Bill Hader on Returning to ‘Barry,’ Teaching Himself to Direct, and Shooting From the Hip

There’s a scene in the first hour of Barry” Season 3 that might just leave you breathless. Two characters (don’t worry—no spoilers here) have just been on the chase of their lives and are now sitting together on a couch. The script, in very few words, reveals an unexpectedly moving layer of one of their identities.

Episode director, series co-creator, and star Bill Hader shot this scene in extreme close-up, allowing the actors’ faces to convey the terrifying feeling of being trapped inside who they are. Shadows falling across their profiles evoke the expressionistic work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman. “The shot sizes for that were kind of purposely done to have a wide angle on [the actors],” Hader says. The effect is intended to make the scene look “distorted and a little severe” in its intimacy—an appropriate stylistic choice, considering the show’s subject matter. 

“When I was first directing, I came into it very much like a student. I love watching movies and learning from them, so I was seeing what others were doing.”

Hader stars on the HBO series as Barry Berkman, the eponymous hitman who’s contemplating making a career shift into acting. As an actor playing an actor, his performance swings between dark comedy and constant heartbreak. Barry is powerless to prevent his brutal past from defining his future and his relationships. The process of writing the character alongside co-creator Alec Berg has made Hader’s performance tighter without losing that element of dangerous surprise.

Hader was nominated for Emmys in 2018 and 2019 for his directorial work on the series (he directed five episodes across the first two seasons, with more to come in its third), and he won the award for best actor in a comedy both years.  

Since the show premiered in 2018, Hader has developed an astute instinct for his craft on both sides of the camera; he’s a shot-caller who shoots from the hip. 

“When I was first directing, I came into it very much like a student,” he says. “I love watching movies and learning from them, so I was seeing what others were doing.”

For Hader, stepping behind the camera was always the goal. “I kind of got into acting and writing and all that stuff as a way of hopefully being able to direct one day,” he explains. 

Hader grew up as the older brother of two sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father held various jobs, including taking occasional gigs as a comedian, and his mother taught dance. “I found it really exciting to see dancers in the studio rehearsing and then doing shows,” he remembers.

While he was an energetic child with a penchant for being the class clown, films and books were a calming respite. When the family spent time together, they watched movies; he cites Mel Brooks and Monty Python as early inspirations. As a teenager, his taste expanded as he exposed himself to the works of Stanley Kubrick, Jean Cocteau, Martin Scorsese, and Federico Fellini. 

“I find writing to be the hardest part…. You write a scene, and you think it works. And then, a couple of days later, you read it and go, ‘What was I thinking?’”

He moved to Los Angeles in 1999, found work as a production assistant, and eventually became an assistant editor. Then, seeking a change of pace—much like his character on “Barry”—he discovered improv at Second City. 

In 2005, he made “a massive leap forward” when he debuted as a featured player on “Saturday Night Live.” There, he learned how to perform and created indelible impressions of celebrities like Vincent Price, Clint Eastwood, and Lindsey Buckingham. He added original characters to his roster, too, including loud-mouthed talk show host Vinny Vedecci and the dim-witted Devin of “The Californians.” 

You can trace Hader’s influences back to his early years in Tulsa. His outlandish, chatty Stefon—perhaps his signature creation from his eight-season run on “SNL”—has all the extravagance of a Fellini character. As a director, his camera movements have the vibrancy of the ’70s masters he loves so much. The witty lines he writes for the most violent scenes on “Barry,” meanwhile, have a streak to them that evokes Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” 

“I find writing to be the hardest part of the process,” he admits, “because you’re starting with nothing, and it can become anything. So you kind of build a thing and you write a scene, and you think it works. And then a couple of days later, you read it and go, ‘What was I thinking?’ ”

He credits “SNL,” along with a stint on “South Park” with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with giving him writing chops in the first place. “I’m still not very good at writing sketches or jokes,” he says. But the live element of “SNL” allowed him to see firsthand how to create tension. “I couldn’t write the way Tina Fey and Seth Meyers write,” he explains. “But watching them work made me realize I enjoy writing long-form, which is why, to me, every season of ‘Barry’ feels like a long movie.” 

It’s been three years since audiences last saw “Barry,” and when production on the third season paused as a result of the pandemic, Hader took the time to write and rewrite again. The shutdown gave he and his collaborators an opportunity to fine-tune to their hearts’ content. 

“Sometimes, things logically make sense and emotionally make sense, but they are totally uninteresting and not fun to watch at all,” says Hader of the way that he approaches crafting scenes on the page. “You’re constantly trying to have all these plates spinning to try to, hopefully, make it work.”

Then, it’s about getting the scene to land on its feet on the day. Season 3 of “Barry” picks up right after Barry’s acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Emmy winner Henry Winkler), makes the gruesome discovery that his student hasn’t reformed his murderous ways. In fact, he’s only increasing his body count, taking down anyone who gets in his way. 

By now, Hader knows Barry so well that getting into character is just about “connecting with the other actor and trying to be honest with what the guy is feeling,” he says. In the case of his droll hitman who can’t seem to escape his fate, that often means boiling his interpretation down to one thing: “This guy just really wants to be loved.”

Hader rarely, if ever, re-watches his performances. “It’s all terrible,” he says. “I think it’s just because, in your head, you’re doing one thing, and then you see the reality.” Because he knows he might get too wrapped up in the differences between what he imagined and the final result, Hader similarly doesn’t make his acting process a ritual or something overly precious. In order to find his way into a scene, he “sneaks up on it.” 

“I don’t like thinking about it too much, because then it starts to feel weirdly forced,” he says. “The way to do it is, five minutes before the scene starts, you go [away] and you’re quiet for a little bit; you’re thinking about the scene, you’re thinking what you have to do, and then you do it.” 

This method is partly about knowing what works best for him and partly about self-preservation. Throughout his career, Hader has been outspoken about the role that anxiety has played in his life. On an episode of “Any Given Wednesday,” he talked about how he once had a panic attack on “SNL” in the middle of a sketch in which he was playing Julian Assange. 

“I would get anxiety in the form of what felt like the flu, where I’d feel dizzy and fatigued, [and it] would go on for weeks,” he explains. When a therapist told him that it could be due to anxiety, he found a source of relief and empowerment in the ability to name his symptoms. “Literally saying to myself, ‘This is anxiety,’ helped me immensely,” he says. These days, he practices mindful breathing and meditation and has reduced his caffeine intake. “Before ‘SNL’ episodes, I’d drink coffee, because I’d be so tired,” he remembers. “But coffee can actually make you very anxious.” Now he has what he calls “a strategic coffee during the day.”

He knows he needs to keep that energy up as he goes into working on Season 4 of “Barry.” He says the break between Seasons 2 and 3 improved his writing process,  and he and Berg already have “most of” the show’s next steps outlined. Rather than grapple with where “Barry” is headed beyond that (“It’s too overwhelming,” he says), Hader is trying to remain present in the possibilities of the moment. 

“The act of making the thing is where it’s at,” he says, likening his work to a mountain worth the climb. At the end of the day, he can stand back and just enjoy the view. “Whoa, I made that—and it was good!” he says. 

But before he lets that feeling satisfy him, he laughs and concludes: “All right, on to the next thing.”

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Photographed by GL Askew II on 3/1 at Sony Pictures Entertainment - Overland Garage in Culver City, CA. Styled by Mark Holmes and groomed by Randi Petersen. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.