In his eight years as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader had frequent opportunity and the perfect venue to show off his great gift for impersonation. Ever since his very first episode, in 2005, when he and fellow newbie Andy Samberg had an "impression off," Hader has amassed an incredible menagerie of mimicry bits—from his Vincent Price to Alan Alda, from Tim Burton to James Carville, from John Malkovich to Garrison Keillor, and even Al Pacino. While he created some widely beloved characters during his run—not least of all the droll and delirious "Weekend Update" correspondent Stefon—these imitations of real-life personalities were his signature bit.
For years Hader, now 36, would be invited on to late-night shows, seemingly only as an opportunity to showcase his awesome Jabba the Hutt impression. But the digital archives from these guest visits are a gold mine. Watching Hader "do" Charlie Rose in front of Charlie Rose, sending the staunchly earnest talk-show host into snot-bubbly giggling fits on live TV, is the reason God invented YouTube.
In movies like Superbad (2007), and 2008's trifecta of Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Hader grew into a kind of comedic "Hey, that guy!" He was recognizable as he delivered a message or a memorable punch line, but then duly departed. As his fame grew, so too did his opportunities and his impact on the films in which he appeared—his Andy Warhol in Men in Black 3 (2012), for example, gets our entirely unbiased thumbs up. And in this month's he-said-she-said romance The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Hader takes a turn for the seriocomic, co-starring with dramatic heavyweights James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. In The Skeleton Twins, also out this month, Hader and fellow SNLite Kristen Wiig play fraternal twins who reunite after a long estrangement—yet another stoner comedy, it's not. But, as Hader tells his pal and fellow Hot Rod (2007), Tropic Thunder, and Pineapple Express co-star, Danny McBride, he's just trying to mix it up.
DANNY McBRIDE: Well, Bill, ever since the day I met you, I've been looking forward to doing this interview with you. [both laugh] I first met you at the table read for Hot Rod, wasn't it?
BILL HADER: Yeah, and we had a weird connection because we both worked at a post-production facility called Triage in L.A. You were the motion control guy and I was the nighttime assistant editor. That was so weird. I think we're the best two actors to come out of that post-production facility.
McBRIDE: [both laugh] All right, let's kick things off where it all started: your early life, growing up in Oklahoma. What were you like as a kid?
HADER: Well, you know how it is. I really liked Monty Python and British comedy. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks—anything that was set in a city might as well have been from Mars. I'd never seen walls or mailboxes that looked like the ones in Monty Python sketches. I read a lot. I was into music, but there wasn't a lot to do. In Tulsa, it was sports or nothing. My dad sent me to fucking football camp. Can you imagine me at football camp, Danny? [both laugh]
McBRIDE: You would've really rocked the house.
HADER: I was terrified. I was like, "Hey, you guys want to watch Rosemary's Baby  or something?" I started making little short films with friends and then I decided I wanted to get into the school play in high school. My dad wasn't pressuring me, but he was a little like, "You don't want to play sports? Really? We've put in all this work." And I was like, "No. I don't want to play sports. I got cast in The Glass Menagerie as the gentleman caller." Maybe the best moment of my whole career ever.
McBRIDE: There you go. Kick it all off.
HADER: Fuck yeah. I've basically been playing that part ever since. My dad couldn't come to opening night. He had to work. So he came to our last tech rehearsal and I was so nervous. But afterward he was elated. He was like, "I didn't know you could do that! That was so good!" And after that we never talked about sports ever again.
McBRIDE: That's pretty refreshing—he was just worried that you would be good at it, not that he was worried about it as a career. When you moved to L.A., were your parents pretty supportive?
HADER: They were stoked, I think. They knew I was ready. I loved growing up in Tulsa. But—I'm thinking you probably went through the same thing—you just know: "I want to get out of here. I'm a movie fanatic. I just want to get into the movie industry." My parents totally got it. So the money they'd set aside for me to go to college I used to live on when I moved to L.A. I was just PA'ing on the smallest, shittiest movies all the way up to Spider-Man , the one with Tobey Maguire and [James] Franco. For a week, I was stage manager on this Playboy show Night Calls.
McBRIDE: Oh, I love that show. [laughs]
HADER: I know. I knew that when I said Night Calls, you'd be like, "Oh, what season?" [both laugh] But that was the lowest of the low. I wasn't going to tell my parents I was running to Starbucks to get coffee for a bunch of porn stars.
McBRIDE: For every Night Calls, you have to do a Scorpion King  or Collateral Damage  that has more mileage with parents back at home. What were your thoughts then about performing, or was it that you were going to get behind the camera?
HADER: I think it was behind the camera. Didn't you have a similar thing too? I feel like when we were on Hot Rod, we were both like, "This acting thing is cool, but I really just want to direct those guys."
McBRIDE: Being flown to another country and put up in a hotel to talk about how this isn't the shit we really want to do.
HADER: I know. Thinking back, it's like, "Dude, no." This is the best thing in the world. But I definitely wanted to direct and write. I always went to films for the director. But, like a lot of people do when they first move to L.A. or New York to do something creative, I didn't do anything creative for four years because I had to pay the bills. I was working 18-hour days as a PA. When would you have time to do anything? So I started working at a post-house, because that was normal hours. Then a buddy of mine, Eric Filipkowski, told me about [sketch comedy troupe] Second City L.A. and I started taking classes there, not thinking that I would get anywhere. I didn't get a headshot. I wasn't trying to be an actor. I just needed the creative outlet—you're just going up every week and doing something. Because it's really easy to lose focus, like, "Why the fuck am I out here?" [laughs] But then this weird thing happens. Megan Mullally's bother-in-law Matt Offerman was in my show, so she came to see it and afterwards was like, "Hey, I thought you were really funny. I'm going to recommend you to Lorne Michaels." I remember going home to Maggie, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and being like, "I met Megan Mullally and she said I was really funny." It was just a crazy story. But then, I was at Triage, in an edit bay, getting yelled at by an Iron Chef America editor because I fucked up his project somehow, and I got a phone call from a New York area code. It was Lindsay Shookus, who now runs the talent department at SNL. She said, "Hi, I'm Lindsay. I'm with Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels wants to fly you out and meet you." I was literally in shock, going, "Yeah, okay." Megan called me and said, "I just talked to Lorne and he wants to meet you. I hope that was okay." I was like, "Yes. That's okay." I remember getting off the phone and going back in the edit bay, and the guy went right back into yelling at me. [both laugh] I was in this other world for a second. Those two phone calls completely changed my life. So I flew out. Met him. I did the official audition with [Andy] Samberg, and got the show. I had a friend who went to South Africa for, like, four months—when he left I was dating Maggie and I was an assistant editor at Triage; when he came back, I was on Saturday Night Live and Maggie and I were engaged.
McBRIDE: He missed everything. You know, Hot Rod was the first time I'd ever gotten a paycheck for acting, and I loved hearing what you and Andy [Samberg] and Akiva [Schaffer] and Jorma [Taccone] had to say about your first years on SNL. It kind of felt like you were just out of boot camp. You guys all seemed so cool. I was like, "I want to be friends with these dudes, and I think if we're in this movie, I will be."
HADER: All you and I did on the shoot was sit in your trailer and watch The Tyra Banks Show. [laughs]
McBRIDE: The episode I remember is where she coaches a woman who had a fear of—
HADER: Packing peanuts, but she called them widgets.
McBRIDE: She corrected the woman. And to help her get over her fear, Tyra had buried a wedding ring in a room full of packing peanuts [Hader laughs], and we watched in horror as this lady had to dig through the peanuts. She was terrified.
HADER: I remember showing up to the set and there were trucks with real film equipment in them and I thought, "This is a real movie!" You and I would kind of walk over in the corner and be like, "What the fuck are we doing here? This is great."
McBRIDE: We were on Tropic Thunder together during the opening weekend of Hot Rod. It was the first time either of us had dealt with bad reviews. It was like playing Russian roulette. "Just keep reading more. What else are they saying?" But after Hot Rod, you went on to do several years on SNL, creating some pretty incredible characters. What were you thinking when it came time to leave SNL?
HADER: SNL is really hard to do when you're single and living alone. And then it's pretty tough when you're married, because you don't see your spouse. And then you bring kids into it and the minute our first daughter was born, it was like, "Oh, man, this is getting really hard." And then we had a second child. By then Andy and Kristen [Wiig] had left, and I was hearing rumblings of other people leaving. It was time to move to L.A. and make a clean break. I felt like I was in a good place with the show. I felt like every season I was getting a little bit better, and so instead of peaking, I was like, "Oh, this is a good time to leave." Lorne was really cool about it. I had made The Skeleton Twins, and this other thing called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, two indie movies. But it wasn't like I was going to L.A. having a bunch of stuff in the chamber.
McBRIDE: It was like the move from Oklahoma once again.
HADER: But with my whole family. Stakes were way higher, mouths to feed. "Well, let's see what happens now." But I love it. And the irony is that the first big job I get post-SNL takes me right back to New York with Trainwreck [a forthcoming film directed by Judd Apatow, written by and starring Amy Schumer].
McBRIDE: That's going to be good. And in The Skeleton Twins you play an unemployed actor who reconnects with your strange twin played by Kristen Wiig after a suicide attempt. The trailer looks awesome. Did you have a good time on that movie?
HADER: I'm usually the guy playing, you know, General Custer in Night at the Museum 2 . And I love those roles. But it was cool to do something a little different, a little more grounded.
McBRIDE: Did you approach it any differently than you would a comedy?
HADER: I approached it the exact same way. It was almost like I was playing Custer sometimes. I would get the two movies confused. Like, "We've got to get back in the museum." And they're like, "No, no. This is your suicide scene." [both laugh]
McBRIDE: Do you prefer comedy to drama?
HADER: I like them both equally. I don't really look at them as different. I mean, I do agree with that adage that comedy is harder.
McBRIDE: The few times I've had to do anything serious, it was a million times easier. "Oh, all I have to do is say my lines and look serious. I can just be here in the deal. I don't have to come up with jokes and shit off the top of my head." It felt like a cakewalk. It made me feel like these big serious actors have it easy. They can just be quiet and rude, and it's brilliant.
HADER: When I saw [the apocalyptic comedy] This Is the End , I thought, "Goddamn it. You guys are all working so hard and it's so funny, but do people realize how hard that is?" It seems so effortless and just like goofing off, but it's not. I remember, when I was going back to do my second season of SNL, you said, "You've just got to get to a place where you just don't give a shit about it anymore, and then you'll be fuckin' awesome." It is true. When you're all rigid and nervous, it's the worst. On The Skeleton Twins there were funny moments, but they came organically through the situation. And then the dramatic stuff, you work really hard at it, to be vulnerable.
McBRIDE: I did a few days on Franco's As I Lay Dying , and the vibe on the set was very heavy and serious. The only thing I can equate it to is tripping with a bunch of your friends. I would look around and none of the actors were talking to each other. They were all just pacing around in their own heads, in character. They kind of put me in a zone where I didn't want to talk to anybody if it would take them out of their deal or something. So then you find yourself imitating what they're doing, like, "I guess this looks like I'm working on my character if I just stand here by this tree and feel the bark." [both laugh] But one of the things you've done that I thought was such an awesome move is write for South Park. I don't know if a lot of people know that you do that.
HADER: It's the best. I did it because I was a fan. I became good friends with Matt Stone, and he said I should come to one of their retreats and hang out because we all had a similar sense of humor. But they're just ninjas at writing. I just sit there and laugh and learn as much as I can. They get this thing—which I know you can relate to from Eastbound [& Down, the HBO series McBride co-created and starred in]—that feeling when you're in the high school lunchroom with your friends. That's the funniest I've been in my life. You're not getting paid. You're just fucking around and laughing with people you've known forever. On South Park, these guys have known each other forever, and it's just about getting that vibe again and then structuring it, going up to a whiteboard and writing out act breaks and things. But it is that energy in the room.
McBRIDE: The simple motivation of trying to make milk come out of your friend's nose.
HADER: It's what makes us laugh, not what the audience is going to want to hear. Trey [Parker] will do something, and I will start laughing incredibly hard, and he's like, "Well, there's something there." The way the show would work was Matt Stone would come in and go, "I just watched a documentary on the NCAA and it's fucking ridiculous that they don't pay the players. It's awful." He will go off on an issue for an hour. "It's slavery. That's what it is." And the whole time he's been talking, Trey has been putting together the episode. He'll go over to the board, "It's slavery, right? You all want slaves. So Cartman goes to the college ..." And then we're like, "He should go to college as a plantation owner. Like, ‘I understand you got some boys here ...' " And then we're all dying laughing. That's how an episode will start. But Matt is the guy—and I feel like you always need this in a writer's room—he's the guy who's going, "But the point is this." That's why their stuff is so solid, because what they're trying to say, the theme, is so strong and simple. That's the hardest thing with comedy, getting it to a simple place.
McBRIDE: One hundred percent.
HADER: Comedy is this weird thing. You have no idea why certain things work and other things don't work. At SNL, the Stefon character never worked as a sketch and never worked in any other presentation, but then for some reason on "Update" it worked, and we have no idea why. That's why you learn from people like Judd and Trey, and being on the set with Larry David. All those guys—you don't know what's going to work so they're very open. I'm working with Judd right now, and his whole thing is just options. We shoot so much—improvising—and maybe we'll shoot the same scene at two different locations, because maybe that'll work better. When you look back, a lot of comedians work that way. Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin. You put it in front of people and they start laughing and you're like, "I guess it's that one!" It works.
McBRIDE: Well, you have some very interesting projects coming up, working with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. I mean, these are real deal actors. These are big dogs right here.
HADER: Yeah, what am I doing there? It should be fun. If you would've told me a year ago I'd be in New York shooting a Judd Apatow movie, I'd be like, "Nah, what are you talking about?" And I'm a romantic lead. I'm never the romantic lead. I'm the guy walking in on the romantic lead, going, "Oh sorry! I'll leave you guys alone." But I always appreciated actors who would switch it up a lot. Jeff Bridges was in The Big Lebowski , but then he's also the president in The Contender  and he's also Starman . He can do all these crazy things. For me, it's just trying to go, "I've done that. Let's switch it up and try to do something new."
DANNY McBRIDE IS THE CO-CREATOR AND STAR OF HBO'S EASTBOUND & DOWN. HE WILL APPEAR IN CAMERON CROWE'S NEXT UNTITLED FILM, OUT IN 2015.
’M NEVER THE ROMANTIC LEAD. I’M THE GUY WALKING IN ON THE ROMANTIC LEAD, GOING, ‘OH SORRY! I’LL LEAVE YOU GUYS ALONE.—BILL HADER