character study

Making a (Cheerful and Optimistic, If Not Particularly Talented) Murderer

NoHo Hank, not your average Chechen would-be crime boss. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by HBO

The character: NoHo Hank, the irrepressibly upbeat Chechen gangster and the breakout supporting player of HBO’s fantastic hit man comedy Barry.

The actor: Anthony Carrigan, 36, cut his teeth on small gigs in New York until scoring an eye-catching role as the villainous Victor Zsasz on Gotham.

Essential traits: Sunny disposition, liberal use of malapropisms, love of polo shirts, general magnanimous spirit, the occasional hairpiece (as required for disguise).

Creation story aha! moment: “In the initial pilot script, Goran’s [the head gangster’s] right-hand man was just another Chechen gangster,” explains Alec Berg, who co-created Barry with star Bill Hader. “Then one day, Bill’s MacBook wasn’t working, and he took it to the Apple store to get it fixed. There was a guy at the Genius Bar who was incredibly helpful, friendly, seemed like he genuinely wanted to understand the problem and how it was making Bill feel. Bill came back and was like, ‘I just had an experience with this guy, and it might be funny if Goran’s henchman had something like this going on.’ The first idea we had was a guy welcoming Barry into his criminal hideout by offering him a beer or a submarine sandwich, just super-accommodating. That’s sometimes how these things work — you write one joke for a character, and it starts to fill out from there.”

“I’m not sure my audition is what [Alec and Bill] were envisioning for the character,” Carrigan says, thinking back on the first scene he read, an early one in which Hank discusses a small-time L.A. actor bedding the wife of Goran. “But I wanted to bring my own spin to it, and that came out as a bit of flamboyance and joie de vivre. I immediately started messing around and ad-libbing. It was a blast. The room disappeared.”

Whatever the show’s creators had in mind going into the auditions, Carrigan’s take on Hank, with its contrast between a criminal’s natural menace and a store greeter’s jovial attitude, quickly won them over. “He sank into the part,” recalls Berg. “He listened really well, and seemed interested — he had that same genuine wish to be helpful as Hank. Plus, it made us laugh.” They had found their buoyant Chechen, and Carrigan’s casting launched a collaboration between Berg, Hader, and the actor that has yielded one of the most consistently amusing characters currently on TV.

“I was on set when we shot the Soup Nazi,” Berg continues, recalling his days on the Seinfeld writing staff, “and you can tell: you know when a character’s going to click with people.”

Actors talk a lot about making big, decisive choices, and identifying NoHo Hank as being a happy transplant eager to realize his version of the American dream was a key formative moment for Carrigan. “California, and Los Angeles specifically, is the ultimate representation of the United States for Hank,” he continues. “It’s sunny, everything’s vibrant, people are happy and beautiful. Coming from Chechnya, where I assume he had a difficult upbringing, it’s a major juxtaposition. Everything’s a huge discovery for him; I imagine him making a text chain to let people know when he’s found out about things like Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. He’s the kind of person who wants to be accepted, wants to blend in.”

The first practical order of business was nailing Hank’s Eastern European accent, and weaving that element into the background Carrigan was concocting for his character. “I have to remind myself of certain sounds,” he says. “Instead of saying ‘its,’ you’ve got to do ‘eets.’ Little stuff like that. Otherwise I’ll start to drift back towards being American. What complicates matters is that Hank desperately wants to be American. He wants to make those sounds correctly, so sometimes you hear him attempting it. That’s indicative of how much he wants to fit in.”

From the outset, Carrigan and the writers agreed that a happy-go-lucky fella like Hank would take to the land of opportunity like a fish in pop-cultural water. “Hank’s very taken with pop culture,” Carrigan says. “He uses it to assimilate.” Once the group had unlocked that character trait, it created a world of joke-writing possibilities. “We liked this idea that he would be a guy who grew up watching American television,” Berg says, “and kind of not quite understanding the English. He’s learned all these idioms, but he doesn’t understand how they work. ‘Like Sonny and Cher say, that’s on you, babe,’ or ‘I told you to get out of the dodge!’”

After laying the foundation for Hank’s persona, Berg emphasizes that they generally took a trial-and-error approach to the process of fine-tuning it: “So much of the writing process is trying things out and pursuing what works. I think of [Bill and I] like two morons standing at a piano, hitting different notes and going, ‘Is it this one? Is it this one? This one?’”

That loose approach requires an easygoing atmosphere on set to encourage improvisation, and Berg left Carrigan plenty of room to ad-lib over the course of multiple takes. Carrigan pulled an especially quotable moment from the first season right out of thin air. “That line about being ‘King of Suck Balls Mountain’ was supposed to be ‘King of Shit Mountain’,” he says. “But ‘Suck Balls’ has a little zest to it. My line was something like, ‘My guys are shit!’ and my scene partner Troy would say, ‘Then you’re the King of Shit Mountain,’ so when I decided to instead say that my guys suck balls, he figured out how to adapt instantly. The moment fell into place.”

By the end of the first season, Carrigan, Hader, and Berg had a solid sense of what makes Hank tick, but wanted to see him continue to evolve. Part of Berg’s solution was to elevate his role in the criminal organization. “We thought it’d be fun to see Hank in charge,” he says. “Does he try to turn the whole gang into a nicer operation? He thinks he’d got a match made in heaven with [Bolivian crime kingpin] Cristobal, so we figured if we opened on them in this lovefest, it would be funny to create a love triangle with a third gangster. That’s where Esther came in.”

In the sophomore run, Hank takes a shine to Cristobal and the two strike up a fast friendship that is eventually threatened by Esther, the head honcho of a Burmese syndicate. The introduction of a rival drove Hank to a jealous, petty mind-set, but at the same time, the group stayed mindful of keeping him from veering into cartoonish territory.

“It’s easy to think that more jokes equals more funny, but sometimes you find that when you take three jokes out, the one that you’ve left in becomes ten times funnier,” Berg says. “There’s a scene where Hank comes in to Cristobal’s office and finds out that Esther’s still alive, even though he had sent Barry to kill her. We originally had a whole thing where Hank was nervous because she was staring at him, so he’d move, and then her eyes would move, and he’d move again, and her eyes would follow him. It felt too schticky, like a big comedy scene. Then, in another take, Anthony just did one look over his shoulder, as if checking to see if she was staring at someone else. That’s what I’m talking about. One little thing, it’s so much funnier, and that makes such a difference. It fights your instincts, but putting in less can get you more.”

Tamping down the broader aspects of Hank has been equally critical to remaining faithful to the character’s true nature. “If he’s just funny all the time, he ceases to be a formidable character,” says Berg. “You want to make him silly, but you’ve got to buy back a character’s credibility. Every once in awhile you’ve got to see that he has real fangs.” The arrival of Esther enabled the show to delve even deeper into Hank’s pathos. He grows insecure that he’s not enough for Cristobal, an anxiety expressed through a standout dream sequence during the sophomore season’s third episode, in which “North Hollywood Henry” (“A Smarter Person”), appears as a guest on a highbrow panel discussion show.

“In the same way that Barry had fantasies in season one that show us where his head’s at, we wanted to show what goes on in NoHo Hank’s thoughts,” Berg says. “He’s stressed that Cristobal’s given him all these books to read, and having him on this sort of panel show seemed like a funny way for him to seem superior. We conceived that as a comedy scene, just draped some black curtains, and set it up as much like the real Charlie Rose as possible.”

Playing that scene provided new clarity for Carrigan. “I’ve played characters where you’re not sure if they’re a genius or total idiot, and I like to walk that line. Hank is original, though. I’ve drawn a lot on my inner child, because Hank is childlike. He wants to be seen as this brilliant guy, and his only avenue for that is putting down the so-called intelligent people.” (During the panel conversation, Hank tells Thomas Friedman to “shut the fuck up.”) There’s something naïve about him.”

Though Berg confesses to feeling a veteran writer’s typical “low-level regret of everything,” Carrigan says he wouldn’t change a thing about the character. His balancing act between Hank’s bubbly personality and his grim occupation made him a sensation, as evidenced by Barry crew members doing impressions of Hank-isms like “super-great!” between takes. As the production gets the wheels turning on a third season, they continue a bona fide phenomenon based on a winning combination of love for one’s fellow human beings and the occasional bout of mild sociopathy. With his inhabiting of NoHo Hank, Carrigan struck a genuine chord.

He also unwittingly saved his character’s life. Berg and Hader had planned on killing Hank in the pilot, along with the sedanful of mobsters. “He’s in the car that Barry shoots up, but we left it vague about all those guys being dead,” Berg recalls. “When Anthony came in to audition and showed us how funny he could be, we knew had to keep him around. So instead, we asked ourselves what would happen if Hank lived, and went from there: He got shot, and he’s annoyed, but he understands. If the situation were reversed, he’d have done the same thing! A reasonable, forgiving criminal. We thought, That could be funny.”

Carrigan’s favorite Hank moment: “There’s a lot happening in the [season two, episode three] rooftop scene: Hank tries to shoot Barry, Barry confronts Hank, Hank tries to be a hardass and Barry decides not to shoot him. Hank buckles and vomits, leading Barry to offer to train Hank’s guys. Then Hank erupts into dance. I’m covering a lot of ground! I didn’t want it to be comical for its own sake, it had to be grounded, even though it’s ridiculous. It’s pure Hank, to vomit and almost immediately afterward break into this Chechen dance, the Lezginka.”

Hader’s favorite Hank moment: “I also love Hank on the roof after trying to kill Barry. He goes from acting hard, then scared, then vomits, then excited, then dancing, all in the span of two minutes. Though, I equally like when Hank confronts Barry outside of class at the end of season two’s premiere. Those sequences show the range and depth that Anthony is able to put into a character that was initially written as a one-off silly sidekick.”

On the cutting-room floor: Hank attempting to blend in around L.A. by zipping about on an electric Bird scooter. “I had a helmet, elbow pads, knee pads,” Carrigan laughs. “I thought it was phenomenal!”

Making a (Cheerful and Optimistic, Though Bumbling) Murderer