Fans waited three years for season 3 of HBO’s Barry after season two concluded due to the pandemic. Judging by the series’ boldness in shaping a main character — played by a beloved comedic performer in Bill Hader — that we can no longer root for and the show’s brilliantly organic mixture of comedy and drama in its third season, the wait was well worth it.
In October of 2019, Henry Winkler (Gene Cousineau) told me Hader — a jack of all trades with the show serving as an actor, writer, producer, and often a director — had texted him saying, ‘Take care of yourself, you have a lot to do.’
The text from Bill left Winkler anticipating what was going to transpire on the show following a season 2 finale cliffhanger in which Gene, Barry’s friend and acting teacher, discovers Barry killed the love of his life.
“I don’t know what that means. Do I carry a gun? Am I dressed in camouflage? Am I now going after him? Is he going after me now that I know the truth? I don’t know,” Winkler said back in 2019.
Season 3 finally hit screens in late April this year and has two episodes remaining. Winkler shared what it was like learning of season 3’s fate as the pandemic unfolded.
“Well, the scripts were written, and we were at the table in March of 2020. And then all of a sudden the very next day, they said, ‘Yeah, I think we’re all going to go home, but only for like eight weeks.’ And then it was three years later, so they rewrote them,” Henry told me via Zoom video.
“I think they scrapped most of it, rewrote them. And we only got encouraging messages like, ‘Are you healthy, Henry? Are you all right? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you taking care of yourself, sir?’ I said, ‘Yes, I think I am.’ ‘Are you eating right?’ ‘Yes.’
“And then we started doing this season. I honestly think it is the most intense work I’ve ever done since June 30th, 1970 (when Henry joined the Yale Repertory Theatre company).”
A great example of how well the series balances comedy with drama occurs early in season 3, when Gene — at the end of his emotional rope — pulls a gun on Barry in Gene’s office but it falls apart.
“Yeah, it was very funny. The first take, the crew lost it,” Winkler said of the unexpectedly hilarious scene. “And we are really an incredible family and very supportive.
“You know you’re doing well. The dolly grip, Mary, has a viewfinder. Has a screen attached to her handlebar at the end of the dolly. And when you’ve done a good job, she just knows when the scene clicks. She taps the screen, and it’s almost inevitable that they say, ‘Moving on.’ She’s got that touch.”
In his 58 years of acting, Henry said he’s never seen such an interesting and ultimately realistic blend of comedy and drama in a project before.
“This is really wonderfully unique,” Winkler said. “I have been in some incredibly funny situations, some intense situations, but never a blend of what life is like. I mean, people are very funny and then they do the craziest things.
“I memorize the script the night before I go in. I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure I’m in charge of the material. And then Bill and/or Alec (Berg, Barry co-creator, executive producer, writer) take me on a journey that I never envisioned for that scene. And then, hopefully, I get where they want to go.”
Henry also believes he’s never seen the crafting of a character’s arc be as brave as Barry’s, betting the farm that the series will keep an audience after they can no longer put themselves in the main character’s shoes (hopefully).
“I have to honestly say no. Bill and Alec are really very individual. They are very different from each other. They are great collaborators,” Winkler said. “And it is always a surprise for the cast. … Something you do inspires (Hader) to say, ‘Hey, let’s go here.’ Or ‘You know what, just do this for me. Just take it up another notch.’ So it’s everything combined. Some of it he does on the fly and some of it he has in his mind.”
Playing opposite Barry’s descent into darkness in season 3 produced more of a visceral reaction than Henry had anticipated at times.
“I was not prepared for how scared I would be turning around and seeing him sitting next to my grandson, knowing how mercurial he is. That just took me to another rhythm,” Winkler said of a moment from episode two in season three. “I came in running, excited, and, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ And when I turned around and I saw Bill Hader and my grandson on that couch, my entire inner body just dropped a ton.”
The unique chemistry with Gene and Barry in season 3 often plays off of Gene’s fear as Gene is unable to excuse Barry’s PTSD or find the good in him after he not only killed Gene’s lover, but now also threatened his family.
“There is no good quality at that moment,” Henry said. “There is only the knowledge you have of him and now, especially since I now know that he has ripped the love of my life out of my life. He has shot her dead. And then when I see this scene, I think, “Oh, my God, he’s capable of anything.”
Looking back after a storied career in film and television, Winkler is not only overjoyed to still be working, but to be a big part of an innovative hit series that maintains a stellar work environment on set.
“At this stage in my acting career, most men are sitting at home, and I, at 76, am having the time of my life,” Henry said of the show he won his first Emmy with (Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 2018). “No matter what age I am, no matter when I got this, the material is exceptional. I mean, it just is.
“There is a policy on the set with Bill and Alec and Aida Rodgers (co-executive producer), who is our fearless leader: no a**holes. There’s a no a**hole policy, and they have stuck to it, and they have done it. And so I just pinch myself. You know that expression, I have to pinch myself to remember that this is really happening. I’m living that pinch.”