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‘Barry’ Star Bill Hader Looks Back on Final Season, Details His Biggest Film Influences: “The Most Obvious Is the Coen Brothers”

The fourth and final season of Barry was unlike its previous three, with the HBO comedy becoming darker and deadlier as hitman Barry Berkman (co-creator Bill Hader) reaches his endgame. Yet the Television Academy’s love for the show didn’t waver; after winning nine Emmys in its first three seasons — including lead actor wins for Bill Hader and a supporting actor trophy for Henry Winkler — Barry returns to competition with 11 nominations, including four for Hader (for acting, directing, writing and producing the series) and individual nods for supporting actors Winkler and Anthony Carrigan.

Bill Hader

Bill Hader Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Speaking with THR the day of the nominations announcement, Hader details how the writing team figured out that a midseason eight-year time jump was the best way to tackle the end of Barry’s story, telegraphs his disappointment that co-stars Sarah Goldberg and Stephen Root were passed over for Emmy noms, and reiterates that no matter how dark the show got, Barry still makes him laugh.

Did you and co-creator Alec Berg have any idea where Barry, or any of the other characters, would end up when you began the show?

No, we had no idea. It wasn’t really until during the pandemic when we were breaking season three that we started to go, “Oh, things could be heading this direction …” By the end of season three, Barry is going to prison, and it started to become clear where all the other characters should go.

So was it while you were writing season three that you identified season four as the perfect endpoint?

Yeah. Once Barry goes to prison, it’s all downhill from there.

Did you feel that every season needed to top the one before it? In season three, you had that intense freeway sequence. Did you think, “We have to go bigger and bolder”?

Season four was almost the opposite. It became a quieter season in a way. And there was a moment where we thought that instead of an action sequence, what if we did a time jump? The characters are different people, but they’re still acting. Eight years later, they’re acting in real life. They’re trying to be able to live with themselves. To be honest, episode five … The show is usually so fast-paced, so it was interesting for us to do [an episode] that’s just Barry, Sally and their kid out in the middle of nowhere. For everybody on the team, that was our favorite episode — that was the one that we got the most joy in writing, shooting and editing. I really love all the work, especially Sarah Goldberg’s.

That episode takes some risks, not just narratively but tonally. Were there any particular opportunities you wanted to take advantage of with the time jump?

It kind of presented itself [in the writers room]: He’s going to get out of prison, he escapes, takes Sally with him. What happens next? When we started breaking down, “whatever’s next” felt really boring. So, why don’t we just jump ahead eight years, and they have a kid? And then everybody went, “Oh yeah, that’s interesting!” You just kind of know when you’ve struck on the thing.

The time jump also requires the viewer to fill in the blanks when it comes to how Barry and Sally spent those years. Did you and Sarah talk about that with one another? Or did you lean into the mystery?

You kind of lean into it and make it simple. In the writing, we don’t talk at all about where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing. It’s just about the present. You have to infer where they’re at. Good performers like Sarah are able to fill that out — they can make those moments really work.

And Stephen Root, who has an even bigger transformation —

I thought Steven and especially Sarah were just phenomenal this season — really, really unbelievable performances. Sarah did stuff that season that I’ve never seen; the range she had was like nothing I’ve seen. It’s very rare to be in the edit room and see someone who can take your breath away.

How do you bring the humor into the show? Is it baked into the scripts, or does it happen organically on set?

This set is very loose. We move incredibly fast. Gavin Kleintop, the first AD, and I have worked the day out with [executive producer] Aida Rodgers to a very well-oiled machine. I think that lends itself to being very relaxed. Everybody’s in a good mood because we know what we’re doing. We’re moving, we’re getting everything done. Episode five, for instance, we were in a great mood. I actually find that episode incredibly funny — and very few people do. (Laughs.) When I watch that episode, it’s so funny. When they’re all eating in the dark, or Barry is reading shit on the internet, trying to make himself feel better … (Laughs.)

The comedy has a distinct point of view, and I think you’re right — people either get it or they don’t. But it really recognizes the absurdity and humanity of the show’s characters.

Everyone understands [what it’s like to try] to feel better. But the way Barry’s doing it, and trying to feel safe … What he’s doing is really extreme and kind of insane. I don’t know, I find it really funny. But I sometimes say that to people and they’re like, “What? It’s one of the most depressing episodes of television I’ve ever seen.” (Laughs.)

I know you’re a huge film buff. You directed every episode of this season, so I’m curious if there were any films, or directors, that particularly inspired you.

You know, usually that stuff happens in retrospect. You’re watching it in the mix, which is the final phase, and that’s when you’re relaxed and a lot of the heavy lifting is done. That’s when you go, “Oh, wow, I guess this is like [that movie].” There’s a transition where Barry has this vision of a wedding party going from the desert into this wedding ceremony. I was watching that and had no idea where that came from. Maybe it’s like those old Italian movies — they always seem to have processions out in the middle of nowhere. It’s more like picking up weird moments, but it’s all there. You read a bunch, get excited by people like Flannery O’Connor or Tobias Wolff or George Saunders or Charles Portis, and then it kind of seeps out in your work. The [inspiration] that’s the most obvious and embarrassing to me is the Coen brothers. It’s so clear that I feel like I owe them money.

Over the course of four seasons, what did you learn about yourself as an actor, a writer and a director?

To know that I’ve grown as a filmmaker is really rewarding. But I also know that I’m 45 and I put on weight way faster than I used to. That’s what I really learned, that I’m suddenly 25 pounds overweight. How the hell’d that happen? I’ve learned I can’t eat sweets the way I used to. I think it was toward the end of the season that the costume designer was like, “I think you need to wear bigger clothes. You’re wearing a large, and, well …” (Laughs.) We’ve got to go up a size, or three. Great!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This interview was conducted before the July 14 launch of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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