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On HBO's 'Barry,' Bill Hader Asks, 'Can You Change Your Nature?'

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's Emmy week on FRESH AIR, featuring our interviews with some of this year's nominees. We'll start with Bill Hader, who became famous as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." He's nominated for four Emmys related to HBO's dark comedy series "Barry," which he co-created and stars in, and won for IFC's "Documentary Now!" Last year, after Season 1 of "Barry," Hader won the Emmy for best lead actor in a comedy series.

Hader plays Barry, a Marine who has suffered from depression and PTSD ever since returning from Afghanistan. After feeling he was useless back at home, he became a hit man doing what he knew he was good at - shooting people. One hit he's assigned is in LA, where his job is to kill a young man who's having an affair with the wife of a crime boss. As Barry pursues his target - a personal trainer and acting student - Barry sits in on the acting class, ends up doing a scene and thinks maybe he can transform his life by becoming an actor.

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.


BILL 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 [expletive]. 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? Good at killing people. You know, when I got back from Afghanistan, I was really depressed. You know, I couldn't leave my house for months. 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? Hey, the money's good. And these people I take out, like, they're bad people.

But lately, you know, I'm - like, I'm not sleeping, and that depressed feeling's back, you know? Like, I know there's more to me than that. But 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.


GROSS: (Laughter) Bill Hader, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: I love the series.


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 offstage, like he did in that scene, people don't always believe him because he seems so preposterous.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: 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, people just don't like hearing about it (laughter). You know? People like a nice story (laughter).

GROSS: It's a bummer (laughter).

HADER: (Laughter) It's a bummer.

GROSS: As one guy says (laughter).

HADER: Yeah, we - that was the thing we kept saying. I was like, oh, that was a bummer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: 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 coaching, 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...

HADER: I knew him.

GROSS: ...Played matchmaker?

HADER: Yeah. Someone played matchmaker, and it worked (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: Yeah. But we - 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 (laughter), which is kind of...

GROSS: Wait, what - so 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, day-in-the-life, kind of meandering thing of this kind of wayward guy in Oklahoma. And it just was boring. (Laughter) You know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...Kind of separately went, I don't think this idea works. It's kind of - doesn't really hold water. And I go, it should be stakes. And I remember he said, oh, you know, life and death, you know, that's the ultimate, right? Well, death, that - you know. And I just said, well, what if I was a hit man? And he went, ugh.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: I hate hit men. And he said, hit man's like dog catcher. There's more in television and movies and - than there are in real life, you know? There's not - hit man, what is that, you know? I go, but what if it was me, 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, in 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, oh, hit man who wants to be an actor is - 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 a 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 - you know, harnessing their emotions and all these things (laughter). 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: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Hader. He's the co-creator, the star, co-writer and a director of the HBO series "Barry." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.




GROSS: And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Hader. He first became known for his work as a performer and writer on "Saturday Night Live," and now he's the co-creator, star, co-writer, co-producer...

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And one of the directors of the HBO series "Barry." And he plays a Marine who served in Afghanistan and returns home with a very guilty conscience. And when he comes home, the best work he can find is using the skill he has and becoming a hit man. But on his way to carrying out an assignment as a hit man in LA, he decides he really wants to be an actor...


GROSS: ...And access all the emotions that he's been blocking. Yes. Sounds improbable, yes.

HADER: You know, when you say it, you're like...

GROSS: What? (Laughter).

HADER: ...Oh, man, I can't believe HBO said yes to this.


GROSS: No, but I love it because it ends up having - like, it has a lot of humor, but it also has, like, a surprising amount of emotional depth.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: And that leads us to the next clip I want to play. You know, in the second season, there is a kind of twist on the first clip that we played, where Barry is telling his acting teacher, Henry Winkler, that, you know, his buddy - that Barry's buddy was shot in Afghanistan when Barry was a Marine there. And Barry took revenge and killed the man he thought was the shooter, but it was the wrong man, and he's suffered from guilt ever since.

But what he's not confessing in this scene is, A, that he's a hit man and, B, that he's killed Cousineau's girlfriend Janice, who was a cop and was onto the fact that Barry was a hit man. That happened in Season 1. So in this part, Barry is telling his teacher Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler, about the emotional aftermath of shooting the wrong man in Afghanistan.


HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Then they sent me to a hospital in Germany. And my family friend pulled some strings and got me discharged. After that, I didn't feel like I deserved a good life.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Holy [expletive]. Who else did you tell this story to?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) In class? No one.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Good. So here's my advice - you never tell that story again as long as you live because, basically, you killed somebody, and you got away with it.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) See - this is why I didn't want to tell you. This is why I didn't want to tell you because you're going to look at me differently. You're going to look at me like I'm a murderer, like I'm a violent piece of [expletive].

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Listen to me - I have a son. I was terrible to this son. I was cruel. I was selfish. And there's nothing I can do to change that. But I don't want to be that guy anymore. And I pray that human beings can change their nature. Because if we can't, then you and I are in deep trouble.


GROSS: That's a scene from the HBO series "Barry," with my guest Bill Hader and Henry Winkler. And Bill Hader co-created, co-writes and also directs several episodes of the series. So that's just such a great scene about - now that we've told you you have to be honest, make sure you hide the truth. And another question raised in that clip that we just heard or - you know, are we capable of change? Can we change our nature?

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that a question you ask yourself a lot?

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: I know I ask that question (laughter) all the time.

HADER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. You constantly - yeah, you're kind of going, am I stuck?


HADER: Am I stuck with these tools? Am I stuck with these neuroses? Am I stuck with...

GROSS: Yes, yes.

HADER: ...This personality thing?


HADER: Can I change it? And you keep falling back into it. And it's a part of life. As you get older, you start to get a little bit more, I think, worried about it because you go, oh, I'm still doing that, you know? (Laughter) It's, like, I still have, you know, these problems or whatever.

And, you know, again, it's - like I said, the writers room on "Barry" can just be like - it feels like a group therapy session where everybody kind of talks about, you know - I'm not going to name names or, you know, link things. But, you know, things like, oh, I have a tendency to exaggerate or lie, or I have a tendency to be emotionally cold. You know, these things that you see in your parents and you see in other people and your relatives. You know, a lot of people I know, they'll get together with their siblings and be like, do you do that? Yeah, I do that. Remember mom would do that?

You know, and it's like, oh, no, I can't shake that, you know. And can you shake that? And so it's more interesting to start a season with a question. You know, can you change your nature and try to figure it out while you're writing, you know, instead of having, like, in my mind, you know, a full theme of, you know, starting with an answer and trying to prove that.

GROSS: Was writing on "Saturday Night Live" - did that involve the same kind of emotional, like, vulnerability and sharing that you're describing happens in the writers room for "Barry?"



HADER: That was more like, here's a dumb idea we have, and how do we - you know, I mean, if it was a satirical thing. But never the kind of emotional stuff, in my experience there. But it is more of - if you're going into more of a satire, kind of going like, is this a thing? You know what I mean? Is - are we satirizing something that, you know, is an actual problem or worth being satirized or - you know, and so, sometimes, you would be like, oh, I've experienced that. Or I know that feeling. Or I've seen that commercial. Or I saw that, you know - or whatever it is. And you just want to make sure that it holds water in some way but never the - I mean, yeah. No, I don't think sketch comedy would lend itself to, like, a sketch about, can you change your nature?


GROSS: So one of the pleasures of watching "Barry" is that there's a lot of intentionally bad acting in it and some intentionally bad, like, monologues in it because it's about acting students who, you know, don't necessarily know what they're doing yet. And, of course, Barry doesn't really know how to act yet. Sometimes, he really nails it because it's so consonant with the emotions that he's feeling at the moment. But other times, he doesn't get it at all. My favorite not getting it at all moment is when he does a short scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross." And it's the very famous scene. It's Alec Baldwin's scene where he's, like, the guy from headquarters who comes in to tell all these scam artists who are selling, like, terrible real estate, like, worthless real estate by phone to people. And he comes in to tell them that unless they shape up, they're fired.

HADER: Yeah.

GROSS: So the first thing I wanted to do is play Alec Baldwin doing the role.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: OK. So here's Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross." And this is a David Mamet play and then movie.


ALEC BALDWIN: (As Blake) Put that coffee down. Coffee's for closers only. Look. You think I'm [expletive] with you? I'm here from downtown. I'm here from Mitch and Murray. And I'm here on a mission of mercy. Your name's Levene?

JACK LEMMON: (As Shelley Levene) Yeah.

BALDWIN: (As Blake) You call yourself a salesman, you son of a b****?

LEMMON: (As Dave Moss). I don't got to listen to this s***.

BALDWIN: (As Blake) You certainly don't, pal, 'cause the good news is you're fired. The bad news is you've got - all you've got just one week to regain your job starting with tonight, starting with tonight's sit. Oh. Have I got your attention now? Good, 'cause we're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize - a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture?

HADER: OK. Now let's hear how you do it, Bill Hader, portraying Barry, who is in acting class. He wants to be a good actor. He doesn't really know how to do it. So here is Barry doing that scene from "Glengarry Glen Ross."


HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Can you put that coffee down? Coffee's for closers only. You call yourself a salesman? You son of a b****. Hi. I'm from downtown. I'm from Mitch and Murray. So you've got - all of you got just one week to regain your jobs, starting with tonight. OK. We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see what second prize is? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. But I've worked out a little...

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) OK. OK. No, no, no. Stop. I'm not kidding. You're making me nauseous.


HADER: You're making me nauseous. Yeah.

GROSS: That is so funny. So so can you talk about deciding to do a really bad version of that very famous scene and the kind of, like, good-natured, like, I'm-here-to-give-you-prizes attitude that you have in acting it?

HADER: Yeah. He doesn't understand the context of it at all. Well, that was a thing that - it was helpful in the writing - was we said, we need to get the - Barry's problem in that episode is that he couldn't stand up for himself against Fuches, the Stephen Root character. And so he...

GROSS: The guy who's assigned to him - his hit - you know,

HADER: Yeah, his...

GROSS: His handler as a hit man, yeah.

HADER: Yeah, his hit man agent, if you will, who's constantly bullying him to do stuff. And we - I remember Alec and I talking and saying that he should learn how to do this in the acting class. The acting class should be the venue where he goes and learns how to be a more assertive person. And in writing that scene, then you go, well, he needs to start off as not very assertive, and Cousineau needs to tell him how to be assertive in the scene. But then he can take that into the real world.

And so it was just working backwards. So then it was like, OK, well, how's he going to be - not be assertive? So he should do a scene and not be assertive. And then I think I pitched, what if he did the Alec Baldwin scene, but nice? And everyone laughed, and there you are.

GROSS: Bill Hader stars in the HBO comedy series "Barry." He's nominated for five Emmys. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. And we'll hear from a former "Saturday Night Live" writer, John Mulaney. He's nominated for four Emmys, two for his work hosting and writing for "Saturday Night Live." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


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.