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‘Barry’: Bill Hader and Alec Berg on Season 3’s Themes and Why Sally Deserves Better

The co-creators of HBO's acclaimed comedy break down Banshee inspirations, good network notes, and a regular reaction that "really bothers" them.

Barry Season 3 Bill Hader

Bill Hader in “Barry”

Merrick Morton / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Barry” Season 3, through Episode 5, “crazytimeshitshow.”]

When it comes to its titular assassin-turned-actor, “Barry” Season 3 has been rough. Barry Block/Berkman, played by co-creator, executive producer, and director Bill Hader, has been trapped in a downward spiral. He’s killing for hire again. He’s pushed away Sally (Sarah Goldberg), now his ex-girlfriend, and he’s struggled to make amends with Gene (Henry Winkler) — or, really, to even understand how amends should be made.

From his uncontrollable outbursts to his disheveled appearance, Barry is not a person anyone should want to be around. Yet part of the magic the series weaves, week after week, is doing just that: “Barry” finds humor in dark and light corners alike. The ensemble seeks out hope when Barry can’t find it, and the performances are as consistently hilarious as they are uniformly excellent. Even when Barry is frightening — which, again, is quite often — “Barry” is inviting, rewarding, and downright addictive.

Much of that credit belongs to Hader and co-creator Alec Berg, who also serves as executive producer and director. They’ve honored honesty throughout Barry’s bleak arc, just as they’ve grown supporting characters Hank (Anthony Carrigan), Gene, and Sally into well-defined individuals with their own ambitions. But like with any story, its creators can’t control how people will react. Most responses are positive — rave reviews, high ratings, prestigious awards — but in the interview below, Berg and Hader discuss a persistent, pernicious response that bugs them. Read on for their views, along with key questions to remember in the weeks ahead, how reshoots helped improve select episodes, casting secrets, and more.

The following Q&A combines two separate interviews. It has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

IndieWire: It was three years between Season 2 ending and Season 3’s premiere. Knowing you have to establish the tone and explain where Barry’s at mentally, how did you go about writing that opening scene?

Bill Hader: I remember sitting down to write that, and there were a couple of iterations. There was one version that was completely different — I think it took place in the parking lot of a gas station — and then it was like, “Oh, what if it was a more striking kind of opening, [in] more of a lonely place?”

Jonathan Jansen, our location manager, was showing me photos and I just saw that tree and I was like, “Oh, yeah. There.” But as you start writing it, it’s like, “OK, he’s doing these dumb jobs now and everything. Let’s just see where he’s at. So you hear someone begging for forgiveness. And then when you see Barry, he’s just eating a donut and lost in thought.” That should tell you something — where he’s at emotionally. It’s the idea of him basically killing the idea of forgiveness. The idea of forgiveness is just not real to him.

Alec Berg: I think the important thing in any show — in any arc or with any character — is just to nail down, “What does this character want? What’s the thing that they need most in life?” The theme of this season is, largely, repentance [and] forgiveness. So that scene really set the stage in terms of the last time we saw him: He snapped at Fuches and he went bananas and he went on a rampage. Last season’s was, “Is he violent by nature? Can he control it?” We thought that he could control it and he thought he could control it and then, at end of last season, we saw that he can’t. This is not something that he has ownership of and so this season we wanted to start thematically talking about, “Can he be forgiven? We know who and what he is, but how does he go out seeking forgiveness and repentance?”

So the idea of: He’s on a job, and then one of the guys forgives the other guy in the middle of a job, you would think [Barry] would go, “Great. I don’t have to do this anymore,” right? But that’s not where he is. He’s so offended by the idea that this schmuck has been forgiven and no one’s going to do that for him. So is all hope lost or not? How does he go about getting forgiveness?

Barry Season 3 Sarah Goldberg D'Arcy Carden HBO

Sarah Goldberg and D’Arcy Carden in “Barry”

Merrick Morton / HBO

To speak to how Barry inflicts his hopelessness and damage on others, one of the big moments is with Sally, when he comes in with his idea to help Gene and screams at her for rejecting it. Why was it important for Sally to experience that again — to register she’s in another relationship with a dangerous boyfriend?

Berg: Her ex-husband was a violent, abusive man, and Barry clearly is a violent man, so she has a pattern. Then I think the question that we are asking as an audience is, “Should these people end up together? Do they belong together? Should she run like hell, because she’s in another relationship with another dangerous, bad man?”

What’s been fascinating from a storytelling point of view is the number of people who have sort of reacted to Barry and Sally’s relationship from Barry’s point of view and have said, “Nah, I don’t know if I like her for him.” It’s always so fascinating to me. It’s like, “Yeah, she’s a little narcissistic and she can be selfish. [But] he’s a murderer — why are you worried about Barry in this relationship?” Shouldn’t everybody be going, “She should run, not walk.” She’s dating a guy who is a chronic, repetitive murderer, and yet, for some reason, people’s concerns are much more with, “Is he going to be happy with her?”

Hader: It’s weird.

Berg: The level of judgment that we inflict on women who are narcissistic or just seek fame, or who are just seeking that [kind of] career is a conversation unto itself. That definitely applies with Sally. But yeah, that’s a scary note.

Hader: It is very strange to us that [someone] would say, “Sally is so terrible,” And it’s like, “Well, Barry kills people.” I actually did have this [conversation] with somebody recently. I won’t say who it was, but it was a journalist who said, “Yeah, Sally is terrible.” And I said, “Barry kills people.” And [they] were like, “Yeah, but I know you’re not actually killing people, you know?”

...what?

Hader: I know. I was like, “But no, the story… You know what? I feel like you’ve made up your mind.”

But it is a thing that personally really bothers me. I think there’s actually a clip someplace of a woman who says how much she hates Sally, and so I say, “Oh, well Sally is based on me.” — which isn’t necessarily 100 percent true, but I said it just to make her feel bad. No, [I’m kidding.] But it is somewhat true. Especially this season, I relate to what Sally’s going through a lot, as far as her show and things like that. But, yeah, killer versus ambitious actress. To me, it’s pretty clear who you should be worried about.

I’d be curious how those viewers react to a scene like the one in Episode 5, when Barry tries to comfort her after “Joplin” gets canceled and he just ticks of one extreme psychological revenge plot after another.

Hader: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was also a fun scene because that’s him thinking he’s being close to her. It’s his way of being like, “Well, I’ll just show you a little of myself, and you’ll respect me, or you’ll just understand me a little bit.” He is trying to take what Hank and Cristobal said to heart. And she is like, “Get away from me,” which makes sense.

But I don’t think we did [wrote that scene] as a reaction to any sort of criticism, or anything that people were saying about Sally online, or in articles, or whatever. It was not like we were in the writers’ room going, “You know what? We need to make sure people have sympathy for her.” It happened incredibly organically — just saying, “Well, at some point, this is going to happen [with Barry].” At some point, he’s going to start turning against the people he loves in order to get love. [Another example is] the end scene with him and Cousineau on a couch in Episode 2, where it’s just, “Yeah. I’m going to ruin your life until you love me.” “I’m going to hold you hostage, and give you everything that’ll make you forgive me.”

I wanted to ask about Sally’s experience with Banshee. What inspired the president, played by Elizabeth Perkins, and that scene where she just gives the worst notes imaginable?

Hader: Her lines in those scenes were — I wrote that scene — they’re not supposed to be funny, and she made them funny. Like, “Did you ever live with your mother?” “I did.” Just the way she did that really [makes the scene] funny now. That was one where the writers get to have a lot of fun, because you go, “OK, what’s the [worst] bad notes meeting you’ve had?”

I think my direction to Elizabeth Perkins was, “This is your first time seeing [this show]. And you’ve been through like nine meetings today. And so this is your ninth meeting, and I don’t really know if you’ve watched this. And as you’re watching it, I don’t think you remember why you greenlit it.” And she did this really funny thing with the pacing of her [lines] — that was all Elizabeth. Because she was talking like that, it gave her time to think and remember like, “Who’s this? Who am I talking to right now?” Oh my God, she’s funny.

But at HBO, it’s not like that at all. I’m being honest. I’m not just being a corporate shill. [HBO’s EVP of Original Programming] Amy Gravitt is kind of the polar opposite of that. There’s a scene in Episode 1 that we did some reshoots for in February, and one of the scenes that we added, Amy Gravitt said, “It’d be good to see just a scene of Barry maybe buying those flowers.” And then I was like, “Oh, he could be on the phone with somebody who wants to [hire him as an assassin.]” I got what she was saying. She intuitively knows that [the viewer] wants to see that, and see Barry not understanding it.

Barry Season 3 Sarah Goldberg

Sarah Goldberg in “Barry”

Merrick Morton / HBO

We also reshot Episode 4, [Sally’s] speech before her screening. Initially there was much more… gloating, I’ll say that. And again, Amy Gravitt said, “You know, I think it’s nicer if she does everything right, and the show gets canceled.” And I was like, “You’re totally right” — because there was something about her gloating in a mean way that made everything that happened afterward feel like a result of that. So by her just having a little breakdown because she’s happy, it’s like all the pressure has been released.

I said to Sarah, I was like, “Just have a private moment in the middle of this,” and she just started doing that thing where she was making those weird half-laugh hiccup sounds. I don’t know what was happening, but that’s all Sarah Goldberg, and I was crying laughing.

OK, last thing: How did you ask three-time Emmy-winning casting director Allison Jones to play herself, again, only this time in an expanded role?

Berg: Oh, she was delighted to do it. It’s funny — Jay Roach was really nervous. Allison was a little nervous and Ben [Harris], her casting associate, he reads with actors all day long, every day. But when you ask them to play themselves, all of a sudden, like their hands are too big and they don’t know what to [do with them.] With Jay Roach, it was the same thing. He’s like, “I’m legitimately nervous,” so it’s funny to flip the tables on him. But Allison was super happy to do it, and it made the whole scene really work, that she played it so real.

Sherry Thomas is your casting director on “Barry,” so why Allison for the part?

Berg: Oh, just because Allison Jones has been doing stuff with Jay Roach for a while. We just thought, “Oh, this is a comedy and who’s the guy that would be directing it? It would be Jay Roach.” And then Bill and I have known Jay forever — in passing from different stuff — and we were like, “Oh, Jay would hire Allison Jones, so let’s call her.”

“Barry” airs new episodes Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. The Season 3 finale is scheduled for June 12. HBO has renewed “Barry” for Season 4.

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