Bill Hader is at a Hollywood cafe, about to take his first bite of a molasses cookie, when he gets a text informing him that he was just a victim of a car accident. “What the fuck?” he says. “I just got, like, five messages seeing if I’m OK.” Bzzz! “Amy Schumer just asked about it!” Bzzz! “Paul Rudd!” Turns out some joker went on Reddit and spread a bogus report about Hader and a freeway collision, and now everyone on Hader’s contact list wants to make sure the 36-year-old Saturday Night Live alumnus is all right. “Let me just call my wife real quick,” he says, “and let her know I’m alive.”
Crazy things happen to Hader these days. Take the one-on-one basketball game he played a few weeks ago against LeBron James. “He kicked the shit out of me,” Hader says. That was part of shooting Trainwreck, the next Judd Apatow film, in which Hader stars opposite Schumer, and in which James plays Hader’s best friend. “LeBron was so effortlessly funny,” Hader says. “That’s what’s not fair.” Hader, whose résumé is full of scene-stealing roles in comedy blockbusters like Superbad, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, has distinguished himself as a character actor, delivering off-kilter impressions and unhinged, virtuoso runs – most memorably as Stefon, SNL‘s debauched nightlife correspondent. In Trainwreck, though, Hader plays a romantic lead, which means the movie represented a test. “Bill has moments where he gets to show off his riotous side,” says Apatow, “but the majority is him playing a grounded character who’s charming and flawed. It’s similar to Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids.”
Hader had ample practice playing a charmingly flawed character in this month’s The Skeleton Twins, an indie film that he made with Wiig. The Skeleton Twins has laughs throughout, but it’s clear from the bleak opening sequence that we’re far from Stefon territory: Hader and Wiig play estranged twins who simultaneously try to kill themselves, and whose fumbling attempts at redemption structure the film. Keeping his wildly expressive eyebrows in check, Hader delivers a memorably wounded performance. Craig Johnson, The Skeleton Twins‘ director, says that Hader brought something “that wasn’t on the page. In the script the character is snarkier, more of a brat. Bill has this vulnerability.” Hader says, “I wanted to stretch. I love comedy, but it’s dramas that stick with me.”
It turns out that Hader never had dreams of being a comedian. Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he felt certain that he would become a serious filmmaker. “My heroes were Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Kurosawa,” he says. Hader’s father owned an air-freight company, his mother was a dance teacher, and he describes Tulsa as “a great place to grow up,” despite a red-state culture he didn’t identify with. One night, Hader watched the cult horror classic Evil Dead. “I was knocked out,” he says, “and the next day I dug out my dad’s video camera to start shooting stuff, chasing my two younger sisters with the camera through the woods.” He says he came to “feel weird liking movies as much as I did. That was not normal. People were like, ‘I can’t talk to you – all you wanna talk about is movies.'”
In his early twenties, Hader moved to L.A. to work as a production assistant – he planned to climb through the industry, but five years later, he’d grown bitter. “I was one of those guys who’d go see a movie, then go to a coffee shop and bitch about it,” he recalls. Around this time, he attended a friend’s performance at Second City, and decided to join the improv house. “I was relaxed onstage, because I didn’t give a shit – that helped,” he says. “I still wanted to be directing.” A few years later, in 2005, after several auditions, Hader was cast on SNL, which stressed him out. “There’s this thing with funny people where you think that if you’re not good at this, you’re not good at anything,” Hader says. “So with SNL I was like, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m fucked, because I’m bad at everything else.'”
At SNL, Hader watched his contemporaries, like Wiig and Andy Samberg, blow past him. “I never resented anybody for being successful,” Hader says. “But I do remember when ‘Lazy Sunday’ happened. It was such a phenomenon. I was like, ‘Man, I wish I had one of those.’ It’s a race. I was in the same place as Andy, then I was still running and a car had come to pick him up.” Afraid of getting fired, Hader availed himself to writers for tool-kit roles like “cop number two, the announcer guy. I never stopped working, but my own specific sketches weren’t getting on.” At one point, Hader met Bill Murray, who commiserated about his own experience on the show: “He said, ‘That’s OK, you’re gonna be OK, I had those parts: “Here’s your order, ma’am.”‘”
Gradually, Hader’s more flamboyantly idiosyncratic characters made it to air, like Stefon, though Hader finds Stefon’s popularity unlikely. “He’s low-energy, weird, druggy, skeevy. There’s a darkness and a sadness there – all that does not equal kids running up to you quoting lines. But that happened.”
After his eighth and final SNL season, Hader returned to California with his wife, director Maggie Carey, and their two young daughters. They live a low-glitz life. Hader drives a modest hybrid sedan and is most comfortable as he’s dressed today: plaid shirt and sneakers, stuff loaded into a backpack. When Hader’s done with his cookie, we cross the street to Amoeba Music to thumb through CDs. “I grew up in a total Pink Floyd house,” he says in the “P” section. “My dad loved Floyd, Zappa. He and my mom hated singer-songwriters. ‘Fuck Dylan! Springsteen? He sounds like he always needs to take a shit, and every song’s about a car!’ Later, it was like coming out: ‘Dad . . . I like Bob Dylan.’ ‘That’s OK, son.'” After Amoeba, we get into my car so I can drive Hader to where he’s parked. He buckles in and checks his phone, where the text messages are still arriving about his nonexistent wreck. “Let’s get in an accident,” he says.