Bill Hader, Actor and Comedian: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Hader as FBI Agent Haggard in the new movie "Paul".
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Bill Hader

Bill Hader has been a cast member of Saturday Night Live for several years, and has become known for his impressions, from Vincent Price and Alan Alda to Al Pacino.

His last appearance on The Sound was in 2007, shortly before his appearances in a spate of movies including Superbad, Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder, Hot Rod, and Adventureland.

His newest role is in the film Paul, a sci-fi comedy about two English comic book nerds touring alien sites in the American Southwest. Hader plays an FBI agent who becomes involved in tracking the nerds after they pick up a stray alien. The film comes out March 18th.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program, Bill Hader, has been a cast member of Saturday Night Live for quite a number of years now; he’s also managed to worm his way into some of the best comedy films of the past ten years, including movies like Tropic Thunder and Superbad, among many others. He’s now featured in the new film, Paul, which is just about to hit theaters, and of course, he’s in the current season of Saturday Night Live. Bill, welcome back to The Sound of Young America.

BILL HADER: Thanks for having me, man.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
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JESSE THORN: It’s great to have you on the show, it’s a real pleasure. I guess I didn’t realize, or I may have realized it at one point and forgotten it, that despite the fact that you’re known for impressions on Saturday Night Live, you had never really been an impressionist before you were required to come up with a couple of celebrity impressions for your Saturday Night Live audition.

BILL HADER: That is true. I just kind of did impressions of friends or teachers and things like that, and then my manager, Naomi Odenkirk, Bob Odenkirk’s wife, said Megan Mullally had recommended me to Lorn and I had this audition and she goes, well, what do you do? And I said I don’t really know what I do. The show that Megan Mullally saw was just an improv show, it was some sketch, but nothing with me doing anything that I do on the show now. She said I should try to figure out some impressions, and asked if I did any voices, a different voice from mine, and I did a voice. She said that’s a start, that sounds crazy. It just kind of came.

My Vincent Price - - Matt Murray, a writer on the show, asked if I could do Vincent Price, and I said I can do Dana Gould’s Vincent Price, which doesn’t sound like Vincent Price. Dana Gould in his standup CD Funhouse, which is one of my favorites, he did a bit about Vincent Price dating and talking to women and it was really funny. I fully appropriated that and just told Dana when I saw him that I was ripping off his Vincent Price impression and that I was so sorry. He said have at it sir, enjoy.
[as Vincent Price] I couldn’t help but notice you standing over here. Why won’t you look at me when I speak to you?! They did this to me, they did this to my face!
That’s Dana Gould’s bit that I thought was the funniest thing on earth.

JESSE THORN: Let’s hear a little bit of you, Bill Hader, as Vincent Price on Saturday Night Live.
I think it speaks to something that you often play on Saturday Night Live, which is sort of blurring the line between big comedy and weird creepery.

BILL HADER: Yeah man, that’s my favorite kind of stuff. It’s never conscious. It’s never like, oh, it’s not creepy enough. I think I just give off a creepy vibe maybe, I don’t know. It always comes from the writer you’re working with, whether it’s Simon Rich or John Mulaney or whoever, and something kind of comes out of that.

JESSE THORN: Do you remember on stage realizing that you had that ability; that you were capable of generating that Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy just by raising and dropping your eyebrows?

BILL HADER: I didn’t realize that until later. I think it’s just my face. It’s always funny when people say, That was great, it was so creepy! And I was like, awww, it was? It was like, you’re a real creep.

JESSE THORN: I think that the character you play regularly on Saturday Night Live that most leverages that ability that you have might be Keith Morrison, who’s the host of Dateline. Let’s hear a little bit of my guest Bill Hader as Keith Morrison on Saturday Night Live.

There’s this inappropriate intensity with a weird little smiling twist that you bring to that character. Was that something that somebody brought to you or something that you conceived of yourself.

BILL HADER: I give my wife credit for that. I would watch those Dateline shows with her and then I would just laugh at how Keith Morrison was so folksy and would talk about these horrible stories. My wife was like, you should do that on the show. Yeah, you’re right; I should do that on the show. I never thought about it. Will people know who he is? Well, let’s try it.

JESSE THORN: In the world of obscure or unusual for Saturday Night Live impressions, one of my favorites that you’ve brought out recently a few times on Saturday Night Live is Alan Alda. Let’s hear my guest Bill Hader doing Alan Alda answering a teen help line on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live. Alan Alda is so specific in his manner, and I gotta say I’m a huge Alan Alda fan, I think he’s great.

BILL HADER: I love Alan Alda.

JESSE THORN: What led you to think, I should spend a lot of time working hard to get Alan Alda right.

BILL HADER: I was watching Crimes and Misdemeanors and just loving his performance in that movie. You do it to yourself and suddenly you go, oh wait, I think I can actually get this. That’s not too far off, let me watch this again. You watch it again and you go, hey, honey, who’s this? And you do it and she goes, Oh, is that Alan Alda, and you go, Yeah, right? Then I did it for John Mulaney and he laughed and was like, that’s good. John and I wrote one thing that didn’t get on air, probably rightfully so, it was when the William Shatner show came out, Stuff My Dad Says or whatever it is. We were like, let’s do another one like that. It was Alan Alda in a show called My Roommate’s an Effin’ Horse. He’s like:
[as Alan Alda] I’ve got this horse; my roommate’s a horse.
It was so weird. He would come home from a date, and the horse had kicked over everything and pooped everywhere.
[as Alan Alda] That’s just what I get because my roommates an effin’ horse.
We just thought that it lent itself to certain things. Lorne Michaels said to me before I did the first Vincent Price, I like this, but why now?

JESSE THORN: Well, you said, Vincent Price is in the news.

BILL HADER: Vincent Price is in the news. Yeah. It’s like, why now is kind of my - - a lot of the stuff I do on the show. It’s like, why now? Why are we doing Alan Alda?

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is Bill Hader. In addition to his work in many of the best comedy films of the past five or ten years, he’s also been a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

Let’s talk a little bit about something that makes you and John Mulaney, the great stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live writer with whom you often work, laugh, and God does it make me laugh; this club kid character named Stefon who has become a fixture on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Let’s hear a little bit of Stefon offering some family vacation activity tips for New York City.
How did the two of you come up with this character?

BILL HADER: It’s interesting. It really was - - John had a friend of a friend who was trying to start a club, and John’s friend was saying, oh, this guy was saying like, this place will have everything. Jacked old men, rooms full of broken glass, all these weird things. And I think John, not in the way Stefon is, but I think John had been to a couple of these clubs or knew of them or knew the kind of lifestyle people in them before - - I guess a lot of them got shut down in the past couple of years. He was peripherally but definitely aware of it.

I had this other character, this guy who was a barista in Chelsea; I would go to this coffee shop when I lived in Chelsea and he waited on me and that’s the way he talked and his hair was kind of like that. He didn’t cover his mouth or anything; I think he had an Ed Hardy shirt on sometimes. He would say like, “You know, I live on the lower-lower east side,” and stuff like that. Or like, “My god, my mom’s staying with me and I’m freaking out.” I would just kind of draw him out because I thought he was a funny guy, so I had that. When John was doing the list guy, I would do that guy, and then John was the guy smart enough to say, hey, we should write that up.

JESSE THORN: This character has a weird push-pull energy; constantly covering his face but then saying things that are so outrageous that you’re kind of confused as to whether they can even be said on television.

BILL HADER: Right, yeah. I’ve never been able to get through a single one without breaking, which bums me out. If you saw me after we did one I’m usually angry. Now everybody’s expecting it, like the crew and stuff. So the guy micing me up is going like, you’re not going to get through this buddy. What will happen is John Mulaney will give me a line or he’ll tell me stuff as I walk out there; like, “Hey, I changed the club promoter to Gay Liotta.” And I’m like, you did what? Or the Christmas one, he was like, “Hey, number six in the twelve days of Christmas, I changed it to Puerto Screechins, Puerto Rican Screeches.” Then I start laughing.

That one he did a really funny thing, I almost got through it at dress; I really did. The Christmas one I almost got through the whole thing, I kind of smiled at one point and that was the best I ever did without breaking so I thought I was going to get through it, and I think John was like, no, I don’t want you to get through this. It takes forever to write those, because it’s just us making a list and going, does that make sense? Was that funny? So what we usually do is sit and make a big list of things; especially whatever the human blank is, like human parking cones or human suitcase or whatever. That thing always takes hours, then John goes off and actually writes it. Then on Saturday, while we’re blocking the show he’ll come to me and go, here’s the long version of Stefon; it’s usually twice as long as that, and then we start cutting it and laying it down, we might come up with a new joke here and there.

We do realize that people don’t like hard jokes with Stefon, which is interesting. You know what I mean? The thing that’s like, one, two, three doesn’t work. It’s usually something like Puerto Screechins or Fuji Howser M.D. The weird kind of stuff is what - - a wise old turtle that looks like Quincy Jones is the one that really made me laugh, or the narcoleptic club owner Snoozin Lucci. Those seem to be the things that really resonate with people.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is Bill Hader. In addition to his work in many of the best comedy films of the past five or ten years, he’s also been a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

The last time you were on the show, Bill, was I guess about four or five years ago, now.

BILL HADER: Yeah, that was my first season on the show.

JESSE THORN: In that time, you have appeared in a solid 65% of the quality comedy films that have been released.

BILL HADER: Oh, thanks.

JESSE THORN: Sometimes in small parts, and often in medium sized supporting roles. I want to talk a little bit about those. You had a small part in Tropic Thunder, which was a movie that had a million famous people in it. You played opposite Tom Cruise, and let’s hear a scene of you guys interacting in the film.

Tom Cruise has this quality to him that I think in part was sent up in the film, which is this - - he has this sort of clear-eyed commitment to everything that he says and does that is just stunning to see on screen. You just feel like he could walk off a cliff but just keep walking because he didn’t accept that there wasn’t any ground underneath him.

BILL HADER: Yeah, he won’t accept gravity.

JESSE THORN: What was it like to actually interact with him professionally; especially when he’s doing something as ridiculous as his character Les Grossman in that movie?

BILL HADER: He was great. He was really collaborative and was like, oh, do you want to come in on this, or maybe you say this and I say that. He’s a very committed guy. He works incredibly hard, especially at those dances that he would do, and he would have these long monologues in the movie, mostly directed towards Matthew McConaughey’s character that were really funny and hard to get through, but he was so focused on making it a character; like a person. He looked so crazy in it, but making Les Grossman a real force.

He played it very real, like when he would get really angry he would actually be angry. He was really committed to it. But working with him and hanging with him in between scenes and stuff he was the nicest guy on earth. It helped that he was in that makeup, because for me after a while you forgot, oh, that’s Tom Cruise, and then at the end of the day you’d be walking to the van or your car, and he’d be like, “Hey Bill, great job today!” -- Oh my god, that’s Tom Cruise!

JESSE THORN: Who is this beautiful man talking to me?

BILL HADER: Yeah, it’s like, you’re a movie star! Then we did this thing for the MTV Movie Awards where we did it again, and he was just great; just really nice.

JESSE THORN: Bill, you’re a married man with a child; I am too. I would be worried if I ever met Tom Cruise that I would accidentally kiss him or something.

BILL HADER: When he’s dressed like Les Grossman, you don’t. That is an interesting thing. That’s the kind of guy who will sit there and talk - - like, between doing the movie and doing the MTV Movie Awards thing, like, I had a kid and stuff like that, and he definitely was like, “How’s that going?” Very legitimately interested in what was going on in your life and just very cool. Telling me stories about making The Outsiders, he’ll sit and tell you stuff and it was really cool.

JESSE THORN: I want to play a clip from a movie that you made with Greg Mottola that I really loved. This is you playing Bobby, one of the park supervisors, in Adventureland, which was just a tremendous movie. You’re talking to Jesse Eisenberg, your wife is played by the brilliant Kristen Wiig.
I really loved this movie; tell me a little bit about how you developed this relationship with the director that has carried you through that film, Superbad, and now Paul.

BILL HADER: Greg and I met - - I was familiar with Day Trippers, which I thought was a great movie.

JESSE THORN: That was his first film.

BILL HADER: The first movie that he made with Hope Davis and Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber, and it was just a great movie. I remember when Judd Apatow told me, Hey, we want you to play a cop in this movie, and I was like, yeah, I’m in. He said it was going to be directed by Greg Mottola, and I was like, wow, Day Trippers, and I knew he had directed episodes of Undeclared. He told me he lived in New York so we could hang out. People who are familiar with the sketch Laser Cats on SNL...

JESSE THORN: Who isn’t familiar with Laser Cats.

BILL HADER: Sigourney Weaver loves Laser Cats. When I was recording the opening video for that, “In the future, cats develop lasers,” when I was recording that - - I got done recording that, and then I got a phone call saying, Hey, I’m Greg Mottola, I’m downstairs. You want to go grab a drink? I was like, yeah! They were like, you’re leaving now? We have more stuff? And I was like, I’ll be right back. So I ran downstairs and we grabbed a quick drink around 30 Rock and just totally hit it off. We loved all the same movies - - we just talked movies for four or five hours. Then we started working on Superbad together, and he’s just great. He really lets you do your thing.

In Superbad he only gave me one real direction that I remember was the scene where we find McLovin, Christopher Mintz, in bed with a girl after he’s run away from us, and we come into this house party and we find him in bed with this girl. I initially played it really big for comedy. I was like, how do I make this funny when I walk in and see him, and I did this big take, like, why did you run away from us? Greg came over and said, no Bill, he’s your best friend and he bailed on you. You should play it real, don’t play it for laughs, play it real. Then I played it real and I heard everybody laughing really hard; Seth Rogen is cracking up and everyone like oh, now it’s funny.

JESSE THORN: Bill Hader is my guest on The Sound of Young America; he’s one of the stars of Saturday Night Live, he’s also been featured in numerous films; most recently, Paul.

Paul is a movie that is all about being a fan. It’s sort of about what happens if your fandom comes life, and I know that you’re a huge fan; I mean, you’re a comics guy, you’re a movies guy, you’re just a big consumer of culture. I also know that you had a baby not that long ago, and I wonder how having a family and being responsible for grownup stuff and being 30 and that kind of thing has affected your life as an arrested adolescent?

BILL HADER: Not too much. Our apartment doesn’t look like a dorm room with DVDs everywhere and a Clockwork Orange poster or something. We have a house now; but not too much, really. I still watch movies continuously; I don’t get out to see movies as much I’ll catch something maybe during the week if I have a slow week at the show and it’s like, maybe before I go into work I’ll check something out at the theater. I have a big Blu-Ray collection. A friend of mine just gave me a book on Steve Ditko yesterday and I was pouring over that. It doesn’t really change, it’s just finding the time for it. It’s actually healthier I think, instead of the way I used to be where I would stay inside all day and go, I’m going to watch every Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Edgar Allen Poe movie today, which isn’t very healthy for you. You need to get out a little bit.

JESSE THORN: On the other hand, if it wasn’t for those pop culture binges, how would you find your next big character for Saturday Night Live, like your Peter Lorry impression.

BILL HADER: Exactly, like, I want to do a Dick Miller type character.

JESSE THORN: Well Bill, I really appreciate you taking the time to come back on The Sound of Young America.

BILL HADER: Thanks for having me, man!

JESSE THORN: Bill Hader is one of the stars of Saturday Night live that you can find on your televisions every Saturday night on the NBC network. He’s also in the wonderful film, Paul.

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