Bill Hader finds his comfort zone playing a troubled hit man on 'Barry'

Former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Bill Hader hit his stride after leaving the sketch show and creating the dark HBO comedy "Barry." "For me, being on 'Saturday Night Live' was way more nerve-wracking than directing," Hader says of working on the Emmy-nominated series. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Former "Saturday Night Live" master mimic Bill Hader ditched his customary wigs and accents to play "Barry," a depressed professional killer who tries to change his life by taking acting classes. Along the way, the dark HBO comedy snagged 13 Emmy nominations, including three nods for Hader in the writing, directing and acting categories.

Speaking by phone from Toronto, where he's filming the horror sequel "It 2," Hader downplayed his contributions. "I guess people talk about being a multi-hyphenate and all that stuff, but half the job is hiring the right people," he says. "They're the ones who elevate it."

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"Barry" does in fact surround Hader's title character with a rich array of talent. Chechen gangsters (Anthony Carrigan and Glenn Fleshler), self-appointed acting guru Gene Cousineau (Emmy-nominated Henry Winkler) and struggling actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) all provide wry comic relief. But for his own character, Hader took the Hit Man as Straight Man approach.

What do Henry Winkler, Clint Eastwood and 'Waiting for Guffman' have to do with the HBO dark comedy 'Barry'? Just ask star Bill Hader.

"Barry has to be earnest," Hader says. "He knows there's something wrong with him and legitimately wants to get better. In the first episode when Gene elicits that emotion out of Sally in acting class, Barry just knows: 'I need that.' But it wouldn't work if you pushed the comedy. You don't try to decorate it in any way. The idea alone is really strange, so we figured let's just make sure the emotions are real."

Teamed with "Silicon Valley" showrunner Alec Berg, Hader hatched the idea for "Barry" after his performance in the 2014 dysfunctional family drama "The Skeleton Twins" landed him a development deal with HBO. "I didn't feel like I was an actual actor until they showed 'Skeleton Twins' at Sundance," Hader says. "For a really long time I battled these insecurities where I was like, 'Oh, I can do voices and sketches, but I'm not really an actor.' If I'd come into the meeting with HBO saying, 'I want to do a thing where I play five different characters,' I don't think they would have been interested."

Hader and Berg brainstormed over weekly breakfast meetings for a month and a half trying to come up with a premise they both liked. Finally, Hader recalls, "Out of frustration I said, 'What if I played a hit man?' From there, we very quickly got to the idea of acting class, which seemed inherently funny — low stakes, high drama — versus the criminal world of high stakes, no drama. It was like Travis Bickle met the people from 'Waiting for Guffman' and they taught him how to be a human being again."

Hader never took acting classes himself. Spellbound by "Taxi Driver" at the age of 12, the Oklahoma native eventually dropped out of college and moved in 1999 to Los Angeles. Harboring ambitions to write or direct movies, he worked for six years as a production assistant. Burned out by 2004, Hader enrolled in a Second City improv workshop. "I'd just been sitting around on movie sets bringing coffee to actors," he says. "At Second City, I felt like, 'OK, this is what I moved to L.A. to do: something creative.'"

Hader and three friends soon formed the Animals From the Future comedy troupe, which performed sketches at night in a Van Nuys backyard. When "Will & Grace" actress Megan Mullally watched him in action, she recommended Hader to her pal Lorne Michaels. Suddenly, Hader found himself auditioning for "Saturday Night Live."

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He says, "When I was growing up with my friends, we all did voices and impressions. My sister found a tape of us messing around where I'm doing Dana Carvey doing George Bush when I was like 10, but it didn't strike me that I was abnormally gifted or anything."

"SNL" boss Michaels disagreed after seeing Hader's impressions of Al Pacino, James Mason and a loquacious Italian of his own invention named Vinny Vedecci. Joining the show in 2005, Hader portrayed James Carville, John Malkovich and ”Dateline” true crime host Keith Morrison along with such original characters as "The Californians" dude Devin and flamboyant nightlife expert Stefon.

The bits thrilled audiences, but Hader never acclimated to the pressure during his eight-season run. "I had a really hard time with the live aspect of the show," he says. "For me, being on 'Saturday Night Live' was way more nerve-wracking than directing."

Making his directorial debut with "Barry," Hader meticulously photo-boarded every scene in advance, then guided his cast mates through their paces. "At 'Saturday Night Live,' you quickly learn the more people feel they're included, the better," Hader says. "At the same time, you're trying to tell a story as clearly as possible, so sometimes you have to tell an actor, 'Oh that's interesting and good — in another TV show. But for this show, I need it to be this way.’ "

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