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Bill Hader on His Sundance Hit Skeleton Twins, Lip-Synching With Kristen Wiig, and Breaking Into Drama

Bill Hader. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty

You know him as Stefon on SNL and Officer Slater from Superbad, but a dramatic actor? Don’t worry, Bill Hader got great reviews out of Sundance for his warm, hilarious, and often touching performance in The Skeleton Twins. He plays Milo, a gay unemployed actor who reconnects with his estranged twin sister (Kristen Wiig) after a suicide attempt. Director Craig Johnson and Johnson’s writing partner Mark Heyman won the fest’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the film sold to Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, and Sony Pictures for a reported $3.5 million — the biggest deal of the festival. Jada Yuan spoke to Hader about shaking off SNL, lip-synching with Kristen Wiig, and bonding on the airplane with John Lithgow.

Hader: Hello.

Oh, no, sorry. I was talking to my daughter. She’s cute. She’s walking around going, “Hello. Hello.” She’s 1. It’s a madhouse here; everyone is losing it. Trying to get everyone out the door.

Go for it. So, what was it like getting the news that you’d sold?
I was doing a day on The Mindy Project and Chris Messina, we were shooting a scene, and he was looking at his phone and he said, “Oh, congratulations on your movie selling to Lionsgate!” I was like, “It did?” He broke the news while we were rehearsing.

That’s awesome. I’m surprised your character is back on Mindy Project. You’d think she’d learned her lesson.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but he’s kind of turned a new leaf. I’ll say that.

Ah. So, how did Skeleton Twins come about for you?
Well, four years ago, I told my agent and my manager that I’d like to do a drama. They said, “People know you from SNL. We inquire about those things but, totally understandably, people see you as the guy who does impressions.” So they said, “What if you did a dramatic table reading for movies?” If a movie doesn’t even have financing yet, they’ll do a table read for it at a casting director’s office with actors, for the producer and the writer, just to hear if the movie is working. So I went to one with Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper, Paul Dano, and Greta Gerwig. And I was like, “This is not the usual room that I’m in.” And Avy Kaufman was the casting director. So I did that, and she thought I did a good job and she happened to be casting this movie, Skeleton Twins. Craig [Johnson, the director] even admitted, “You were not on my radar, but Avy said you were good at the table read.” They sent me the script in 2010.

Did you get Kristen Wiig onboard?
Craig called me and said “What about Kristen?” And I said, “Oh, duh.” To be honest, when we were doing this was during the time when Bridesmaids came out, when the part of Maggie [Wiig’s character] fell through and we had to find another Maggie. I was like, “Kristen is shooting all these other movies, she’s not gonna be available.” It was very sweet, Kristen called me and said, “Hey, I read Skeleton Twins, I really like it. I’d like to do it, but only if you’ll have me.” I was like, “Are you joking? Of course.” It didn’t even dawn on me until later that, oh yeah, we have this brother-sister relationship.

The lip-synching scene [an epic rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”] is my favorite moment in the movie. You’ve just had a fight with Kristen’s character and are trying to get her to soften up. Did you choreograph that yourself?
No, that was all Craig. But I had a lot of ideas. I would listen to that song every day on the way to work because I needed to lip-synch it perfectly. And I would sit at home and think of some moves. Then I came in and we went up in the little house we shot [in] — we were in that house for the majority of the shoot — and I just remember being up there with Craig and Kristen going, “Well, here’s what I was thinking” and then I would do some stuff. Craig was like, “Oh, there’s a piano down there, you should go over and pretend to play.” And I was like, “That’s great. Is it too much for me to crawl over to her?” It was a big collaboration, really.

Were there any scenes where you had trouble keeping it together?
I had a scene with Luke Wilson where we were eating — the first time we were eating — and he was talking about swimming with turtles. Luke was improvising a lot of that and I couldn’t really keep it together. I kept looking down a lot.

I noticed when you did Stefon there were lots of moments you had trouble keeping it together.
Yeah, it’s a problem. I think it’s on the Superbad DVD, there’s a whole thing where I can’t say, “Sorry, I blocked your cock.” I just couldn’t get through it.

Did you have any worries about playing a gay character given how large Stefon looms, in that he’s how many people know you? Was there any intimidation?
We talked about it a little bit. Craig Johnson said the only similarities between Milo and Stefon is that they’re gay. That’s that.

Milo does some drugs, too.
Yeah, but they’re totally different people. There’s other stuff going on with Milo, especially. Stefon’s like a giant fake character, a sketch character. Milo’s different.

Were you at all intimidated going into this project given that (a) it’s a drama and (b) you’re playing this nuanced gay character and you’re not gay? Were there nerves you had to get over?
Oh, no. My thing was just that I didn’t want to make him being gay the character. There’s much more going on with Milo. He happens to be gay, you know what I mean?

That’s the way I played it and I wanted to make sure with Craig that it wasn’t going into that thing of “straight guy playing gay guy.” It was the only discussion we had about it. The majority of the conversation we had about Milo was, “Why is this guy self-sabotaging himself?” You know, “What’s he trying to get from Rich,” the Ty Burrell character? [Editor’s note: A teacher Milo had a relationship with in high school.] It’s the first person he’s ever been in love with and that’s why he lies to him about being a writer and how he’s on a writer retreat because that’s the student-teacher relationship they had. It’s trying to get that out of him, because that acceptance from Rich that he really wants is love. He just needs that. And then it’s sweet because he ends up getting it from his sister in a harsher, real way. He goes there for the ex and he ends up finding his sister. That’s what Craig always said: “I kind of see this as a love story between a brother and a sister.”

What did you think when you read the script and it starts off with Milo trying to commit suicide?
I was like, “These are not the kind of scripts I get sent!” That scene was tough. And then that day I had to go back to SNL to rehearse the Martin Short [episode] where I’m Kate Middleton’s gynecologist, for the Christmas episode. I remember rehearsing that scene the morning that I shot the opening of Skeleton Twins and thinking, What world am I in right now?

So you shot this while you were still on SNL?
Yeah, I shot the whole movie while I was still on SNL. I shot during the Christmas episodes from last season. I think it was Jamie Foxx and Martin Short.

Did it make you feel like you had a cushion? I can imagine it would be pretty intimidating to leave this job at SNL that you’d had for so long, where you were known for doing a particular thing, and just sort of going out into the greater world of acting.
Yeah, I always wanted to do things where it felt like I was trying something different. It was the same thing at SNL. I started SNL and I became the one who did impressions. I did that, but then I wanted to get an original character on, and that took a long time to get one on that stuck. And then I got Vinny Vedecci on — “Oh great” — and then it took a couple more seasons to get Greg the Alien on. You have to have some patience.

What was it like running around Sundance with Craig?
It was really nice. It was crazy, though. I’d only been there one other time, with Adventureland, and we were with Kristen Stewart right after Twilight came out, so we couldn’t walk anywhere. There were gawkers. But this was nice because the movie is in competition and people seemed to really like it. It was just a whirlwind. I was on a plane coming back to Los Angeles and John Lithgow was in front of me and the minute the plane took off I saw him just go, [sighs] “Ahhh.” I started laughing and was like “Okay, it’s over.” I hope you understand — not, like, “God I hated that.” It was just like, “Wow, that was nonstop.”

Now you’re just gonna laze about for the day?
Yeah. Coming back from the festival and then immediately going to The Mindy Project and then shooting all day — I don’t know what world I’m in right now. I’m gonna go lay face down right now on the floor or something. My wife just came in and said, “The kids are in school.” She’s going to her office. I’m gonna go pass out.

Bill Hader on Breaking Into Drama at Sundance