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Interview: Bill Hader Talks ‘The Skeleton Twins,’ Judd Apatow’s ‘Trainwreck’, And His Top 200 Comedy Films

Interview: Bill Hader Talks ‘The Skeleton Twins,’ Judd Apatow’s ‘Trainwreck’, And His Top 200 Comedy Films

Two films released over the weekend, “The Skeleton Twins” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” feature actor, writer, and “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Hader shifting towards dramatic material. The occasion may have been expected —“SNL” cast members have long attempted drama, with mixed results— but to follow that view is to lose sight of the incredible range, dramatic or otherwise, that Hader possesses.

A skilled writer and performer on projects like “Superbad,” “South Park,” and “Hot Rod,” voice roles in two of Pixar’s upcoming films (“The Good Dinosaur” and “Inside Out”), a lifelong passion for cinema evidenced through programming for Turner Classic Movies —Hader remains a reliable collaborator in whatever he tackles, and in director Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins” he paired with his longtime comedic partner Kristen Wiig (review here).

In Johnson and writer Mark Heyman’s film, which picked up a Best Screenwriting award at Sundance, Hader and Wiig play depressed siblings on the brink of suicide who reconnect in their suburban New York hometown. Riding a wave of dark humor, surprisingly emotional turns and a lip-sync sequence set to Starship” “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” the film wonderfully showcases Hader as Milo, a struggling actor who attempts to rekindle a romance with his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell). We recently sat down with Hader to discuss his complex role, but first we had to ask about his most recent cinephilic obsessions.

We recently featured a piece on your Top 200 Films for Comedy Writers to See. Were you stressed out over laying down something so definitive?
Yeah, I’ve already changed it like 100 times. [laughs]

When did you compile that list?
Mike Sachs interviewed me for his book “Poking a Dead Frog,” and he was nice enough to show me the interview afterwards. I read it and just thought I was completely pontificating about how comedy works. To be honest, I don’t know how comedy works. I have some theories and I just do it. So instead I said, “you know what? What if I just gave you a list of movies?” And he thought that was great.

In my mind, I had a list of 10 or 20 movies, but it just ballooned to 200. I just couldn’t stop. You go crazy. I think I sent him one list and then immediately said, “I didn’t send any Jean Vigo movies, you have to have those. And oh wait, all of the Lubitsch movies need to be in there too.” I think I sent him four different versions, promising each time it was the last list.

So a Top Ten of your favorite films is forever out of the question?
Top Ten lists make me insane. I just know they’re going to change daily. I’ll be watching a film —like recently I saw “Dog Day Afternoon” on a plane— and you realize, “oh this is one of the greatest movies ever made. This could easily be one of my favorite films.” Or “Ran”, which I just caught on Blu-ray.

Just the climax of that film alone is incredible.
And the craziest thing is he burned down that entire town. They had one shot where they had the actor walk out and covered it with 80 cameras or something. That’s for real. Like…what? Kurosawa just comes in and he’s like, “no, we’re really going to burn this place down. Don’t trip.”

I did actually have to pick only 16 films for Turner Classic Movies. I had done stuff with them before for Essentials Jr. and their Friday Night Spotlight, but now I programmed a lineup of road movies for November. I went crazy on that list too, but this year I had a little help. I sent a list to Edgar Wright, and he recommended “Slither” with James Caan, which I finally saw and realized, “yeah, that movie’s fucking nuts.”

So I went to TCM and said “add Slither.” They said, “okay. That movie’s nuts though.” [laughs]. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, that one.

Were you able to bend Robert Osborne to your will and make him intro it?
No, I actually never saw him. It’s just me introducing the movies. But it was a balancing act, trying to find movies that mesh —we did Ida Lupino‘s “The Hitchhiker,” “Gun Crazy,” some other ‘70s ones like “Five Easy Pieces.” A lot of movies from 1973 too, which was an insane year: “Scarecrow,” “Badlands,” and “The Last Detail,” and “Slither”.

Speaking of catching up with films, I was glad to finally catch “They Came Together” and your role in it.
Yeah, that was a blast. I’ve been a big fan of David Wain’s and was honored to get to be in one of his projects. My scenes with Ellie Kemper were actually all shot last November. David showed us the movie that they already shot, and told us they we were going to fill in these spots, similar to when they were filming “The Princess Bride.” They had a movie, and then only later did they decide to have this storybook structure with Peter Falk and Fred Savage.

How is it going from roles like that to “Trainwreck,” where you’re now the romantic lead?
“Trainwreck” is a totally different thing, way more grounded. But I think what people are going to be talking about is Amy Schumer, who’s just amazing. She’s basically a classically trained actress who went into standup comedy. There were scenes in the movie —she did one with me, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, and Mike Birbiglia all crying, and it was both really moving and funny at the same time. I think people are going to be surprised by her.

An amazing and odd cast, too. Lebron James shows up?
Yeah, Lebron James plays my best friend in the movie. He’s sort of the Bruno Kirby to my Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally.” Who else shows up… Vanessa Bayer, a lot of sports guys like Amare Stoudemire.

I’ve heard you talk about your preparation for comedic impressions as locating the specific rhythms of a person and then the rest flowing from there. How do you tweak that approach when you enter something like “Trainwreck” or as Milo in “The Skeleton Twins”?
As you approach a comedy it definitely feels different. With something like “They Came Together,” it’s just a crazy tone and I’m able become a different person from scene to scene, or even in the middle of one. For “Skeleton Twins,” I really just took what Craig wrote. You can do a lot of research and have thoughts on who you are, but when you get to set the way it’s laid out, the way your wardrobe fits, that all affects the performance. Craig trusted us to try a lot of things, and it’s a testament to Craig and his editor Jennifer Lee how well it worked. There were things that were too funny and others that were too sad, and they just pieced it together wonderfully. I think the film’s biggest strength is its very odd tone.

But I like trusting a director. I was that way at “SNL” with writers, basically the directors of the sketches, very much trusting them and seeing what they want me to do. Because usually they will knock you out of your comfort zone and make you work harder. I’ve seen people who come to work say, “no, I’m doing it this way and that’s that.” I’m the opposite —I like being out of my element; it’s where I like to live.

“The Skeleton Twins” is now playing in theaters.

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