Bill Hader’s mouth and chin were coated with fake blood, so when he pivoted, astonished, he looked like a vampire startled in mid-snack. On this January night, Hader was in character as the hit man Barry Berkman, on “Barry,” the dark comedy that he co-created and stars in on HBO. In the scene being filmed, for the show’s forthcoming second season, Barry has run into a Rite Aid for supplies. He’s bleeding from a brutal series of events that stemmed from his botched hit on a Tae Kwon Do expert named Ronny.
The premise of the show is that Barry, a former Marine sniper, is desperate to stop killing; he moved to Los Angeles in a misguided effort to reinvent himself as an actor. So when he went to Ronny’s house he began by trying to persuade his target just to leave town for a while. Ronny, stoned and affronted, kicked him in the head, and after an ugly struggle Barry bashed his windpipe and left him for dead. Now, in the Rite Aid, Barry is shocked to discover that Ronny is in the next aisle, trying on a neck brace. Overjoyed, he resumes his cajoling, but Ronny aims another kick at his head. Hader ducks it and then rises back into the frame, transformed by outrage, as Ronny swipes a shelf-load of Band-Aids at him.
Hader, who was also directing the episode, happily called “Cut!” and turned to Daniel Bernhardt, who plays Ronny. “That was amazing!” he said. “Maybe let’s try one with just a little more rage-build.” He acted out Bernhardt’s part, escalating from recognition to fury as he lurched forward, his rangy frame somehow realigning itself in the other actor’s brawny image. Even his demonstrative wheezing sounded like Bernhardt, with a signature squeak to its whistle. “Got it!” Bernhardt said, wearing the expression people often wear around Hader: How did you just become me?
When “Barry” débuted, last spring, Hader’s protean qualities were well established, from eight years on “Saturday Night Live” and a gallery of vivid film roles. Hader’s face—lupine smile, wide blue eyes, and accent-mark eyebrows—is at once transparent and supremely controlled. On “S.N.L.,” his closely observed impressions were a linchpin of the show. His Alan Alda—handsy, cloyingly ingratiating—underlined Alda’s neediness, and his Al Pacino pinpointed Pacino’s complacent admiration of his baritone sax of a voice. Kristen Wiig, who worked with Hader on “S.N.L.” and has acted with him in four films, said, “Bill drinks human nature in.”
But Hader had profoundly ambivalent feelings about being on “S.N.L.”: he was terrified of live performance, and his goal has always been to write and direct films that he’s not in. As an interim step, he cast himself on “Barry” as an actor who can’t act, and surrounded himself with characters who embody aspects of his personality. Barry is pulled in one direction by Monroe Fuches, a facile blowhard who books Barry’s hits and works every angle to keep him killing, and by NoHo Hank, a timid, malaprop-prone Chechen mobster besotted with Barry’s lethal skills. He’s pulled in another by Gene Cousineau, the narcissistic coach of his acting class, and by his girlfriend, Sally Reed, a talented but even more narcissistic actress in the class, who encourages Barry to open up but can’t really do it herself. Hader wouldn’t have to dazzle as an actor—he’d be the dense nucleus at the center of the show’s fizzy electrons. Then he won an Emmy for his acting.
After filming Ronny’s rage-build, Hader watched it on the monitors. Inches from the screen, he mouthed Barry’s dialogue (“We can still do the plan—it just got off to a rocky start”), wheezed along with Ronny, swept his arm to knock the bandages off the shelf, and flinched as they flew at the camera. He was playing every part, including the audience. When Ronny turned from pursuing Barry to head-butt a store manager, Hader bent double, then reared up, still laughing, to emulate Barry’s twitchy walk as he sneaked away. His laugh, which resembles the high-revving cackle that begins the song “Wipe Out,” continued for nearly thirty seconds, until the crew was equally overcome.
Hader’s delight makes people want to elicit more of it; his crew members, who call him Billito, cluster around him like a Secret Service detail. He jokes around a lot on set, delivering dialogue from “S.N.L.” sketches, or driving over traffic cones in the parking lot in pretended confusion. “Feeling very comfortable around everybody, becoming a de-facto family, is an important part of it, because then I don’t mind failing,” he said.
Despite Hader’s insecurities, the first season of “Barry” got great reviews and was a hit for HBO, averaging 4.4 million viewers an episode. Its cunning, cat-footed plots drew people in but left them off balance. As Barry wrestles with an irreconcilable conflict—he can’t be both an anonymous detached killer and a recognizable hypersensitive actor—the show oscillates between the savagery of “Taxi Driver” and the histrionics of “Waiting for Guffman.” At one point, he executes a gentle friend of his named Chris, who got swept up in one of Barry’s bloody skirmishes and was planning to confess to the cops; the episode then cuts to the acting class performing articulation exercises—“Many men making much money.” After Barry sobs onstage at the horror of what he’s just done, Sally tells him, “Whatever you did tonight to get to that place, that’s your new process, O.K.?”
In the pharmacy, Hader set up a shot in which Ronny launches a jumping side kick, misses Barry, and goes tumbling through a set of shelves stacked with Huggies and Depends. He consulted with his assistant director—a two-finger stab to show the angle; a hasty creep to show the cameraman’s move—then began pacing as he thought the scene through, surfacing occasionally when he recognized a familiar face to wave from his knees: “Hey, buddy!” Last fall, working on the Paramount lot, he stalked an idea for so long that he found himself in an unfamiliar office, and had to call out, “Where am I?”
After rehearsing the missed kick, Hader turned to his co-creator, Alec Berg, and said, “Alec, funny?” Berg, a forty-nine-year-old comedy veteran who wrote for “Seinfeld” and is an executive producer of “Silicon Valley,” has a patchy gray beard and an air of broody vigilance. He nodded rapidly. A chop-socky action sequence built around a would-be pacifist was undeniably funny.
“You know who did this kind of thing so well?” Hader said. “Blake Edwards.”
“Much better than we will,” Berg said.
Three hours later, Hader looked spent. All week he’d been fighting a cold by meditating and gulping water. Last year, he got two flu shots: belt, then suspenders. As he hurried back to the monitors to look at the final shot of the tussle, he turned to Berg, deadpan, and declared, “Let’s just say it: it is like going to war. ”
He sank into his director’s chair. After a long silence, he murmured, “I hate the way I sound, that nasally voice, and I don’t like my slumped-over posture.” He gestured toward his image onscreen: “I clearly don’t know how to fight, and I don’t look anything like my stunt double, this virile-looking guy. I look like my dad. It’s, like, can my double just replace me in everything?” Everyone looked away, politely, as he stared at the monitor.
In his mid-twenties, Hader was dangling from the lowest rungs of the entertainment ladder when he was scooped up by “Saturday Night Live.” When I asked where he would have been on “Barry” ’s set in those years, he shuddered and said, “I’d be wearing a reflective vest and standing in the parking lot.”
Hader’s friends from Tulsa, where he grew up, tease him for having gone Hollywood, because he has given up drinking and smoking for chaga tea, sprouted-grain bread, and meditation. But, at forty, he still goes around bed-headed and unshaven, drives a dented Toyota Camry, and thinks of himself as the guy who, writing unproductively at 4 a.m. at “S.N.L.,” slunk into the Gristedes downstairs and gobbled an Entenmann’s coffee cake in the aisle. On his first date with Maggie Carey, a filmmaker, he saw that she had “Star Wars”-themed curtains and knew that he would marry her. They married in 2006, had three daughters, then divorced last year. Like many divorced parents, he spends a lot of time texting about drop-offs and babysitting. Unlike many, he also spends a lot of time apologizing for all the time he spends texting. Most nights, he stays home in the Pacific Palisades to watch “The Simpsons” with his kids, or work his way through the Polish film canon by himself.
At work, Hader seeks collaborators. He has been a fixture for years in the writers’ room on “South Park,” and loves riffing by text with his fellow “S.N.L.” alums Fred Armisen and John Mulaney. (“I’m at Coachella—where are you?” “I’m by the cellphone tower!”) On “Barry,” he and Berg operate as an inseparable unit. “I don’t have the balls to do it on my own,” Hader told me. “I want us both to get yelled at.” The two fine-tune each scene for days, in outline, drafts, rewrites, shoots, and edits, and they’ve developed a sardonic rapport. Berg will say, “If I can just get the episode to the point where if I die of a heart attack someone else can take over . . . ,” provoking Hader to observe, “But that someone would be me, Alec,” leading Berg to mutter, “Well, guess I can’t die, then.”
Sarah Goldberg, who plays Sally, told me, “Bill and Alec have the most beautiful marriage in show biz. Alec is so meticulous with the story road map he could be a nuclear physicist, and Bill is all heart and wacky ideas from nowhere.” Their bond is one of Eeyoreish self-laceration. Berg, who has been nominated for eighteen Emmys but is unsurprised to have won none of them, told me, “I’ll be looking at a problem in a script for three days, and he’ll glance at it and say, ‘Oh, the problem is here.’ And I’ll be, like, ‘You fucking asshole.’ It’s great to work with somebody who makes me feel so terrible about myself on a daily basis.”
The two men faced high expectations for the second season, which débuts on March 31st. Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” said, “Before ‘Barry,’ our sense of Bill Hader was ‘Oh, I like Bill Hader.’ Now it’s ‘Oh, my God—the first season was so fucking amazing and it won all those Emmys and I cannot wait to see what happens next!’ ” The Times television critic James Poniewozik declared the first season’s finale “so good it made me never want to watch the show again.”
“That review was, like, ‘Oh, awesome!’ ” Hader recalled, turning to Berg on set one morning. “And then it was, like, ‘But it’s actually bad, because we’re doing Season 2 now, so . . .’ ”
“So tough shit,” Berg said.
In its second season, a show must probe its characters more deeply, while remaining true to their natures, while surprising viewers, while being even more entertaining—a big ask. Among the many recent victims of sophomore slump were “Bloodline,” “The Man in the High Castle,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Mr. Robot,” “Westworld,” and “True Detective.” Matt Stone, the co-creator of “South Park,” said, “With a lot of shows, the third episode of the second season is when you get pissed off, because they’re wasting your time. You feel the media ecosystem’s effect within the frame of the art: ‘We have ten hours to fill, and not enough ideas to fill it.’ As a creator, you don’t quite know why the first season worked, and you’re trying to deconstruct the formula even as you’re trying to surpass it. Our second season was definitely our worst.”
A decade ago, Season 2 was a sweet spot. Mike Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation” and the creator of “The Good Place,” said, “On traditional comedies, the second season was easier, because those shows weren’t really funny until the audience got to know the characters.” The aim was artful stasis. David Shore, who created “House” and runs “The Good Doctor,” said, “You don’t want your character to change—you love your character!—and the audience doesn’t really want him to change. And people don’t really change. So the challenge of TV is to have your character take two steps forward and one and seven-eighths steps back. You want to see them striving to grow.”
Television’s shifting business model has shifted the pressures on storytelling. The goal is no longer to produce a hundred discrete episodes and sell them into syndication—where episodes would often be viewed out of order—but to addict viewers with a serialized narrative. “Friday Night Lights” initiated this approach, in its fourth season, when it moved Coach Taylor to a high school in the newly imagined town of East Dillon, to coach a predominantly African-American football team. Jason Katims, who ran the show, said that taking that gamble in 2009 was terrifying: “It used to be that what made TV TV is that the world didn’t change.” Nowadays, shows such as “The Walking Dead” or “The Leftovers” routinely rip up their worlds to start each season fresh. With four hundred and ninety-five scripted shows in production, they almost have to. Schur said, “If a narratively dense show runs in place for too long—like, two episodes—people will just go watch something else.”
“Barry” ’s creators are keenly aware of the imperatives. Berg told me, “If you fail in Season 1, well, you tried and it didn’t work. If you fail in Season 2, you fucked it up.” With a frown, he added, “The momentum for us to replicate seems to be to eradicate the characters people like.” At the end of the first season, Goran Pazar, a moonfaced man-child who ran the Chechen mob, was about to kill Barry’s handler, Monroe Fuches—so Barry shot him. Hader said, “Glenn Fleshler, who played Pazar, was awesome, and we were trying to keep Pazar alive, because it’s so helpful to have continuity. But we had to kill him. We had to fuck ourselves, because otherwise we’d suck and run out of gas.”
The first season of “Barry” was about the promise of the future: what could Barry become? Its second is about the power of the past. “Everyone is fighting their natures,” Hader said. “I’m trying to come to terms with whether I can change or not. Is Barry a violent person, or can he leave that rage behind him?” In this season’s second episode, a heartsick Barry asks NoHo Hank, “Am I evil? Am I, like, an evil person?,” and Hank cluelessly reassures him, “Oh, my God. I mean, absolutely! Do I not tell you that enough?”
“The first time I killed someone was the best day of my life,” Hader said, in a pitchman’s buttery tones. He was facing the camera on the Paramount lot, beginning a sequence that would lead to a flashback of Barry as a marine in Afghanistan. This season, everyone in the acting class is working up a personal scene about a primal wound; as Barry shapes the story of his wartime experiences, working with Gene Cousineau, he’s struggling with how candid he can afford to be. Hader did another take, this one so unctuous it felt soaked in Drakkar Noir.
The episode’s director, Minkie Spiro, wondered if Barry’s acting should be less convincing. “Let’s try one where Barry’s bad,” she said. Hader hesitated, unsure whether Barry would be wooden even while narrating in his own head—“I get tripped up in all these levels, too”—but she reassured him: “It gives us options.”
Hader did a take in which Barry interrupted himself with a random snigger, then three in which he completely lost touch with his hands and the import of his words. “Do you want another one that’s slightly good?” he asked. When Spiro nodded, life returned to Hader’s eyes, like a porch light flicking on. It all seemed so simple. “My scripts don’t have notes on them,” he told me. “It’s intuitive, it’s play, the way my kids do it: I’m the doctor, you’re the teacher, and then it’s lunchtime.”
“Playing a bad actor the way Bill does looks easy but is maybe the most difficult thing to do,” Anthony Carrigan, who plays NoHo Hank, said. “He has to fully embody someone who’s trying his hardest and not succeeding, while balancing being so terrible onstage with transparently portraying Barry’s guilt, his depression, and his desperate need for a new life. Then add in that Barry’s a bad actor who’s getting better and sometimes can give a decent or even a great performance.”
In the aughts, when Hader was establishing himself as an actor, he gave a series of bravura performances: a yes-man studio executive in “Tropic Thunder,” a melancholy cop in “Superbad,” an Army private who smokes some experimental weed and loses all his inhibitions in “Pineapple Express.” Judd Apatow, who produced a number of films in which Hader appeared, recalls that, after Seth Rogen acted with him in the 2006 film “You, Me and Dupree,” he said, “I have found the guy who we all are going to want to work with forever.”
Hader could play anyone, yet he’d never come close to playing himself. In “Barry” ’s pilot episode, Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler, rolls down the window of his Escalade to tell Barry that he’s a “dogshit” actor and should try something else. Barry, crushed, confesses that he’s a contract killer, but that he’s depressed by the work: “I know there’s more to me than that.” Cousineau takes this admission as an improv, one promising enough that he admits Barry to his class.
Hader does something alchemical in the scene: you feel that Barry is drowning in a black lake of yearning and self-hatred. To convey that despair, Hader said, he borrowed the way his high-school friend Duffy Boudreau, who writes for the show, holds his breath when he’s nervous, as well as Alec Berg’s wide-eyed look of shock. When pressed, he acknowledged that the moment also reflected high-school memories: “Being heartbroken by my first girlfriend. And Scholastic Night, when me and this other kid were the only two kids out of seventy not invited, because you had to have a C average—and I just felt like a dummy.” His sister Kara told me that she was startled by that scene: “I couldn’t believe that Bill was finally showing himself, finally being vulnerable to being denied and having his heart broken. I was almost brokenhearted watching it.”
As a boy in Tulsa, Hader was often lost in thought. The first of three children born to Bill, Sr., a restaurant manager who later bought an air-freight franchise, and Sherri, who taught dance, Hader paced so raptly as he dreamed up stories that he wore a U-shaped groove into the carpet around his bed. Film hooked him early. “I remember my mom catching her breath at ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ when Charles Laughton swung down and saved the woman from being hanged,” he said. “I wanted to do that, to elicit that feeling in people.” When he was fifteen, he watched Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” on TV, and the next day he began filming his sisters and the family’s Yorkshire terriers in the woods. Because his camcorder didn’t allow editing, he learned to plan his zombie sequences meticulously: closeup, wide shot, action shot.
Film also shaped his shifting personas. He grew his hair long and had a beard like seventies Martin Scorsese, then modelled himself on Tom Waits’s outlaw in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law.” Still, he remained the guy on the edge of the party wishing he was home already, the designated driver. “He was always reading Stephen King in his room,” Katie, his other sister, said. “But he also filled the exact big-brother role, always checking on me.” He played football, basketball, and baseball, because his father was the coach, then dropped sports in high school and played the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie,” because his girlfriend was in it. His father said, “In the last scene, when Billy was talking to the gal about blue roses, I looked around and everyone’s crying.” Hader recalls, “My dad said, ‘How did you do that? You were so good!’ He was so genuinely ‘what the F!’ that it was the best review I could ever have had.”
Hader’s grandfather told stories with pitch-perfect sound effects, his father did impressions, and his sister Katie had a crying-baby bit, so naturally he was a one-man town hall. He was voted class clown—but the classes themselves were a challenge. He recalls that his French teacher wrote, “Bill is very funny in class and very imaginative. He currently has a grade of 40 in French.” Hader said, “I’m really daydreamy, and it makes everyone mad, because they think I’m not listening. I’d imagine what the math teacher, who wore the same suit over and over, did at home. My idea was very David Lynchian: underneath churchy Tulsa was a storage facility lit by overhead projectors where there were seven versions of the math teacher in this pod filled with amber liquid, and we were being taught by the version that got sent in today.”
Hader was close to his mother’s father, Jack Patton, who lived down the street. His grandfather took him to bookstores and fostered his interest in storytelling. When Hader enthused about a cinematic detail—like how the flame in “Schindler’s List” is in color, but as it dies out the film becomes black-and-white—he’d say, “I love that you notice those things!” When Hader was seventeen, his grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. “That was a massive turning point in my life,” he said. “It was my first traumatic realization that all this ends, and it instilled in me some impulse to push past my fears and inhibitions and try to go be a filmmaker.”
After a few unproductive semesters at the Art Institute of Phoenix and Scottsdale Community College, Hader dropped out and drove to Los Angeles in 1999, hoping to find work in the movies. He wangled a visit to the set of a music video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and worked briefly as Fred Armisen’s driver during the production of a short film. (Years later, after he became friends with both men, he bashfully reminded them that they’d already met.) He landed jobs as a production assistant on “Collateral Damage” and on a Playboy TV show called “Night Calls.” All the while, he was writing oddball screenplays that he didn’t show to anyone. In 2001, he was hired as a P.A. on a film called “The Scorpion King.” One morning at six o’clock, depleted from a twenty-hour day on set in the Mystery Mesa cliffs, he broke off his drive back to Los Angeles and pulled into a motel to nap. The desk clerk was crying because Andrea Yates had just drowned her five children in the bathtub in Texas, so Hader began crying, too. When he woke up, in the middle of nowhere, he thought, I can’t do this anymore.
He turned to post-production and editing jobs, and if life had followed its normal course, he says, he’d now be an editor on a Food Network reality show. But in 2003, after a girlfriend dumped him, he impulsively signed up for an improv class at Second City Los Angeles. When the class held its graduation showcase, the “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally came to see her brother-in-law perform—and was transfixed by Hader. “He wasn’t on another level from the other students,” she said. “He was on another level from people who are really famous for being funny.” Mullally called Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” to urge him to give Hader an audition. Hader didn’t do celebrity impressions—he didn’t even have an agent—but he was told to whip up a couple. “Bill ended up doing James Mason and Peter Falk,” Michaels told me, dryly. “So he was obviously completely contemporary.” Michaels hired him anyway.
Hader started in 2005. “Going from Second City L.A. to ‘S.N.L.’ was like going from preschool straight to Harvard,” he said. “It made me feel, ‘The whole nation will see that I’m a fraud!’ ” But Andy Samberg, who joined “S.N.L.” with Hader, said, “Bill’s skill set was perfect for that show. He’s obviously incredible at impressions, but he can also do nuanced characters and be a utility player—a great game-show host or spokesperson—so he’s infinitely usable.”
The characters that Hader developed, notably the doddery news correspondent Herb Welch and the whispery night-club expert Stefon, all stank at their jobs. John Mulaney, Hader’s writing partner on the show, said, “People flailing always made Bill laugh, and we both find many forms of masculinity very stupid.” He and Hader often exchange lionhearted Germanic nonsense in the voice of Werner Herzog, the “Grizzly Man” director. Hader said, “All the girls I liked growing up loved the Chris Pratt kind of guy who was in the woods with a chainsaw. He’s a fucking man, and I am not. If the light bulb is out, I say, ‘Oh, I should call the light-bulb guy.’ ”
Though Hader loved the show’s camaraderie, he dreaded the live performances, the rage and shame he knew he’d feel if he screwed up. He got frequent migraines, had a panic attack while playing Julian Assange, and developed a swollen left retina that required repeated anti-inflammatory injections, a problem he attributed to stress. A few years in, he began deliberately “blowing” his first line of dialogue. If the script read “Hi, honey, I’m home,” he’d say, “Honey? Honey? I’m home!” He said, “That would relax me, realizing, after my brain panicked, that no one even noticed.” Still, he said, “it was embarrassing how unhappy I was. I’d wake up Saturday morning crying, be hitting my head in the shower—I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. The irony was that I was being rewarded for it, so I had to keep doing it.”
Few of his castmates had any inkling of Hader’s struggles, but Lorne Michaels noticed. “Most people who are good play scared, but Bill was particularly timorous,” he said. “You’d just see in his eyes, ‘I’m about to be hit.’ ” Michaels suggested that Hader’s gift for mimicry sprang from that outlook: “I think Bill started by doing impressions of people who were scary to him, as a defense. He did me, of course”—nearly everyone on “S.N.L.” does a Michaels impression—“because he was convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I was going to fire him every time he passed me in the hall.” Hader laughed at this suggestion, then admitted, “The people I impersonated growing up were authority figures, like my chemistry teacher, Mr. Sullivan, who really did scare me. I guess it’s a weird form of rebellion.”
Mulaney said, “After Bill had been on for four years, Lorne told him, ‘You know you can stay as long as you want.’ And Bill said to me, ‘It’s crazy to hear the thing you most wanted to hear.’ In my head, I was, like, Bill, you know you’re a famous person on ‘S.N.L.,’ right?”
Hader said, “When Jeff Bridges hosted the show, he noticed me being nervous in rehearsal, and he told me”—he channelled Bridges’s reedy stoner—“ ‘I worked with Robert Ryan on “The Iceman Cometh,” and before every take he’d be sweating bullets. I asked him about it, and he said, “I’d be really afraid if I wasn’t afraid.” So that nervousness you feel, that’s your buddy, man!’ ” Hader laughed and went on, “So now I always think that instead of fighting my demon, I am going to invite it to sit on my shoulder.” With both hands, he carefully perched an imaginary creature on his left shoulder. “It’s like a gargoyle with weird green eyes that pulls on my hair or nibbles my ear”—he jerked his head away and smiled reprovingly at the phantasm. “And every once in a while it just attacks my face.”
In the first season, Barry kept having to kill to preserve his secret identity as a killer. He killed a couple of Chechens; then a Bolivian named Paco whom the Chechens told him to kill or they’d kill Fuches; then a bunch more Bolivians, because Fuches threatened to expose him if he didn’t; then his friend Chris; then four more Chechens, including Pazar; and, finally, at the end of the last episode, a detective who was onto him—and who happened to be Cousineau’s tartly funny girlfriend. Even for an antihero, that’s a lot of anti. Hiro Murai, one of the show’s mainstay directors, told me, “The show wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for Bill. The natural pathos he has as a performer makes you root for him even as he’s murdering innocent people.”
The show strives to undercut Hader’s charisma. Whereas “Killing Eve,” the BBC America show about a hit woman, treats each murder as a Baroque opera, “Barry” ’s murders have all the glamour of security-camera footage. “I feel complicit in the violence of the show,” Hader said. “So it needs to be treated very carefully, not glorified. When Barry strangles Paco, I said, ‘There should be kid toys everywhere, because Barry should know: this kid’s not going to have a dad anymore.’ ” He acknowledged, however, that he was “shocked by how many people like Barry. Because it’s not ‘He kills people, but he’s really just like you and me.’ Barry is a murderer. His truth is super fucking sad and ugly. But people see me and think, Oh, it’s that funny guy!” After a screening of the show on the Sony lot last year, a male agent said, “I find Sally a little unlikable.” One of the show’s female writers fired back, “Yeah, but Barry fucking kills people.”
“Barry” has a “Breaking Bad” problem. That show’s writers couldn’t redirect viewers’ loyalties from their antihero, Walter White, to his wife, Skyler. Even after Walter gleefully became a monster, Bryan Cranston, who played him, was hard to root against. Barry hates being a monster and can’t escape it—but Hader’s innocent curiosity overpowers all that.
When Hader and I had dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Locanda Portofino, both the waiter and the maître d’ came by to make sure that the almond milk he’d ordered with his coffee wouldn’t trigger his nut allergy. He mirrored their concern back to them, and everyone felt better for the exchange. His scanner is always on. “What hits me first is people’s inflections and the way they carry themselves, their attitude,” he said. “It’s like when you hear your favorite song: you focus on the music. I’ll hear Sarah Goldberg, who’s Canadian, saying, ‘We were so sad we were in bits’ ”—her broad vowels hung in the air—“and I’ll focus on that. But I’ll have no idea what they were sad about. Last year, when I was directing, I’d be doing the actors to the actors to suggest what they could do. I had to cut that out so they weren’t just imitating me imitating them.”
Hader himself doesn’t mind scrutiny, as long as it’s within certain boundaries. He told me early on that he wouldn’t discuss his mother or his marriage. But it took me a while to realize how closemouthed he was about his close relationships, because his way of apologizing for tiptoeing around a private garden is to give you a chatty and entertaining tour of the rest of the grounds. One of his favorite bits is to launch into Orson Welles’s monologue in “The Third Man,” when his character is high above the crowd on a Ferris wheel: “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money?” Only Hader will begin the speech, without preamble, from a balcony five feet above the ground.
His humor is rarely mean-spirited, but a few of his jokes hint at menace. After one table read, he said, “Great job, everyone—now fuck off! No, no—I love you, I love you!” When he arrived for a production meeting twenty minutes late, he was extremely apologetic, ducking in and murmuring, “Sorry, sorry, everyone. Sorry. Sorry I’m late. Sorry!” When the meeting concluded four minutes later, he rasped, “Glad I hightailed it all the way over for that. I could be in the fucking Palisades instead of here with you assholes.”
Greg Mottola, who has directed Hader in four movies, said, “I would see flashes of anger in Bill, a storm deep in his eyes, and I’d think, Oh, man, I hope he doesn’t turn that at me. And then he’d contain it and be back to his gentle, Midwestern nasal twang.” When I mentioned Mottola’s observation to Hader, he nodded and said, “My dad’s very nice, my grandfather. I’m nice. Everyone’s very pleasant. But the thing about being human is, you buy this wonderful house, and there’s a machine gun in it. And you ask the realtors, ‘Does that go off, ever? That big strafing gun?’ And they shrug and go, ‘We don’t know.’ I’m fascinated by that—why did I come with that rage?” He looked down. “There’s a fear of what you’re capable of if somebody pushed you to that place.”
On “Saturday Night Live,” performers shift from worrying about being fired to worrying that even if they leave they’ll never escape. Hader told me, “No matter what I do from now on, my obituary is going to say, ‘ “Saturday Night Live” star Bill Hader is dead.’ ” When he left, in 2013, after eight seasons, Hollywood saw him not as an actor but as a performer. He began to appreciate this distinction when he appeared in the 2009 Harold Ramis film “Year One,” a farce about humanity’s early history. Hader, in costume as a witch doctor, was asked to impersonate Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Vincent Price. The resulting riffs play as outtakes over the end credits. Finally, Hader protests, “This is—I don’t—this doesn’t make a lot of sense, guys. Can I talk to Harold?” He told me, “It was a ‘Dance, monkey!’ thing.”
Producers and agents advised him, “Just do a Stefon movie—stay in your lane, and you’ll become a movie star.” Instead, in 2013, he, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers filmed “Documentary Now!” for IFC, a series of mockumentaries that parodied classics of the form. Armisen said that Hader surprised him when they played mother-daughter recluses in the first episode, based on “Grey Gardens”: “I looked at him in costume, swaying around as Little Edie, and I thought, Oh, man, he really commits in a way that is not a joke.”
Still, Hader said, “I couldn’t even get an audition for a Kenneth Lonergan movie. So I started doing table reads for casting directors.” At one (for a film that never got made), he found himself reading a handful of roles alongside Greta Gerwig, Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper, and Paul Dano. Afterward, the casting director, Avy Kaufman, recommended him for another film she was working on, “The Skeleton Twins.” She told its writer-director, Craig Johnson, that she’d been hesitant—“Bill Hader? Of ‘S.N.L.’?”—but that he’d proved to be the most powerful actor at the table.
Johnson said that after he cast Hader as Milo, a depressed gay man with a depressed twin sister (Kristen Wiig), “we didn’t talk about the character, except generally, so I was nervous watching the first take: ‘What’s going to come out of Bill’s mouth?’ ” In that scene, Milo greets Rich, a former teacher he was involved with ten years earlier. “Surprise!” Hader cried, giving the line a spin that instantly established Milo as playful, cunning, confident—and still smitten with Rich. “I surprised myself the way I said it,” he said. “I realized in that moment that Milo is really out, and my face went all hot.” When the film appeared, in 2014, the Los Angeles Times wrote that “Hader’s gift of mood-shifting, flipping through emotions like pages of a book he barely finds interesting, carries one scene after another.”
Judd Apatow then cast Hader as the romantic lead opposite Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” the raunchy 2015 rom-com that Schumer wrote. At the end, Schumer’s character apologizes to Hader’s by staging a scene in which she dances with the Knicks cheerleaders in Madison Square Garden. Apatow said, “We cut to Bill for two seconds, and he has to convey surprise, that he’s moved, that he finds it funny that she’s not good at cheerleading—and he has to melt and be totally in love with her. All in one look. You can’t direct that, and he just did it. That two seconds makes the entire movie fall into place.”
He added, “My heart always hurt for Bill, because he would never watch his takes. But it’s complicated, because the people who are really good tend to have the most issues with how they see themselves. How do you watch yourself without tearing apart the issues that made you act in the first place?” He laughed. “So I love that Bill now has to spend six months a year watching himself in editing.”
One afternoon, Hader and Alec Berg sat side by side in a tiny office above Paramount’s Stage 19, staring at a whiteboard. Hader swigged kombucha, looking maximally frowzy; walking through the set, he’d muttered, “Dishevelled weirdo coming through.” Other than a fluorescent light and a rudimentary desk, the room’s only decoration was a broken air-conditioner that appeared to have been installed in the studio’s glory days, in the seventies.
Berg and Hader were puzzling over a scene between Sally and her frenemy in the acting class. They moved a tricky chunk of dialogue up in the scene, hated it, moved it down, liked it better, but not better enough.
“This happens all the time, where the elements are there, they’re just in the wrong order,” Hader said.
“Except maybe the elements aren’t there,” Berg said.
Hader and Berg first spent time together in 2013, when they hit it off at a première. The following year they began trying to work up a show for HBO, where they both had deals. “Prior to that,” Hader said, “when I was meeting people to do a show, they’d say, ‘Do a slice of life exactly about you—an impressionist who wants to direct. Use your own kids and shoot it at your house, and it would be fascinating. And cheap!’ ”
Several months into their spitballing, Hader suggested a hit man. “My reaction was derision,” Berg recalled. “It’s one of those jobs, like dogcatcher, that exist in fiction but not in real life. Bill said, ‘It wouldn’t be a cool hit man—it’d be me.’ I added something I’m interested in: what if you have a gift, but you hate it? Bill was like that at ‘S.N.L.,’ so suddenly the story was personal. And that immediately got us into ‘What does he really want to do?’ I said, ‘What if he wanted to be an actor?’ ” As they wrote the pilot, in 2015, Berg realized that Hader, unlike Barry, didn’t aspire to present himself as an actor. “Writer-performers always write for themselves first, then worry about who they need around them,” Berg said. “Bill’s biggest shortcoming as a writer is that he doesn’t write for himself.”
When HBO called them in to discuss moving ahead with the pilot, Hader, launching the second season of his own life, declared that he wanted to direct it. As Berg was driving home, the network called to ask whether Hader was up to the task, and he loyally replied, “It’s not an issue.” Hader wound up directing the first three episodes.
As Hader describes it, his career as a writer-director is a clumsy work in progress. His director of photography still occasionally reminds him not to “cross the line”—reversing the relative positions of the characters in the frame, a cinematographic no-no—or cut off the characters’ feet. “In the third episode, when I’m strangling Paco, I didn’t cover it right, so the fight never feels messy and harsh enough,” he said. “Writing and directing don’t come naturally to me the way doing voices and impressions did. I try to remind myself that ‘Rashomon’ was Kurosawa’s eleventh movie.” When he had dinner recently with the writers Tobias Wolff and George Saunders, whom he greatly admires, he said, “I was so nervous I don’t think I ever stopped talking, sabotaging myself by flooding the conversation.” (Saunders recalled it differently: “I woke up that night thinking I was having a heart attack, but it was only a back cramp, caused by having laughed so much at dinner.”)
Yet both Hader’s writing and his directing have been nominated for Emmys. Hiro Murai, “Atlanta” ’s regular director, became a director on “Barry” after being impressed by the pilot that Hader directed. “The way it was shot felt dark and unforgiving but also sort of romantic,” he said. Hader favors meditative compositions filmed on wide lenses, shots in the mode of Wim Wenders and Alfonso Cuarón. When Barry (played by Hader’s stunt double) fought Ronny in his house, they head-butted and choked and nunchucked each other from room to room, repeatedly falling out of the frame. Most directors would have filmed the action with three cameras, grabbing bits to assemble in editing, but Hader shot it in a single, three-minute take. “I’d rather take a big swing and have a B-plus or even a D-minus moment than just shoot coverage,” he said.
Hader has an eye for missed connections and private sorrows. “Alec is always looking for the comedy, which very often saves a scene,” Hader said. “But maybe because I’ve done it so long I feel, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ ” In the final episode of the second season, Barry kills a character he’s grown close to, breaking down a door and shooting him. Hader told me that he’d suggested to the actor, “Why don’t you do one where you smile at seeing me: ‘Here’s Barry, your friend!’ And then I shoot you dead!” He mimed a surprised grin, followed by a shot piercing his temple and blood gushing out. “And that was the take we all loved.” Afterward, he added, the actor “told me, ‘That’s kind of fucked up.’ And I was, like, ‘But your character would smile. And Barry would shoot him.’ ”
Before filming began on “Barry” ’s second season, Hader had it all in his head, shot for shot, as if he’d just watched the episodes on a cross-country plane trip. If anyone suggested a new camera angle or special effect, he’d frown and reboot, to see if the proposed version played out better. His problem, he said, was that he defaulted to acquiescence, because of “my weird form of empathy, where I see the idea from their point of view. Which is good on set, generally, but in life it’s bad, because it makes you soft and people can walk all over you. Like when an actor said to me, when we spent a lot of time setting up one scene, ‘I know you need your shots and everything, but you need to worry about the actors on this show!’ You could think, That’s a shitty thing to say. But I thought, I felt that way, too, on a movie two years ago.”
In the office above Stage 19, Berg suggested cutting the moment with Sally’s frenemy, for speed and elegance. “It’s not just structural,” Hader argued. “It’s Sally really being honest, and that’s both terrifying and inspiring to everyone.”
They stared at the board in silence. “There’s so much to get in in a half hour,” Hader said. “We fucked ourselves with all these characters. If it was just Barry and Cousineau in a room, it could be a fucking Pinter play.”
Berg frowned at something under the desk, then kicked at it. “Oh, that’s nice—there’s rat shit in here.”
“Second season,” Hader said.
“Hit show,” Berg said.
“They like us, by the way.”
In the acting class’s work space on the Paramount lot, Hader and Henry Winkler were rehearsing a key moment, when Barry goes to his acting coach’s house to seek counsel. Cousineau is a puffed-up, safari-jacket-wearing guru, but he has an old-fashioned courtliness. (It lends to his air of superannuated decency that Winkler was famous forty years ago as the Fonz, on “Happy Days.”) Barry sees him as a role model, which only intensifies the guilt he feels about having killed his girlfriend.
Winkler wanted to face Barry, so they could lock eyes, but Hader said, “I feel so far away from you. I think we’d be sitting side by side on the couch—there’s something nicely father-son about this moment.” Winkler later told me, “There is a father-son thing going on with Bill.”
After Winkler moved so they were side by side, Hader dropped into character, radiating torment as he said, “When I get pushed, I just . . . I don’t like who I become.” Cousineau, frustrated by Barry’s evasions about what happened in Afghanistan, digs for the truth, and Barry finally confesses to some brutal acts as a marine.
Winkler played his response big: “Holy shit! Oh, my fucking God!” Then, seeing Barry’s misery, Cousineau reassures him, saying that he himself treated his son terribly, but that he’s now trying to salvage the relationship: “I’m hoping, for your sake and for mine, that people can change their nature. Because, if they can’t, then we’re both in a big heap of trouble.” “So you don’t think I’m a bad person?” Barry asks. Winkler gave Cousineau’s reply—“I think you are deeply human, Barry”—an evasive spin.
Hader wanted Winkler to play it with more sincerity, but he approached the point delicately. “You’re talking to Barry for the first time not as a student but as another human being,” he said. “Essentially, you’re stating right here the premise of the entire season. Because Fuches is over here”—he pointed to a devil on one of his shoulders—“saying to Barry, ‘You’re a violent piece of shit, you can’t change,’ and you’re over here”—the angel opposite—“saying Barry can.”
“But isn’t it a bit of a fib, not to set you off?” Winkler asked. “Instead of saying, ‘Barry, you’re deeply, deeply disturbed,’ I’m saying ‘deeply human.’ Because I’d be worried about having this guy in my house.” Seeing Hader’s brow furrow, he added, “I promise you I can do it where I make a quick decision in my mind, and it won’t go off too far into comedy.”
Hader said, “If you do this totally straight, and then you go, ‘You can’t tell the other actors. They’re children, Barry, they’ll shit themselves,’ that’s where the comedy is, I think.”
They ran it again, and again Winkler went big. He explained, “I keep feeling I have to think, How do I stop Barry from killing me?”
“Well, Cousineau knows he’s Barry’s god,” Hader said. “I am the pit bull that ran to your house for food. I will never attack you. You’re my owner.” He searched Winkler’s face: “This is the linchpin scene for the entire season.”
Winkler annotated his script accordingly, then said, “So my over-all intention is . . . hope?”
“Giving Barry and yourself hope,” Hader said. “It’s ‘Gosh, I hope this will work for us.’ In Cousineau’s mind, being a narcissist, it makes total sense he’d think, Barry, you and I have the exact same problem: I have a tricky relationship with my son, and you murder people.” Winkler beamed and gave Hader a long hug.
After the last shoots of the season, Berg and Hader met for lunch at Toscana, in Brentwood. Hader wore a blue watch cap and had a three-day beard, showing the effects of his cold and the slog of production; on set, he’d observed, “After a four-month shoot, our bodies are falling apart.” Berg looked as if he’d been sleeping at the library. They both ordered artichoke soup.
“Now comes editing, when you watch the first cuts and want to go die,” Hader said. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, do we have one where I’m not angry?’ And the editor will say, ‘No, but we have footage of you very specifically saying, “We don’t need that option.” ’ ” He added that his editor had praised the scene with Ronny, saying, “The fight in the pharmacy is so funny.” Hader, hoping for a compliment on his directing, had replied, “I feel we got really good depth on the Rite Aid sign.” “I guess,” the editor said. “But the guy you got as Ronny is really funny.”
I asked Hader and Berg how a Martian whose only exposure to humanity was watching “Barry” would view us. “The Martian would probably kill itself,” Hader said. He ate a few bites of flank steak. “But I do feel the whole series is supposed to be about hope and redemption—”
“Barry knows in his heart there has to be a better way,” Berg said. “And people will forgive him a lot because of that—”
“I don’t know what they’ll forgive in this season, though,” Hader said. “But I don’t know anything. I three times have had female journalists say to me, ‘I never found you attractive, but when you were killing people in the pilot? That was hot!’ ”
What do you do with that information?
Berg laughed. “My guess is that ten times a day you repeat to yourself, ‘I never found you attractive.’ ”
Hader sighed: touché. “Season 1 was hope against an obstacle,” he said, after a moment. “Season 2 is ‘Can I change my nature? No.’ So what am I going to do now, in Season 3? You don’t want to repeat the ‘I’m out, but they want me back in.’ ”
The cosmic joke of the show is that Barry does get reborn in California, but as a kind of New Age King Midas: the more he opens up, the graver the danger he poses to everyone he touches. “It’s just an existential thing we found funny: whatever Barry tries to do, he’s screwed,” Hader said.
Berg said, “Hopefully, we’re playing this trick on the audience where they’re thinking, If I want Barry to be happy, he should go to the light—but that will probably get him killed. So ideally we’re creating a situation where the audience is rooting for the death of the main character.”
He added that they were considering making fundamental changes next season, on the order of Barry leaving the acting class. “It’s the frightening void you have to steer into,” he said. “Unless you’re AC/DC, you can’t release the same album over and over and expect to keep all your fans.”
Hader noted, “But something in Barry has to hold on to this dream. Because the only other version is he kills himself.” In “Barry” ’s first season, a legendary Chechen hit man named Stovka, faced with the prospect of killing yet more people, dully declares, “There is only one true way out,” and shoots himself. Hader acknowledges, “We always saw Stovka as the ghost of Barry future.” In a sense, Hader is slowly rubbing out, onscreen, the actor part of himself. “What I like about the shoot-out at the end of this season is it’s not ‘John Wick,’ ” he said. “It’s more like someone on a bender. Someone killing people who’s crying and self-loathing and doesn’t think he deserves to live.”
“Comedy!” Berg exclaimed.
Hader said, “The Russian writers were fascinated by people who kept moving toward being unhappy, despite their intentions. And I do feel like there’s a huge balance thing going on in the universe. My happiness level has gone up, ‘Barry’ is a giant success, and I finally get to direct. But I get divorced.” He began to laugh. “I try to remember that all this ends, so just be happy. Del Close”—the father of modern improv—“would tell the story of the skydiver whose parachute didn’t open after he jumped out of the plane, and he just kept dancing and doing flips and acrobatics and entertaining people as he fell to the earth. I was incredibly moved by that.” His eyes shone. “Because we’re all falling to the earth, so what else are you going to do?” ♦