LOS ANGELES – Bill Hader returned to “Saturday Night Live” as host last weekend, reminding late-night viewers how much they’ve missed him. This weekend, he shows us how much we have to look forward to.
Hader is a writer, director, creator and star of “Barry,” a new HBO series about an emotionally detached hit man who begins re-evaluating his vocation after stumbling into a Los Angeles acting course. It has comedic moments — in a class reading, Barry interprets Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross” as if he’s Mister Rogers — but overall, this is meaty, often dark material from a performer who could have cashed in his “SNL” cred by playing Adam Sandler’s fussy neighbor in “Grown Ups 8” or headlining “Stefon! The Musical.”
Hader is well aware that TV land is already filled with assassins, but Barry is decidedly different.
“What if it was a guy who was kind of grappling with what he’s doing, like the guy in ‘Unforgiven’?” Hader said back in January. “And instead of a Hollywood thing, what if it was L.A. theater? What if the end-all for this guy was to be in, you know, ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Fairfax Avenue? And he’s risking his life because, through the experience of doing that kind of work, he has found some personal calm and can look at himself and be OK with himself.”
If the series seems an unexpected move, you haven’t been paying attention. Since leaving “SNL” in 2014, he’s played Kristen Wiig’s suicidal brother in the critically acclaimed dramedy “The Skeleton Twins,” contributed dialogue to the animated blockbuster “Inside Out” and co-created “Documentary Now!,” a brilliant IFC series that meticulously lampooned everything from “Grey Gardens” to “The War Room.”
Running his own show has been on Hader’s mind since he was a production assistant on “Collateral Damage” and “The Scorpion King.”
“My friends and I would just sit around coffee shops, talking about the movies we were going to make but were too afraid to actually do because we were too afraid of failing or whatever,” he said.
Henry Winkler, who plays Barry’s acting coach, praised both Hader and his creative partner Alec Berg, who previously wrote for “Seinfeld” and “Silicon Valley.”
“I never saw either of these men have their feathers ruffled,” said Winkler, who may have an Emmy nomination in his near future. “I never saw them get upset. They solved each problem. They kept us comfortable all the time. That’s a major achievement.”
Not that Hader is as cool and collected as Barry on an assassination assignment. In his “SNL” opening monologue last week, Hader talked about throwing up right before episodes of the show when he was a cast member.
In our interview, he reflected on those days: “I did an OK job with the sketch stuff, but the live television aspect of it was always really hard for me. Like, I have a lot of anxiety.
“I was just telling Alec about that and he’s like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting if that was the main problem for this character, you know, that he had this issue, that the thing he was good at, he was kind of a prisoner of? But then, conversely, the thing that he wants to do, he’s terrible at?’ So, he’s a bad actor, but you want to see if he’s going to get any better and if his enthusiasm carries him over.”
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin