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Bill Hader Doesn’t Think He’s ‘That Good’ on ‘Barry,’ But Season 1 Proves He’s One of the Greats

As a newcomer to the theater, the star of HBO's hit(man) comedy gives a masterclass in acting when he's on and off the stage.

Barry Season 1 Bill Hader HBO

Bill Hader in “Barry”

John P. Johnson/HBO

In the moment, it pushes Sally into the place she needs to be to impress the agent she invited. Sally calls his performance “generous,” but Barry doesn’t see that. The hurt feels like too much for him. He’s processing his own shit, and it’s not until the finale — when Sally explains why what he did was forward progress as an actor — that he finds out it’s all part of the journey. He has to go there if he wants to improve as an actor and a person.

It’s a deeply intense scene — Barry, after all, is coming to grips with the fate of his life’s work up to that point — and Hader captures every part of his pain, even when the character doesn’t realize that’s part of the acting process.

But he’s still really, really funny.

Hader found L.A. theater to be “really funny” after he and Berg sat in for various acting classes in the Valley, they noticed how many of the performed scenes were from movies, not plays. The “True Romance” scene performed in the premiere by Barry’s mark, Ryan (Tyler Jacob Moore), was lifted directly from a scene the co-creators witnessed in real-life.

Noticing that trend led them to incorporate more comedic scenes based on films — like the would-be reenactment of “Doubt” at Ryan’s memorial or even the reference to “Yojimbo” in the finale — all of which took deliberate choices from the actors to make comical. Look at the “Glengarry Glen Ross” scene from Episode 4, “Commit… to YOU!”:

Barry - Glengarry Glen Ross Coffee HBO

By taking one of the most famous movie speeches and reversing the language from vitriolic shaming to considerate encouragement, Hader not only illustrates Barry’s tendency to submit to everyone around him, he uses an incredibly funny reenactment to do so. The way he smiles and says, “you son of a bitch” and sneaks in the third “prize” — “you’re fired” — is comic gold.

Barry makes a poor choice as an actor. He fails to grasp the intention of the character because he’s not reading the scene from the proper perspective. But Hader makes all the right choices and, in doing so, creates a new take on “Glengarry Glen Ross” that’s as equally funny as the original was dramatic.

Hader sets himself a perilously high bar — then meets it.

In the aforementioned scene, many of Hader’s choices are made for him on the page. The only way the end of the scene works — where Gene calls Barry out on his deference to other people — is if the “Glengarry Glen Ross” scene is performed in a similar manner.

But that doesn’t make the work any less difficult. Time and time again, Hader put down a challenge for himself on the page and then had to meet it onscreen. It’s one thing to write a script believing someone else can bring it to life, but doing so knowing so much of the series’ success rides on your shoulders takes guts.

There’s a make-or-break moment like this in the premiere when Barry gives an impromptu monologue to Gene outside the studio. It’s a long speech; a confessional that Gene takes as an audition. But the audience not only has to believe what Barry is saying, they have to believe Gene would think it’s a performance. That’s a tough line to walk, and Hader does so convincingly.

Later, in the finale, there’s a meta joke that could take you out of the show if not for Hader and Goldberg’s commitment. Sitting in the bar, Sally proposes she and Barry perform a comedy together. “Don’t worry, it’s not a drama,” she says to Barry. “It’s a comedy. All you have to do is talk really loud and fast. Anyone can do it.” By this point in the season, it’s clear “Barry” is adept at shifting between both genres, and this scene epitomizes how:

It begins with Barry trying to quit acting — a very serious choice — and moves toward a personal confession from Sally that’s also more dramatic than not. She peppers in a few jokes, but there’s truth there. There’s truth in Hader’s performance, too. He doesn’t consciously shift gears when the scene turns from heavy subject matter to lighter comedy. He’s in it all the same.

That’s the mark of a great actor: presence. And only a great actor can pull off playing a bad actor, too.

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