At the first mention of these latest episodes of the HBO series being “a little darker,” Winkler didn’t miss a beat.
“To help myself, I went out and got a battery-operated miner cap,” Winkler said.
If Winkler seems unfazed by digging into the more unsavory side of Gene Cousineau, the Valley-based acting coach (who is now effectively a hostage of Bill Hader’s hitman title character), it’s partly due to him knowing this was coming from the start.
“In one of the first scenes in my acting class, I rip into Sara Goldberg, who is just the bee’s knees. I mean, she just is so glorious at what she does. I rip into her and I make her cry, which a lot of acting teachers do. Maybe that makes them feel good. They think you must tear the actor down in order to build them up again,” Winkler said. “I turned to Bill and I said, ‘Wait a minute, is this guy an asshole?!’ He said, ‘Yes he is.’ I went, ‘Ohhhhhh.’ So I knew from early early on.”
As the fates of Barry and Gene become even more linked than ever in Season 3, it’s a chance for Winkler and Hader to capitalize on a kind of creative symbiosis that’s helped drive the success of the show overall. In episodes that Hader also directs, there’s an extra layer of being in sync.
“Bill is very generous, as a director and an acting partner. Sometimes you just come up with stuff and he goes, ‘OK…I like it!’ Him being in the scenes doesn’t change the mood until you look at his mouth, and he is mouthing the words with you. And you’re going, ‘Bill, I know you know this. But you can’t do that. You’re Barry, you’re not Bill,'” Winkler said. “We have a really wonderful time together as an acting team. He trusts me, and I totally trust him. He also has the whole thing in his mind, and says, ‘Can we do this? Can we go here? How about if we try this?’ And then my job is to say, ‘Yes!'”
Winkler has that same glowing description for many other members of the cast and crew. He’s quick to highlight the work of Elizabeth Perkins and Elsie Fisher and another, as-yet-unseen Season 3 guest star. Of Mark-Paul Harry Gosselaar, who appears as Hugh Manity, the impeccably named lead lawyer character of the show-within-a-show (“He was wonderful.”) Of Ariana Raygoza, who plays the waitress that Gene meets in one scene after a rough night in North Hollywood (“She was great, I thought”). And those acknowledgments aren’t reserved for the people who make it into frame.
“It is such a wonderful group of human beings,” Winkler said. “You know, Mary [Faucette], our dolly grip, has a little screen so she can see where she’s pushing and pulling the dolly. When you finish doing a take and you look up and she taps the screen, you can be sure that they’re going to say, ‘Okay, we got it. Yep, that’s the one.'”
This season has been a particularly physical one for Winkler. Gene gets trapped in a trunk (no fancy modifications there — that’s Winkler climbing in and out of the back of Barry’s aggressively ordinary grey sedan) and in another recent scene, runs away from collision at a North Hollywood intersection. “They had me running more than I’ve run since 1958,” Winkler said.
There are times, though, when Gene’s misfortune is undoubtedly Winkler’s gain. Before that car crash, Gene gets swarmed by a group of overeager dogs.
“There were 32, I think. And I made friends with each one of them,” Winkler said. “There’s not a dog that I haven’t stopped on the street, in any city, in any country. whatever language they speak. I gave a commencement speech in Providence. The bomb sniffing dog, I could not pet. He would have eaten me for a snack.”
Amidst all the chaos, “Barry” has drawn some of the season’s best moments from absolute quiet. As Gene recounts the death of his girlfriend in the stillness of an on-set trailer, Winkler dials down his performance to almost nothing. For someone who has long proven his strengths as a charismatic performer, turning nearly all of that off is a function of really connecting with scene itself, as with the Episode 2-ending living room staredown with Barry.
“When you’re in it, you just put yourself into the situation. You make believe, as far into believing as you can. It’s not so difficult. He’s got his arm around my grandson. He says, ‘This one, and that one, will go away.’ And if you’re just in it, it’s terrifying,” Winkler said. “And that’s my job. When I was in school, I went to college and then I went to graduate school for the express purpose of not being a flash in the pan, of being able to know how to access what’s needed.”
Of course, Gene’s even-keeled temperament flies out the window when he actually makes his TV acting return. Instead of delivering his four-word line as written, all that bottled tension explodes as Gene yells at Barry before slapping him. It’s a standout moment from a season that’s been structured to have even more in-the-moment discoveries than usual.
“Bill just let me go. He told me what he wanted and where he wanted me to end up and then we did that two or three times,” Winkler said. “Bill did not want to have table reads this year. So for the shows that [series co-creator] Alec [Berg] directed, we would meet with Alec and only the actors in the scene. The writers were in the room, the director, the assistant director, and the cameraman. Sometimes we found something brand new.”
Whether snapping the tension or finding tiny grace notes along the way, Winkler is still nailing each opportunity to show off his skills as an expert deliverer of a straight-man punchline. (When a showrunner reminds him of their past violent encounter on a past series, Gene’s immediate, not-even-skipping-a-beat response of “I need more” might be Winkler’s pièce de résistance of these opening three episodes.) For moments like that, Winkler has an analogy that might as well come from the empathetic side of Mr. Cousineau that made Barry love him like a father.
“One moment you have no control. And another moment? It’s so precise. Timing, it’s like this wave is coming up, up, up and pushing itself out of you at the moment. And sometimes you totally get that you didn’t listen. You let it go at the wrong moment. It’s just a marvel,” Winkler said.
Regardless of what part of the emotional spectrum Gene calls on him to deliver, Winkler is clearly relishing what he sees as the challenge of his career.
“You can’t even put into words. You go along, you have a career. You want to make a living doing this. And then you get cast in ‘Barry.’ You know? Holy mackerel. And I’ve been in some pretty great projects, some really major fun in my career,” Winkler said. “Unequivocally, it is the most intense work I have ever done since June 30, 1970.”
“Barry” Season 3 airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.