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A Very Sunny Chat With Henry Winkler About Barry’s Very Dark Finale

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Spoilers for the Barry season-three finale “starting now” below.

We could attempt to list all the reasons Henry Winkler is a national — no, international — treasure, but it could take days. Hell, weeks. So let’s instead turn our attention to the stellar third-season finale of Barry, in which Winkler’s character, beleaguered acting teacher Gene Cousineau, walks away with his head held high. After a season of trying to earn the forgiveness of his wronged Hollywood peers, all while hitman Barry (Bill Hader) attempts to do the same in his own fucked-up way (“I’m being chased by a man who killed my girlfriend,” Gene memorably says a few episodes in, “and now he’s going to make up for it by getting me a job on a TV show”), his breaking point comes from an unsparing interrogation by the father (Robert Wisdom) of his murdered gal. The next time we see Gene, he has a glint in his eye as he watches Barry get arrested, having helped the police catch him. Gene’s redemption tour — a sincere one, Winkler says — crescendos here.

Ever the punctual man, Winkler called a few minutes early for our chat, leaving me scrambling to turn off the music blaring from my turntable setup. It led, fortuitously, to a few Frank Sinatra anecdotes, as well as a longer breakdown of the Barry finale. For starters, Winkler believes that his scene with Wisdom is the best of his career, and one he couldn’t have accomplished before the ripe age of 76.

Hello, this is Henry. How are you doing?

I’m doing great. How are you, my friend? Are you still in New York?
I was there for 48 hours, and now I’m back out West but I miss it already. Is the weather still nice?

Very much so. I’ve had my windows open all morning while loudly playing some records.
What were you spinning?

It was very much a Frank Sinatra The Capitol Years type of morning.
Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. When I was 15, I smoked regular Kent cigarettes; they were so small you could hardly see them. I listened to Frank Sinatra in the wee hours of the morning, blowing the smoke out through the window so my parents wouldn’t smell it, feeling very dramatic.

You must have interacted with Sinatra and his crew over the years.
I met him twice. He was everything I expected. I took Ron Howard with me to Las Vegas to see him perform; there was a group of about six of us. We went backstage and he was very happy to meet me because he liked Happy Days. I introduced him to my friends and then we went back to see him after the show. He remembered every single name. He would make fun of Rona Barrett, who at that time was a gossip columnist. He made fun of her mercilessly. The second time I met him was the bicentennial of the Statue of Liberty. He’s in a tent and has every single bottle of liquor you could imagine. You had to provide all those bottles of liquor for him, depending on his taste. He couldn’t see the festivities, so he took his steak knife, stood up, walked over to the wall of the rented tent, and cut himself a picture window. Not just a window but an entire wall of windows so he could see what was happening. He could pull that off.

I could ask about your incredible encounters for the rest of our chat, but shall we discuss Barry?
Let’s do it!

I was on the edge of my seat thinking you were going to be killed in the finale. Were you ever nervous about such a fate, either this season or prior?
I’m a short Jew, I’m always nervous. [Laughs.] The first question I ask Bill Hader at the beginning of every season is “Am I dead? Are you killing me?” He laughs and goes, “No!” But of course there are eight episodes — any one of which can be my demise.

You’ve alluded all season to a certain scene in the finale that’s likely the most intense work of your career, which I have to assume is your garage interrogation scene.
I knew it when I was doing it. In the beginning, as a young actor, I would be so frightened of that type of scene. I would be thinking of the result as opposed to the journey of getting there. When I first got to that set and I looked around, it was a full garage. I got my makeup done, I got my costume, and I came back and there were two chairs. And then I saw a crane, which meant it was all meant to be done in one shot. I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing. I just went and listened to my acting partner, Robert, who, in his silence, is a tornado.

Can you tell me how that scene evolved, from the script to filming it?
Before the pandemic, all the cast and crew would meet at the studio to have lunch and read the scripts together. When we came back two years later to do this third season, Bill said, “We’re not having readings anymore. We’re going to rehearse each scene instead.” So I would come into the Barry offices and take over a conference room with everyone involved in the scenes. If we improvised and said something that made sense, the scene was rewritten and sent to us. Cut to weeks later. I walked onto the set. I’ve worked on that scene at home. I think I know what I’m doing, and I think I’ve got a handle on it. And then Bill takes me on a journey to a place you’ve never imagined. Imagine I’m in Trenton, New Jersey, and he wants me in Bangladesh. It’s no joke. That metaphor covers it.

How else did Bill, as the episode’s director, elevate and guide that scene for you?
With great trust. He trusted his actors. He would only tweak things. It’s like, you know years ago when you bought your turntable, and you get the smallest screwdriver you’ve ever seen in your life? That’s what he would use to turn the screws this way or that way. Just a few millimeters. I kept thinking during that interrogation scene how I didn’t get out of that chair. I couldn’t get out of that chair, whether I had to pee or get some water. I didn’t move a muscle between takes.

Did every take include you and Robert touching noses? I found that to be the most affecting moment.
Oh my God, he was in my face. That gigantic face of Robert. His intensity. It just kept getting amped up with every new take. I couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen. I couldn’t think for a moment, Oh, you know where you’re supposed to get to. Then I would’ve never gotten there. It was a triangle of Bill, me, and Robert.

How did the three of you feel after completing the scene?
I hugged Robert so hard. The generosity of spirit and the presence, from him to me, was never lacking or waning.

I look forward to that scene introducing your nomination at the Emmys this year.
[Gasps.] You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I can’t even imagine lightning in a bottle twice. But I’m telling you, if I could give you a gift, it would be the emotion and the feeling of that room between Robert and me.

I was very intrigued by Gene’s facial reactions when Barry realizes his involvement in the sting. At first, Gene gives him a hard stare but then softens a bit when he walks away, almost like a grin.
What’s amazing is that Bill said to me — and I never quite understood what he meant at first — something to the effect of, Wow, we really see how great of an actor Gene Cousineau really is. Gene has a son in the show, but Barry was the son Gene didn’t have. It was bittersweet. Barry yanked Janice out of his pumping heart.

So how long has Gene been stringing Barry along?
I think from the very beginning Gene had to play Barry like a flute in order to stay alive and get to that moment. If he gave anything away or made a mistake, Barry would’ve sensed it. It wouldn’t have worked, and he wouldn’t have gotten his just deserts. Also, remember, there’s real fear there. He was under the gun, so to speak. He didn’t know what this crazy person was going to do. He had to eat a hamburger in the trunk of Barry’s car and then Barry gave him back his change? There are so many nutso details like that.

Redemption is a main theme connecting most of the characters this season. Bill, interestingly, has said he doesn’t believe Gene’s desire to change is sincere — it’s all posturing, especially with Annie. Do you agree?
No, I don’t. I literally bought into the redemption. Maybe that’s just Henry’s influence on the character. When Gene is at the great Joe Mantegna’s dinner table earlier this season and Annie says, “You don’t give a shit or care,” he’s flabbergasted. I was too. He sincerely knew it was insane what he did to that young woman. It was a real psychodrama. I believe Gene wanted to make it up to her for real. I never once thought, Nope.

In your eyes, how much forgiveness has Gene earned this season?
My instinct, unless I’m missing something, is that Gene did a pretty good job. He said to Annie, “You can have 100 percent of the profits of my master class. That’s not something Gene would do. I remember in the very first episode of the show, he doesn’t give a shit whether people can act or not. If you pay in cash, on time, he thinks you’re the most talented human being on earth. So he went from there to thinking, Hey, you can have it all. I owe you all as a symbol of my assholery. He’s absolutely a changed man to me.

Did you befriend any of the dogs that mauled Gene in the third episode?
I made friends with all of them. They were all in a pen in the backyard where it took place. There were 32 in total, and I hugged every one of them. I’m a dog lover. I have three dogs. A Labradoodle, a goldendoodle, and a one-legged, idiosyncratic German shepherd.

What do you think Henry Winkler would learn in a Gene Cousineau master class?
A glib answer is what not to do. There’s something inside him that literally makes sense. The last thing he says in his master class is “You’ve got to make a fool out of yourself. Am I a fool? Not my problem.” When you’re working on a character, you can go all the way and make your circle big enough to touch Mars, or you can bring it back to center and make it as simple and small as you want. But if you start off worried and keep everything you’re doing small, you can never make it big. I don’t know why. It just works that way.

I love that you and Gene share the joy of teaching.
Listen, one of my favorite things is to get another actor to taste something they didn’t have in their mind or body before. I’m not going to teach everything, but if I can get them just to taste that, it’ll open them up to a whole other kettle of fish.

A Sunny Chat With Henry Winkler About Barry’s Dark Finale