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How Improv And Arnold Schwarzenegger Got Bill Hader Into Acting

Bill Hader in Barry
Bill Hader plays a hitman who discovers acting in HBO's Barry. (Photo courtesy HBO)
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By Darby Maloney with Monica Bushman

When Bill Hader moved to L.A. in 1999, he wanted to be a writer director -- but inadvertently got into acting instead. For Barry, he's getting back behind the camera while also appearing on-screen.

He co-created the HBO comedy with Alec Berg, who's also a writer and executive producer on HBO's Silicon Valley.

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If you haven't seen it yet, Hader plays a professional hitman who stumbles into an acting class, led by a very method-y teacher played by Henry Winkler. Even though he's pretty good at being a hitman, Barry is full of ennui, living his life unhappy and lonely.

Hader stumbled into acting in a similar way, taking improv classes early in his career while he was working as a production assistant on movies.

Hader told KPCC's The Frame:

"And acting was never a thing on my radar. Then I started taking classes at Second City L.A. because I just needed to do something creative. You come out here and then you're like, Wow, I came out here to be creative and I haven't done a single creative thing because I've gotta pay the bills.

"I took those classes out of frustration really, just to do something. And then it led to me getting Saturday Night Live, which was never a thing that I thought of. So the fact that it's taken this weird, circuitous way of getting to the thing that I wanted to do in the first place is great." (By the way, you can subscribe to The Frame on iTunes here.)

Henry Winkler and Bill Hader in HBO's Barry. (Photo by John P. Johnson for HBO)
Hader said that the appeal of combining a hitman with an actor was in the contrast between living in the shadows, anonymously, and wanting to be in the spotlight and be known.

"And then what we liked about it was that the stakes of that was life -- if [Barry] is good at his job of acting, he's risking his life," Hader said. "And that's always good when the stakes are that high for something so stupid."

On a deeper level, Hader said that it's an emotional thing for the character -- working to atone for the bad things he's done while eliciting some kind of emotion.

"And then the irony is that all the acting students are in there drawing on all these kind of awful things that they've done, but if Barry did that, it would unlock some terrible crazy stuff that then could implicate them, and now their lives are at stake. And the more we talked about it, we're like, Oh gosh, there's a lot of stakes here."

Hader's first moment of really falling into acting was while he was PAing on Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage.

"They just said, We need a pilot and you fit the pilot outfit," Hader said. "So I was just an extra. And then Andrew Davis, the director, said to [actor] Elias Koteas, Elias, why don't you ask the pilot how long we've got. And pilot , just say 'Three or four hours, depending on the weather.' And I was next to a guy who was an actual extra and he's looking at me like, You son of a b----. And it didn't end up in the movie, but that's how I got into SAG."

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Alec Berg and Bill Hader, co-creators of HBO comedy Barry on set. (Photo by John P. Johnson for HBO)

The best directors keep it simple, according to Hader.

"To be honest, the best directions as an actor are like, Faster or Slower or, Could you move this way and just a little faster? But when people come up and [say], I think what he's going through is..., my eyes glaze over. Or active things -- that's helpful."

When Hader was working on Superbad, director Greg Mottola gave him a great note, Hader said.

"There was this scene where I'm supposed to yell at [Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character] McLovin. He's in bed with this girl and he's run out on me and I'm mad at him and I'm screaming at him, and I was doing it really broad, like, Oh, this is what'll be funny. And it wasn't working."

That's when Mottola came over and told Hader, "Hey man, that's your best friend."

"And that's all I needed, that was it. So in the next take [I said], 'Hey man, why'd you do that?' And everyone was laughing 'cause it was real."

While Hader's done comedy that's heavily male like Superbad, several women have leadership positions on Barry.

"It wasn't a thing of, Oh god, we need to get women on the show. All these people were people that I met and they just got it," Hader said. "And I've been in the [writers'] room where it is a bunch of white guys, and you kind of create the same thing every time. And when you have women or any diversity in the room, it just makes things better. I learned that at SNL."

Another aspect of the Barry character: he's an ex-Marine who finds a new kind of community in his acting class.

"There was one Marine that I talked to, and he said the best thing about being in the Marines is you have a community. And a lot of these guys, when they get out, they lose a community and they lose their identity," Hader said. "When they're in the Marines, they are a private, a sergeant, a lieutenant. And then they get out and they're just 'Mike.' ... And that's why in the first episode he changes his name to a stage name and he finds a community, so he can live this new identity."

The first season of Barry is available to watch through HBO.

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