable on the show, particularly with the live element, until five seasons in, when executive producer Lorne Michaels assured him that he would have a place on “SNL” for as long as he wanted. Still, his time there never became painless.

“When I was on ‘SNL,’ I was a bit of a basket case,” he says. “It could not have been easy on my wife at the time. I was so consumed with work and anxiety.” Onstage and off, he suffered panic attacks and migraines. “Sometimes I felt like people thought, ‘Oh, he’s just wanting attention or something.’ It was like, ‘No, man, I’m legit. I’m freaking out right now.’”

Hader warms when he talks about Michaels, his cast mates and the “SNL” crew. And he credits his time at Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H with creating in him a strong work ethic.

But as his tenure grew, his life became less compatible with the show and the way that it taxed him.
“Once our second child was born, I had to leave ‘SNL,’” he says. “It was hard with one kid, let alone two. Because I was just never around.”

“There were people who saw the pilot of ‘Barry’ Who were like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Bill Hader

Hader and filmmaker Maggie Carey have three children. The couple divorced last year. Their relationship, he says, remains positive: “I’m friends with my ex-wife.”

As his career has leveled up, his schedule has again become demanding. Last year, Hader finished the first season of “Barry,” then shot a role in the feature “It: Chapter Two,” then went into the writers’ room on “Barry,” Season 2. He felt the strain at home.

“I think I saw my kids a total of five days all summer,” he says. “It was terrible. So I’m going, ‘Next summer I’m taking off. And I’m going to spend every day with them.’ It’s this weird thing where when you’re in this industry, you don’t have time to be with them, and it’s really, really difficult. I’m getting emotional right now talking about it.” Later in the conversation, he laughs. “Congrats, it’s the first interview I’ve ever cried in.”

He’s serious about time off. After Season 2 wraps, Hader plans to spend the summer writing a screenplay for a film that he would direct. Writing will keep him home and with his kids. “They can see me all day if they want,” he says. “They can really get sick of me.”

It will also get him started on a project that would advance a winding artistic evolution. He wandered into sketch comedy after moving to Los Angeles in his early 20s to become a filmmaker. Before Megan Mullally saw him performing in a backyard in Van Nuys and recommended him to Michaels, Hader worked as a production assistant and wrote in his spare time.

Alex Kurtzman, the filmmaker and co-creator of “Star Trek: Discovery,” recalls meeting Hader on the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Collateral Damage.” Kurtzman worked uncredited as a writer on the film. “There was this PA running around doing these brilliant impressions,” he recalls. The memory of that production assistant stuck with him. But he didn’t realize it was Hader until the two ran into each other at Comic-Con years later. “I look over and see Bill Hader, who I’m such a fan of, and before I can introduce myself, he runs over and says, ‘Hey, do you remember me?’”

Hader is mum on details about the film he hopes to direct — other than to say that it will be modestly budgeted and he will not star in it. But he is confident in his expanding toolkit as a director.

Berg is too. He says Hader is a more assertive director on Season 2 of “Barry” than he was when they shot the first season.

“Bill is a giant film nerd,” says Berg. “This is what he’s always dreamed of doing — being a director. He just happened to fall into this little distraction called being a phenomenally talented actor.”

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PETER YANG for Variety

Sitting in the production office at Paramount, Hader goes deep movie nerd. He talks about Godard and Vivian Kubrick’s documentary about the making of “The Shining” and Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 honorary-Oscar acceptance speech. He also shows an awareness that with “Barry” he has hold of something special — a rarity given that last year, there were 495 scripted series on TV.

He is, for the time being, throwing himself into the show — which he promises, ominously, will be even darker in the coming season. As a writer, director, producer and performer on “Barry,” he has more hands in more aspects of his series than just about anyone who isn’t Donald Glover has in theirs.

“Alec and I kind of have an idea of how long it will go,” Hader says. “But you never know. If HBO lets us tell the whole story, that’s the goal — as long as it’s something I would want to see. That’s the driving thing. That and just trying to get a little bit better at your job.”

That’s precisely what Hader has been chasing ever since he watched “The Evil Dead,” then grabbed his dad’s camera. He’s still trying to catch it.

“Every episode is different; every scene is different; every script is different,” he says. “And the best moment is a day like today. That’s why I like doing this, is Sarah Goldberg and I trying to figure out this scene. And then we get on this thing, and it’s hilarious. That high is why I like making this stuff.”