The Best Actor on TV Is Barry’s Bill Hader

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Vulture’s fifth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in three major categories: Actor, Actress, and Show. Eligible contenders had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and series that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have premiered before June 29, 2018.

For years, Bill Hader was known mainly for his work on Saturday Night Live, where for eight seasons he impersonated real people (Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Walken) and inhabited fake ones, including, most famously, Weekend Update nightlife commentator Stefon.

Hader’s portrayal of Stefon was all whispery flamboyance, highlighted by a tendency to veer hard left whenever he dropped the totally insane name of yet another venue. (“New York City’s hottest club is [voice drops three octaves while becoming twice as loud] Your Mother and I Are Separating.”) It was brilliant, but it was Hader’s tendency to break character while playing Stefon that made the bit so beloved. Hader, who often was greeted with new lines during the live show, was discovering the comedy at the same time as the audience. No matter how hard he tried to cover his laughter with his hands, Hader’s joy always peeked out through the spaces between his fingers.

I mention all of this because it’s stunning to think that the same guy who played Stefon also inhabits the body and soul of Barry Berkman, the burned-out, largely joyless hit man turned pseudo-actor on the HBO series Barry. These two characters may not be polar opposites, but they’re pretty damn close. Stefon was a chatty hyperbolist; Barry is all quiet reserve. Stefon’s job required him to have feelings about places that have everything; Barry’s work as a hired murderer necessitates total detachment. In every Stefon sketch, Hader’s infectious delight burst through loud and clear; in Barry, he disappears completely into character and only rarely expresses happiness or any other significant emotion. The distance between Hader’s most recognizable SNL persona and his current role is an illustration of his range as an actor.

Of course, Barry is hardly the first time Hader has proven that he has range. In previous TV and film projects, including Trainwreck, Documentary Now!, and the indie dramedy The Skeleton Twins, he has skated between comedy and drama, sometimes hitting hilarious and poignant notes in the same moment. But in Barry, Hader does the best, most nuanced work he’s ever done and delivers some of the most carefully calibrated acting on television over the past year. We already knew he had breadth. But as Barry Berkman — stage name: Barry Block — he demonstrates real depth.

A former Marine and current contract killer so accustomed to disassociating from emotion that he barely remembers how to feel, Barry deals with life at such a remove that you just want to grab a pair of defibrillator paddles and jolt some emotion back into his body. Hader’s performance is understated, and that actually might be an understatement. But it never feels listless or lazy or anything less than fully formed. Barry may be dead inside, but there are still signs of life in him and Hader picks his moments to let them show, whether it’s his response to the news that acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, also great) has decided to let him into his class, or the brief sense of bliss he feels after sleeping with his acting class colleague, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), or his inability to deal with the sight of a mourning father whose son Barry was supposed to bump off himself, but didn’t.

As good as he is throughout the season, it’s the seventh and penultimate episode, when Barry finally lets all his pent-up rage and grief boil over, that really makes you go, “Oh, wow. Bill Hader deserves an award for this.” That’s not only because he’s raw and believable in key scenes, but because his explosive moments come after six episodes of watching Barry keep his mood and demeanor in a very low gear. Hader has gauged his entire performance to give those moments real heft. The power of Hader’s work in Barry is found in the sum total of it, not just a standout episode or single scene.

To me, that’s what a great television actor should do: craft a performance that reveals itself the same way that TV narratives do, episodically over an elongated period of time. Perhaps it helped Hader to be so involved behind the scenes; in addition to co-creating Barry with Alec Berg, he also co-wrote and directed a few episodes, which gave him the opportunity to build this character on multiple fronts. It’s obvious at all times that he has a deep understanding of this guy. He knows exactly how depressed Barry is, how instinctively he can pull a trigger and take a life, and exactly what it takes to finally push him to the brink. Watching Hader’s behavior and responses onscreen doesn’t only explain Barry to us, it tells us what this show is about, too — about how much pretending is involved in just being alive, even when you’re not in acting class. It’s the kind of immersive portrayal that rises in one’s estimation once the season is over and you’ve seen the whole thing. That’s when it becomes clear that the only way to describe it is by borrowing a phrase from another Bill Hader character: This performance has everything.

(Note: There are major Barry spoilers ahead.)

The Case for Bill Hader

“You Want to Know What I’m Good At?” (Episode 1)

After stumbling into an acting class, Barry believes he may have found a calling and a way out of life as a hit man. The problem is that Barry has no natural acting talent whatsoever, as evidenced by his first bit of scene work: a back-and-forth from True Romance in which Barry utters a portion of Tarantino dialogue as if it’s a single sentence read by a drone. When he asks Gene Cousineau if there’s room for him in the class, Gene says no. That’s when Barry offers his first moment of honesty by explaining what he actually does — “I’m good at killing people” — and how he’s beginning to feel depressed in the same way he did after returning from Afghanistan.

Barry says all of this in a rush. His breathing is heavy. He keeps looking away. Every once in a while, he swallows extra-hard. It’s a great piece of acting by Hader that is supposed to be both real and absolutely unmistakable for acting by Barry. This lost man is baring his soul here, but Gene doesn’t recognize that. It’s the ultimate proof that he’s the kind of teacher who wouldn’t recognize great acting if it smacked him in the face. That’s the sly joke in this scene — “Acting is truth,” Gene says before Barry starts his confessional — and it only works because Hader and Winkler do nothing but play it straight. “What is that from?” Gene wants to know, assuming that Barry has just done a monologue from some obscure film he never got around to seeing. He has no idea that Barry just revealed who he really is, which is not easy — and frankly, not wise — for him to do.

That whole monologue is natural and deliberately uncomfortable. But my favorite Hader touch comes after that speech, when Gene accepts him into his class. “What’s your name?” Gene asks. Barry replies by borrowing the stage name suggested by Ryan, another acting student and Barry’s intended hit target. “Block,” Barry says. “Barry Block.” As he says it, Hader flashes the absolute quickest of smiles, then immediately deletes all evidence of it from his face. It’s the first time we see Barry grin in the series, and it’s the first blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign that he might have the capacity to be happy. It’s Barry’s joy peeking through.

“Why Did You Have to Say That?!” (Episode 7)

What Hader does in this scene is something I’ll call seesaw acting. As the conversation begins between Barry and his Marine buddy, Chris (Chris Marquette), the latter is at the top of the seesaw. He’s freaking out because of an earlier shootout that killed several men, including some of his and Barry’s military friends. Chris never saw serious combat in the Marines, and now he’s stuttering and sputtering and his voice keeps going up several octaves because he’s panicked.

Sitting in the passenger seat, Barry responds from his place on the seesaw by trying to coax Chris partway down so they can meet in the middle. He speaks in evenly calibrated tones: “Lay low man,” he advises, then later: “What we need to do now is we need to relax.” He nods slowly as he listens to what Chris is saying, but makes little eye contact. He holds his frame upright and barely moves, because that’s the only way Barry can convince Chris to join him on the same steady plane. He keeps his composure, handling a high-stress situation at such a low simmer that he seems either inhuman or superhuman. You can tell he’s thinking, I can manage this. It’s going to be fine. Like so much of what Hader does on this show, it is ultracontrolled and unshowy.

But eventually, Barry can’t play on the seesaw anymore. Even though he doesn’t say what he’s going to do out loud, Hader’s body language tells us that Barry is giving up on Chris, silently, at first, simply by closing his eyes, and eventually with an explosion. “Why’d you just say that?!” he finally shouts. It’s a tick-tick-BOOM response to Chris’s confession that he wants to tell the police what happened. And it’s followed by the most chilling pieces of acting that Hader does in Barry.

After Chris starts to swear that he can keep his mouth shut, Barry tears up a little, his jaw wavers slightly, and his nostrils flare. He’s on the verge of crying, but he’s trying to swallow his emotions. He doesn’t want Chris to see what we already can: that he is mourning the loss of his friend even before he shoots him dead. Hader doesn’t say all of this out loud, but it’s obvious in every bit of his body language. Another actor might have made Barry seem more menacing or blatantly enraged in such a pivotal moment. Hader goes for the sadness and the pathos and it’s a far more memorable scene because of it.

“My Lord, the Queen Is Dead.” (Episode 7)

When Barry finally makes it to the theater to deliver one line — “My lord, the Queen is dead” — in Sally’s gender-flipped staging of Macbeth, he’s a mess. He’s late. He doesn’t have a costume. He’s addled with thoughts of Chris, whom he just killed hours earlier, and how Chris’s wife will react when she finds out her husband is dead. Backstage, before he enters to speak to Macbeth, he has a breakdown that spills out of him as he steps into the spotlight.

The whole season has built up to this moment. Hader’s entire performance has been so controlled and modulated up until now that when Barry finally starts to lose it, it’s stunning. It’s like watching a dog meow. Based on what we know of Barry, this guy isn’t supposed to behave this way. What he does in this scene suggests he’s turned into some other species.

Essentially, Hader’s performance here is an uncorking. Everything that Barry has held inside finally comes roaring out. Hader breaks into a sweat. His eyes go wild. He beats his hands against his head as if Barry’s trying to rattle thoughts and memories out of his brain. What’s most remarkable is that none of this feels like overacting or going too far. Hader has been so careful to keep Barry in check that when he finally lets go, it feels earned, believable, and really upsetting.

By the time Barry steps onstage to let Macbeth know that the queen is indeed dead, he’s shattered, sobbing, unable to stop his sobs or his jagged breathing. Unlike the monologue he delivered in episode one to Gene, about his actual life, Barry is speaking written dialogue. But it’s the most naked that he’s ever been emotionally. When was wrestling with himself alone, backstage, Hader filled that struggle with sound and fury. Here, when Barry acknowledges two deaths — one in the play and another he just caused — Hader marinades the line in such sorrow and regret that it signifies everything.

The Other Contenders

In addition to Hader, other actors were very much in the running for this honor. Donald Glover, who won the Emmy last year for outstanding lead actor in a comedy, gave Earn even more layers in Atlanta Robbin’ Season. His sneaky unannounced portrayal of Teddy Perkins in the “Teddy Perkins” episode was basically the work of a master illusionist. But Glover, by design, wasn’t quite as front and center as an actor in this season of Atlanta, whereas Hader was in Barry to a degree that gave him a slight edge in my mind.

A couple of other veteran actors came close to being best. Ted Danson is one of the many delights in the delightful The Good Place, especially in the second season, when his character learns to embrace selflessness. But I didn’t think the role of Michael required Dason to dig as deeply as Hader does in Barry. Matthew Rhys’s performance in The Americans was simply extraordinary in its final season, but we focus these awards on continuing shows, not ones whose run has ended, which disqualified him from consideration. As I noted before, Henry Winkler is also terrific in Barry, and delivers a majority of the laughs as an egomaniac thespian who thinks he’s much more astute than he is. But Hader’s performance as the titular character is more essential to what Barry is about. The show could not exist without him.

The men of This Is Us — Sterling K. Brown, Milo Ventimiglia and Justin Hartley — all got the chance to shine during the show’s second season. Especially in the Big Three’s stand-alone episodes, Brown and Hartley were outstanding. But This Is Us being This Is Us, a drama that more blatantly goes for the tear-jerking jugular, none of them had to engage in the exercise in prolonged restraint, followed by an intense meltdown, that Hader did.

That, ultimately, is what gave Hader an advantage against a number of other worthy acting contenders, both lead and supporting, including Noah Schnapp, who was heartbreaking in Stranger Things 2; the admirably chill Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta; Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose; Darren Criss in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (as good as both Cumberbatch and Criss were, I had a hard time forgetting that they were acting); and Kit Harington and Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones, who were outshined a little in season seven by their female castmates.

Hader bathes in ambiguity and subtlety in a way that was unmatched during the last year. There are no easy answers in Barry, or in the character Barry. Even after what should have been an epiphany during that Macbeth incident, in the final episode, Barry still opts to kill when he’s cornered. (Though the camera cuts away from the moment, a flash of gunfire in the midst of a confrontation between him and Janice, the cop who’s investigating his murders, strongly suggests that he shot her dead.) Barry is guilty and he knows it, and yet he still makes the case, with a totally straight face, that he should be absolved so he can finally experience unfettered happiness.

He’s hardly the first anti-hero in TV history to have the gall to think he deserves a pass for committing crimes. But Hader is one of the few actors who instantly creates a character so empty and quietly regretful that he doesn’t seem to have truly lived yet. He convinces us that Barry is deserving of a second chance, even though he’s also sinking deeper into self-delusion, and he does it in just eight episodes. The only actor who’s done that quite as effectively over such a short span is Bryan Cranston, who established Walter White’s anti-hero bona fides in just seven episodes of Breaking Bad season one. But since that show was an hour-long drama, even he had more time to work with than Hader does. Obviously acting isn’t a race, but there is certainly something impressive about how fully formed Barry is right away and how quickly we’re inclined to empathize with him. Part of that is because we know he would rather not be a hit man. But there’s no question we wouldn’t care as much about Barry if Hader hadn’t been so careful to make him so multifaceted.

As Gene says, “Acting is truth.” But it’s also lying to yourself. And no performance captures all the levels of both sides of that coin better than the one delivered by Bill Hader.

The Best Actor on TV Is Bill Hader in ‘Barry’