The Barry star is used to dealing privately with various dreads (like seeing himself act). Now he's taking his terror onscreen, with It Chapter Two.
There would seem to be far worse outcomes in life than growing up to be Bill Hader. He's a beloved former cast member of Saturday Night Live, as well as the co-creator and star of the dark HBO comedy Barry, about a hit man who's trying to go incognito in an acting class.
And he's about to appear in one of the biggest films of his career, It Chapter Two, playing the adult version of Richie Tozier, the trash-talking teenager (played by Finn Wolfhard in the original 2017 film) who is part of a group of friends who must regularly confront a murderous incarnation of evil in a Maine town. The sequel, which also stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, is directed by Andy Muschietti and will be released in NZ cinemas on September 5.
Yet, in a late August interview at an organic cafe in Pacific Palisades, Hader, 41, was not exactly in a celebratory mood. He has a dry, deadpan manner, and he was already worried about how his performance in It Chapter Two would be measured against the work of his co-stars. Rather than exulting in the Emmy Award he won for acting in the first season of Barry or the 17 nominations the show recently received for its second season, he was stressing about the work that lay ahead in Season 3.
Putting aside his own day-to-day anxieties, Hader talked about the bigger fears he was forced to confront as an actor, artist and human being on It Chapter Two and Barry. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: When we spoke in 2018, before the debut of Barry, would you say you felt some uncertainty about whether the show would succeed?
A: Oh my God, more than uncertainty. I was terrified. I've never had my own thing that wasn't associated with other friends from SNL, and I was on the poster and the lead character. If it didn't work, it's all me.
Q: Is it safe to say now that it worked?
A: Yeah, but it never ends. That's the thing. In two weeks we start writing Season 3, and I go into an office with Liz Sarnoff [a producer of Barry]. I just stare at a whiteboard, going, "Why did we end Season 2 like that? That was so dumb."
It helps when your story is about someone's evolution in some way, then you have something to write about, and if you can figure out Barry's story, it's weird how everyone else's stories start to fit in around that.
Q: Were you a fan of Stephen King's novels growing up?
A: Oh, definitely. Coming of age in the '80s and '90s, Stephen King was the first adult author we read. I specifically remember my grandfather taking me into a bookstore in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I had to get The Red Badge of Courage for school, and he said, "If you want to get something for yourself — —." I went back to the young adult section, and he went, "No, no, no, you can go to the fiction section," and I was like, whoa. They had 'Salem's Lot, and the cover had these two eyes looking out at you, and I went, well, this seems cool. I felt so immersed in it that I read it over a whole weekend.
His stories really spoke to being that age, even if they didn't have characters that age — of angst and big emotions and revenge and creepy stuff.
Q: How did you find out that you were being considered to play Richie in "It Chapter Two?"
A: Finn talked about it [in interviews]. My agent sent me a link to him saying that he wanted me to play him. I was like, that's cool. A couple of months later, [my agent] called again and said, "Hey, Andy Muschietti wants to meet you." I was like, wow, this Finn guy is really powerful. When I met him at our table read, I was like, "Hey, thanks for the gig, man."
Q: Did you have to audition for the role?
A: No. I just had a lunch with [Muschietti]. We spoke the same language of movies we loved. I said, "My kids will probably visit," and he goes, "OK, when your kids come, I'll make sure that the clown is not around, because there's stuff that's just not appropriate for them to see." I thought that was very sweet.
Q: What happened when they visited you?
A: I said, I'm going to have off Saturday, right? And then as things happened, we had to shoot Saturday because the schedule went over. I was so dejected, and [Barbara Muschietti, Andy's producing partner and sister] got my daughters amazing tickets to see Taylor Swift in Toronto. Now when I talk to them — "Remember when you visited Daddy?" — they're like, "You mean when we saw Taylor Swift and we got to see the best concert of our lives?" I'm like, "Wasn't it cool, coming to the set?" And they're like, "No, that was boring. Taylor Swift had fireworks."
Q: Since you didn't meet Finn until that table read, did you go in thinking about how to create continuity from his performance to yours?
A: I watched the first movie again on the plane, and I was like, we kind of are the same. We're just gangly smartasses. There's not a lot I have to do.
Q: Were you looking around the plane to see if anybody caught you watching the previous installment of the movie you were about to make?
A: No, but I remember one time getting up to go to a restroom on a flight, and I saw a guy watching The Skeleton Twins, and he very aggressively turned it off. Not that he had seen me, but just that he hated the movie. And I was like, "Oh, man. Come on. It's good." Or I'm sitting next to people, and they'll be going through things, and Barry will pop up, and they just skip right past it, and I'm like, "All right, fine."
Q: Do you think there were any specific qualities that Andy hoped you would bring to the role?
A: I'm a comedian, and I know a lot of comedians, and that thing of masking your pain through being a contrarian, it's a way of distancing yourself and being cynical. But at the heart of all those people is a spurned romantic. It's a weird idealist in there. Andy gave us a lot of room to mess around.
Q: As a director, did you come out of an experience like that wanting to do something even more ambitious?
A: I will say watching Andy work really gave me confidence when I was directing that "ronny/lily" episode of Barry — how he, in a very pleasant way, would stand his ground on something and acknowledge, "I know this is going to be hard, but it'll be great if we can do this." I found myself doing that during that shoot.
Q: Whose idea was it to have Stephen Root, who plays Barry's handler, Fuches, rub super glue into Barry's open wound?
A: Oh, yeah, that was mine. I had to Google that.
The way that came about was, I had [Lily, Barry's young target] biting [Fuches'] face, and [Fuches] stayed there, and the writers were like, "This is funny, but why doesn't he just grab her and pull her off?" and I was like, well, he's in shock. They went, "That doesn't really work." So, I thought, what if his hands are stuck to the steering wheel? And then we came up with the crazy glue thing.
Q: By its nature, Barry has a lot of violence in it, and It Chapter Two has some extremely brutal scenes as well. Does it all make you uncomfortable at some point?
A: It's hard for me. I remember being a teenager and just loving monster movies. But then as you get older, what you're scared of changes into very real-life things. You lose people in your life, and it's brutal in a different way.
I remember being at SNL when I saw 28 Weeks Later. I watched the opening sequence, and I had a whole panic attack. I was like, I can't handle this right now, because I had, like, real-life stress.
Barry deals with violence and its effect on people. Everybody has something that would make you snap or, in defending yourself, you might surprise yourself at your ability to do something that you find abhorrent.
I don't know if the fascination with that is a cultural thing or if it's just inherent in humans. It's stylising a thing that, at some unconscious level, you're afraid of.
Q: Did you happen to see the videos of you that went viral recently, in which your face transforms into the actors you're impersonating — Tom Cruise, Al Pacino — as you're doing impressions of them?
A: Oh, the deepfake thing? I didn't watch that, but I've heard about it. I'm not mad at whoever made the videos — I'm sure it was very sweet and kind of innocuous. But I just think the technology itself could be bad if it fell into the wrong hands. It feels very strange.
Q: Are you the kind of person who is generally uncomfortable to watch your own work?
A: Oh, I have to do it. On Barry I have a full-on mental breakdown every time we watch the first cut of everything. It's like flooding, which is a technique, like, if you're afraid of spiders, they put you in a room full of spiders.
Q: Do you feel like, maybe in an unknowing way, you've like brought this on yourself? Your biggest fear is to see yourself act, and you put yourself in something where you have no choice but to watch yourself learn how to act?
A: Judd Apatow said that. I wouldn't watch Trainwreck forever, and Judd just couldn't understand that. On Barry, I let Jeff Buchanan, the editor, pick the takes, because I would be like, "Not that one. Not that one. Not that one. Do I have any other facial expressions other than, like, I'm angry?" I get so very, very hard on it.
Written by: Dave Itzkoff
Photographs by: Jessica Lehrman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES