“I moved here the day this place opened,” Bill Hader says as he walks into the film haven Cinefile Video in West L.A. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I didn’t have a job. So I just kind of hung out, trying to talk to the movie nerds.”
Fresh off the set of his first romantic leading role, in Judd Apatow’s Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, and with the wide release of his dramatic Sundance smash The Skeleton Twins around the corner, Hader is quietly enjoying a bubbling post-SNL existence. But he can still effortlessly evoke the petrified peon he once was. “I’d be at the counter like, ‘Hey, uh, you guys gonna hang out and watch Eraserhead at the Nuart tonight? I am.’ And I’d be saying that as I’m wearing an Eraserhead T-shirt?”
After a comfortable, quiet childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a misguided few years at a community college in Scottsdale, Arizona, a 20-year-old Hader moved to L.A. with dreams of making movies — dreams he was too shy to share. “I never said ‘I want to be a filmmaker’ out loud,” he says, while re-browsing the aisles with great focus and plucking out gems for careful perusal: the bloody The Phenix City Story; Ken Russell’s infamous The Devils; the obscure Deadhead Miles, a trucker movie starring Alan Arkin and written by Terrence Malick. “Because I’d never made anything.”
As a kid, he first became aware that “director” was a job because of John Landis. “My dad showed me Animal House, and then I saw his name on Trading Places. ‘Oh, the same guy did that … ’” When he was a bit older, Hader became consumed by Stanley Kubrick, in part because he’d never seen a photo of the legendary filmmaker. “I would daydream: What does he look like? And I remember watching the making of The Shining, and my stomach was in knots: I was finally gonna see him.”
Oklahoma wasn’t exactly a hotbed of cinematic culture, and brief journeys elsewhere proved unfruitful as well. “When I was 17, literally within the first hour I was ever in New York City — my dad was there for business — I walked into a video store,” Hader recalls. “And this guy goes, ‘Hey, Stretch, you gonna rent anything?’ And I said, ‘No?’ And he went” — and here Hader drops into a perfect caricature of a New Yawk accent — “‘Then get the fuck outta my stoaah!’” In the back pages of The Hollywood Reporter (it was 1999!), he found work as a PA. He was lonely and underemployed in L.A., but finally blessed with the free time and the wherewithal to indulge his movie obsessions: ’40s musicals, ’50s noir, Robert Altman, Jean Vigo, Jean-Pierre Melville.
“Back then, you’d get a free episode of Mr. Show when you rented [a video],” he says. “So I’d go up with Le Samourai or Bob le Flambeur or something, all these orange VHS boxes, and I’d go home to my tiny little apartment and watch those two movies, and watch Mr. Show. And then I’d usually come back the same day.”
Years passed, and Hader climbed the PA ranks, quietly imagining this would lead to an assistant director gig and some kind of creative fulfillment. Then one night, while in California’s Mystery Mesa, shooting the Rock vehicle The Scorpion King, Hader reached a breaking point. “I’d been up for like 20 hours,” he says. “I couldn’t find the hotel. And I was so bleary-eyed and tired, and I just pulled my car over and I sat there for a while, and I thought, Why am I doing this? And that was it. I finished that movie a week later, and I never PA-ed again.”1
To pay the bills, he got a job as an assistant editor at a postproduction house;2 to feel not-dead inside, he joined his buddies in comedy classes at Second City L.A., where small rewards came almost immediately. “I move out here, and next thing I know I’m 25,” he says, “and the only thing I’ve heard is, ‘Can you get a coffee, can you hurry up with the thing, blah blah blah.’ It was nice doing something and hearing someone go, ‘Hey, you’re good at this.’” But he was still watching a lot of movies, he makes sure to point out, running through more selections: “Merry Widow. It’s insane, so good. One of the best comedies ever. Eyes Wide Shut. It’s hilarious. A whole movie about Tom Cruise trying to go out and fuck somebody and he can’t get laid.”
Which worked out pretty well: That’s where he met his wife, Maggie Carey, who directed him in last year’s The To Do List.
Eventually he started a sketch group, Animals From the Future, with three other dudes; they did backyard shows in Van Nuys. It was a small and simple joy. And, in a move that’ll make you believe in the inevitable correctness of the universe, that was enough to get him his big break. One of the dudes in his group was Matt Offerman, Nick Offerman’s younger brother. Nick came to one show with his wife, Mullally. And Megan Mullally, ever the oracle, told Lorne Michaels about Hader. Soon, Hader got an SNL audition.
Hader’s professional experience at that point was basically nonexistent, though he had played a driver on a particularly mindlessly cruel segment of Punk’d (starring poor Bizarre), but, perhaps for the best, hadn’t actually gotten to say anything. Battling nerves before the audition, he set up a meeting with his now-manager, Naomi Odenkirk,3 whom he knew through a friend.
“She was like, ‘What are your characters?’ I said, ‘I don’t really have characters?’ She was like, ‘What are your impressions?’ I said, ‘I don’t really do impressions?’ And she was like, ‘Well, do you do anything? A voice? Anything?’ I was like, ‘I can do this Italian guy?’” Hader had recently been to Mann’s Chinese Theatre to see A.I., and he had overheard a lecherous older Italian gentleman hitting on pretty young girls by offering to acquire them gelato. Sitting with Odenkirk, he mimicked the man. “She said, ‘That’s good! That’s a start! You can do voices!’” That voice would become the befuddling talk show host Vinny Vedecci, Hader’s first recurring SNL character.4
“Certainly his impressions were his calling card — out of the gate, that’s the easiest way to break in as a cast member,” his former castmate Andy Samberg says. “But I knew from his audition that he had this raw physical ability. He did it as Vinny Vedecci, the whole thing in character, including impressions. And the degree of difficulty on that is through the roof. We knew he was a comedy thoroughbred.”
Hader has said he never truly felt comfortable throughout his first four seasons on the show. “The way I looked at it was, ‘Suddenly, you got SNL. And now, you got something to lose.’” Laser-focused on “How do I stay here?” he worked on filling a utility-man role, like his hero Phil Hartman. “It was like the A-Team: ‘OK, I’m the impressions guy.’ And I’d do someone at the table read, even if I had a bad idea, just so the writers could go, ‘OK, we don’t like that sketch, but we know he can do that guy …’”
Hader has never been a good sleeper and six years on SNL only exacerbated his troubles. “It would take almost a month [after a season] to fully come down and feel like a human being again. I’d wake up in the middle of the night — ‘What do you need?’”
During one Christmas episode — at the end of the first half of the season, when the cast and crew are typically beaten-down and ready for a break — he had a full-on panic attack while performing as Julian Assange. “It felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breathe, I started sweating. I thought, This is not good — abort! abort! I remember getting my makeup taken off and saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on out there. I don’t know what just happened.’”
It wasn’t until the after-party of a Seth Rogen–hosted episode in 2009 when he felt fully at ease. That was the night Michaels pulled Hader aside and told him, “You can work here as long as you want.”
“I was so rigid,” Hader says now. “It’d be a sketch where I’d be, like, a customer at a Jamba Juice, and I’d run my line over and over again, all the different permutations of how I could say it. That was his way of saying, ‘Relax.’”
“Bill is super neurotic,” Andy Samberg says now. “That makes him so lovable. For someone so talented, he has to have that level of neurosis — it’s the only way you’re gonna love him so much!”
Hader came up in the same SNL class as future stars Samberg and Kristen Wiig; it was, we know now, the dawn of a new era. On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Mike Myers recalled Michaels telling him, “It’s the court of the Borgias. If someone offers you a drink, check their hand to see if they have a poisoned ring.” But by 2006, the treachery and narcotics that had fueled the show to greatness in decades past had been quietly swapped in favor of squad-first civility. And Hader was the Prince of the Nice Guys.
On his first sketch ever, he played a TV psychiatrist flippant about the possible death of hundreds in an imminent plane crash. (He recalls: “Darrell Hammond was playing the news anchor, asking me, ‘So do people want to know when they’re going to die?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, no no no no, they don’t wanna know.’”) That same night, he had a memorable impression-off with new pal Samberg, and did a wonderfully doddering Al Pacino, in mid-Katrina relief efforts, swinging a hammer with no apparent awareness of its intended usage. It was a good first night out, but more so, it was telling.
“The first episode, when he did Pacino,” Samberg says now, “the crowd went fucking bananas. I knew, This dude’s gonna destroy.“
Samberg had the grace and looseness of a guy who’d lost his virginity at summer camp at 14 to a counselor. Wiig was an odd bird, but a naturally manic star. Hader’s secret was his blankness. In person, wearing jeans, flip-flops, and an untucked dress shirt, he’s aggressively casual; his tall frame slumps and his speech drawls. But in the middle of an anecdote he will transform, seamlessly slipping into an impression — like, say, a perfect raspy rendition of Christian Bale’s Batman, mucking his way through a justification of the ending of The Dark Knight. And when he does, the trademark Bulging Bill Hader Eyes will come out.
The template for his SNL Hall of Famer career was laid down that first night. From his neutral state, he could go to extremes: sports anchor Greg the Alien; talk show host Jame Gumb; James Carville, king of the snakes. Which is not to say he shouldn’t have been operating under fear and powered by anxiety: It might not have been therapist-approved, but it certainly worked.
Hader yanks out a copy of It’s Always Fair Weather, Gene Kelly’s follow-up to Singin’ in the Rain. “People did not like it when it came out,” he says. “But it’s really wonderful. At SNL that would happen all the time. We’d think something was the funniest thing ever, and the audience would just be like — NO.”
“John Mulaney and I wrote this thing once. It was Casey Kasem talking to his estranged son. Dana Carvey was Kasem, and I was coming back in the middle of the night to ask for forgiveness. It was a really tense scene, but we were talking like Casey Kasem the whole time. I was always asking, ‘When are you gonna get a job, when are you gonna get out of the house — and what recording artist had more no. 1 hits than anyone in history … that’s Mariah Carey, with 17.’ We thought it was the funniest fucking thing we’d ever written. And it went up at dress and it bombed like nothing has bombed. I could feel it on my face, like, ‘Are you joking?’ This is what I get for going into something with full confidence.”
And so believe him when he says that when he and Mulaney first collaborated on Hader’s breakout character, Stefon, they never foresaw the legend blooming. They tried it first in a sketch with Ben Affleck, which aired to little fanfare. They tried it in another sketch with Bradley Cooper, where it went to dress and didn’t play well. Writer Doug Abeles, who was working on “Weekend Update” at the time, suggested they try it one more time there.
“I remember it was the Gabourey Sidibe show, and it was the last ‘Update’ feature of the dress, which means they didn’t have a lot of confidence in it,” Hader says. “And then at dress, it played! And then I ended up closing out ‘Update,’ and that was crazy. And the next week was the final show of the season, and Lorne was like, ‘I want another Stefon.’ And I remember going out and getting a recognition applause? And then seeing past the cue cards, and Andy’s hitting John’s shoulder like, ‘Dude, you got yourself a fucking recurring character!’”
He may always sweat it out, but deep down Hader knows he’s always been good. “I remember telling my dad as a kid, after a particularly bad basketball game,” he says, “‘The only things I’m good at are being funny, and knowing a lot about movies.’ And nothing’s really changed.”
Hader has never been one to watch himself onscreen, which is becoming more awkward. “I couldn’t sit through the Sundance screening of The Skeleton Twins, and apparently it went unbelievably well,” he says. “And afterwards they’re like, ‘Hey, how about that reaction, huh?’ ‘Oh I wasn’t there!’ ‘Why?’ ‘’Cause I’m scared!’” But it’s not pessimism, not quite. It’s just a typically modest notion: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Hader has a holding deal with HBO — basically a green light to pitch a show, although he’s in no hurry to make that happen. Those early auteur dreams are still kicking around, too, but he’s in no rush there, either. Maybe, if the HBO thing happens, he says, he’ll direct an episode or two and see where that’ll take him. There is, for now, not too much to prove. “I’m from Oklahoma,” he says. “The fact that I live in L.A. is newsworthy there.”
But there is more, of course. Since 2007, his second season on SNL, Hader has strung together a progressively more impressive selection of bit movie parts, moving from a blip of dying Jabba the Hutt in Knocked Up to the heartbroken cop of Superbad5 to the mustachioed, repressed theme park boss of Adventureland. They’re the “‘insane authority figure’ kind of guys,” he says of his characters — “the weird, tall, creepy-looking guys.” With The Skeleton Twins, he takes a leap forward as Milo, a failed, suicidal actor still in love with his own (male) Mary Kay Letourneau. Hader turns in a pissy, winningly bitter performance. He wasn’t after anything like this. But he may have a broader range than anyone, even he, expected.
“[The characters in Superbad] were just written as two dumb cops,” Seth Rogen says of working with Hader. “And the first scene we shot, the first time you see us in the movie, in the liquor store, we just totally improvised the whole thing. And the characters just kind of fell into shape over the course of the two hours it took to film that. We’re asking, ‘He’s a black Jew wearing a hoodie?’ And sometimes, musically you get each other’s rhythm — you know when the other person’s gonna talk — and that kind of thing happened very, very quickly.”
We take a couple of more laps around Cinefile, Hader fully engrossed in the treasures contained therein. “Thieves Like Us, this is bonkers. Woman Under the Influence, it’s unbelievable — just seeing this thing spiral out of control. 8 Million Ways to Die — there’s this scene … it’s supposed to be, like, a tough scene, but Jeff Bridges is just eating a snow cone the whole time?”
Then we step outside, where the sun is dazedly bright. “It really is bizarre, just walking back into that store,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like, ‘Is this for real?’ Right where we’re at, [I can remember] I’m 20, 21 years old, bumming around this street, kind of back over to that doughnut shop, walking around, not knowing many people, just, like, trying to fill time. And being like, ‘Did I make a mistake?’ There’s a pit in your stomach, and you’re trying to stave it off, trying to distract yourself from it: ‘Did I make a mistake?’ And coming back here, it’s — look at this!
“Right now, it worked out. Right now, it’s working out.”
Illustration by Linsey Fields