By Christopher Borrelli
With all respect to Stefon, the gushy club-hopping, seen-it-all, lives-in-a-trash-can-near-Radio-Shack correspondent that Bill Hader played on “Saturday Night Live,” the Bill Hader story has everything: A childhood in Oklahoma, a job in a movie theater, community college, years of doubt in Los Angeles, a production-assistant gig on “The Scorpion King,” assistant editing jobs on reality TV shows, a stint as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s personal go-fer, Second City (Los Angeles), eight years as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” regular voice-over work on a successful animated franchise (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”), memorable supporting roles in a number of smart comedies (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”), that thing where you occasionally write for “South Park” but don’t actually work for “South Park,” a wife, kids…
Or rather, to put it another way, until “The Skeleton Twins,” the new movie starring Hader and his “SNL” teammate Kristen Wiig, the story of Bill Hader offered everything but a leading role and a touch of drama.
Both of which are checked off within the first minutes of “Skeleton Twins”: The movie, by indie filmmaker Craig Johnson, finds its muse in the lanky pale frame of Hader, and opens with Hader’s character, a failed actor, attempting suicide. Which brings a phone call to his estranged sister (Wiig), who just so happens to be attempting her own suicide at the time. She flies him home to upstate New York, where Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) maintain a fragile reconciliation, and Milo looks up an old fling (Ty Burrell of “Modern Family.”)
The film, which became a major draw at the Sundance Film Festival last winter (and won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award there), becomes a showcase for Hader’s talents, his way with mimicry, the gravity of his face. “A beautifully modulated performance,” offered Variety. “Magnetic,” gasped Entertainment Weekly.
Could (again, sorry Stefon) Hollywood’s hottest new dramatic actor be… Bill Hader?
He spoke recently on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, while simultaneously attempting to get his daughter to go to school. The following is an edited and condensed version of a longer conversation.
Hader: Sorry for all the noise. Right when the phone rang she was like “I DON”T WANNA GO TO SCHOOL!”
Q: I can call back.
A: No, no, we’re good now. See, yesterday was her first day back, and so…
Q: Understood. When you were that age, in Oklahoma, did show biz seem attainable?
A: Not really, no. Gary Busey is from there. Jeanne Tripplehorn, I knew from school. The fact that I moved to Los Angeles was enough to get an article in the Tulsa newspaper… actually, no, no, it didn’t. But it did feel like another world. My parents were supportive. I didn’t have good grades, but they could tell I wasn’t lazy. I was a film nerd. I watched movies every night at home and studied film on my own. I read a lot. I acted a little in high school, but mostly because my girlfriend would audition and so I would go with her. When I went out to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, it was to be a director and work my way up. I would be an editor first. Yet I was a production assistant instead. Then an assistant editor, on reality shows. So I guess I related to Milo, who was told he was good at something once, arrived in Los Angeles and was a small fish.
Q: That’s you.
A: In (high school), people would tell me I was good at making short films. But you lose your confidence when you get to Los Angeles. Everyone is doing what you do. And I am not very competitive. and I am not ambitious. I could never be a stand-up comedian. I can’t even watch any kind of competition, like “American Idol.” It gets so cringy for me. That’s when I turn on TCM and, like, ‘Oh, “Stella Dallas”!’
Q: Being told you were good at something is how you got “SNL” though.
A: I started taking classes at Second City (in Los Angeles) only because I wasn’t doing anything creative. Megan Mullally saw me. I was in a show with her brother-in-law, Matt Offerman. I got lucky. She told Lorne Michaels. And once at “SNL,” I was again lucky in that I came at a moment when Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler were seniors in a way. They were who we took cues from. At least I did. Their attitude was, “Just because this place is competitive doesn’t mean we can’t still be fans of each other.” They created such a good vibe there. I’m not saying I was a saint. There were times when I would envy something someone else did. But all I could do was bring funny to the table every week, show off a character or impression. If I tried to control how people responded I would’ve gone crazy. Once I learned that, I had a great experience there.
Q: So, for your first lead role, was it important to have a proven chemistry with your co-star?
A: That happened by chance. I signed on in 2010 and we didn’t have the money to make the film and they went out to get the money, which was just $1 million. There was originally another actress involved, then that actress dropped out. I had told Kristen about the movie, and she asked if we would have her, if the “SNL” connection would be too weird in a drama. I was like “No, no. It’ll be great.” And bam, we landed the money.
Q: Any trepidation about, for your first lead role, not playing a version of yourself but someone with a different voice, a different gait — a lead, and yet more of a character to bury yourself in?
A: Not really, because every character I do, to an extent, is about finding where I, myself, overlay with the character. And so when I am Milo, that is not my voice or how I carry myself, but the overlay is, again, that feeling of going to the big city and failing at the one thing that someone once said you could do very well.
Q: You’re so known for your impressions. But do you like doing impressions?
A: I don’t.
A: Not when it’s expected. I like when you are telling a story and fall into an impression. Which is how I started doing voices. My whole family is that way. My wife pointed out that when we tell stories we do the voices of everybody in the story. And she’s right. So it started there, I suppose. It was organic. But when people put me on the spot (to do impressions), that bums me out. I say no. I can’t even be polite about it anymore. They’re always like “Ah come on!” I did (impressions) on “SNL” because you need to be able to do that on “SNL.” I don’t look down on that. It’s just acting, really. Milo is an impression of people I know in my life, his voice, the way he walks. I think it all comes subconsciously to me — it doesn’t come from thin air.
Q: Do these people recognize themselves?
A: I don’t… know. It never comes up. Not yet anyway.