Bill Hader on “Disturbing” ‘Barry’ Finale, Why the Story Isn’t Over and ‘SNL’ Life Lessons

23 mins read

[This story contains major spoilers to the season three finale of HBO’s Barry.]

If watching the latest season of Barry led you to believe there’s no possible way the title character can keep getting away with everything, well, you’re right.

The HBO pitch-black comedy, focusing on an assassin who can’t manage to escape a life of crime, ended its third season with a sobering finale Sunday. After an emotional breakdown in the desert during a confrontation with Albert (James Hiroyuki Liao), Barry is prepared to kill Janice Moss’ father (Robert Ray Wisdom) but is set up by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and ultimately apprehended by the authorities. Meanwhile, Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is left to wrestle with having defended herself against Shane (Anthony Molinari) with murderous rage, while Hank (Anthony Carrigan) shoots his way out of a potential encounter with a panther and emotionally reunites with Cristobal (Michael Irby).

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For co-creator and star Bill Hader, it’s a bit of a relief to move toward a new set of storylines, now that Barry has been bested. And while the 44-year-old Saturday Night Live alum, who won back-to-back Emmys for best actor for Barry’s first two seasons, knows that some people might have a hard time seeing where the show moves forward from here, he couldn’t possibly imagine this being the end.

“I’ve always viewed this as one big Vanity Fair article,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I love true-crime stuff, so this is just the part where it’s like, ‘And then he got caught, and then this happened.’ And there’s so much more to it.”

During the below conversation, Hader discusses whether his character can ever be redeemed, how it feels when viewers question if the show is a comedy, what he had to learn to stop doing at SNL that now applies to Barry, how long he sees the show going and why Hollywood doesn’t make movies like Naked Gun anymore.

How do you anticipate viewers will feel by the end of this finale?

Like they’re gonna need a drink. It’s pretty rough.

The look Gene gives Barry when he bests him at the very end of the episode is powerful. What went into deciding Gene’s path?

The very beginning of the season, I think we knew the first day that Gene was gonna catch Barry. He gives the performance of his life to convince Barry to go in that house and then does it, and then he’s caught. When I talked to Henry, that look he gives him is just, “I got you. We’re done.” And he got what he wanted, which was to avenge the death of Janice Moss.

Why was this the right way to conclude the Albert storyline?

The scene with Albert and the idea of bringing Albert back was that with Barry, the first time he killed somebody out of rage was with Albert. He loved Albert, and then Albert was shot and then thought it was this other guy and killed an innocent man. It was always a feeling that Albert was the only one who could really forgive Barry. He could give him back his humanity, that Albert is going to be turned like all these other characters we’ve seen throughout the season, that he was going to resort to violence because he loves somebody. And then he gets there and sees Barry cowering and you realize Barry isn’t Jason Bourne or some mastermind. He’s basically just a scared boy, and Albert’s looking at a soldier. He’s looking at someone with trauma.

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Bill Hader on Barry
Courtesy of Merrick Morton/HBO

The exchange with Sally is hard to stop thinking about. I imagine that was a tough one to shoot.

That was rough. That was the last day of principal photography. Weirdly, when you’re shooting a scene like that, people are kind of laughing and it’s all gallows humor because what you’re shooting is so intense, but Sarah Goldberg and Anthony Molinari — which, ironically, is the nicest human being in on the planet; he’s such a sweetheart, and then he’s playing this monster — they got with the stunt coordinator, we worked out that fight, and it was important to clue into Sally’s history with domestic violence and the cycle that violence sends her in. That was a tough scene, and we got to that close-up of Sarah after she kills him. That’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced as an actor and a director, what Sarah Goldberg did in that moment. It was pretty unbelievable.

Is this going to lead to a major change for her?

I don’t know how it doesn’t affect her, but that’s what we’re trying to figure out now while we’re writing season four.

Was the finale informed at all by whether Barry can be redeemed?

He wanted to be redeemed by Mr. Cousineau, specifically, and he thought he got it, and then Cousineau [is like,] “No, you killed Janice Moss — you killed the woman I love.” So I don’t think he will ever get it, and I don’t know if he really deserves it. We’re writing season four now, so we’re just talking about that now and just where he’s at mentally and how self-aware he is.

During your cover story for THR at the start of season three, you said you weren’t sure if fan loyalty for Barry would start to waver this season after everything he’s done. How do you feel about that and whether fans can still see him as any kind of hero?

I never felt that Barry was a hero. The biggest thing I felt that maybe you could relate to was someone was a murderer and try to not be a murderer, like a noble thing. The only thing he thinks that he’s good at is killing people, and so he tries to be an actor to get in touch with himself. But as time has gone on, as you’re writing a story and discovering more about him, it’s become less about that and more about watching someone with trauma and someone make really awful decisions, and then try to undo those decisions. One of the big lines of episode eight is him telling Sally, “I did this.” He wishes he could take her burden, but you can’t do that. The more complicated and gray it is, the more interesting it is for me. People will come up to me and go, “I just love Barry.” (Laughs.) It’s very strange. He kills people.

You directed more than half of the episodes this season and are planning to handle all of them for season four. Does that give you a different sense of ownership of the show?

It’s nice because when you’re writing these things, I tend to think in terms of the visuals, and I probably drive the other directors nuts, or I try purposely to just not talk to them about it, because I have such strong thoughts on it. But you also want them to take ownership. As the shows went on, I become more confident with directing. It was just the thing where Aida Rodgers, our producer, said, “Hey, man, I think you should direct all these.” Like a come-to-Jesus talk. (Laughs.) But I love it, and we have a great team. I view it as one big four-hour movie.

It’s mostly just having fun. I know that sounds corny, but I just love the people I work with. Even doing the panther scene with Hank. It is disturbing stuff, but it’s weirdly a lot of fun to go, “Oh, we never see the panther. We’ll do this all with sound design.” You get the sound design, and you’re solving these problems, and you’re just with these highly creative people, and they’re seeing your vision and trying to help you with it and adding to it. There’s nothing like it.

How closely after the end of season three will season four start, and do you have a sense of how fans might react to where things pick up?

I can’t talk about anything in season four yet. We’re still writing it. I just showed HBO the scripts for episodes one and two yesterday. We’re just figuring it out.

Was it an intention to give the show a bit of a reset with the finale?

I think it was just more that this guy is not that bright. You know he’s gonna get caught. That’s why I think day one, it was like, “Hey, by the end of the season, he’s gotta be caught, just because he’s acting really erratic this season.” As we wrote towards that, it always felt right. Going to season four, it is kind of what we’ve done every season, which is to say, “Let’s see what would happen next.” You just write it scene by scene. Another thing I’ve learned is that every time we finish the season, everybody goes, “Oh, that should be the last season.” (Laughs.) When season three premiered, there was some review someone sent me, and it was like, “Barry had no business making a season three.” Or after season one ended, there was articles like, “Don’t do another season. This is great. You don’t need to do any more.” So, we’re gonna do another one. (Laughs.)

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Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau in the finale.

Do you have a perfect amount of time in your mind to tell the story you’re telling, in terms of how many seasons or episodes could be left?

Not really. I don’t know where it ends, but we just take it scene by scene. We’ve been talking about season four now for a long time, and it’s morphed and changed so much that it does feel like this is where we just take it step by step. And then if one of those steps ends with big bold letters, “The End,” you’re like, “I think we end it now.”

Is it a relief for you, in a way, to have him caught?

Yes and no. You’re kind of going, “Oh, good.” Just as a writer, you don’t have to write scenes anymore of him with this ruse. I did an interview, and someone goes, “The show could just end right now.” That wouldn’t be a very satisfying ending. There’s questions about Sally and Cousineau and Hank. We’ve now just gotten deeper into them and what they’re experiencing, and I want to see how they handle that. It really surprised me because I genuinely hadn’t even considered that him getting caught is the end of the show. I’ve always viewed this as one big Vanity Fair article. I love true-crime stuff, so this is just the part where it’s like, “And then he got caught, and then this happened.” And there’s so much more to it.

During THR’s recent Drama Actor Emmy Roundtable, Michael Keaton mentioned a conversation with you where it sounded like he was encouraging you to enjoy any time with your kids, even if it means missing out on certain projects. Do you remember what he was referring to? 

I think that conversation might have been a while ago. But he’s an amazing guy. The more I’m doing Barry, and the more I’m having these experiences of writing and directing, it is giving me more of a feeling of wanting to own your own store, so to speak. Not necessarily having a company or anything — I don’t know anything about that — but me being more of a creative force behind the things that you do.

People have debated online, especially amid this season, over whether the show should still be considered a comedy. Do you see it as a comedy?

I just see it as a story. I think it’s a comedy because it’s 30 minutes. It’s funny, but it’s also dramatic. People always talk about the tone of the show, and to me, if you’re going to be dealing with stuff like a murderer, domestic violence, PTSD, a gay character put through conversion therapy — it’s really awful stuff. It is not really good to be funny about it. It felt like with this last episode, nothing funny should be in it, but I don’t think that means that from now on that the whole show wasn’t going to be funny.

Does it seem that comedy has evolved in the prestige-TV era, where we have fewer straight comedies?

It’s interesting, comedy in general. I showed my kids Naked Gun, and we were dying laughing. I haven’t seen a movie like that for a long time. Actually, I take that back: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar was really funny, hysterical. But so much of what’s funny, and where people are getting their comedy buzzes from: YouTube, in reality, in life. What used to be, “Oh, my God, you gotta go see this new Naked Gun movie,” is now, “Watch this five-second clip of a guy falling off a Segway.” (Laughs.) I remember being at SNL, and we would watch news bloopers, or whatever thing someone would send you, and you would go, “We can never be this funny.” When I was a kid, you would take your video camera around, and you would do things you saw in movies. Now it’s, “Here’s my YouTube channel.” It’s just different, but I don’t bemoan it. I just think things evolve. I love reading about Old Hollywood and the advent of television and how that flipped everybody out. The conversation of “Movies are dead, and comedy is fucked” has been going on forever.

For me, coming into Barry, it was always this idea of like, “Can you be funny, but can you also be honest in the depiction of violence and PTSD and these other things?” It was a thing you think you couldn’t do, but we tried it, and I feel like it works. You hear the thing of “hitman becomes actor,” and you can see the very glib version of that. Sometimes people view comedy as something that’s disposable, and I’ve never felt that way about it.

Has the Emmys recognition been a nice element of the Barry experience?

It’s always a massive honor, yeah. It’s never a thing you’re thinking about while you’re making it. But when it happens, it’s a big honor. As far as awards in general, it’s never where my head’s at when you’re making stuff. It’s the same thing as reviews or anything else. You just have to be in it with the characters and where your instincts think it should go. I don’t ever want to get knocked off track. My first couple seasons at Saturday Night Live, we would all run out, and the minute the show ended, we’d get on the phone and start reading what people thought of it. And then you’re starting to write stuff for what you think people will like on the Internet, and then they don’t like it. (Laughs.) And then you got to go back to what you just genuinely want to do, and that’s what they respect or don’t respect. But you felt better, at least. You’re like, “What do I like?” It was an interesting lesson.

But it sounds like you still read reviews.

I get sent reviews, and I will glance at them, or someone will go, “Hey, this is really nice.” Or the writers will be like, “Whoa, someone really hates the show,” and they think it’s really funny.

Has Barry led the industry to think of you differently or think of you for different roles than previously?

I don’t know about roles, but definitely directing. That’s been nice, for the first time getting calls about, “Would you be interested in directing things?” But Barry is my whole life. I did write a feature with Duffy Boudreau, one of the writers on the show and my best friend. I would like to do that at some point, but we gotta finish [Barry] first. (Laughs.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Barry airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Bill Hader on “Disturbing” ‘Barry’ Finale, Why the Story Isn’t Over and ‘SNL’ Life Lessons

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