“Barry” is a story filled with payback. Rival mafia gangs order retaliatory hits as payback for dwindling numbers. Even Barry’s (Bill Hader) decision to stick with his acting class is, on some level, a way to get back at Fuches (Stephen Root), his manipulative handler.
A character who doesn’t get that same sense of revenge is Sally (Sarah Goldberg), one of Barry’s classmates. In last week’s episode, a meeting with her potential agent goes from hopeful to predatory when he tells Sally, “I get to this point with a lot of my prospective clients where I have a decision to make: Do I wanna sign them or do I wanna fuck them?” The jarring comment hangs in the air as Sally, unsure of how to respond, pauses, then fumbles until the agent tries to play it off as joke.
“What I thought was so brilliant about what they wrote was in the moment that happens, it’s still baffling and confusing that she ends up apologizing and trying to ease his embarrassment instead of standing up for herself,” Goldberg told IndieWire. “I haven’t had anything that extreme happen, but I’ve had some moments that you look back on and you have that ‘ick’ feeling.”
Later, when Sally goes in for an audition, she’s turned away after the agent denies being her actual representation. It’s a sequence of violation and betrayal of trust that “Barry” doesn’t overemphasize. In fact, aside from one or two passing comments and Sally’s intense emotional reaction sitting alone in her car, the show doesn’t explicitly reference it.
“That was the women in the writers’ room standing up for Sally’s character and saying, ‘The tragedy about these circumstances is that in the moment because you’re so shocked, you’re not equipped to say what you would say,'” Goldberg said. “It’s not until later in the car that it hits her after she’d been turned away from the audition, what actually was going on.”
This week, as Sally continues towards her goal of being an actress in LA, there’s no triumphant scene where she gets to confront him. The agent recedes into the background of the show and Sally does her best to deal with her experiences.
“I thought that was really beautiful because you don’t get this moment of vindication. You don’t get this moment where she gets to stand up to him,” Goldberg said. “In a lesser show, I feel like you’d have her moment where she gets to sort of fire back at him and they wrote the beautiful tragic reality of it. It’s not until way later that you realize, ‘Oh God, that actually happened. He got away with it.'”
What that episode did have was a confrontation between Sally and Barry. Soon after spending the night together for the first time, Barry’s surprised at her sudden change in demeanor, not knowing what’s she’s gone through.
John P. Johnson/HBO
“We were careful with that speech because you don’t often have the words at your disposal when you want to say things. Sally’s not really up to speed with the whole conversation that’s going on right now. I don’t think she has time to read the newspaper because she’s reading casting breakdowns. She’s not able to totally stand up for herself in that way, but the feeling is very real and it’s being misfired at the wrong person at the end of an atrocious day of just feeling absolutely squashed by men,” Goldberg said.
It’s a marked difference from Goldberg’s experiences on the show, where she said having this sequence in an episode written by Sarah Solemani and directed by Maggie Carey added a level of understanding to the whole experience. The storyline was filmed before the major real-life revelations of last fall, but it’s a surprising layer of grounded reality in a show that chooses its heightened moments very carefully.
“Maggie’s worked with so many comedians and worked on so many funny shows and had a real energy for that. She gave us all kinds of ideas for trying it a million ways. I was glad I was working with a woman for all of that material,” Goldberg said.
Blending the natural comedy of life and the more difficult experiences of an aspiring performer is not only inherent to “Barry,” but the acting class DNA that helps give it its distinct feel. Goldberg’s background is different from Sally’s —she had acclaimed runs on both the West End and Broadway stages before “Barry” — but those theater roots translate, regardless of whether you’re a transplant from Omaha or classically trained in London.
“There’s a competitive grief atmosphere in acting classes. Like, whoever’s has the biggest trauma is sort of like the winner of the day today or gets the A+. That I could identify with from when I sort of dabbled with method acting classes when I was a teenager,” Goldberg said. “It’s a heartbreaking character because you do see all this potential, and she has some talent and she has a lot of passion, but she’s sort of totally misguided.”
Through the series’ lighter sequences, particularly the tricky scene-within-a-scene performances in the show’s central acting class, Goldberg explained that she’s felt a freedom to experiment with different ideas, even with Hader behind the camera for a few episodes.
“We were all given so much license to create something as a group. You go to Alec and Bill and say, ‘I have this idea for the scene, but I don’t know.’ And they go, ‘Well, do you want to show us, or do you want to surprise us?'” Goldberg said. “That generosity and lack of ego, especially from two men at the top of their field and with so much interesting experience, they were just so open.”
Even for a show where circumstances can change drastically with a single gunshot, Sally’s journey is an example of how “Barry” treats the development of its characters in a much more gradual way. As the rest of this opening season progresses, Goldberg said it’s been gratifying to be able to play someone who responds to the adversity of the industry in a more human way.
“There’s not a moment where she has this epiphany and she needs to change her ways, but they just subtly layered in that slight progression of character, where she does sort of/almost/not quite learn the lesson that she needs to work better with others. But they did a lovely thing where they still got us in a place of searching and it leaves a lot of room for the story to go forward,” Goldberg said.
“Barry” airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.