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On HBO's 'Barry,' Bill Hader asks, 'Can you change your nature?'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross. The HBO comedy series "Barry," about a hit man who pursues an acting career, is nominated for six Emmys this year, including outstanding comedy series. Today we feature interviews with Bill Hader, who stars in it and co-created, co-writes and is one of its directors, and with Henry Winkler, who co-stars in the series. Both of them have won Emmys for their respective lead and supporting roles and are nominated again this year.

Here's a scene from the recently completed third season, which got increasingly unpredictable, dark and impressively original. Barry, played by Hader, is in a store shopping for clothes while at the same time trying to dictate into his iPhone an apologetic email to his girlfriend, Sally. As he recites his stiffly composed message, we hear the piped-in shopping mall music and see the alarmed expressions of the other shoppers as they hear the content of Barry's email. Barry, after all, is guilty of doing some pretty creepy things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Hey, Sally, exclamation point. I just wanted to say I appreciate you for calling me out for being a, quote, "violent ass****," end quote. I am sorry for all the [expletive] I put you through over the past couple of weeks, parentheses, yelling at you at work, comma, offering to break into your boss' house, comma, take sleeping pictures of her, etc., etc., end parentheses, wincing emoji.

BIANCULLI: Bill Hader became famous as a performer and writer on "Saturday Night Live." Terry talked with Hader in 2019 after the first season of "Barry." Barry is a Marine who has suffered from depression and PTSD ever since returning from Afghanistan. He's become a hit man, using his deadly skills to kill people for hire. As Barry pursues his latest target, he follows him to an acting class. Barry ends up being dragged up on stage for an acting exercise and oddly enjoys it. In this scene from Season 1, Barry asks the acting teacher, Gene Cousineau, if he can join the class. Cousineau is played by Henry Winkler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Hey, Mr. Cousineau. I was wondering, do you think I was good enough to be in your class?

HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) No, Barry, I don't. What you did was dog**** - I mean, really, really awful. Dumb acting, I call it. Do you know why? Because acting is truth, and I saw no truth. So here's my advice to you. You go back to whatever nook of the world you call home, and you do whatever it is you're good at because this is not it.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) You want to know what I'm good at? I'm good at killing people. Yeah. When I got back from Afghanistan, I was really depressed, you know? Like, I didn't leave my house for a month. And this friend of my dad's - he's like an uncle to me - he helped me out, and he gave me a purpose. He told me that what I was good at over there could be useful here. And it's a job, you know? The money's good. And these people I take out - like, they're bad people. But lately, you know, I've - like, I'm not sleeping, and that depressed feeling's back, you know? Like, I know there's more to me than that. Maybe - I don't know. Maybe there's not. Maybe this is all I'm good at. I don't know. Anyway, forget it. Sorry to bother you.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) What's that from?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) What?

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Are you telling me that was an improvisation? Interesting. The story's nonsense, but there's something to work with. My class is not cheap.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Well, that's not a problem.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in cash.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in advance.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I can do that.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Next class, tomorrow 2 p.m. We start on time.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Absolutely.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) What's your last name again?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Block. Barry Block.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You pay in advance.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah. No, I know.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Gene M. Cousineau. I look forward to this journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Bill Hader, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the series.

HADER: Hi.

GROSS: Well, that clip kind of summarizes part of what the first season was about, Barry knowing that he's a good hit man but truly wanting a different life. And he has trouble speaking the truth on stage. But when he speaks it off stage, like he did in that scene, people don't always believe him 'cause it seems...

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...So preposterous. And that's a kind of constant thing in the series, that when people, like, act the truth, people don't necessarily want to hear it. When they act the more, you know, stage version of the truth, that's a distortion of the truth, people, like, give them accolades (laughter).

HADER: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I always find that's true, especially in art in general. It's the kind of harsh reality of something. You know, I think you could - kind of a cynical way - well, it doesn't really sell and things like that, which may be true. But I think also, what we - in the writers room, when we talked about it was - you know, Alec Berg, who co-created the show with me - we realized, you know, I think people just don't like hearing about it. (Laughter) You know, people like a nice story.

GROSS: It's a bummer.

HADER: It's a bummer.

GROSS: As one guy says (laughter).

HADER: Yeah. We - that was the thing we kept saying. It was like, oh, that was a bummer. Yeah. That was like - it was a real bummer. And so, yeah, a lot of times the - you know, in Season 2, the whole - Henry Winkler's character, the acting coach, Gene Cousineau, makes them do a truth exercise. Talk about your deepest truth of who made you who you are. And to be honest and real, that makes you an artist, and how, one, that's really hard to do and, two, do people even really want to hear that?

GROSS: Yeah. How did the idea of a hit man who wants to be an actor get started? Like, what was the germ of that idea?

HADER: Alec Berg and I were kind of put together by our mutual agent. This is back in 2014, and...

GROSS: Oh, so you weren't buddies. Like, somebody, like, played matchmaker.

HADER: I know him. Yeah, someone played matchmaker, and it worked (laughter). Yeah, we're in the same comedy circles and stuff like that, but we thought, oh, well, let's go. And, you know, I had this deal at HBO and - to make a show, but I didn't know what the show was. And then we would sit and we talked about one idea for a while and we realized that, you know, it was kind of an idea that didn't have any stakes to it. We realized, like, we had a great pilot episode, and then when we thought of what would be other episodes, we didn't have anything, which is kind of...

GROSS: Wait. What was that first idea?

HADER: It was essentially me playing someone I grew up with in Tulsa, Okla. It was kind of the character - I was in a movie called "Hot Rod," and the character I played in "Hot Rod" - it was kind of like a version of that guy. And it was very much like a day-in-the-life, kind of meandering thing of this kind of wayward guy in Oklahoma. And it just was boring (laughter), you know? Like, I just was like, I can't really get into this. I mean, we have bits. There's comedy bits, but where's the emotion? Where's the story? And, really, where are the stakes to it, you know? And so we kind of had this breakfast - I remember a bummer breakfast - right? - where we both were, like - kind of separately went, I don't think this idea works. It's kind of - it doesn't really hold water. And I go, there should be stakes. And I remember he said, oh, you know, life and death - you know, that's the ultimate - right? - death, you know? And I just said, well, what if I was a hit man? And he went, eugh (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: I hate hit men. And he said, hit man's like dogcatcher. There's more intelligent in movies than there are in real life. You know, there's not - hit man - what is that, you know? But what do those mean, you know? And it's not a guy - it's not, you know, the kind of cool guy with two guns in his hands with the long tie. Like, what if we - you know, the black tie and the suit. You know, what if we made it real? And we talked about that, and then - I'm not joking. We suddenly both got fixated on the idea of him being an actor. I don't know why. I don't know where it came from. We just both started talking about him taking an acting class.

And we - and I remember specifically, Alec going, hit man who wants to be an actor? That's funny. That's good. You know? And then we started seeing these interesting correlations of the conflict within that of, you know, a hit man wants to be in the shadows, but an actor wants to be in the spotlight. A hit man wants to be anonymous, but actors want to be known. A hit man wants to suppress his emotions, where an actor wants to constantly be, you know, harnessing their emotions and all these things. So it was a funny - it just seemed, you know, the acorn, the seed of the idea could, you know, give us a tree that'd, you know, give us a lot of interesting stories and different branches and places to go off to.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the idea of, you know, acting as truth-telling, as telling some, like, emotional truth and drawing that emotional truth from deep within yourself. So did you ever go through that kind of soul-searching as an actor? You didn't go to acting school, right?

HADER: No, I went to Second City LA. I just - I learned just improv. But not - I never took an acting class, really, like the one that's in the show.

GROSS: So, like, what kinds of experiences or secondhand experiences are you basing that class on where it's all about, like, getting to the emotional truth? And sometimes, like, the acting teacher will emotionally push one of the students to the edge to get them to the point where they're ready to, like, be emotionally naked on stage.

HADER: Well, we - I mean, we went to acting classes and audited them and sat in the back.

GROSS: Oh, as research for the series?

HADER: As research for the series, yeah. So - and then at some point, Alec just had to go because some of the people would recognize me and it would be weird and - what is he doing here? And so Alec would kind of go by himself. But we saw in the pilot, there's a scene between Henry Winkler, who plays Cousineau, and Sarah Goldberg, who plays Sally Reed...

GROSS: One of the students.

HADER: ...Where he berates her into getting the right emotional response. And we - Alec saw that.

GROSS: Oh, really?

HADER: He ended up calling me, saying, I just saw this thing where this guy just went after this actress hard to get her to this place. And then she started doing the scene, and she was really, you know, crying and so thankful for him for getting her there, you know, and all this stuff. And he said it was very strange.

GROSS: The acting teacher in the series, the Henry Winkler character - Henry Winkler basically says to the acting student, you know what I call that? That's fake acting.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And he's really, like, mean, but then...

HADER: Oh, yeah. He calls her babe and chick, yeah.

GROSS: But then she gives this, like, brilliant performance afterwards. Yeah.

HADER: But it was a great way of introducing the world of this for Barry, as this guy who's kind of emotionally closed off, of going, oh, I need someone to do that. I need that for some reason. I need someone to access an emotion that I'm too afraid to kind of look at. I know I need this on some level.

BIANCULLI: Bill Hader speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "TRANSITIONS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with former "Saturday Night Live" player Bill Hader, who now stars in the HBO comedy series "Barry." Hader has won two best comedy actor Emmys for his role as Barry and is nominated again this year. He's also nominated for his work on the show as a director.

GROSS: The first time I interviewed you, I didn't know about this, but apparently, when you were on "Saturday Night Live," you had a lot of anxiety about performing live and even had, like, a panic attack, I think while the show was on, while you were...

HADER: Yeah. On the air, I had a panic attack.

GROSS: ...While you were doing a bit playing Julian Assange.

HADER: Yeah, I was doing - playing Julian Assange on a panic attack. It was fun (laughter).

GROSS: Can you describe what happened then?

HADER: Yeah. I was doing Julian Assange. It was Jeff Bridges hosting. And I don't know what happened, but I suddenly went, I can't breathe. It felt like - it just felt like I was dying. I just - that's the only way I could describe it. It just - the panic - I think it was a bit of exhaustion. And also, I've - I'm a very naturally anxious person. You know, I'm always - and in some ways, it's good because when I'm directing a thing, I'm eight steps ahead of things, and I'm trying to make sure things are in order and things like that.

You know, we talk about the things that we wish we could change in ourselves. And, you know, I'm very, very anxious. And it could kind of make me slightly isolated or not being in the moment in a thing. And on "Saturday Night Live," I felt like the majority of my time there, especially in the first half of it at least, I wasn't in the moment. I was very, very, very nervous - heart palpitations, sweating. I would get dizzy. I would - you know, I remember once, it got to the point where I became completely convinced that either a piece of equipment was going to fall on me or that someone was going to storm the stage, that someone from the audience was going to run up on stage...

GROSS: Wow. That seems like...

HADER: ...And, like, attack us.

GROSS: ...Unusual things to worry - like, 'cause...

HADER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It got crazy. It got a little...

GROSS: ...I thought you'd be worrying about, you know, like, I'm going to forget my lines. I didn't know you were worrying about...

HADER: No, and you forget your lines and things.

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: It went from that to that. So once I started getting into these other things, then I - you know, I started doing, like, TM. And, you know, you take, you know, a medication. You go to a therapist. You know, I really - you know, exercise, changing my diet, I mean, all these things to try to get this under control. And, you know, it's just acknowledging it, you know? You just kind of go, that's not happening. You know, relax. But I think it got to a really bad place. And I think - in "Barry," it's not so much the anxiety of it. It was more of this idea that I was naturally good at impressions.

And I was telling Alec Berg this when we were just starting writing. I go, you know, I was always good at impressions, but I - what I always wanted to do was write and direct. I moved out to Los Angeles 20 years ago to be a writer-director. And I was a production assistant, and I did all these things and, you know, was a crew guy forever and then kind of happened - you know, in a fluky way, got on "Saturday Night Live" (laughter), you know? Megan Mullally saw me in a show. I got on "Saturday Night Live," and I was not prepared for it.

And I was saying it's so ironic that all the things I was writing and directing were never really - all the short films I made were never very that good. And the scripts I were writing was - they were not good. I had a lot to learn. But I could kind of just do impressions. And the irony was that the show I did, the impressions on it, was, like, slowly destroying me because of the anxiety of having to perform in front of a bunch of - in front of the nation, you know? I just - I still get - I hosted, like, a year ago when I was a wreck.

And I told Alec this, and he went, I think that's the show. It's about a guy who thinks, you know, the thing he's naturally good at's destroying him, but the thing he wants to do, he's not very good at (laughter), you know? And he goes, well, that's an emotion you understand. We can write that.

GROSS: So I have to ask you about your eyes. On "Saturday Night Live," you always - you have very big eyes.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: And you're one of those people who can, like, raise one eyebrow.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And on "Saturday Night Live," you always used your eyes great for comic effect. On "Barry," staring into your - like, when I look at your eyes on "Barry," like, sometimes your eyes are saying, like, thousand-yard stare, the stare of a soldier who's seen combat too long. Sometimes, it's the stare of someone with just, like, so much existential dread. And sometimes, it's the stare of somebody who has just become overtaken by rage and anger. And I wonder if you think about your eyes at all or whether they - it just kind of happens that your eyes communicate so much.

HADER: Yeah, I don't think about it at all. Thanks for saying that. That's a nice compliment. It's funny you say that because I always - there's a funny thing that happened with one of our editors, Kyle Reiter, where we were watching Episode 4, and I just went, do I have any other facial expressions (laughter)? I just have the same facial expression this whole show. I just look angry. And he played this clip, and it's me - he plays the take. I do the take. And then you hear our director of that episode, Liza Johnson, going, that was great, Bill. Do you want to do another one? And I go, no, I'm good. I think we got it.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: You know? And he (laughter) - he's like, do - you know, do another take, man. (Laughter).

GROSS: Did you?

HADER: No. No, I would always do...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: I always do, like, two takes. I'm like, did I say everything right? Are we good? OK, let's move on. You know.

GROSS: Is that because you want to save time and money and get everything made on time and all that stuff?

HADER: Yeah. Yeah, I guess I'm like - I'm not precious. I'm weirdly - I like very few - in the edit, I like fewer choices. I kind of like having to be forced to make a decision as opposed to - you know, when I was in my early 20s, these idea that - I thought it was so romantic that Stanley Kubrick would shoot 150 takes.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And now, I'm like, that's crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: Why would you do that? That makes - and now that I've done it, I'm like, wait. That's insane, you know? You don't need to do that.

GROSS: Just watching the takes is going to take forever?

HADER: Yeah, but it doesn't - they - I think there's this thing of directors want actors to stop acting, so they pummel them to death with a lot of takes. And I just feel like that's someone who's not really respecting an actor and also someone that - all you have to say is, hey; could you try this? You know (laughter)? Could you do less?

GROSS: Bill Hader, it's been great to talk with you again. I regret that our time is up. Thank you so much...

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...For coming back to FRESH AIR.

HADER: Thank you. This is a giant - this is a huge honor.

GROSS: Bill Hader speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. The co-creator and star of HBO's "Barry" is up for Emmys this year as both actor and director, and "Barry" itself is nominated for outstanding comedy series. After a break, we'll hear from another of the show's Emmy nominees and former winners - supporting actor Henry Winkler. And Justin Chang reviews "Nope," the new movie from Jordan Peele. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "ROAD TRIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.