12 March 2019
Contract killing and community theatre – what’s the difference, really?
Marine-turned-successful hitman Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) stumbles into the cure for his midlife crisis blues and clinical depression when he joins an enthusiastic Hollywood community theatre group in Season 1 of darkly funny and touching drama series Barry (2018-current, S1-2 are now on Showmax).
The dark comedy examines what it’s like to be great at something that’s sucking the life out of you, while sucking at the one thing that’s saving your soul.
It’s a study in deliberate contrasts, right down to the actor playing the title role.
“I remember going to HBO saying, ‘Okay, it’s me as a hitman – but me.’ And they laughed,” explains Bill, “and we pitched what essentially the pilot was, beat for beat: how art can heal a person. I love reading, I love music, to me these aren’t recreational, they fulfil my life. So we made it as the thing this guy is good at is hurting him.
Ironically, Bill based that concept on his experiences with stage fright so bad that it gave him migraines during his time on comedy sketch show SNL between 2005 and 2013 (Saturday Night Live, 1975-current). “The anxiety was so high. The longer I was on the show, the better I was getting at the show, but my anxiety didn’t go down. It was actually going up. So, again, the thing that you’re good at is destroying you,” he says.
Life and death issues
Being in the acting class gives Barry back the identity and structure that he lost after leaving the Marines.
“So many people come back and they don’t have an identity anymore. When you’re in the Marines, you’re a rank, and you’re a community of soldiers… and every day you have a purpose. So we gave Barry a new name… a new community in the acting class and a new purpose,” reveals Bill.
And the series contrasts the necessary secrecy of Barry’s hitman life with the raw openness required on stage and the acting community’s habit over-over-oversharing as a route to intimacy. “You want to be known, your emotions are constantly on the surface so you can access them and stuff. We noticed the parallels,” says Bill.
Finally, it’s a chance to create life instead of destroying it. As Barry’s new acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) proclaims to the class passionately, “That’s what this class is about! Life! I want you to create a life onstage!”
And if Barry is so talentless that he can’t bring a character to life, well, at least he can help Gene to make a living. “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,” says Henry. It’s a necessary compromise for Gene, an older actor who’s still out there auditioning for roles like “man in the back of the line”.
Barry’s sudden enthusiasm for the stage and its life is also contrasted with how her own “killer instinct” is slowly destroying his classmate, struggling actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg) in a world that is not kind to overt female ambition.
“Sally is ruthless and ambitious – to her own detriment, I think, to the point that she alienates people and it’s painful to watch,” says Sarah. “But at the same time, we get to see how vulnerable she is. She’s exploited and rejected. I’m an actress; of course I understand that. The whole business, it’s a strange profession because your vulnerabilities are what you have to offer. That’s where the good stuff is. But in order to survive in it, you have to have a very thick skin. The minute you give up one for the other, you lose.”
She adds, “She’s one of these people who in a better set of circumstances, she’d be a much lovelier person. She has a personality that responds to her environment. In class, where she has the status and is clearly the best in the room, you see this monster come out because in the rest of her daily life, she’s struggling. It’s really hard when you want something so badly.”