From Alec Berg and Bill Hader, who serve as co-creators, executive producers, directors and writers, the eight-episode, half-hour HBO dark comedy series Barry follows a depressed hit man (Hader, in the best performance of his career) from the Midwest who stumbles onto a love of acting while on a job in L.A. Although he only ends up in the acting class by following a mark, he is instantly drawn to the group of students and their beloved teacher (Henry Winkler) and begins to question every aspect of his life of crime while trying to juggle both worlds.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, the iconic Henry Winkler talked about how he came to Barry, that Bill Hader is a master, getting to ad-lib, why he understood this character so well, that he has always loved being an actor, and what gets him interested in a project.
Collider: I love this show!
HENRY WINKLER: Thank you! What’s amazing is that these two men make a whole that is genius. They are different, respectful with each other, and equally talented. Bill [Hader] stars in it, wrote it, directed it and produced it, effortlessly. When I was in drama school, I had to take Tai Chi to center myself, and they brought in a Tai Chi master. The masters wear these cloth shoes, and they don’t wear them out for years because they somehow distribute their weight and they don’t move air. That’s Bill. I have been on many production, in every capacity except the writer, and it was shocking to watch him just move the least amount of air possible to get everything done. He knew what he wanted, and then he trusted you. They allowed me to ad-lib, once in awhile, and they actually put that in. It was thrilling.
Do you typically like to ad-lib?
WINKLER: I’m so dyslexic. I memorize and I know the script, but sometimes it’s a little challenging, so then I ad-lib. When I was just graduating from graduate school, there was this thing called the Theater Communications Group, and they would hire actors and put them in all of the local theaters, in the cities. I made up my Shakespearean piece because I totally forget it, and I still got asked to be in the theater.
How did this come about for you?
WINKLER: My agents called and said, “Would you like to go in and read for Bill Hader?” I said, “I would, but I just have one question. Is Robert De Niro on the list? ‘Cause if he is, I’m not going in.” They said, “No, it’s a short list.” I said, “Okay.” I sat in the chair, and Bill walked in carrying the script and coffee, and said he’d be right with me. I said, “Take your time. Get settled.” Then, he called me in and I read with the casting person, and I brought her up to be a part of the scene, right with me, and I made Bill laugh. And then, I had to go back again. Then, Alec [Berg] was there. Alec is very reserved, and I made him smile. And then, you wait and wait and wait. The distance between having made Bill laugh and Alec smile was getting long, so I thought I was falling off the world and not getting the part. And then, Bill called and said, “I wrote two scenes last night. Can I send them to you? You wanna come in and play tomorrow?” I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to mess it up, but I said, “Of course, Bill! Send them over!” So, my son (Max Winkler) directed me in the audition, over the phone.
Is this a character that you felt you understood, right away? Have you had any acting teachers like him?
WINKLER: Many! Not as crazy as him, but there’s a legendary acting teacher who made the students buy his paintings. His students didn’t make any money, but he forced them to buy his paintings. He’s a conglomeration of quite a few people that I have met and heard about, and it just came from instinct, but it all starts with the page. There’s a great expression, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”
Did you ever have a conversation about how this guy ended up teaching this acting class, at this point in his life?
WINKLER: You know what? No, I didn’t. He doesn’t seem way different from so many people doing the job. What is so telling is that he’s like, “Have you got the money? Do you have it in cash? Can you have it by tomorrow? Come to my class, you’re gonna be an actor.” His class is not free, but if you’ve got the cash, he doesn’t care who you are.
What does Gene Cousineau think of Barry?
WINKLER: I think that he is touched by Barry’s desire, and I think he thinks this kid is sad because he’s got nothing. But, he’s got cash. He can pay in cash.
How have you found the experience of working with Bill Hader?
WINKLER: Working with Bill is like working on a lake, at five in the afternoon, with not a ripple when you’re water skiing and there’s nothing in your way. You cannot act for and by yourself. All of the episodes were written before we started. We were sitting around the table and we were all making friends, and then you never see some of them again because it’s like there’s two different shows going on. There’s the shoot ‘em up and the acting class. And then, I fall in love with a cop. How does that all work?! I still don’t know. I have no idea how they put it all together.
It seems like we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of these characters and what’s possible with them.
WINKLER: And apparently, Bill and Alec have worked out multiple seasons.
You clearly still love what you do.
WINKLER: I love what I do!
Is it something that you’ve always loved, or have you had moments where you had to find that love again?
WINKLER: Never! I knew what I wanted to do, since I was old enough to reason. I used to eat it and breathe it, and walk it and talk it. Now, I’m living my dream. I write these books with my partner. We’ve written 30 novels. I get to be an executive producer on MacGyver, again. I’m doing Better Late Than Never. People are loving Barry, and I get the plum role of the season. I only found that out afterwards. It’s amazing! I’m having this unbelievable life, and I’ve got five grandchildren.
What is it that interests you in a project?
WINKLER: That’s a good question! I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that. It’s clearly instinctual. I know in my tummy, “I want to do this.” If I say yes, I never think about it again. I only think that it’s gonna be a wonderful show or a wonderful movie.
Barry airs on Sunday nights on HBO.