Bill Hader dons multiple hats for new HBO show ‘Barry’

The former Saturday Night Live cast member directs, produces, writes, creates and stars in a new HBO show about a hitman turned actor in Los Angeles.

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Bill Hader’s latest thespian endeavor doesn’t seat him behind the “Weekend Update” news desk as a tattooed city correspondent with infinite recommendations as to what New York’s hottest club is or put him in a yellow blazer to play an unruly and out-of-touch veteran news reporter. Hader’s latest show takes a more dramatic approach to storytelling and centers around a detached Midwestern hitman displaced in Los Angeles.

“Barry” is an eight-episode dramedy airing on HBO. Currently in its first season, Hader acts as director, executive producer, co-writer and co-creator. He also portrays the show’s protagonist, Barry Berkman, a former marine turned contract killer who ultimately thinks he found his life’s purpose in theater after following a target into an acting class and getting thrown into the spotlight for a scene. Actors Sarah Goldberg, Henry Winkler and Stephen Root are also featured in the show.

Alec Berg, who produced big names including “Silicon Valley,” “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is an executive producer on “Barry” alongside Hader. Hader joked that money brought the duo together, but he actually had Berg’s name in mind when HBO approached Hader and asked him to create a show. This is their first time working together.

Berg and Hader said they wanted to create a character who was unfazed by the high-stakes world of killing but fully invested in his acting class, where the stakes truly couldn’t be lower. This character and the concept for the show challenge mainstream comedic portrayals of hitmen and gun violence, where the action is comedically angled and sensationalized to maintain an amusing tone throughout the work.

“I feel like what this show instinctively was [is] that Alec and I both hate violence … it is prominent in the world right now, especially gun violence, and it’s a world that [Barry] doesn’t want to live in,” Hader said. “So portraying [violence] just for what it is kind of helps story purposes but also I think helps us portray a thing the way... that we feel about it, which is it’s very sad and brutal and demoralizing.”

Elements of “Barry” are derived from Berg’s and Hader’s own lives in the theater circuit. For instance, the acting class Berkman crashes in the pilot, “Chapter One: Make Your Mark,” and the group of people he feels quickly immersed with are drawn from Hader’s experience on “SNL.”

“That to me felt very much like me when I first got on ‘SNL’ where I so badly wanted to be in that community of people,” Hader said. “When I’m looking around and I’m saying, ‘Oh God, that’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers,’ and all these people were on the cast when I started—Will Forte, Rachel Dratch—and I was just like, ‘Oh man, how do I stay here because I know it will enrich my life somehow.’”

Even deeper than his longing for a sense of belonging on NBC’s historical crown jewel and camaraderie with his castmates, Hader said he turned to the anxiety he experienced from the live-performance element of SNL as inspiration for his conflicted protagonist. Even being a seasoned performer with eight years’ worth of original characters, sketches and impressions under his belt, Hader said live performance wasn’t good for him mentally or physically. He draws that parallel in his reticent hitman, showing the drastic effect of Berkman’s God-given talent on his own health and livelihood.

“It [is] more of that idea of Barry being good at killing, but it’s the thing that he’s kind of like really great at but it’s destroying his soul because it’s awful,” Hader said.

Hader is no stranger to the limelight and has made an equally bold mark as a writer and producer as he has an actor. But with his new show, he is sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.

“I found most of directing, to be honest, was just trying super hard to keep your confidence while everybody looked at you like you were crazy,” Hader said. “That’s kind of what it felt like to me.”

“Barry” airs at 10:30 p.m. on Sundays on HBO. The show has been renewed for a second season.

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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