With over 120 screen credits to his name, Henry Winkler returned to acting class this spring with HBO original comedy Barry, drawing on his own memorable class experiences to inform his take on sardonic Valley acting coach Gene Cousineau.
With Barry—the brainchild of Alec Berg and SNL alum Bill Hader—the veteran thesp’s task was simply to ground a heightened character in reality, delivering terrifically memorable one-liners without cracking a smile.
As he set out to teach Hader’s hitman how to act, Winkler had the good fortune of knowing exactly who his character was. “What’s interesting is no matter where you go to acting class, there is somebody like Gene Cousineau in there,” he says. “Everybody that I have talked to that has watched the show, or even over the years, talking about their drama teachers, they relate to the man or woman who just tries to annihilate you.”
Launching a career with his portrayal of The Fonz, the iconic Happy Days greaser—who earned him two Golden Globes and three of his six Emmy nominations—Winkler started out in comedy and has enjoyed exploring the form ever since. “I think that there are certain actors who can do everything. But timing, it seems to work for me; it seems to be comfortable for me,” the actor explains. “I have a really good time being around funny people.”
When you read the scripts for Barry, what were your first impressions?
I thought it was unbelievably well written. I thought it was unbelievably intriguing, and I didn’t understand how they put two shows into one—a comedy and a shoot-‘em-up—and figured that out. I don’t think I could ever have done that. I’m in my partner’s office right now, and we’ve written 30 children’s novels together, we’ve worked out plots together. Never would I have been able to create what they did in Barry.
Working in comedy throughout your career, what’s been most notable, in terms of the ways in which the form has evolved?
What’s interesting is the technology has changed, but making a comedy has not changed. I think maybe comedy is a little more snarky now; sometimes people are not as nice to each other in the comedy. That’s a major change.
Did Gene’s persona change much, from script to shooting?
When they wrote it, my character was much darker, much colder—really cynical. Then, they kept writing Gene to me. They said, “Oh my god, you’re bringing such warmth to the character. We did not see that existed.” I had an interpretation of Gene, and Bill, or Alec, or the other directors would start to interpret the script. And all of a sudden, when I saw the final product on TV, I thought, “Oh my god. I was in it, and I didn’t see that coming.”
There’s a scene when I’m giving a class, and Bill and I are walking down the aisle of a supermarket, buying soup, trying to get him to visualize and to be in the moment. They wrote that scene after I told them a story of an experience I had in my freshman year at Yale, where I was supposed to do an imaginary garden and walk the class through the garden. I stood up, I opened the imaginary picket fence; I said, “Here are the variegated…” And Stella Adler said, “Sit down. You see nothing.” I said, “But I didn’t even get to tell you about my tulips!” I told them that story, not thinking anything about it, just, “Oh my god, that was one of my drama experiences.” Then, boom, there was that beautiful scene.
Working on the series, were there other specific memories that came to mind from acting classes over the years?
I’d think about Liz Smith, who was my voice coach—not singing, but diction, and elocution, and accents. One of the toughest teachers I’ve ever experienced in my life. We quaked in our boots, going to her class. She went on from Yale and taught at Julliard. I would meet other people who went to Julliard, and I would say, “You know Liz Smith?” They would go, “Liz Smith, oh my god. I have to sit down.”
Was Barry tightly scripted, or was there room for improvisation in finding your character?
I want to tell you something: If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage. When something is really well written, and you just are true to what’s written, it is amazing what comes out of you. Then, of course, I improvise a lot. I have done my whole career—except I drove Bill mad. He would say to me, “Could you just do it once the way it’s written, so I could hear what we’ve got?” I would say, “Yes, Bill. I’m going to.” Then, my mind would go to the left. If it worked, they kept it; if it wasn’t, both Alec and Bill would guide you to where they imagined it to be.
When I auditioned for [Barry], our youngest son Max, who’s a director, directed me in the scenes before I went in to audition. He, too, said the same thing. “Dad, you must revere the writer. Dad, there’s an exclamation point there,” you know? It was great. It was just touching.
Did you sense nerves on Hader’s end? As the co-creator, director and star of Barry, the series was a new kind of undertaking for him.
Let me tell you, whatever Bill did, from the time he went to New York [for Saturday Night Live] and then came back here, it prepared him for this job. Because I’m telling you the truth: there was no drama on the set unless it was in the show. He is as calm and cool as a cucumber. They made everybody feel comfortable; they appreciated the ensemble. It was great.
What was your experience of the actors who played Gene’s students?
We had unbelievable actors in my class, who, in the first season, didn’t really get to do much. Kirby [Howell-Baptiste] is on Killing Eve; Darrell [Britt-Gibson] was in Three Billboards; D’Arcy [Carden] is one of the stars on The Good Place. These kids, they’re just incredible. Now, thank god, we read four scripts so far of the new season, and they have a lot more to do.
Bearing in mind their credentials and yours, were any of these young actors picking your brain on set?
Once in a while, somebody would ask; once in a while, even if they didn’t ask, I would say, “Here’s a thought.” But most of the time, no one picked my brain. My brain is pickless. I will tell you that on Fridays, I brought in a Bundt cake from home, and everybody seemed to like that a lot.
While Gene is generally a heightened comic character—exuding great bravado in his class—it’s interesting to see him pursuing his own acting career. He appears more vulnerable, even in some small way.
I think that is part of the theme of the show because everybody wants to be somebody. Gene has created a space where he is the commandant, where he is the emperor. That’s in the theater. In real life, he’s a working actor who finds it as hard as his students to get work.
How was it working with Paula Newsome on Gene’s unexpected, seductive dynamic with Detective Moss?
She’s a really wonderful, thoughtful actress, and we had an unbelievable dynamic that was written for us. I think we had a really wonderful time playing those scenes together. Where do you get to do a scene like in the restaurant, with the chicken à la king?
What have been your biggest challenges with the series thus far?
The biggest challenge was to find the balance of the character, because he was so big. He was so theatrical, and yet at the same time, so emotional in not getting the job, seeing Barry for who he was, trying to deal with Sarah Goldberg, another unbelievable actor. And keeping the balance of making it all real—I mean, how do you say to somebody with a straight face, “Well, Ryan is not the first of my students to be shot, and will not be the last”? You have to keep that real, and on its face, it’s so outrageous, at the same time. It’s like you’re on a tightrope, you know?
At this point in your career, are acting exercises like those employed in Gene’s class still a useful tool for you?
Yes, they really are. Now certainly, every project that you do, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle—and it’s mostly blue. And you have got to put the pieces together to make these human beings come alive.
You’ve said that your role on Barry has been a career-changer. Can you explain that?
What’s amazing is that my career, of course, started in 1974, when we went on the air with Happy Days. The show and the character captured lightning in a bottle. Then, you go along, and each project, to me, it’s like my children: You don’t have a favorite. People always say to me, “What was your favorite thing to do?” The actual answer is, “I love my job.” I got to do all these different things in Arrested Development; I’m always invited for like one episode, and I stayed for five years. There I am, and it’s like a miracle. Then, you do Barry, and Bill and Alec have caught lightning in a bottle. The way that people talk to me about this show is just palpably different. I was 27 when I did the Fonz, and now, I’m 72. I just flipped the numbers. Here I am, having this incredible experience.
What, if anything, can you share about Barry’s next season? Detective Moss is presumed dead at season’s end, which would be a real blow for Gene.
Well, here it is. If I say anything to you, I will be maimed. The one thing that I probably can say is that we certainly learn about Gene’s past.
As you noted, you just came back for Arrested Development’s latest season after five years away. What was most notable about that experience?
Here’s the biggest thing: Season 4, I did scenes with Jessica Walter, and she was a light stand with blue tape on it so I could look at her eye-line. I did a lot of scenes like that because we were never all together. This year, every scene I did, the entire cast was there at the same time. It was delightful, and nobody missed a beat.
Looking forward, do you have specific career goals in mind?
I would like to go back and do a play on Broadway. The first one I did opened and closed in one night—that was called 42 Seconds from Broadway, and it literally lasted that long. The next one was a Neil Simon play I did for nine months with John Ritter, rest his soul. Then the last play I did was called The Performers, which was so much fun. That lasted seven nights. It seems like every other play I do is successful, so I need to go back and end with a bang.