I have no idea where Barry is going in season three (which returns Sunday at 10pm EST on HBO), no clue as to how any of this ends. This is meant to be a supreme compliment because we so often do have an inkling where things are going even with the very best television shows. Which is fine. Predictability isn’t always a sin if the execution is amazing. But when you’ve got a great story and amazing characters feeding off of writing that is complex, human, funny, scary, and sad, and visuals that are unique and interesting, all with the added benefit of being an overall unpredictable thing from creators you know you can trust to amaze while also crushing the execution? Wow. And that’s where we find ourselves with Barry in season three, a total package that doesn’t feel like it missed a beat or the chance to build on an already impressive legacy after three years away. A show that takes chances to tell a better story and be more entertaining… for us and for the people that create it.
When we had the chance to talk with series creator/director/star Bill Hader again this week, following up on conversations at the start of the show, its second season, and after its season two finale, we wanted to linger on the craft of it all. Why do Hader and company keep writing themselves into a corner? What’s the inspiration behind its elements of Hollywood satire, attitudes on not wasting takes, and its unique visual ID? Here, ahead of Sunday’s season three premiere on HBO, is Hader on all that and more.
How did this time and everything that went on [with quarantine delays] change your perspective with regard to where you wanted to take the show and the character, specifically?
I’m sure it went in there somehow. The feelings of it, and… We had already had the season written. We were about a week away from shooting when the lockdown happened. Once that happened, we had like a year and a half to work on these scripts and also kind of figure out where it could go beyond that. But yeah, I don’t know. I always kind of realize these things way after the fact, like, “Oh yeah, COVID did totally have an effect on it.” You know? But I’m still in it, we’re still mixing and doing the effects for the last three episodes, so still kind of in it.
You had mentioned last time we talked at the end of season two, the idea of writing yourself into a corner. Why is that so important to you to do that from a creative standpoint?
I don’t know what it is. I watch a lot of movies and I read books, but I don’t watch a lot of television, to be honest. There are a couple of shows like Atlanta that I love and keep up with, but… Last TV show I think I really followed that was a big TV show was Breaking Bad, which obviously, especially in the first season, you could see the kind of influence that show had on our show. And I think because of that, I see this show as kind of like each season is like a big movie, and so you’re always trying to just end it where it feels like that movie would have an interesting ending. But then in doing that, you also kind of know that you’re trying to do this bigger story that hopefully when Barry‘s all done, you could sit down and watch from the pilot to the very last episode and it all feels of a piece.
So it’s interesting, where it’s like these big giant arcs the entire show, and then within that arc, you have a season arc, and then with the season arc, you have each episode has to have its own little arc that is propelling the story along. So I think that’s kind of where that comes from in some way, is going like, well, season two, it’d be great… This is where the movie would end. But knowing on some level, well, there’s more story here, so you want to put something enticing into it that we don’t necessarily…
Beyond the structural part of it though, is there a part of it that is just… you bring it so close to the edge at the end of season two. Obviously, you pull it back and there’s still a lot of show to do. But I’m curious if bringing it to the edge has some kind of thrill effect that drives that. I wonder, do you all just write yourselves into a corner until you can’t get out and then that’s the end of the show?
I don’t really think like that, I guess. To me, it’s just like this is what I want to see, and this is what the characters are doing. I never think of it in those terms. So it’s always kind of like, well, when we’re in there talking about it, it’s very rarely like, “Oh man, people are going to freak out when this happens.” It’s kind of going like, “Well, here’s what the characters are doing, and this would be really…” And I think also maybe my own innate kind of boredom, maybe. Maybe I get bored really easily and I’m like, “Okay, I want something to happen here.” You know?
So the characters can’t stay in one place for too long, essentially.
Yeah. I mean, that’s just like a good story, I think.
I mean, as far as to keep away the boredom, things need to kind be in constant motion.
Maybe. I don’t want to seem like I’m being coy or whatever, but it really is hard for me to kind of put it into… I don’t think about it that way so much. It’s such a kind of weird intuitive thing when you’re writing these things and always trying to keep what is honest with the characters, but then at the same time make it entertaining for myself. You know?
Yeah. Which I think is obviously a key. I know it’s a very different perspective from where I’m sitting, it’s so easy to try and think of these things as “what’s the destination and what’s the work being done to get to the destination,” whereas someone in your position is all about the journey at this point in time.
Yeah. It’s a thing that a lot of people are asking. Even the actors will say… Henry [Winkler], when he watched season two went, “Well, what’s going to happen?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” [Laughs] You know? The first day we sit down to write season three, the first thing we said was, “All right, so Cousineau knows. What are we going to do?”
What’s the level of influence with someone in his situation when you go over where the storyline is? Is it something where there’s a collaborative feel to it, where you take some suggestions and maybe change things up a little bit, or is it more getting everyone to buy into the story?
You know, everybody’s different. Everybody’s very different. Henry is somebody that is incredibly like, “I’m just along for the journey. You tell me where to go.” Stephen Root is similar, kind of. And not to say that they don’t ask hard questions or they don’t say, “I’d really like to…” I mean, with Henry it’s more like… I had a scene in season three where he had to give a speech at a dinner, and I had him standing, and he would say, “I’d much rather do this sitting.” And that was a way better idea. You know? And Stephen’s a bit the same way. Sarah Goldberg’s someone who comes in with a lot of ideas and comes in with thoughts on her character. And we have these rehearsal processes where we kind of go through and talk it out and try things.
It’s kind of like you [writers] just want to be wrong fast. You’re going to be wrong. So it’s kind of like everyone will go like, “Hey, we got scripts for season three. Great.” And I’m like, “Yeah, those are just scripts. That doesn’t mean they’re right.” [Laughs] Just because there are 30 pages of material doesn’t mean it works. You always think it works and then you get in and then you chip away at it and you go, “Oh, actually, there’s more here. There’s more here.” It’s kind of a process of honing.
And then Anthony Carrigan is kind of in-between Sarah and Henry in a way, where he kind of has a lot of thoughts and a lot of things, but is also kind of also… Not to say that Sarah’s not open to these things, she totally is, but she’s also a really good writer, so she comes in with a lot of interesting material, and we use some of it. And Anthony’s kind of similar, but his is more improvs on set.
Where do you fall on that spectrum when you’re on somebody else’s set?
It really depends on what it is. I mean, those Judd Apatow movies, I mean, those are like free-for-alls, you know? I mean, those are kind of… I mean, you’re not even the same character take to take. [Laughs] You know? It just kind of depends on what it is. If it’s something like… I was in It 2, and my character had a pretty clear kind of journey, and you’re just playing to that, where it’s like, okay, his sarcastic kind of nature is hiding something. And then if it’s something like Skeleton Twins, you kind of stick more to the script and then deviate off a little bit in little moments, but you don’t want to mess with it too much because it’s very delicate.
With regard to Sarah’s character, it feels like that Hollywood satire element that has always been kind of a part of the show just gets played up a little bit in the earlier episodes. Can you tell me a little bit about why it was so important to keep that part of the story alive and vibrant there?
Not to give too much away, but I’ll say that she has her own show, and so by having that (and by virtue of us not having the acting class) it lends itself to that kind of satire and stuff. And it’s also something that we had all gone through, people in the writer’s room. So there’s a scene where she’s getting notes and that was really fun talking about that. Emma Barrie, one of our writers, had told us a story from an actual meeting she had that very much informed the scene in that first episode. So that stuff, it’s there by just virtue that she has her own show.
That junket scene, I was doing a junket for Skeleton Twins, and that movie deals with suicide, and someone asked me about my character and him having tried to commit suicide in the movie and [we’re] having this very serious conversation, and then he went, “I’m about to run out of time. Real quick, what do you think about Ben Affleck as Batman?” [Laughs] And so that ended up on there.
There’s a lot of manic energy coming off of Barry at a few points in these early episodes. Curious how you find the level to play that because it’s really well done.
Oh, thanks. It’s easier for me to track because I wrote it. But I think something like… There’s a specific scene at the beginning of episode two between Barry and Sally where Barry’s pretty unhinged and that’s something that you just kind of do. You don’t really think about it too much. And there’s a lot of joking around on set and everybody’s having a good time, and then you just do it. I tend not to do a lot of takes, not as an actor, but just in general. We kind of just don’t have the time. So it is a feeling of trying stuff in rehearsals and things like that. And then you kind of just feel it out and go, “You know what might be good here is if… Let me try this. Let’s just see what happens.” And then you do it, and sometimes it’s great, and then there are other times it’s bad, and then those are the things we cut out.
Do you feel like it’s helpful to have that kind of discipline to not be able to take that many takes? I know some people could just get lost.
Oh, I’ve never understood it. I’ve never understood it. It’s like when I’m making the show, I might not know the house, but I know the zip code. If that makes sense. And so that’s kind of what I’m focused on when I’m watching the other performers. And I have the story laid out in my head, so I know tonally kind of what should be happening right now in a given moment.
I know as an actor, when people do a lot of takes, it wears you out, and it can actually kind of get you a little confused over what you’re playing. And then sometimes I feel like people are doing it… I can start to distrust a director when I feel like we’re doing too many takes and I don’t know why. One of my least favorite directions is, “Okay, let’s just go again,” because I don’t know what that means. I’d much rather have someone say, “Hey, that sucked.” You know what I mean? Anything. But, “Let’s go again,” I kind of go, “Well, I don’t know what you want.” But look, that’s me. I know other actors I’ve said this to and they go, “What? Oh, no, I love it when they say. That means I can just start trying stuff.”
But I think I tend to make a decision and kind of stick to it. And if I try things it’s like little variations or stuff. I think the difference is, what are we doing that’s making the story better and what is satisfying some sort of ego, whether it’s the director or the actor?
I love some of the homages and references that you work into the show — the High Plains Drifter moment, the season two finale. The scene at the end of the showcase, when the crowd kind of descends on Sally at the end of season two, was that a zombie film/Romero kind of reference?
Oh no, no, it wasn’t thinking about zombie movies at all, but maybe… To me, it was just more the feeling that the success that she got should feel suffocating and kind of dangerous. Like this is the thing you think you want and it’s overwhelming for her. So there’s a way of doing that that’s really sweet, which is people coming up to her and telling her how great she is, and you just play it outside, and it’s a couple of people, and then someone else walks over, and it’s nice. But yeah, I very much wanted it to be uncomfortable and a thing that she wasn’t expecting. That was just a feeling. I don’t know why, but it was just like, oh yeah, [it] should be suffocating.
‘Barry’ returns to HBO for its third season Sunday April 24 at 10PM ET