If you think about it, Bill Hader’s long and successful career can be traced back to the day he took his SATs—or, rather, the day he chose not to take his SATs. There he was, an anxious 16-year-old sitting in a classroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the time had come to make that first important step toward college by proving how well he remembered algebra and how many multisyllabic words he knew. “I put my name on the thing and everything,” Hader remembers, but the moment started to feel too big. The knowledge that with every bubble he filled in he would be actively determining his future was too much to handle. And so right then and there he decided: “Fuck it.”
“I got up and left,” Hader says. “The whole thing of like, ‘Here’s the thing you’ve been studying for, this is the moment, do or die,’ I just folded. This is just too intense and [I thought], ‘I just won’t go to college.’”
Minus a few semesters at the Art Institute of Phoenix and Scottsdale Community College, Hader stuck to that resolution. He moved to Los Angeles and got a couple of jobs as a production assistant on movies like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage and The Scorpion King, and then as an assistant editor on Iron Chef America. He joined an improv group at Second City’s outpost in Los Angeles to, as he puts it, “keep agile, keep creative.” One of the members of that group was Matt Offerman, brother to Nick Offerman (you know him as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation) and brother-in-law to Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally. Mullally is the reason Bill Hader became an actor, even though he “never wanted to be an actor.” (“I don’t know why people become actors. I don’t know why people do a lot of things,” he adds.) After Mullally saw him in one of the Second City shows, she called up Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live. A few months later, Hader was moving to New York City to be a featured player on SNL.
Sometimes, it turns out, skipping the SATs is the right decision.
Hader and I are discussing his SATs—and SNL, and his new show, and his neuroses, which relate to the SATs and a few other things, it turns out—at a steakhouse in mid-February. In relaxed-fit blue jeans and a black North Face beanie, Hader doesn’t exactly fit in with the sleek, shiny, modernly deconstructivist decor of this Midtown Manhattan restaurant we’ve met at; the website for the restaurant claims it’s “not your daddy’s steakhouse,” and Hader’s presence feels like proof of that.
“I’m exhausted,” he says not long after we sit down, his head resting on his hands. This isn’t surprising: On the day we meet, he is just coming off of the premiere of his Super Bowl commercial for Pringles; he is still the voice of Planters’ Mr. Peanut (despite having a nut allergy); he is developing ideas for the upcoming third season of Documentary Now!, the IFC series he cocreated with fellow SNL alumni Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers; and he’s spent the past two years writing, directing, and acting in his new HBO show, Barry, about a hitman who dreams of becoming an actor. Premiering March 25, it’s a surprisingly dark comedy with a profound take on depression and finding meaning in life that also sends up the struggling-actor trope and Los Angeles as a whole.
“I just need to work,” Hader responds when I point out that he might feel less tired if he took a break once in a while. “I have three kids and I want them to have a good life and go to good schools, but there’s also this feeling that you never have any idea how long you can work for. You don’t know what’ll happen, when somebody’ll just suddenly go, ‘No.’ And so … I don’t know.”
This self-imposed concept of responsibility underlies much of Hader’s career. Five years removed from a run on SNL that should be considered one of the best in the show’s history, he now feels more comfortable talking about how rough the notorious grind was on him. “SNL has this countdown. The schedule pumps in anxiety. Here we go, here we go, here we go. It was just insane.”
“Bill got SNL super fast, and he was really good at it, but it really ate at him,” says Alec Berg, who created Barry with Hader. “He was a nervous wreck for eight seasons, and doing live television was just really brutal on him.”
The problem was, Hader’s talents as a writer and performer were in direct contrast with Hader’s personality, and, seeing as he’s a person who believes that he has a responsibility to use his skills, he opted to prioritize them over his personal health. “I felt like if I stopped, getting back up would be harder,” he explains. Every time someone told him he should take a vacation, he thought about Stefon and shrugged off the advice. “I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced something like that,” he says, “where someone tells you something and you’ve heard it so many times that you dismiss it. You’re like, ‘Yeah, everyone says that to me.’”
In 2013, Hader finally left SNL. “I realized, ‘Oh, maybe I should try listening to [those people].’” Almost exactly a year later, he signed a development deal with HBO. His first move toward making a show was enlisting Berg, who has been an executive producer on Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Silicon Valley, as his partner. The two struggled to land on an idea at first. “We went pretty far down the road with this idea about a weird guy from Oklahoma that was sort of inspired by Bill’s high school friends,” Berg says. “We probably spent a month or two working on it and then we were like, ‘There’s no show here.’”
“Out of frustration I just said, ‘What if I was a hitman?’” Hader says.
“My immediate reaction to that was, ‘Ugh, a hitman?’ It’s such a clichéd Hollywood thing,” says Berg.
But as Hader pointed out: “I was like, ‘It’s a hitman but it’s me playing a hitman.’”
The throwaway idea of forcing the awkward, skinny, 6-foot-1 Bill Hader into a role normally occupied by guys who look like cologne models turned out to be more than just a good sight gag. It was also a perfect platform to adapt Hader’s experience as a cast member on SNL. Strip away the contract kills and the run-ins with Chechen mobsters and Bolivian drug lords, and Barry is simply a show about a man who hates his job, despite being really good at it.
Or, as Berg explains it: “This idea of someone who was incredibly good at something that was not good for them and was making them miserable, but they kind of had to honor their gift—that’s interesting.”
Barry’s log line makes it sound like a zany comedy, but what Hader and Berg have created is a remarkably empathetic TV show. Barry is a broken man, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who fell into a deep depression when he came back home until he was given a purpose by his dad’s friend (Stephen Root). Unfortunately, that purpose involved doing the thing he was good at, the thing that drove him into depression in the first place: killing people. It pays the bills and gets Barry out of the house, but it’s a debilitating pit. “He can’t quit,” Hader explains. “It’s like [Root’s character] says: When you agree to do this, you close the door on everything else. If he quits, he dies. But he’ll also die if he keeps doing it.
“The thing he’s good at is destroying him, and [acting], the thing that could save his life—he’s terrible at it,” Hader continues.
“I know there’s more to me than that,” Barry tells his acting coach (played by Henry Winkler, who’s having a great time) in a pivotal scene at the close of the first episode. “But maybe—I don’t know—maybe there’s not. Maybe that’s all I’m good at.” You feel Barry’s debilitating sense of ennui because, to some degree, it’s something we’ve all felt. When Hader, as Barry, sits on the edge of the hotel bed of a mark he’s just taken out, sighs deeply and stares off into the distance, he could just as easily be at a desk in a room full of cubicles, staring a million miles into a computer screen.
“The tone of the show walks this really fine line,” says Sarah Goldberg, who plays a member of the acting class and Barry’s love interest, Sally. “The comedy is subtle and tight, but it goes to really dark and moving places.”
The lighter side of Barry often comes in the form of the character’s foray into the acting world. Besides Sally, the people he meets in acting class are masterfully crafted characters, immediately recognizable if you’ve ever spent time in Los Angeles. Their idea of great theater is scenes from True Romance and Magnolia. When a member of their class dies, they hold a memorial, a thinly veiled excuse for all of them to perform in a public setting (Barry and Sally come dangerously close to acting out a scene from Doubt). They’re constantly overemoting, or consciously mining real-life tragedy for performative ammunition.
But Barry also cares deeply about the people it satirizes. It understands that the life of an actor isn’t an easy one; for most, it’s filled with rejection and degradation. Sally is consistently debased and driven to tears, whether she’s being ambushed and upstaged by an old acting rival or hit on by a dirtbag agent. “All of the characters, you feel like if life were a little bit kinder to them, they might be a better version of themselves,” says Goldberg. “Yes, Sally is single-minded and not such a nice person, but she’s also being shit on from every corner. She’s lost in this world where she’s being rejected and exploited so much.”
The show both lets you feel the sadness of a 72-year-old man going in to audition for “Man in Back of Line” and leaves enough room to let you realize the love and dedication that must be behind such an endeavor. Despite being at the bottom of a very populated food chain, the characters possess an enticing amount of passion and self-assuredness and together provide a sense of community that Barry is drawn to and desperately needs—even though he’s an awful actor. And thus the question at the center of Barry is presented: Is it more important to do what you love and what makes you feel good, or to do what you’re good at?
During lunch, Hader has a run-in outside the steakhouse bathroom. “This lady said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Bill Hader,’” he tells me. This doesn’t happen very often, he clarifies. He usually gets Stefon, or Vinny Vedecci, or the cop from Superbad, or just a big, fat “Hey you, what do I know you from?”
“Everybody still thinks I’m on Saturday Night Live,” he continues. “I see someone in New York and they’re always like, ‘Hey shouldn’t you be at the show?!’ I’m like, ‘It’s been half a decade.’”
Barry, perhaps fittingly, premieres just a couple of months shy of five years to the day that Hader left the show that made him a star. In that five years, some things have changed; some things have stayed the same. His three daughters are growing up, and he’s now learning from them and realizing they have fully formed thoughts and opinions of their own. “It’s funny watching these old, male-centric movies with them,” he says, cracking a rare smile. “We watched Goonies and one of my daughters is like, ‘Do the girls fight the pirates?’ I’m like, ‘Well … not really.’ We watched A Little Princess, which takes place during World War I, and there’s this young black girl who’s a slave, and my daughter says, ‘Why is she cleaning for them? Why isn’t she in class too?’ And I had to be like, ‘Umm, well, there’s this thing called slavery,’ and she was like, ‘WHAT?! TURN THIS OFF!’”
“They’re really smart, really creative kids,” says Hader. “And I’m just really happy that they’re all just really funny, too.”
Hader and his wife of 11 years, Maggie Carey, got divorced in 2017, another change for him. It’s a topic he’s understandably quiet on (”I just don’t want my kids Googling something and finding an article from 10 years ago”), though he’s comfortable enough to say: “We’re on good terms, and I love her very much, and the kids have two great parents, which is the most important thing.”
Professionally, things have changed so much that Hader has finally accomplished the goal he had when he skipped out on the SATs, dropped out of college, and moved to L.A.: With Barry, he’s now a director. And it’s not hard to tell that he’s been preparing his whole life for the gig. “There wasn’t a steep learning curve for him at all,” Berg says. “He knows what he wants. It’s the same thing as SNL, where he came on with no experience, and, all of the sudden, it seemed like he had been doing it forever.”
As a director, as in life, Hader is quick to collaborate and quicker to defer credit. You have to trap him to get him to say something nice about himself. He’s the same on set. “He’s a humble guy,” says Goldberg. “I think he has the attitude that everybody who’s been hired to be there has something valuable and important to offer. And the more room and space he gives everyone else to offer that up, the better the whole thing is going to function.”
“That’s who and what he is,” Berg affirms. “There’s no bullshit and no ego. I worked with Jerry Seinfeld; it was the same way. Jerry understood that the show is called Seinfeld, and if the show is better, that’s better for him. Bill’s the same way. He’s always asking, ‘What’s best for the show?’”
Now, Hader is trying to focus on keeping his anxiety in check, something that is getting better post-SNL. Fidgeting at the table, he says: “I worry all the time. I’m doing this interview with you right now, but I’m thinking about, ‘Well, if we got a Season 2 of Barry …’ What if, what if, what if. There’s this terrible flu going around, and I’m terrified one of my kids is gonna get it.”
Hader’s been doing transcendental meditation and going to therapy for the past 10 years—but the difference lately is that, heading toward his 40th birthday in June, he’s starting to hear the advice. “Someone said to me, ‘Don’t go through it twice.’ There’s no reason to go through all this shit twice. Wait until it happens and then go, ‘Oh, this is a thing I have to worry about.’” He takes a sip of his iced tea. “As I get older I’m letting go a bit of that shit and understand that so much of life is out of your control. You just have to ... not be afraid to be positive.”
For him, that means learning to be proud of his work—not because of any critical praise it gets, but because it’s all his, and he likes it: “If you don’t like Barry you can 100 percent blame me, because I love it.” It means asking for a day off so that he can walk around New York City, which he was never able to do during the SNL years. (“I’ll be like, ‘Wow, so that’s the Flatiron? Well, look at that.’”) And it means being able to look back on the past decade and comfortably say: “So much of your life is gray areas, and it’s very easy to be cynical. But letting in some positivity makes you feel better, because you’re just being honest with the way you feel.
“That other way isn’t honest, it’s purposefully putting a lid on a thing for no reason,” Hader says. “I worked really fucking hard and I got here. That’s OK to say; there’s nothing haughty about that. I do deserve to be here right now.”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.