It’s clear by this point in the run of “Barry” that the show is no longer about whether or not its title character (series co-creator Bill Hader) is a redeemable human being; as Hader puts it, despite all of his lying and killing, “he doesn’t understand what he did wrong.” Instead, as the fourth and final season comes to a close, the more morally gray supporting characters are beginning to see the consequences of their own failings — ones they can’t blame Barry for.
Played by Henry Winkler, Gene Cousineau emerges from Episode 5’s time jump with a mission to do the right thing. He comes out of hiding (which was, for him, a kibbutz in Israel) after hearing that Warner Bros. is working on a movie about Barry’s murder of Cousineau’s girlfriend, detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome). Enraged by the exploitation of Janice’s death, Cousineau begins to protest the film, but the attention it could bring him is tantalizing, and he slips up. When a Hollywood agent comes calling to let Cousineau know that Daniel Day-Lewis is interested in playing him, he agrees to a meeting. And when the agent says that Mark Wahlberg could star as Barry but needs to be convinced of why he should play a cop killer, Cousineau prepares to make Barry’s case, calling him “a sympathetic soul.”
Obviously, there’s no meeting with Wahlberg. Earlier in the episode, while torturing Barry, Janice’s father Jim (Robert Wisdom) found out that Barry gave Cousineau $250,000, so he took that information to the authorities, who hired the “agent,” a paid actor. The money combined with Cousineau’s sympathy for Barry lead Jim and the cops to a new conclusion: Barry killed Janice because Cousineau asked him to. This is completely incorrect, of course, but “Barry” forces us to notice that it’s Cousineau’s own vanity that has trapped him in this position.
Winkler spoke to Variety about how Cousineau’s ego finally becomes his downfall.
How did you react when you found out about the time jump, and how did it feel to come back to your character in this way?
You know, after Season 1, when we read Season 2 around the table, I agonized and I went upstairs to the writers’ office and I said, “Look, I’m very grateful. You know how happy I am. But I absolutely do not recognize Gene. They said, “Look, I promise you, the jokes will be there. But we will never repeat ourselves.”
The one question that I asked Bill every year, without fail, is, “Am I dead?” And he says no, and then I don’t care what happens. I’m happy as a lark. What I think is that they keep painting themselves into a corner. I’ve now turned the man in. I’ve lost the love of my life. Where does it go from here? I’ve learned not to question. I’ve learned to go where they take us.
How do you think Cousineau truly feels about the movie? Does he actually want to protect Janice’s legacy and just falls to a moment of weakness? Or have his interests been self-serving the whole time?
It’s Cousineau, isn’t it? He absolutely wants to do the right thing, but he is so egocentric. He is so spotlight-starved that he can’t help himself. He realizes only afterwards that he has made a gross mistake. But he had to have made it, because he couldn’t exist without it. He could not have existed without doing that unbelievable one-man show [about Janice in Episode 2]. Imagine, you think you’re doing the right thing, but all of these things are dangled in front of you. You know what it’s like? It’s like an addict. “Just one more time. I can handle it. Don’t worry, nothing will happen.”
How do you imagine the eight years of the time jump went for Cousineau?
The time away from his family? I think he finds an entirely new group of people. I don’t know whether it [made it into the show], but there was a paragraph where I spoke about meeting these new people who gave me a sense of life. So he just creates a family wherever he goes, never taking into account what it is like for his family on the other side of the equation.
How did you approach Cousineau’s dialogue about Barry? He sees him as a complex character, but does he still have that father-son affection for him?
If I were pushed to the wall, I would say no. What Barry did … Alright, there are two answers. What Barry did by killing the one woman that let Gene actually feel love for the first time in his life — because everything else has been a sham — is beyond the pale. On the other side, if I have to say how much I care for Barry in order to stay alive, it will pour out of my mouth like a volcano, and then somewhere deep down, I truly love him. Like, Henry loves Bill.
Your real-life love for Bill Hader impacts your performance? And how you treat Barry when you’re playing Cousineau?
I’ll tell you how it impacts my performance. He and I, when we’re working together, have a chemistry — you cannot create it. You cannot manufacture it. You can’t pretend it. It’s either there or it’s not. And that goes from the wildest moments that I had with him last year, where my skin almost burst open, to the moments when I adore him. To the moments when I am so afraid of him, because his arm is around my grandson.
And what about Sally? She’s always seemed second place to Barry in Cousineau’s heart.
She has the possibility of really being good. She was the one with the most talent. Although, here’s the truth, every one of [the actors who played] those students was a home run hitter. Every one of them could be the star of their own show, and there they were in my class. Rightor [Doyle] has a feature with Judith Light. Kirby [Howell-Baptiste] followed Bill around this year in order to become a director. Just amazing.
You speak about them as though you’re really Cousineau, like you’re their acting teacher.
Well, it’s true. From the very moment that we started our very first rehearsal. The entire cast was there, and Bill took NoHo Hank [Anthony Carrigan] and the bad guys out of the room to rehearse with them and said, “Hey, you’re the teacher. Teach a class.” I literally held a class with these people doing exercises than I did in in drama school.
Also, doing the pilot, we were crammed into a small storage room waiting for a scene to be set up. I fell asleep in one of the chairs, and just before I did one of my students — I don’t know which one — turned off the lights in the room so that I would not be disturbed. From the very beginning, we were a class of family.
And Sally was part of that family. But it stopped mattering when Cousineau thought he had the chance to meet Mark Wahlberg and had to decide whether that was more important than rescuing Sally.
I mean, Mark Wahlberg or my family? Mark Wahlberg.
Tell me about shooting that final confrontation, where it’s revealed that the “agent” was an actor hired to bring Cousineau down when Jim Moss incorrectly concludes that Cousineau was behind Janice’s death all along.
Well, Robert is so powerful that you know you’re making a television show, and he looks at you, and I’m telling you, I had to change my underwear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.