There’s a fair chance that if you check the credits of your latest favorite TV show, video game, or film, Bill Hader’s name is listed somewhere. Jumping from an improv background to “SNL” to a slate of comedic and dramatic characters (“The Skeleton Twins”, “Inside Out”), Hader has proven himself a versatile, essential performer and mind for writers and directors to use when building material. In “Trainwreck” (our review), Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow tapped Hader to handle new territory, however – the leading man role in a romantic comedy, and the straight part role opposite Schumer’s outlandish character.
It’s a balance that Hader successfully finds with Schumer and Apatow at the helm–alongside a believable romantic chemistry as well–and we discussed that aspect in-depth when we chatted to him recently in Los Angeles. Being a huge film fan himself, we also hit on the genre expectations of romantic comedies, his recent roles, and what he learned while working at Pixar and “South Park.”
I remember when we talked last for “The Skeleton Twins” you discussing Lebron James as your “Trainwreck” co-star, but now I realize you completely undersold his presence in the film.
Yeah, I can’t give too much away when I say these things, but I’m so excited. You’re sitting on a secret for a year, and it’s like, “Wait ’til they see how funny Lebron James is, wait ’til they see how good of an actress Schumer is, wait ‘til they see Vanessa Bayer do this.”
I imagine you’re at that stage now with “The BFG” [Steven Spielberg’s Roald Dahl adaptation, in which Hader plays one of the giants].
I can’t say anything at all, except that it’s pretty dope. [laughs]
What was your perception of your “Trainwreck” role going into it? It’s such a change-up for you and romantic comedies in general.
Well, type casting is a real thing. People go, “Oh that’s what he does, let’s put him in that thing.” I always liked actors where there’s a wide range of work. I think of Julianne Moore–my wife and I were watching “Safe”, and it’s one of my favorite performances of hers. I think of her in “Boogie Nights“, then “Big Lebowski,” “The Lost World,” “Far From Heaven“. She does a lot, and I think those sorts of roles are the ones I’ve been attracted to.
I also think there’s something when you come from “SNL.” It’s not a bad thing that people assume you’re going to be in a bunch of comedies–I love comedy–but I feel like the group I went in and out with, Fred [Armisen], Kristen [Wiig], Andy [Samberg], we all were interested in different things, and not going that usual route. To me what was fun about doing this role was the genre. I watch a lot of romantic comedies, and what gets me is when I never buy that the two people are into one another. I mean, “Annie Hall” is one of my favorites, but there isn’t a moment where I don’t buy that relationship. I think that was an important thing for me to try with this movie.
It definitely takes the known building blocks of the genre and finds a different angle. I was thinking about the all-night fight, for one.
Yeah, which you’ve been in before. And also I have a lot of friends who they’re in a relationship, and the minute the honeymoon phase is over they’re just out. I like that scene a lot because Amy wrote it in a way where I don’t want it to happen. Actually, Amy gave me a great piece of direction that day. She said, “What do you think’s going to happen in this scene?” I said, “I think I’m going to come in and say, ‘Hey that was crazy that you kept me up all night, I’m going to go take a shower, take a nap, but then let’s go have dinner and work on this.’ ” She went, “Great.” And we started doing the scene and in the middle of nowhere she just dropped, “I don’t think we should be together anymore.” [mimics bomb drop] It just gave me a lot. She’s a great director.
I love doing that kind of work, and realizing you can do that in a big comedy. I think there’s a feeling that you’re not allowed to, that’s it’s all about big jokes. To me it was just about playing someone real. The movie doesn’t work if I’m saying a lot of jokes. The relationship doesn’t work, the whole thing doesn’t work.
You have to remain in the straight man role.
She has to be this character and I have to balance this thing out. I have to see something in her that she doesn’t see herself. We shot a scene where I steal a horse and get drunk and act crazy. But if he seems like a crazy person, he shouldn’t be operating on people. He can’t level her out. But that’s the fun thing with Judd–he’s never about answers, he’s always about exploring and curious to do so. I remember in one scene he just said, “What if you started smoking weed and you got stoned with her?”
And then we talked about it and realized it didn’t make sense because again, he’s not legitimate anymore. He’s gotta be a fucking rock, loving her for who she is but saying, “You drive me nuts.” My character’s not a surface-y guy, he’s like, “No it bums me out that you’ve slept with a lot of people, it bums me out that you drink. Let’s not break up, let’s just work on it, and she’s not used to that.” And it was those conversations early on and seeing that Amy is just a classically trained actress who decided to do standup. It’s usually about making the jokes go faster in these movies. Just talk faster and make it funnier. And this was not like that.
Well as you were saying, it’s about making the audience feel like it might not go down that path.
Yeah, because everyone has their thing. It was something Judd was really concerned about, that everyone’s argument needed to be valid. When we did rehearsals we would improvise little things and try to find moments. But Amy’s very honest and very in touch with herself. She’s also in touch with her attributes. That eulogy scene, she knocked that out. We were all crying. That night it was a Friday, and I asked her, “Are you going to go home, pass out, have a bath?” And she said, “No, I got a set at the Comedy Cellar, do you wanna come?” It’s just an impulsion for, the way Trey Parker is, too. It’s a very genuine thing.
Actually, one of the more dramatic roles you were in talks to take on was [JFK impressionist] Vaughn Meider in the biopic about his life. It went quiet, though – is that off the table?
I have no idea, it’s hard to figure out. The hard thing with that one is everyone knows where it’s headed so early. It’s a hard one to crack, to be honest. People are still working on it; it’s just a tough one. But I love that story, and I’d love to play that part. Maybe one day a writer will crack it.
And you have the JFK impression at the ready for when they do.
Yeah, yeah, I’m ready to go. I got my part, totally.
Speaking of cracking a certain story or script, it’s been amazing to hear the various rooms you’ve been sitting in with over the course of the past couple years. What have you taken away from sitting in those groups?
Oh man, the best thing I learned from Pixar and “South Park” is that it’s all a process and it’s bad for a long time. Judd’s that way too. He’ll put up the script when it’s only halfway there. He knows it’s bad, and you’ll go to these script readings and people afterwards will say, “It’s not working.” But Judd is confident enough to say, “No, I know it’s not working, but we need to hear it.” And that’s where people get freaked out, they don’t want to do that. Pixar does that, they do these things called Brain Trust Screenings where they put their latest film up in front of Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and all these people, and they just tear the movie apart. They know what they’re going to hit, but it’s just having that confidence of saying, “Here’s where it’s at.” You need to go through this painful time of saying, “What were you thinking there, man?”
I think before I had a really naive view of it as you write it once, do a little rewrite and then you’re done. Perfect script. That’s not the way it works. And then you see that that’s why a lot of things don’t work. People see “Inside Out” or “Book of Mormon” and think they’re amazing. Yeah, because they worked on it for five to seven years, honing it, throwing things out, putting things back in. Just like seeing Amy do standup, she would put in a DVD of her last standup set, watch her set, and take notes. You just hone it, and make it better.
Speaking of honing, how many different film parodies on [upcoming IFC series] “Documentary Now!” did you go through before landing on the ones you have?
Oh, so many. We had written full episodes; we were actually casting an episode, building sets and then realized it didn’t really work and threw the whole thing out. And then John Mulaney wrote a script for us over a weekend and it was hilarious and so we did that. They’re all so much fun. Fred [Armisen]’s character in the “Thin Blue Line” parody we did that Mulaney wrote is my favorite thing in the show. His character really makes me laugh. We were supposed to be in a scene together but I couldn’t because I just kept laughing during it. They had to set us apart.
The show is really a lot of deep cuts. There’s a Blue Jean Committee one, where we’re a soft rock group like Seals and Croft; we got “Nanook of the North.” That one is a 1985 documentary about how “Nanook of the North” was fake, so it’s me as a 75-year-old man in 1975, and then [“SNL” writer/performer] Tim Robinson plays me in 1920 on a documentary crew. But I’ve shown it to people and they seem to like it. Maybe they’re just being nice. Schumer liked it–that was good to hear, because to my point earlier, she’s bluntly honest.
“Trainwreck” opens in theatres July 17th.