“Barry,” HBO’s award-winning series launched last March, blends lighthearted, whimsical humor with dark, emotional themes. The show has received positive responses, winning two Primetime Emmy Awards.
The show stars Bill Hader as a former United States Marine, Barry Berkman. Barry, a Midwestern hit man, travels to Los Angeles for a hit — only to fall in love with the target’s acting class, led by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler).
The Hoya talked to Hader about his experience working on the show as creator, director and lead actor. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
This season is a lot more darker than the first and takes a deeper look into Barry’s psyche and the inner truths of the other characters. Did you find it challenging to balance the comedy and drama aspects as you were delving into these deeper character traits?
Yeah, that is always the hard thing about this show — going too far one way or the other. What we end up doing to not overthink it is, you try to follow the truth of the character. You need to ask, “What would they do there?” Sometimes that lends itself to being funny and sometimes it can be really sad. But it is a whole process. We write the scripts and they tend to be too dark, so we add more comedy to certain aspects.
The end scene [of episode three] was so emotionally charged. How did you come up with that scene, because it shows that Barry is unable to come to terms with the fact that he can and does hurt people?
That’s a good question; I don’t remember how it came up. You try to find a situation for your main character that they do not want to be in and you work backwards. It just happens organically if you are focused on what your main character’s dilemma is and how the other characters would push Barry. It is fun, though, because we do not recognize how cool a scene is until we are in the edit room. Initially, it was all wide shots, but I asked the editor if we could just hold on my face and see Barry thinking. It was a bit like if a teacher calls on you in class and you do not want to talk.
The character of NoHo Hank was widely considered to be a breakout star in the first season. Was that role always intended to be the comic presence or did actor Anthony Carrigan bring something special to the table that changed that character?
The character was always supposed to be funny. I went to the Genius Bar at Apple and the employee was kind of like him. So I thought that we should have an overly nice sidekick to the mob boss. However, Anthony then took it to a totally different place than we were expecting. That character was supposed to die in the pilot, which is why he gets shot in the car. When the show got picked up, Alec [Berg] and I realized that we could not let that guy die because he was so funny. And then every writer that we hired said, “You are not getting rid of NoHo Hank, are you?” Anthony owns that character, so we try to find certain positions for him to be in.
There is a very interesting scene in episode three when Gene prompts Barry to get in touch with his inherent darkness and Barry responds that it is not inherent. This gets at one of the central questions of the show, which is to understand what it means to be a good person. What was your approach to finding new and deeper ways to explore this in season two?
Well, I am glad you said that because we shot a close-up of that and we realized that it would be too obvious. However, it is an important line. Like I said earlier, you just try to be honest with every step of the story. As far as going deeper with Barry, we had these daydreams in the first season of what he wanted his life to be like. In order to have those, you need to reconcile with your past, so we decided to have Barry reflect on that in this new season. That is the big question for Barry: Am I born a killer?
You talked about the psyche of Barry earlier and it seems that this season is delving further into his possible PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Why is it brought up more this season and how did you do research on PTSD?
It is interesting that PTSD keeps coming up because I do not think that we ever talked about it in the writers’ room. It was more about Barry’s current position as a contract killer and him realizing that the first time he killed someone during war was the first time he ever felt a sense of community in his life. It is less about PTSD and more about this question of whether or not Barry is evil, which he asks Hank at one point. That is where we came from, which is why there was no research done on PTSD — because we did not see it as a subject. I think the reason why Barry’s memories of Afghanistan are appearing more is because we are delving into his past. I always approach this as if you are meeting someone for the first time; unless they are a self-absorbed actor, you usually do not get to know someone for a while. So, the first season was getting to know people, and you meet Sally, who seems like this sweet actress that cares about Barry, and then you see her turn. And then this season we have gotten to know the characters for a year and these are the sort of things you learn about people.
I know that you did improv earlier on in your career. How accurate is the depiction of acting and improv classes in Barry?
I never had those types of acting classes. The classes in the show are not improv acting. Improv acting classes are teaching you to trust your instincts and play off the other person, whereas these classes are taking from a previous work. Alec and I sat in on one or two acting classes before we wrote the pilot and that is the only real acting classes that I have seen. So a lot of it is actually asking the actors on the show what it is like.
We are assuming that Detective Moss [Paula Newsome] is no longer alive. However, the first season finale ends on a cliffhanger regarding her fate. Were there ever discussions about possibly bringing her back or did you know where the story would go while shooting the finale?
No, we had no idea. We did not know what happened to her, so that was our very first day of writing season two. I said, “What do you guys think happened to Moss?” And the writers started laughing. We just did not know and we had a lot of different ideas which kept morphing and ended up with her death.
In addition to playing the protagonist, you also direct several episodes of the show. How does directing an episode affect your performance?
Well, you would think that I would make it easy on myself and do short days, but I don’t. You think that it will be cool to have your own TV show and write, direct, produce, star in it, but we are currently editing the season finale and my brain is mush. I have no idea what is good anymore. Why did I do this to myself?
You previously said that you approached the first season as a movie. Did you use that same approach for season two?
Definitely. I love movies and that kind of storytelling, which tells one complete story in a season.
Where would you say the role of Barry ranks among your other roles?
I don’t know. Every one of them is fun and different, so just being able to do this at all is amazing. For me, I just want to do something different every time and challenge myself.