A good actor feels everything and lives in the spotlight. A good hitman feels nothing and lives in the shadows. It’s impossible to be both. Or is it?
This is the question that HBO’s “Barry” sets out to answer. The 30-minute black comedy follows a Midwestern hitman named Barry (Bill Hader, “Saturday Night Live”), who travels to Los Angeles to kill a man, stumbles into an acting class and decides to leave his life of crime behind to become an actor. Of course, this is easier said than done. Barry soon finds himself living a double life, killing by day and exploring the theatre scene by night. What results is a deeply affecting, sharply written and genuinely funny show that explores what it’s like when “the thing you’re good at is weirdly destroying you.”
The Daily had the opportunity to speak with Bill Hader and Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley”), the show’s co-creators, writers and, in Hader’s case, the star.
Hader and Berg began brainstorming the show back in early 2014 after their mutual agent suggested they work together. Though Hader and Berg didn’t know each other well at the time, they ran in the same comedy circles and both had individual deals with HBO.
“The winds were pushing us together,” remarked Berg. After a few months of writing and one discarded idea, Hader and Berg decided to focus on a phenomenon that had previously tormented Hader: “The idea of being very gifted at something you derive no pleasure from.”
This is referencing Hader’s time as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” during which he suffered from crippling performance anxiety. It’s a fascinating contradiction, being tortured by talent — one that Berg and Hader wanted to further explore. After isolating the heart of the show, Berg explained that, “we pretty quickly landed on a guy who’s really good at killing but hates it, and what he wants to do is act.”
It’s certainly a bizarre premise, but it works. It works very well.
This is a testament to the quality of both the writing and acting on “Barry.” (Hopefully) neither Berg nor Hader have experience as hitmen, so they conducted extensive research on the profession to accurately fill out the show. This is not Berg’s first time working on a research-heavy project — learning the tech world of “Silicon Valley” required similar preparations.
In both shows, Berg noted a similar trend: “You know you’re on track for something interesting if the craziest stuff you imagine is not as interesting as the real stuff you find.”
Interesting is not always pleasant. “Barry” required its writers to watch torture videos and learn what getting shot actually looks like. Berg and Hader also visited many Los Angeles acting classes, which can be either a wonderful or miserable experience, depending on who you ask.
Berg recalls how surprised he was when, “we saw a woman do an exercise where the acting teacher kind of humiliated her to the point where she broke down crying and, in the end, she thanked him for allowing her to access that.”
This scene is almost exactly replicated in the pilot when Barry stumbles into that fateful acting class while trailing Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore, “Shameless”), the man he’s supposed to kill. There, he witnesses acting coach and self-proclaimed genius Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, “Holes”) berate flighty actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg, “The Dark Knight Rises”) until she breaks down into tears.
“To the outside observer it looks like abuse but actors we talked to were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s an exercise,’” said Berg.
It is this subversion of expectations which makes “Barry” so special. The show doesn’t shy away from dark subject matter; rather, “Barry” embraces it. Beyond its hitman storylines, “Barry” offers glimpses into the less-glamorous side of working as an actor in Hollywood. As the season continues, the narrative takes breaks from Barry’s journey and follows other actors in his class. The ability to tell heavy, dark stories in short beats and still find comedy in those hard moments is one of the show’s greatest strengths. No matter where the characters are — an audition, a party, a Chechen mobster’s garage — there is humor, heart and heartbreak. As Hader put it, “It’s not like that movie ‘La La Land.’”
Though “Barry” is certainly not like “La La Land,” the production process sounded like something of a fantasy.
“It was this thing where you really look forward to going into work every day. It never felt like an obligation,” Hader recalled.
“There’s usually a thing on shows where there’s one a-hole, you know like, ‘Ugh, we have to work around the a-hole,’ and on this show — I guess it means that we’re the a-holes — no, there were no a-holes on the show,” Berg added. “Everyone’s there to do great work and there’s none of that ego nonsense. On a lot of shows, the actors are very concerned with who has more lines or who looks cooler or who has a better trailer. Everyone was here to make the show better and that’s when things really work … when everyone’s there for the right reasons.”
That everyone’s there for the right reasons is evident on screen. “Barry” is a weird wonderful triumph, and a killer piece of television.
“Barry” currently airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.