In the final episode of HBO’s Barry, Barry Berkman and Gene Cousineau effectively switch roles. The series finale climaxes with Gene, Barry’s former acting teacher played by the great Henry Winkler, firing the two shots that take out the hitman on the run. It’s a devastating final beat for the doomed pairing, one that sends Barry to his grave and Gene to prison for all of Barry’s crimes. But to hear Winkler tell it, such deliberately awful moments on Barry — and there were many! — are even more startling when it’s time to perform them. “In this particular show, reading it is never as intense as when you’re doing it and Bill is shaping it,” Winkler says. “It grows into a behemoth of dark emotion you had no idea was lurking underneath the darkness you already imagined. You go to the set and go, Oh, no kidding. It was always a revelation.”
Talk me through when you got the script for the final episode and your response to it.
Somewhere in the middle of shooting the season, Bill said, “Well, we just broke the eighth script. Want to know how it ends?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “You shoot me.” And I went catatonic. I had no idea what to say. You know me, I’m a pretty verbal guy. I was speechless. I went, “Oh, oh, oh — okay.”
Then it came to the actual shooting, and it was very quiet. It was very intense. I was scared holding this gun, even with blanks in it. Now, when we did it, Bill said, “You don’t have to do this, Mr. Cousineau.” Boom. Onscreen he just goes, “Wow.” Boom. Oh, it was intense.
There’s this moment after Gene shoots Barry where you slide into the center of the frame and look into the camera. What were you playing in that scene?
I have to tell you, I was looking into an endless abyss. In my mind, it got very quiet and empty. I didn’t think of the consequences. I didn’t think of anything. I just accepted my world now is nothingness.
Before that moment, when Gene gets out that gun Rip Torn gave him, was he considering ending his own life?
I think he was wrestling with the feelings until he heard what was outside that door. Because if he was going to end his life, he was going to end it right when he picked up the gun. He wasn’t going to be like, Oh, well, I think I’ll just get up and go to another room and shoot my brains out.
He has such an image of himself, this very important person to the universe. And killing himself, really, there’s no point. He’s low, he’s done bad things, but people will come to understand. Also, there is a bit of insanity when he walks into that hotel room in the seventh episode. Everybody is confronting him and blaming him. The switch flips when he realizes, I’m being blamed for all this, and there is no way I can explain it. He goes to his son, who says, “Well, you never really tell the truth, so we don’t know.” I mean, he flips his wig.
How did it feel to walk into that room and have everybody there confronting you?
It felt like my life was over. I’ve run out of plays, I’ve run out of tricks. No matter what I did, this entire tragedy somehow boomeranged and stuck on me.
Let’s talk about the time jump that happens in the last few episodes. We learn that during these eight intermittent years, Gene has been on a kibbutz. We don’t really know what he’s been doing there, but he implies he’s been trying to become a better person —
I helped people build homes. They actually had a house in the desert where they were shooting Bill and Sarah and their son. There were scenes, and they built this house and it fell over. That’s what I was doing for eight years, building homes that didn’t stand up.
When Gene comes back to L.A. after hearing about this movie about Barry, he acts as though he’s concerned about Janice’s legacy and doesn’t want the movie to be made. Were his motivations really that honorable? Or was it “I don’t want Barry to become a star”?
I don’t want Barry to become a star. I don’t want Jim Moss to be pissed off at me because I don’t want to go back in that garage. I had already talked to Vanity Fair, and Jim Moss scared the hell out of me. Remember, he was hosing down the trunk of his car. I had to be isolated, he said. So it was a lot of self-preservation.
If he had just stayed away, he would have been safer.
That’s not the way Gene rolls. He never really looks at the real future, only the future in his head. It’s like his brain is filled with mirrors, and everywhere he looks, he sees himself.
During the time he was gone, do you think he believed he had killed Leo?
He did not know who he shot. Because he never let anybody know where he was. I don’t think he had any idea. He was sure Barry was coming for him. That’s who he thought he was shooting.
Did you ever think about how you wanted things to end for Gene?
I actually never thought of that. I think it would go back to my national television show, Classroom. I would probably parlay that into a European version. I would have part of the rights and stumble along as I do.
So you wanted Gene to have some amount of success — enough to keep him going?
Absolutely. I mean, not only success — fame. Not just being able to make a living but finally getting the recognition he deserves as an artist.
You can argue he does get recognition. He probably becomes quite famous but for all the wrong reasons.
All the wrong reasons. That’s not the fame he wanted. However, it has dawned on me that if he is not beaten to a pulp in prison, he does start the drama club once he comes back to some sort of equilibrium. And he gets fame in prison. If this is my audience, so be it. I’ll take it where I can get it.
I feel like this could be a spinoff.
Absolutely. Gene in Folsom.
The last episode confirms that none of the characters really changed.
That was the umbrella of the last two or three seasons — are people redeemable? Bill is not sure. Sally goes on to finally teach like a human being, but it’s a high-school class. I guess he had the sweetest spot for Sally.
Even that was sad.
It is sad because she is constantly knocked down a rung. But she lived, her son lived, and at least they had food on the table. They had a roof over their heads. They had some sort of normalcy even though it was not where she imagined herself to be. Nobody ended up where they imagined themselves to be.
I’m curious what you thought about The Mask Collector, the movie about Gene and Barry that Barry’s son watches at the end of the episode. Your character is the villain in the piece.
Gene would have hated it. He has always wanted to be in a movie, but not that way. That’s not the way he saw himself.
At the same time, I wonder if part of him would have been pleased that he’s a character in a movie even if he isn’t being reflected in the most accurate light.
It was so demeaning. Gene would’ve gone any old way, as we saw with him selling out to Vanity Fair, because he just couldn’t help himself. But that was a bridge too far.
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