Let in the Light
A Pythonite — who overcame his nerves to conquer SNL — now finds the light in a new dark comedy for HBO.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Bill Hader never intended to become an actor.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma, native and self-described cinephile came to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a writer and director. "Moving here was like a fairy tale to me," he says.
Now the Emmy winner — for his work as a producer on South Park — and former Saturday Night Live cast member is finally at the helm of his own project as co-creator, executive producer, writer, star and director of the new dark comedy Barry.
The HBO series (available on demand and on HBO Now and HBO Go) stars Hader as a hitman who follows his mark to an acting class, where he falls in love with the L.A. theater scene and subsequently decides to pursue a career as an actor. The comedian sat down with Sarah Hirsch to talk about his own journey into entertainment and its influence on the show as well as his long-deferred debut as a director.
When did you first become interested in comedy?
I remember watching early Mel Brooks movies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, early Woody Allen movies, Saturday Night Live and SCTV. It wasn't until I was in sixth grade, at a friend's house — I had brought over Kentucky Fried Movie or Airplane — and I was like, "I think I'm a little bit of a comedy nerd." And watching Three's Company or something I'd be like, "This is fine, but I know what the real thing is." And it's, you know, Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Do you remember the first time you got a laugh?
Yeah, I was six or seven, and my dad's very liberal mother was visiting from Chicago. We were at a stoplight at Oral Roberts University, which has [a sculpture of] these giant praying hands in front of it. She was looking at them kind of disgusted and I said, "At midnight they clap." She started laughing really hard. Later she told my parents what I said, and they started cracking up, too.
What did you do when you first moved to L.A.?
I was 20, and I started P.A.-ing to get set experience. That went on way too long. Then a guy in postproduction was doing a show at Second City L.A., and I went to watch him perform. I was like, "Oh, my God. There are all these people my age performing sketch comedy and improv. Why am I not doing this?"
What was it like when you first started performing?
I failed a bunch and got really discouraged. I didn't go to some classes because I was just not good at it. I would go up [on stage] and nothing would happen, or it would go badly. I had to work through that, failing and then trying to fail a little bit less.
What led up to your SNL audition?
I got lucky. Megan Mullally saw me in an improv show, and I was really on point when she happened to be there. If she had come to the six o'clock show, I wouldn't be sitting here. But she came to the eight o'clock, and she recommended me [to SNL creator Lorne Michaels]. I auditioned, and then I was on the show. And I had never done impressions before….
That's amazing — because, of course, that's what you became known for.
Yeah, I had impersonated teachers and stuff, but I had to learn impressions for my audition, and I was like, "How do you…" Then I found out I had this aptitude for it.
How do you feel now about your early years at SNL ?
It was hard. I was very, very nervous. And then you get in this weird cycle of, "Well, the only way I can do my job is if I'm anxious." But it actually made me foggy. I was having panic attacks and a hard time sleeping. So I started taking medication, doing transcendental meditation and seeing a therapist.
What was the result?
I figured out over time that it was anticipatory anxiety, meaning, after the show was done — or while it was going — I was fine. But leading up to it, I honestly would have rather died. And it was a hard thing to talk about, because everybody at SNL is going through their own shit. So when you're like, "I'm having panic attacks," it's like, "Join the fucking club! We're all having panic attacks."
Where did the inspiration for Barry come from?
I got a deal at HBO to develop a show, and Alec Berg was a guy I knew and wanted to work with [Berg is a co-creator, executive producer, writer and director of Barry]. We would meet at this diner — we talked about one idea for like a month and a half, and it just wasn't working. One day I went, "What if it was something about a hitman?" And Alec went, "I hate that word. It conjures up an image of a cool guy with two guns."
How did it develop from there?
I still don't know how we got to it, but I remember Alec saying, "A hitman taking an acting class is funny." Because it's the conflict of being in the shadows versus being in the spotlight. We tried to make something we could relate to. Like my feelings of being at SNL — getting that job, coming in and feeling out of my depth — but wanting so badly to be a part of that community.
How did HBO react to the pitch?
Alec and I were like, "The violence is going to be real. And it's a bummer." We were talking about Taxi Driver and Unforgiven in a comedy pitch. To HBO's credit they were like, "Great!" And we were like, "Really?" Because most people would be like, "We will give you free parking just to get the fuck out of here. Here's every stamp to put on your parking pass. Now please leave."
Did you do any weapons training for the role?
Yeah, and there's also a scene where you see [my character's] marine training in action. I remember when we were shooting that Alec was like, "I don't think anybody's going to be ready for this. They're going to think, 'That's the guy who played Stefon.'"
What was your first experience as a director like?
I learned from acting that a lot of directors are kind of freaked out by actors. They don't know how to talk to them, or they overexplain or under-explain. But once you hire the person — it's true — 99 percent of your job is done. And you can only learn so much from watching a ton of movies, like I did. It's like Second City: you've got to get up and try to do it as much as you can.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018