Bill Hader: Hollywood’s New Leading Man
Two weeks into its run in cinemas, “It: Chapter Two” is the fall’s first runaway success, grossing over $300 million already. It also has a breakout star, funnyman Bill Hader, who is getting the best notices of his career for his turn as Richie Tozier, bespectacled member of the Losers’ Club. In fact, when combined with the critical success of the second season of his HBO show, “Barry,” he is having a career year. He’s also one of the most unlikeliest stars in Hollywood history.
You youngsters may not remember, but Hader first rose to prominence on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was cast largely as an impressionist. He was a true master, nailing impersonations of figures as different as Vincent Price, Al Pacino, and Alan Alda. On off-weeks, he took to the talk show circuit, where he became a popular guest of Letterman and Conan. There, he would bust out even more obscure impressions that couldn’t make it onto the show.
That looked to be the end of the line. Impressionists rarely reach that second level of their careers, where they can drop the impersonations and do personal, meaningful work. Rich Little never got there. Neither did Dana Carvey, the SNL performer to whom Hader was most often compared. And for the first few years of Hader’s movie career, it didn’t look like that’s where he was heading either. He became a staple of the Apatow universe, earning big laughs with small roles in “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but never looked like he was heading for leading man status.
The turning point was 2014’s “The Skeleton Twins,” a dramatic film in which he and Kristen Wiig played estranged adult twins who reunite amidst personal crises in their quiet hometown. The movie drags a bit, but as Milo, a gay, unemployed actor seeking to reconnect with an old flame, Hader shows off an aptitude for subtlety. He gets a few big laughs in the film, but none are cheap. They all come from our sympathy with the character, a quality that Hader earns in every frame.
Impersonators are truth-tellers by nature. You have to be a great listener and observer of human nature in order to match someone’s vocal cadence and verbal patterns. But few of them are interested in turning that scrutiny on themselves. In “It: Chapter Two,” Hader does that, playing a stand-up comedian who uses jokes to guard a vulnerable core. He digs to similar depths in “Barry,” as a contract killer trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood. The conflict between Barry’s violent career and his emotional sensitivity makes for one of the great characters on television, and Hader finds the humanity that make his character’s contradictions feel believable. It’s a remarkable turn in an unpredictable career.