Veteran comedic actor Bill Hader and writer-producer Alec Berg knew they had to develop a series for HBO, but didn’t know what. While bouncing ideas off each other, Bill said, “What if I was a hitman.” Alec was skeptical. “No, it’d be me, Bill, as a hitman.” “Oh,” Alec responded, “Well that’s not cool at all.”
Not the enthusiastic response you’re expecting? Let’s explain. At the SXSW 2018 Q&A following the premiere of the first two episodes of Hader’s new HBO series, Barry, the pair emphasized that this wasn’t another John Wick or some guy out there killing people in a “skinny tie.” They eschewed guys with slicked back hair and fancy rides on ds. In fact, when the titular Barry’s handler promises him a “dope ride” for an assignment he gets off the plane to find a well used station wagon complete with car seat and the high-pitched squeal of a failing belt.
Director: Bill Hader
Release Date: March 25, 2018
That’s what Berg means when he said this notion wasn’t cool. At heart, through two episodes, Barry is an honest attempt to show the realities of being a hitman. Barry comes home from a job to a shitty apartment, no companionship, and an emotional void. There’s no cute puppy (sorry John Wick) because there’s no emotional availability for a cute puppy. In fact, Barry’s only true human connection seems to be with his dad’s friend and his handler-as-hit-agent Fuches (Stephen Root). It’s not clear how one-sided the relationship is, as Fuches clearly pushes Barry to continue to kill people (“bad people”) while it’s also clear that Barry might be developing conflicting feelings on the issue.
It’s that realism again--can an average man, even one good at killing, continue to kill, or what will he do when another opportunity seemingly presents itself? In this instance, that other opportunity is aspiring LA actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). He sees her, and her rehearsing moves something inside him, helping him to think that maybe there can be more to him than just killing people. Obviously, for the series to develop, something needs to happen to take Barry out of his perfect killer world. In this case, Sally draws him inside an actor’s workshop where Barry is quickly and inextricably linked to his latest mark. Not only does Barry’s anonymity begin to dissolve, but so does his shield against emotional response, and in this dichotomy, as Barry begins to consider whether a killer can be an actor.
Hader and Berg spoke to this dichotomy, of someone who must live in the shadows suddenly having to adopt a public persona; of someone who must shut down their emotions to function suddenly having to tap into them to pursue a new path; and of someone who literally “works alone” (and lives, breathes, eats, sleeps) to someone who must embrace a community.
It’s fascinating to see play out onscreen, as is seeing Hader, someone who’s naturally comedic with nearly every utterance from his mouth (the audience in the Alamo Ritz was laughing non-stop as Hader spoke to Barry, audience members on their phones in the front row, and experiences in general) taking on the dark turn. Actors breaking their typecast is not new, but from first glimpses, this is clearly a successful example of genre-bending roles. And while Hader is not funny, he is funny, portraying the cold killer attempting to breakthrough his self-imposed walls to connect with people. And in this, Hader is phenomenal. How’d he channel this killer? We’re not sure, but he did reveal how he found his inner bad actor: “I watched reenactments on True Crime stories.” You’ve seen the shows, you know the acting he’s referring to.
This is truly a dark comedy. The opening scene reveals Hader, at a distance, emerging from a hotel bathroom, silenced pistol in hand, as the camera pans over to reveal a man in bed, shot in the face. It’s silent. The audience was silent. But comedy is allowed to grow in the spots you wouldn’t expect it to take root. When the Chechen mob gets involved, there is laughter at every turn. It makes no sense, but there it is. Hader and Berg spoke to this as well, detailing how they had to explain to their cast mates (including the phenomenal Anthony Carrigan and Glenn Fleshler ) that bad guys are human too--bad guys can be funny, as well as bad, cruel, and violent.
It’s realism through surrealism. And that violence, well, it’s real too. Berg outlined while pitching to HBO the pair made clear they wanted the violence to “be real.” This means that hubris is often cut short with sobering moments of violence, like when Fuches has his teeth filed inside his mouth only to spit up wads of white, granular gobs of former enamel. The pair went so far as to explain how they had their stunt coordinator show a real of actual people being shot to their stuntmen so that they would avoid doing “the dance” they do in most movies and TV shooting scenes.
So far, the results have been amazing and I can’t wait to see more.
EXTRA: Hader, as often happens for actors taking on dramatic roles, made his SXSW appearance looking trim and the part of a former marine turned hired killer. He’s been using a trainer for months. But after having been meeting with one for some time he ran into friend, and co-creator of South Park, Matt Stone. Stone asked him when he’d start using a trainer. Hader said he already was. After that, Stone sent him pictures of out-of-shape marines for 3 months.