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Barry’s Sarah Goldberg Makes the Case for Why Sally Is a Seriously Good Actress

Sarah Goldberg. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

It’s easy to roll your eyes whenever Sally Reed struts into her Los Angeles acting class on Barry, green juice in one hand and script in the other. She’s perky. Eager to out-grieve her peers for the sake of a good performance. Desperate to be a big star. Maybe even a little annoying. But, as the HBO comedy revealed in its second season, Sally is also hiding a traumatic past: She was the victim of an abusive ex-boyfriend, and she uses those experiences as fuel for her very own one-woman show. Sure, she may have tweaked some details of her grief to better suit her narrative, but with the emotional healing (and reviews) so good, who are we to judge?

In person, Goldberg is nothing at all like her Barry persona. But you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise thanks to that onscreen performance, which netted Goldberg her very first Emmy nomination after a decade of hustling in London and New York’s theater worlds. Here, we talk about easing into Sally’s trauma, working with Barry co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg, the art of competitive grief, and what her character’s perfect death scene would look like.

Last time we talked, you said you found out you got your Barry role in an Opening Ceremony. Has the location been upped for your Emmy nomination reveal?
I was actually on a tiny island in Greece with my fella. We had been on this terrible day on a tourist boat that we’d been conned into thinking was a local experience, but it was not. When we finally went to the mainland, my phone picked up a little patch of service and I had a bunch of weird, unknown calls. I was like, Oh man, I wonder if this is happening?

We tried to Google the nominations, but our internet was so bad. My boyfriend finally got service and Googled last year by mistake. [Laughs.] I was like, Oh well, at least the show got all of these nominations. We’ll celebrate with the Greek sunset anyway! But when we finally sat down for dinner, my phone was buzzing and buzzing and buzzing. I realized these people weren’t texting their condolences. Finally, my sister got through to me and told me the news, and that was very special. Then I turned my phone off. We ordered Champagne that was actually Greek sparkling wine, which I can confirm is not Champagne.

As much as I’m absolutely delighted to be nominated, this profession is still ever humbling. In the same week, I was sitting in JFK [airport] and this woman sat next to me and stared at me for a while. She finally said, “Are you that girl from that show?” I said yes, and she responded with, “I thought it was you, but then I thought there’s no way you’d be traveling on this shitty airline.” Believe it, baby, this is the reality!

What was the Barry group chat like that day?
Everybody was going wild. Emoji. GIFs. It was momentous that every series regular got nominated.

Barry and Fleabag dominated the acting categories!
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is my hero. She did something extraordinary with that season. It sucker punches you in the most unexpected ways. You’re laughing and laughing, and then you’re bawling.

We gotta get you on Killing Eve.
I’ll be in absolutely anything Phoebe creates. No doubt.

After this season, especially since Gene discovered Barry’s killer side, I’ve wondered how Sally would react if she learned about Barry’s true identity. How do you think she would respond?
The fear is if you find out, you might end up getting shot. I don’t wanna die on this show! [Laughs.] It’s interesting because I know there’s a lot of different ideas the guys have had. With the violence of her ex, I don’t think she’d be able to reconcile being with someone so violent. That said, Sally is an expert at delusion, and I wonder if there’s some way in which she can benefit from the situation and the violence.

She could turn it into another one-woman show.
It would be a great one-woman show. My Time With the Hit Man.

How difficult was it to introduce that traumatic backstory for Sally?
We had to be vigilant with that subject matter, not only to protect the people who’ve had that happen in real life, but we’re living in very divisive times. Bill always said, “As long as we’re truthful we’ll be okay.” I agree. In that monologue Sally gives in the seventh episode, we had this meta-moment of her saying, “Why does my story have to be everyone’s story?” That was us airing some of our frustrations of wanting to make sure we’re being true to Sally’s story and not feeling like the burden of pressure that this is every woman, because she’s definitely not that. Bill and Alec are smart enough to know that they’re white guys at a certain point in their lives, and they’re very good at asking women to improve and weigh in on certain scenes.

Can you give an example of that?
In the first version of that scene where Sally and her ex sit down for their meal together, Sally was very defensive and defiant and had all of her words ready to tell him off. Liza Johnson, who directed the episode, and I made the point that moments with an ex, even in the best of circumstances, are always very clumsy. We said, “What if there’s a version where she’s nice to him, and crumbling under the pressure of having her new boyfriend and this traumatic ex? What if she’s trying to put out two fires instead of trying to articulate what she wanted to articulate?” The boys ran with that and rewrote it, and steered us to a new story line of the shame and cover-up of that situation. The real trauma of Sally is the abuse, but the shame is the trauma, too. She blames herself for staying and for loving her ex.

We must talk about your long monologue to Barry, which was such a joy to watch for three straight minutes. Can you walk me through its evolution from the script to the screen?

The monologue.

Early on in the season, Bill came up to me and said, “I have this idea. We’re going to write you a three-page monologue and you’re not gonna stop talking and we’re not gonna cut away.” Well, alrighty then! [Laughs.] They wrote a draft, and ever generous as they are, Bill let me have some input about what Sally said. Usually if I’m going to pitch a joke or idea, I’ll run it by the guys beforehand, but I decided to wait and do it on the day we filmed. When the day came, I was so nervous. Even though we could film the scene multiple times, I still had to get it in one take, so I rehearsed it like a piece of music. I slowed it down and sped it up to get it to different beats. Sally talks very, very quickly! My first take was to get it out of the way, and when we stopped, Bill got the crew to give me a round of applause. [Laughs.] We did four takes in total. By the fourth one, I never wanted to stop.

I didn’t think the scene would stay in. It’s a 30-minute comedy. Nobody is going to go for three solid minutes in one take, I thought. But, surprise!

The one facet of the show I’ve debated most with friends is Sally’s acting ability. Do you think she’s a good actor?
That’s something we talked about from the very beginning of the series. We decided Sally was a good actress who tried too hard and would misfire. She wanted it so bad, and that myopia was in the way of having a fulfilling career. It was difficult to show that trajectory, wanting her to get to a place where she shows real talent. How do you do bad acting that slowly gets better? And what if you’re not good enough when the “get better” bit begins? [Laughs.] But, truly, she’s drawing so much on her own life, and the lines between fiction and reality get blurred for her. Whether that’s good acting or cheap therapy is the question. I think she’s working through some trauma in the wrong arena. Gene isn’t a therapist, as much as he tries!

Do you draw from your own life experiences in your work?
Never. I draw those boundaries quite clearly because I know I want to do this profession for the rest of my life. The mental-health cost would be too high, especially doing eight shows a week in a play. You can’t dive too deeply into pulling the stitches out of your own life. It’s dangerous. If you exploit your memories too much, those memories won’t have potency anymore.

I often tell myself fictional stories about my characters as another means of divide. Sally is the exact opposite — she’s almost pleased with the fact she experienced real trauma because she thinks it makes her a better actress. She thinks it makes her the best in the class because she’s been through the most. She’s even competitive with Barry with the fact that he’s been to war. There’s a darkness to these people. There’s a great line this season from D’Arcy Carden’s character that speaks to that humor within the darkness. Barry is talking about a traumatic moment he experienced during the war, and she mutters under her breath, “Ugh, lucky.”

That whole “competitive grief” ideology.
Exactly. Sally thinks diving into that trauma is making her a better actress, but that’s not always the case. Everybody experiences grief in their life. Nobody goes through life unscathed, no matter how successful they are. You do meet a lot of actors who use their work as a catharsis, and I suppose in some ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, there’s always going to be an element of that. There’s catharsis in the job, but I’ve never seen it as a good place to dive into your own trauma. I’ve got a good therapist for that!

Can you imagine Sally in any other profession besides acting?
I don’t think she’s entertained any other option. It’s all she wants. Now that she fancies herself a talented writer, maybe she could get in a writers’ room somewhere. Maybe defending criminals? That’s a terrible twist for the show, Sally being Barry’s defense lawyer. That’s the spin-off — think of a pun that’s Barry-related. Or, you know, I can see her ending up like Gene and teaching acting classes. Going to a conservatory school in London, becoming a chain-smoker, running a class with a skinny, long cigarette and thermos of whiskey, and dreaming about the days she was a star.

But I’d really like to see Sally get a genuinely great role in season three. If she does become successful, what does it actually feel like for her? I want to see her do something really intense. What would you see her as?

I’m visualizing a network drama for her. It’s not as creative as she wants, but it gives her a lot of exposure.
Like Ally McBeal.

Or Party of Five. Or a ’90s-esque, emo, hour-long drama.

You said that you hope Barry doesn’t kill you off, and I’d be very depressed if that happened. But have you thought about any epic death scenes for Sally?
We haven’t had any drowning scenes yet. I don’t know why Barry would drown her, but … [Laughs.] You know, the wildest and most traumatic death scenes I’ve seen on television are people getting buried alive. Oh my God, it gives me the creeps. If we did a slow-motion burial scenario, Sally would really milk that drama. You’d still hear her screaming in season 17. Bill always makes jokes and threatens me with things like, “In season three, Sally gets a light cough.” Maybe it’s a small strain of a medieval disease that takes 40 years to kill her, so you’ll have to see Sally in season 47, still dying. Her cough has turned to a rash, a rash to a limp. Any death that takes a really long time.

I think I’m behind the Sally burial now. Fill the theater slowly up with cement. The whole season is Sally’s death. A bottle season! I’m going to pitch this!

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Elizabeth Sarnoff wrote episode four.

Barry’s Sarah Goldberg on Why Sally Is Really a Good Actress