Four years ago, comedian Bill Hader told his agent he wanted to do a drama. It took awhile. "I used to think typecasting wasn't a thing, and it totally is," Hader admits. "That's an industry feeling: 'How can I take that person seriously when I know they're capable of such weird insanity?' " But Hader doesn't look insane. For a comic, he looks almost perversely normal, with the flexible, borderline-forgettable looks of an actor who could play anything -- a handsome mortician, a strict dad, a socially awkward CEO. He just needed a shot.
His Saturday Night Live co-star Kristen Wiig also wanted to wade into darker material, so when the Sundance film The Skeleton Twins cast them as estranged siblings, Hader plunged in -- literally. The script opened with Hader's character, Milo, a depressed gay actor with the whiplash wit of Dorothy Parker, climbing into a bathtub and slicing his wrists.
Hader wanted to get it right. For accuracy, he made a tough phone call and asked a friend who had done the same thing how he survived. The guy told Hader that even though he'd been hell-bent on killing himself, when he saw his own blood, instinct made him scream for help. Hader put that panic into his big here-I-go scene, and was thrilled when the crew told him that the moment was agony. But it won't be his Oscar calling card -- it won't even be seen. Director Craig Johnson decided the take was too disturbing. The comedian had made people cry.
The move to serious films is an uphill trek, though Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, John Candy, and Bill Murray have paved the road ahead. The difference is Hader never meant to be a comic at all. He already knew it was hard. His dad, a Tulsa truck driver, did stand-up in the early '80s but quit after he couldn't get on The Gong Show. "My mom said, 'You have three children. You have to stop this,' " Hader says.
The younger Hader moved to Los Angeles and resolved to write and direct "the kind of movies that would play at Sundance." Movies a lot like The Skeleton Twins, which veers from Hader and Wiig tentatively rebuilding their relationship to the pair lip-synching to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" to a blowout argument that the long-term friends -- practically siblings themselves -- were gutted to shoot. "I'd never seen her angry before," says Hader. "It really affected me. I knew I'd hurt her. That was an awful scene. Kristen couldn't do it after a while. She was like, 'I don't want to yell at Bill anymore. I can't do this.' "
So it's funny when people tell Hader he's gotta step it up now that he's actually acting. If anything, he's simply reverting to the original plan, only now on the other side of the camera. Comedy "wasn't anything on my radar," he insists. Like every other dreamer, Hader started out as a PA, working on action flicks starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock. But after a few frustrating years at the bottom, he signed up for a sketch class -- and then things started happening very, very fast. Too fast. Which is how a kid who 18 months before had been fetching coffee found himself fighting off complete freak-outs every weekend when he walked onstage in front of an audience of millions.
"I would run my lines over and over again just saying, 'I can't do this!' " says Hader. "Comedy is incredibly hard." Dramas aren't harder -- they're not even that different. "You have to be loose," Hader says. "You have to be not afraid to fail."
Going for broke in the bloody bathtub isn't much different from the twisted impulse that made Hader deliberately flub his first line every time on Saturday Night Live. "If it was 'Good evening, I'm Shepard Smith,' I would say, 'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I'm Shepard Smith,' " recalls Hader. " 'Ladies and gentlemen' is not on the cue cards, so my brain would go, 'Whoop! You screwed up -- and you're alive, and you're fine.' "
Lorne Michaels must not have been too surprised when Hader left the show to try to play it straight. After all, during Hader's audition, instead of going for oversized laughs, he did dead-on impressions of Al Pacino and James Mason. Impressions became his special skill, but amid the broad mania of the show, he made a point of doing them perfectly. "I would find the rhythm," says Hader. "I would try to talk the way that people actually talk."
Can you impersonate great actors so well you become one yourself? Hader's ready to find out. "I'm just trying things to see if I can pull it off or not," says the former nervous wreck. "You just have to get up on stage as much as you can and learn."