Bill Hader’s ‘SNL’ Anxiety Inspired His Violent New Role as an Assassin
In HBO’s ‘Barry,’ Hader plays a lonely hitman desperate to ditch a life of killing. He explains how his crippling ‘SNL’ stage fright provided the show’s surprising source material.
In Barry, Bill Hader plays a cold-blooded assassin. The role is loosely based on his own life. Really.
When we meet in a HBO conference room a few weeks before the darkly comic series—which Hader co-created, stars in, writes, and directs—premieres, the Saturday Night Live alum is in one of those bleary-giddy states of an actor midway through an exhausting press tour: semi-delirious and exhausted, but candid only in the way someone excited about his project can be.
The Barry push isn’t as grueling as, say, when he circled the globe promoting the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck. “I was like, I can’t answer what LeBron James was like again,” Hader says, first droll and then erupting into a sort of unshakable giggle—a pattern throughout our conversation. ”By the end of that, I was like just Google it. Just Google my name and LeBron James and you’ll see my answer, the same answer, a million times.”
The line of questioning isn’t so obvious this go-round, probably because the project is so unusual—especially because of how rooted it is in his own life experience.
When we meet Barry Berkman in a hotel room with his recently shot-in-the-head target bleeding out in the background of the frame, what you’re struck by is the mundanity of it all. He’s doing the “pat check” on his pockets—keys? wallet? phone?—and giving the beleaguered sigh of an office drone, drained and ready to clock out for the day. The blood-stained corpse just to his left might as well be a stack of papers on a cubicle desk.
Even the name Barry. “It’s such a whatever name,” Hader laughs.
When Barry gets sent to Los Angeles for a job that requires staking out an acting class, his world sort of opens up. Surrounded by the lunacy and deluded ambition of these aspiring performers, he’s bit not so much by the acting bug, but by the allure of a community, a goal, and a way out. He’s good at killing. He’s terrible at acting. But he desperately wants to leave one for the other.
What follows is a tonal dance between the ridiculousness of the L.A. theatre scene, the bluntly portrayed violence of his assassin work, and the existential ennui of a guy who’s bored and unhappy with his life. And, to reiterate, it wildly all stems from Hader’s own life.
“Hitman wants to be an actor, that’s a premise,” he says. “There’s no emotion in it.” To tap into something he could relate to and play, he dug into his experience with crippling anxiety during his time on Saturday Night Live, something he actually just referenced while returning to Studio 8H as host this past weekend.
Hader, it need not be said, was extremely good on SNL. He was an Emmy nominee for his work, having created indelible characters like Stefon, Herb Welch, and Vincent Price. Easily, he was one of the most valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Players the show has cast.
He knew he was good at the comedy, too. Yet every time the red light would go on, he’d freeze with stage fright. “It’s just the minute they say ‘we’re live,’ it’s a level of anxiety I never felt before,” he says. Each and every time, for eight seasons on the show, “I was trying everything in my power to remain calm.”
From there, the concept for Barry sprouted. “It was a feeling of the thing that you’re good at and you’re making a good living at kind of destroys you because you’re so terrified of it,” he says.
In the series, Barry finds a lot of what he learns in acting class to be therapeutic, taking lessons about standing up for yourself and finding your voice into the world of hitmen, where he was used to simply following orders—orders he was increasingly feeling uncomfortable carrying out.
For Hader, there was therapy. He took up transcendental meditation, which he still practices. He started exercising, and cut certain foods out of his diet. We start laughing. Obviously the days of SNL lore when cocaine passed around the writer’s room as freely as coffee are long over, but it’s still jarring to hear backstage portrayed as this yogi commune Hader is describing.
“When I was there everyone had trainers, was taking Lexapro, and was like, ‘My Klonopin is out. Anyone have Klonopin?’ Or, ‘I need green tea.’ Everyone ate really healthy.” He starts that wheezing giggle again, the one that doesn’t so much interrupt as it does soundtrack most of his stories. “We’d have hosts come in and be like, ‘Let’s party!’ But we’re like, uh, we have to go home and sleep. We have to work tomorrow. I had kids, man.”
Barry’s not the first character Hader’s played who was born out of his anxiety issues. Stefon, funnily enough, was, too.
Because of his nerves, it was always Hader’s instinct to shield his face when he was on camera. Especially when he was on Weekend Update, talking directly to camera, he often wanted to duck his head or turn away.
“So I’m trying everything I can to not do this,” he says. “I’m trying to keep myself up so I can deliver my stuff. I would rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it, so I had it, so I could work through that. That’s how I worked for a while. It was really hard.” With Stefon, though, he finally got to do what he wanted to do. “That’s where covering the face came from.”
Through therapy, he started figuring out what it was that he was afraid of. Something going wrong, he would say. So, have things gone wrong? Well, yes. And how are you afterwards? Well, actually I’m fine.
“Then I realized this term anticipatory anxiety, the idea of the anticipation of getting to a thing that is the hard thing,” he says. “So it’s all the lead up that makes me anxious. Then once it’s happening and done, I’m fine.” He talked about all this with Alec Berg, his co-creator, and Berg told him to put that into the show. “Let’s make him a killer, not a tough guy.”
Telegraphing the tone of the series, as you might have surmised, was a challenge. “It’s very weird when you can talk about the movie Unforgiven when you’re pitching a comedy series to HBO,” Hader laughs.
There is outright comedy, a lot of it inspired by the time Hader and Berg spent observing L.A. acting classes, where many of the theater students would perform “scenes” from movies. One day, they watched a male student perform a piece from Training Day, and he kept referring to his character as “Denzel.” One pivotal moment in Barry revolves around performing a scene from Doubt, but not the play; Barry plays “Philip Seymour Hoffman” to a fellow student’s “Meryl.”
But then, too, this is a series in which the protagonist ruthlessly kills people. Berg is friends with Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff, and after Benioff watched it he told Berg, “Man, the end of episode three is dark.” Hader’s response: “Uh, you make fucking Game of Thrones…”
That darkness became tricky, too. He knew people would be on high alert for comedy, given who he is, so he purposely tried to strip the murder scenes of obvious humor notes. But then he stumbled on an unexpected, natural reaction people have when they watch an assassin dressed all in black skillfully wield a gun and kill bad guys. “Afterwards people were like, ‘Yeah that was rad when you blew those people away at the end,’” he remembers. That was not the intention.
He starts giggling manically. “A couple women on the crew were like, ‘You look kind of like sexy when you shoot those guys.’ What?! No one had ever told me I was sexy before in my life. They were like, ‘I don’t know you have this gun and you kill these guys and it’s kinda hot…’ I was like wait a minute! No! We failed!”
In the end, of course, he figured a way to temper his, um, hotness. In fact, he managed to nail the very specific, very complicated tone, if he says so himself. One thing he keeps mentioning during our conversation is that he’s really proud of Barry. That it’s a show that he would watch, and would love. That, after writing it, directing it, and starring it—acting in a capacity we’ve never seen him do before, by the way—it turned out as he would have hoped. If others don’t like it, that’s fine. But he stands behind it.
That’s another thing he learned from SNL. “I felt better when I failed if I failed on my own accord,” he says. “If I failed on a thing I wrote, I thought was funny, and then we did the sketch and it didn’t work. I could be like, ‘Well, I thought it was funny.’” As far as he’s concerned? Barry kills.