[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Barry” Season 1, including the finale.]
Months before “Barry” debuted and the world got to know a bored hitman who finds his dream in a North Hollywood acting studio, Bill Hader wasn’t overly impressed with his work.
“They’re both very hard,” Hader said when asked which was more difficult: acting badly for comedic effect or acting well in convincing fashion. He has to do both in the HBO series, portraying an actor who makes (many) on-stage mistakes while learning his trade and who goes to extreme ends of the emotional spectrum while living his life off-stage.
“For bad acting, watching reenactments in true crime shows was helpful. It really was. I would watch those and imagine, ‘OK, they’re doing too much with their hands,’ or ‘they’re locked onto somebody,’ or ‘everything is overly thought out.'”
“But it’s very hard,” he said. “I don’t think I was that good at it. I feel like other people were [better]. […] D’Arcy Carden was really good at it. Sarah Goldberg was good at it. And I was kind of– I just said words.”
Modesty in Hollywood can be refreshing, and Hader’s efforts to shift praise to his co-stars is admirable. He’s also answered the question many times with various explanations, including on “Conan,” but any diminishment of the Emmy-level work Hader put forth in “Barry” is unacceptable — even a half-joking shrug-off by the star himself.
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Since that interview, accolades for Hader’s work have flooded in, and rightfully so. The Ringer’s Alison Herman praised the lead/creator as “remarkably generous” for crafting a role that “allows Hader to drift freely between Barry’s goofier moments and its dead-serious ones.” For Vox, Caroline Framke said “Hader has one of the best, most malleable faces that’s ever been on television,” and in “Barry” he “challenges himself to use all these skills and then some.” The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson wrote, “Hader’s rubbery mien summons memories of the dolts, doofuses, and oddballs he played on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ of course, but here he upends expectations. […] There are moments in ‘Barry’ when Hader can evoke the cold detachment of Alain Delon in ‘Le Samouraï,’ or of Jerry Orbach as his soul slowly rots away in ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors.'”
Sunday night, the eighth episode of “Barry” drew the curtain on its freshman year. Hader didn’t plum the depths of his conflicted character as turbulently as he had in the penultimate half-hour, but that’s only more cause to note his accomplishments. Much of what Hader did well — beyond well — this season wasn’t as evident as when he’s weeping in a Shakespeare costume or breaking a framed photograph with his fist. Hader’s character work is layered, and each sheet builds to a fully-realized man.
That’s quite an achievement considering Alec Berg didn’t want to make the show at all when Hader first pitched it. (“I said, ‘What if I played a hitman?’ And Alec went, ‘Oof,'” Hader said with a laugh.) So, as a final adieu to his work, let’s look at how he turned Barry Berkman from an unwanted cliche into a uniquely compelling individual.
Hader doesn’t just act — he dissects acting.
As a beginner to the craft, Barry has to learn the basics of acting before he starts putting on plays. Season 1 breaks down many of the misconceptions about what acting is by putting Barry through the paces — and thus doing the same to Hader.
From learning monologues to loosening up via acting exercises, Hader walks the walk of a novice actor learning things that the professional actor behind him clearly already knows. The comic timing of Barry learning about creating a reality for the audience — “What do you see up there on the shelves?” [deep breath] “Gum.” “Gum is at the register, Barry.” — is hilarious. He does everything wrong building the world, from choosing gum to claiming there is no soup on the shelves. Hader makes those choices for the purpose of educating Barry (and the audience), but he also plays him not just as oblivious, but defensive and closed-off. That allows the audience to sympathize with Barry, as his teacher and classmates jump all over him.
Later, during a different scene, Barry is asked to tell Sally he loves her after the two have a romantic falling-out in real life. Even then, he can’t bring his real self into the scene until Gene breaks it down for him. Watching Hader go through the increasingly despondent stages of saying “I love you” to a woman who just broke his heart is equally heartbreaking. Hader understands the purpose and plays each level perfectly, which makes the resulting scene all the more powerful.
These are the kind of vulnerabilities and challenges that face actors who strive to depict honest emotions. They’re not often discussed outside the room, but Hader has such a clear grasp on the purpose of each exercise — and thus each scene — that it makes for an authentic deconstruction of the man as well as his method of self-discovery.
That dissection is for a dramatic purpose: so Barry can learn about himself.
Though the external premise of “Barry” is quite clear — a hitman rethinking his life takes up acting as a means to save it — the character’s internal journey is much more profound. Acting isn’t merely an antithetical profession to his current job, it’s critical to Barry’s self-discovery.
“For us, the acting thing was less about success and more about him trying to figure out something within himself,” Hader said. You can see that play out in the season. Though Fuches points out that Barry could be killed if he becomes a famous actor, that’s not his focus. He’s drawn to acting not for the fame and glory, but because it’s a means of introspection. (And, as Sally notes in the finale, “it’s cheaper than therapy.”)
Look at what he does in Episode 7. There’s no need to get into a detailed recap, but Barry just made a soul-crushing choice in real-life (killing his friend who would’ve exposed him) and carries that into his scene with Sally. As he prepares to step out on stage for his one line, he can’t shut out his imagination. He sees his friend’s wife finding out about his death, going to the funeral, holding her kid, and he slams his head into the wall. He’s so distracted he misses his cue, but when he walks out on the stage he’s in tears. “My Lord,” he says, holding back tears, “The Queen is dead.”