Bill Hader is a changed man. After eight years as a featured player on Saturday Night Live, producing and writing for South Park, and a string of memorable comic supporting roles—largely in Judd Apatow-curated fare—Hader was ready for something different. Change came in the form of The Skeleton Twins, the darkly comic story of estranged twins, each on very different life trajectories. Hader stars as Milo, a gay wannabe actor reentering life after a failed suicide, playing opposite his SNL buddy Kristin Wiig. The performance is revelatory, with Hader bringing pathos and easy charm to what could easily be a sad sack caricature. While the temptation to recall Stefon in Hader’s performance may be tempting, all traces of the Weekend Update correspondent quickly vanish as Hader and director Craig Johnson avoid all opportunities for easy laughs. In one of the year’s most memorable scenes, Milo brings Wiig’s Maggie out of a slump by lip-synching Starship’s cheese epic “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” It’s hilarious, but also earnest and sweet. It’s that combination of traits that makes Hader the real deal.
The A.V. Club: How do you describe Milo? Do you see him as a work in progress or damaged beyond repair?
Bill Hader: I think he’s a work in progress. That’s interesting—but maybe he’s not. I feel that the suicide attempt at the beginning is much more in the cry for help category, rather than chronically depressed category. When we were shooting the suicide scene, I was thinking about that, and the director, Craig Johnson, said, “Well, you turn your music up really loud.” That’s more of you wanting someone to come knock on your door and turn it down. I was trying to figure his stuff out. He has a hard time forgiving himself. If you can’t forgive yourself, you think you’re never going to be able to forgive yourself and you repeat the same behavior.
AVC: I had hope for him, but I was wondering if you had a different take.
BH: I have total hope for him. I think the real person that’s in a worse place is Kristen’s character. Her journey is just beginning. She’s just kind of starting to figure it out. Milo—you watch from the beginning to the end figuring his stuff out.
AVC: What did you bring from your personal life to Milo?
BH: I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I just wanted to be in the movie industry. I loved movies, and I knew I wanted to live in L.A. I related to that being-the-big-fish-in-a-small-pond feeling, and then you get to L.A. and no one’s heard of you. I think Milo has a lot more confidence than I did. But it is an interesting thing when you get out to Los Angeles and there’s a lot of people who are better than you and more savvy than you. It’s really easy to get discouraged, so I related to that.
I also related to him wanting to come back and find Rich [Ty Burrell], who’s kind of the first person he fell in love with, and the first person who said, “Hey, you’re good at this. You’re good at writing and acting.” He just wants to elicit that thing out of him. “You’re really good.” I relate to that. At a point in my life, I took classes at Second City L.A. after I had been in L.A. for about five or six years and had done nothing. I hadn’t made any short films. I wanted to be a filmmaker—I had written a couple of scripts but they weren’t that great. I was really discouraged and took a class at Second City and I remember a teacher saying, “You’re really good at this.” That means so much. If it wasn’t for that guy, I probably wouldn’t have gone into performing or acting.
AVC: Milo reaches for the bottle in depression. Did you reach a low point like that in L.A. when filmmaking didn’t take off? Is that wired into you?
BH: No. My thing is—I wouldn’t drink or anything—but I would watch a lot of movies and sit at home. I would use it as a way of not working. I would say, “I’ll write tomorrow morning.” I would have a hard schedule of saying, “By spring, I’ll make this short film. I’ll write it, and I know the people who I can get equipment from and who will be in it, and I’ll go do it.” By the next day, if things weren’t working perfectly, I would say, “Well, this isn’t working. I’m going to bail on this.” Then I would just watch movies all day and lay around the house. I’d get very discouraged and bail on things because I was super insecure. It was that awful combination of being insecure and impatient. Also, you’re afraid of failing, so you sabotage yourself so that you’re not failing. That was kind of what I would do. My friends and I would sit in coffee shops and bitch about the current state of film. You sit around and argue about movies—this was from about 1999 to 2004—but we weren’t doing anything. We weren’t making anything. We weren’t active, because we were too afraid to be. I should say, I was too afraid. I can’t speak for them. I was too afraid to get out there and have someone say, “You’re bad!”
AVC: Were you apprehensive about playing a gay man “straight”? This is certainly not Stefon.
BH: Right. Milo’s issue is all the things that we’ve been talking about, not that he’s gay. Craig Johnson is gay, and it seemed very current, and not something we needed to sit and comment on. It’s interesting, because we tried to do the same thing with Stefon. The joke with Stefon is not that he’s gay, but that he’s bad at his job. This was a more nuanced thing, and I’m happy that people haven’t noticed any trace of Stefon in it. Seth Meyers just sent me a very nice email that said, “I saw Skeleton Twins, and I felt like it was a part of you and a part of someone that I had never met before.” That means a lot from Seth. It’s the difference between acting and performing. I learned that at SNL. When you’re performing, you’re playing to the back row. With acting, you have to be more nuanced.
AVC: Did you consider yourself only a performer until Skeleton Twins?
BH: I would say it wasn’t until my fourth season on SNL where people or my agent was saying, “You’re an actor.” I never thought of it that way. That’s when I started to think, “Gosh, I want to do a drama. I want to do something different.”
AVC: Is it hard to be serious with Kristen? There’s a moment where she annihilates you with words, and you share an uncomfortably long silence.
BH: Yeah, it was awful. Kristen had a really hard time with that scene. She got really upset after we shot that scene. I actually had more dialogue, but I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was so in the moment and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t Kristen playing that part. I had never seen her that angry before. I had seen her angry, but never that angry. I was so legitimately hurt by it, and then I’m waiting for her to apologize. I left. I walked down the street, past the crew, and just kept on walking. It was a very real moment of her hurting me.
AVC: But then you have moments where you’re just effortlessly cracking each other up. There’s the amazing “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” lip-synch.
BH: Craig Johnson would say, “You have this natural chemistry. I’m just going to stay out of your way.” He would say, “Make Kristen laugh.” Or with the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” scene, he would say, “Bill, get her to sing with you. I don’t know what you need to do, but get her to sing.” It was good, passive directing.
AVC: Was the song always Starship?
BH: Funnily enough, it was “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips in the script. Unfortunately, that was in Bridesmaids. Craig said, “Well, fuck. I can’t use that anymore.” Then, he apparently listened to every ’80s power ballad and lip synched to it in the mirror. When he got to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which is in Mannequin, he said, “It’s a duet, the lyrics work, and this is now going to be a big moment.” In the script it was just two sentences. Originally in the script it was just something that capped off a scene, and it was a little sweet moment. Then when he said we’re going to do that song, he said, “Hey man, it’s going to be this big, epic lip-synching thing. We’re going to do the whole song.” But it tells the story. It moves the story forward emotionally. It was no longer just a fun set piece. He’s giving to her, and getting her out of a funk.
AVC: As a guy who disappears into so many comic characters, do you feel naked in a dramatic role? There’s nowhere to hide.
BH: Yeah, I like that. I think it was good working with Kristen because I can be very vulnerable with her, because I know her so well. I really appreciate and like doing that. I like getting lost in the thing. I like doing a lot of research, and then you get there, you’re in wardrobe, and then you’re just reacting to what the other person is doing. The other actor is reacting to what you’re doing, and it’s this great back and forth. Because you’ve done all this research, you can use some of it or throw a lot of it out. You can get lost in it. It’s the best job in the world. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you experienced difficulty being taken seriously as an actor? Is SNL a negative stigma?
BH: It’s not a negative stigma because in comedy we got to show off and show everyone what we could do every week. Being able to do that was really helpful, but the typecasting is a real thing. I do it. [Laughs.] We’ll be talking about a project or who I want in a movie and I’ll say, “What about that person that I saw do that thing? Let’s have them do the exact same thing in this thing.” I do it too. After Superbad, I was quickly typecast as a crazy authority figure. It was like, “You’re the crazy cop, or you’re the manager of the place where the main character works, and you’re insane.” Because those were the kind of scripts I was getting sent—some of them were quite wonderful and some of them I did. I said to my agent, “I want to do a drama.” I was told, “Go do a dramatic table read, and a casting director will see that you’re capable of this kind of work. If they like you, maybe they’ll cast you in something.” I did a dramatic table read for a movie that never got made. I read with Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper, Paul Dano, and Greta Gerwig. Avy Kaufman was the casting director, and it was a first-time’s-the-charm kind of thing because she saw me, and happened to be casting The Skeleton Twins.
Craig had other actors in mind who he had seen do more dramatic stuff but she said, “You should really check out Bill Hader.” I got lucky. You have to kind of make your own luck sometimes, not to sound like Tony Robbins. [Laughs.] You have to take it upon yourself. I remember my first meeting with Judd Apatow. He said, “Go out right now, buy Final Draft, and start writing screenplays. Write parts for yourself. The screenplays will suck, but they’ll slowly get better. You’ll learn about writing. Show them to me. I’ll read them—I’m not going to make them—but I will help you.” That was one of the reasons why I started hanging out and working at South Park. I would think, “Those guys are so good at structuring. How do you structure something?” I started as a fly on the wall, and later they hired me because I would laugh a lot in the room. [Laughs.] Getting those tools and that knowledge from writing your own stuff helps you to recognize it in other scripts. When I read Skeleton Twins I saw it in the script. I saw all of the complexity and it was so well drawn.
AVC: Until 6 Days To Air, I had no idea you were on South Park staff.
BH: Yeah. [Laughs.] A lot of people didn’t know. I just kind of sit in a room and laugh a lot. I’ll throw ideas out every once in a while. It’s so much fun. What I learned from working with them is that even though it’s the South Park universe and South Park characters, the stories all have to do with emotion. Emotion is driving everything. Trey [Parker] will usually walk in going, “What are the emotions the characters are going through?” On the other end, we’re thinking, “What’s the scene? What are we saying here? What’s the satirical joke? What’s the thing that’s making us so fucking angry that we want to talk about here?” He’s the guy going, “That’s a funny joke guys, but that doesn’t work for the scene. That’s a whole other show.” Or Trey will say, “Yeah, that works, but it’s not emotional. It’s just surface bullshit. How do you tap into their emotions and relate to it?” Working in the room actually helped me with my acting.
AVC: What cracks you up? Do you have a favorite South Park or SNL character?
BH: The South Park where Cartman comes up to the boys and says, “Guys, I got Butters! I waited until he fell asleep and then I put my dick in his mouth. He’s totally gay!” [Laughs.] Then they’re like, “No dude, that makes you gay.” [Laughs.] Then he drugs Butters. [Laughs.]
AVC: He presents the photos to the class.
BH: Yeah! He’s like, “Here’s a picture I took of a man crossing the street. Here’s a sunrise. Here’s a picture of Butters’ dick in my mouth.” [Laughs.] And he’s giving the thumbs up. Also the scene where he’s explaining to the cops what the picture looked like. “I might have a dick in my mouth, and I might be looking at the camera, and I might be giving a thumbs up.” [Laughs.] The show Nathan For You also really makes me laugh right now. It’s the kind of joke that makes me laugh so hard.
The reason I found the “Laser Cats” sketch so funny was not so much about what Andy and I were doing but that we were pitching it to Lorne. That, to me, was the joke. Every time it would cut to Lorne watching it, it was like this whole thing is a presentation of something we want on the show. [Laughs.] And it’s fucking awful. There’s the Nathan For You where he’s pitching a reality show about the security guard who likes large breasts. What made me laugh is that there is no show there, so the first 10 minutes of the presentation to the reality show guy is just the guard describing his morning. It’s how he gets dressed and how he cooks his Hot Pockets. It goes on forever. It’s so clear he’s trying to buffer it out as there is no show in that guy’s life. It fucking made me laugh so hard. I fell out of bed laughing.
AVC: At this stage in your career, what brings you true excitement? You’re playing a romantic lead in Trainwreck. That’s definitely a change.
BH: That was a lot of fun. It was really fun getting to work with Amy Schumer. I think she’s really going to blow people’s minds. She’s really a great actor. I was really super surprised. She’s like a classically trained actor that decided to do stand-up. [Laughs.] She brought us to tears—me, Tilda Swinton, and Brie Larson. We all cried from this performance Amy gave. I think that’s going to be the big story with that movie. It was a lot of fun, and again, getting to do something different and embracing the challenge of that.
AVC: Do you dream of an Oscar speech, or do personal rewards outweigh trophies?
BH: That’s a dangerous thing to get wrapped up in—awards. Both times I was nominated for an Emmy I was very flattered, and I won an Emmy for South Park that’s displayed at my house, so it’s not like I’m like, “Fuck awards.” But I never think about it. I’ll probably be sitting with someone eating and someone else will say, “Congratulations on your Oscar nomination,” and I’ll go [Screaming.] “I’ve been nominated for an Oscar?!”