While most of HBO’s newest dark comedy, Barry, revolves around the murder-tastic exploits of Bill Hader’s titular hitman, look no further than the stage at Gene Cousineau’s acting class to find its soul. And this week, the perpetually struggling Sally (Sarah Goldberg) finally scored herself a win — in a gender-flipped Macbeth monologue, she’s simultaneously able to bring the house down at the Shakespeare showcase while potentially scoring some agency representation in the process, all while Barry spirals more deeply into despair. (Man, we could watch his “My lord, the queen is dead” reading on loop.) Nestled in a conference room at HBO HQ last week, Vulture spoke with Goldberg about getting that coveted Barry role, her own acting-class experiences, and, of course, the many charms of Henry Winkler.
Everyone loves talking about the hitman aspect of Barry, but I’m personally fascinated by how much of a master class it is in dissuading people from becoming actors.
[Laughs.] Oh god, very much so.
How similar was your acting training compared to Gene Cousineau’s classes?
It’s pretty dissimilar. I moved to London when I was 19 and went to a three-year drama-and-conservatory training. I lived there for almost ten years. You start all the way back with Greek tragedy and work your way forward. I wanted to do that program because I wanted to move to London and do theater. I liked that program because it was sprinkled with everything — we even had flamenco lessons. Never gonna use it, but hey, it was fun! I had some really lovely teachers, and difficult ones, too. The Los Angeles scene is so different. They did a very well-researched job. When I read it I was like, Do people really get up and clap for their teachers? They do, apparently. The thing of doing all of these movie scenes in theater classes was funny to me, too.
Could you still relate to it at all?
I could relate to the “competitive grief” aspect of an acting class. There’s this thing of, if you had been through a bigger trauma, or you get the one single tear down in class that day, you won the day or get an A+. There’s a weird atmosphere of, if you’ve been through some kind of hardship, there’s more depth to your work. It’s a dangerous game to play. When I was in theater school we did these relationship exercises — you would play my sister and I’d give you all this information about my sister, and then we’d get up and perform this scene and you’d pretend to react as my sister. It was like therapy! There was definitely moments like that, so that was very relatable.
When did you decide it was time to transition away from theater to television?
It’s funny, people think it’s a conscious choice. It really isn’t! As an actor, you’re just trying to get work in any medium. I remember when I started out, I did motion capture for video games, and then I did a terrible Best Buy commercial for Best Buy employees. Growing up, I really wanted my own theater company and I really wanted to do theater, so I was consciously pursuing it. But then I was broke for a very long time. [Laughs.] The theater life of my 20s became a little more challenging. Subletting rooms and sleeping in my sister’s hall. You get to a point with theater that they want to start hiring TV stars, and I started to go, Okay, if I don’t play this game a little, I may start losing roles. When I got to America, they pushed for film and TV anyway, so I went on a lot of auditions. I can’t even tell you. Hundreds and hundreds of auditions. I thought I would never work in this industry. And then I got a job! I got this series called Hindsight, which was a good crash course — I was on set everyday for four months, 16 hours a day. I got my bearings for Barry! And I got to pay my rent just barely! In the beginning, I thought theater was an actor’s medium. You get to do the story from start to finish and you’re in charge of telling that story. With film and TV, everything’s so chopped up and it’s really a director and an editor’s medium. I’ve found the creative freedom in it now, with good material and collaborations, where you get that same kind of high.
When Hindsight got cancelled, they had to buy us out, because we’d been booked for a year to do it. For the first time in my career, I had this little window of financial freedom where I could take a sabbatical and I was gonna be really picky. I remember my manager called me — it was three in the afternoon, and I was very much unemployed. Nowhere to be, bathrobe, peanut butter toast, the works. He was like, “HBO has this new pilot with Bill Hader, I think this is your part.” I was like, “Okay! Sure! Sign me up!” In what world would I get that? When I went through the audition process, it was lovely. Bill was so collaborative and made it feel more like a rehearsal than a high-stakes audition. I felt, Oh my gosh, I’ve waited for this for so long, this is my dream job. It’s the best thing in the world to do work that you’re actually proud of.
How did you celebrate?
Oh my god! [Laughs.] My manager has been my friend for 20 years. We were husband and wife in every school play together, and this was our first month working together. He had this Jeep at the time, and we drove around Los Angeles in his car, singing loudly to Robyn’s Body Talk, and every so often we’d look at each other slowly and burst out laughing and look away. We couldn’t understand what happened. We went out for drinks also. When we got picked up for a full season, I had to go to this event and I got the news — I couldn’t quite process what was happening. I was in New York in Soho when I got the call. My phone wouldn’t stop wildly buzzing from people and I thought, I think I need to put my phone on airplane mode and chill. So I walked into Opening Ceremony because I needed clothes for this event and I was in this otherworldly mind-set. I bought this outfit that I couldn’t afford, and I get to the till and this woman fires off this gun, and confetti falls everywhere. She goes, “Congratulations, you’ve won!” And I’m like, What, I know, how do you know?! And she’s like, “You get 10 percent off!” That day was too much, I needed to go lie down for awhile.
Some people would be surprised to learn that in addition to acting, Bill directed a few episodes of Barry this season. How does Bill Hader: Serious Auteur compared to Bill Hader: SNL Player Extraordinaire?
They merge perfectly. He can bring all that humor and buoyancy of SNL to running a huge team of people who are really grateful for it. You’re on a 16-hour shoot and he’s got the whole crew in stitches because he’s doing every Cut for Time SNL sketch between 2006 and 2013. Bill always wanted to be a writer and director. That’s what he started out wanting to do, and then he was an editor’s assistant. It was an overnight to fame thing for him. I think the shock of that fame and visibility was really hard for him, and he’s reluctantly become this hugely successful actor. The behind-the-scenes thing was what he always wanted to do. Barry is a metaphor for his life in SNL — somebody who’s trapped in a job they don’t really want to do anymore, but everyone tells them they’re so good at it that they have to do it. Watching someone who’s on top of his field get to have his real dream of being an auteur is really moving. He’s a natural director because he’s been on the other side of it and really understands actors. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of film, so he was also able to bring a real vision to it. He was born to do this. Everybody is doing their best work because of the tone he sets. You’d be surprised at how rare that is.
I passed Henry Winkler in the hallway before talking to you, and he immediately stopped to say hello and shake my hand. Please tell me he’s as lovely as I now think he is.
Isn’t he the nicest person in the world?! He’s the mayor of the world! I’ll tell you this: I met Henry at my callback audition. I was really nervous and there was this girl pacing back and forth, also going for the same part. I couldn’t take the nervous energy, so I tucked myself away at a stairwell to read the script. This man comes down the stairs, and I’m sure as you just experienced it, he does a 180 pivot and he sticks out his hand and goes, “Hi, I’m Henry!” I look up — this is my first day auditioning in Los Angeles, keep in mind — and go, “Hi, I’m hallucinating!”
It’s the Fonz!
It’s the Fonz! Is this what happens in Los Angeles, the Fonz is just at your auditions? Is this how it goes?! He was so lovely and he said to me, “Are you about to read?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “Break a leg.” So I go, “Thank you Henry, that’s really kind, how did yours go?” and he said, “You know, if I had an answer to that question, I’ll tell you this much, I had fun.” Then he just strode out. I looked back down at my script and looked up, and there was a big window, and I could see him pacing back and forth for the next 20 minutes looking for his car. It was the greatest privilege of my life to have worked with that man. Between him and Bill and Alec [Berg], well … in the realm of all the stuff that’s coming out about men and this industry, to work with three of the greatest men is very heartening in a time when things are a little frightening and cynical for good reason. It gives me a lot of faith and confidence in this industry.
Just like in that scene in episode four with Sally and her potential agent, before #MeToo was going down. When I first read it, I thought, Is it a little much that he says he wants to fuck her? And now it’s like, Jesus, we could’ve gone farther, that’s the PG-13 version compared to the horrible stories we’ve all read. Even with that, they were sensitive. Bill and Alec walked into the writers room and asked the women, “What has this experience been like for you?” They got the women to write that scene and got a woman to direct it.
As they should have.
Exactly. That’s why they’re so good at their job. Bill’s like, I don’t know what it’s like to be in this position, I haven’t had this experience, please can you all write this authentically? That’s what makes them so good at their job. They have the insight and lack of ego to do that and to open it up in that way, with both the writers and actors. You don’t come across that often. And I think that’s the reason why such a bizarre concept is working.
This interview has been edited and condensed.