In the new dark comedy series Barry, Bill Hader plays a hitman who travels to Los Angeles for an assassination, and promptly catches the acting bug. If the prospect of a dark comedy about a hitman strikes you as being perhaps a little ... played out, you're not alone: Hader and the show's co-creator, Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Silicon Valley), had a similar reaction when they first came up with the idea.
"I got a development deal with [American cable network] HBO to do a show," Hader tells Weekend. "And for about a month and a half we talked about one thing and then realised it was terrible and then, out of frustration, I just said 'What if I was a hitman?' and Alec went 'Ugh, I hate hitmen. It's just so goofy with the two guns and the skinny ties ... '"
But the pair continued to develop the concept, and soon realised they could do something interesting and innovative with it.
"I was like 'What if he was an ex-military guy or something like that and it was more grounded and real?'," says Hader. "You have [the obvious comparison in the 1997 John Cusack film] Grosse Pointe Blank, but we talked about the [Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood] movie Unforgiven a lot, where it's like: well this is what killing someone actually might do to you, where you get depressed, you feel bad and it ruins your soul."
"And we approached the hitman world like that," adds Berg, "Like, what is it actually? It's not cool guys in ties with guns. It's probably a lot like being a low-level travelling salesman, you know? As opposed to the glamour of it."
Hader and Berg's persistence paid off as Barry has just premiered in America to stellar reviews, which have praised the show's melancholy tone and the understated acting work from Hader. His performance is in contrast to the broader style the actor is known for from his time on the iconic skit show Saturday Night Live, of which he was a cast member from 2005 until 2013.
There he developed a reputation as a peerless celebrity impressionist (specialising in Vincent Price and James Mason), while slowly rising to cinematic prominence with scene-stealing supporting roles in films such as Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Tropic Thunder before graduating to leading man status in 2014's The Skeleton Twins (opposite fellow SNLer Kristen Wiig) and 2015's Trainwreck, as Amy Schumer's love interest Bill Hader says it was a dream working with Henry Winkler, who plays acting teacher Gene Cousineau.
Barry really kicks into gear when the title character follows his latest target to a theatre acting class and becomes entranced by the emotional outlet that acting can provide, as well as the camaraderie of its practitioners.
"He gets a community for the first time in his life," says Hader. "It's a bunch of people like him. They're insecure. They're vulnerable. People come to LA to change their lives and reinvent themselves. And so he kind of feels like he can fit in. And all those people, they all have day jobs, and his day job is killing people. The irony is, if he does his job right, and he becomes an actor, he's gonna get killed. So that was funny."
Barry derives much of its humour from the struggle of trying to get ahead in Los Angeles, something Hader says he can relate to, having ventured there from his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the dream of writing and directing movies.
"My friends and I were just sitting around coffee shops, talking about the movies we were going to make, but too afraid to actually do it."
Hader says he had plenty of crappy jobs before he got his big break on Saturday Night Live.
"The worst thing I ever did, I was a production assistant on a Playboy show called Night Calls. And I had to get porno stars coffee. I went to Starbucks, and they're going 'We have an order for Candy, Candy, Cynthia, Cindy, Candy'. That lasted for a week and then I decided: I'm gonna go on unemployment."
Co-starring in Barry is Henry Winkler — still best known for playing The Fonz in Happy Days — as Barry's hilariously pretentious acting teacher Gene Cousineau. Hader says it was a dream working with the TV legend.
"We couldn't believe Henry read for it," admits Hader. "In the audition, the casting director was like, 'Bill, you have to be a little hard on him', because I was like, 'What do you want? You want my money? You want my watch? Henry Winkler, what can I give you?' Henry is just this beautiful kind of light in the room."
Barry premieres on SoHo on Friday, April 6 at 10pm