Henry Winkler says Barry made him a better actor: 'I am one incredibly lucky dude'

Henry Winkler says Barry made him a better actor: 'I am one incredibly lucky dude'

Henry Winkler is ready to say goodbye to Gene Cousineau.

The 77-year-old actor has spent the last five years playing the pompous acting teacher on Barry, winning a long-overdue Emmy for his role. Since the show's 2017 premiere, Winkler has run from dogs, been stuffed in a trunk, and delivered all sorts of memorable monologues, frequently facing off against Bill Hader's hitman (who murdered Cousineau's beloved girlfriend, Janice). Now, Winkler is parting ways with the insufferable Cousineau, as Barry's series finale airs May 28 on HBO.

After Cousineau exposed Barry and sent him to jail in the season 3 finale, season 4 jumps ahead several years. He's spent much of that time hiding in Israel, supposedly repenting for his sins, and returns to Los Angeles in an attempt to halt production on a movie about Barry's misdeeds. Initially, it seems like the first noble thing that Cousineau has ever done, trying to protect the memory of his murdered girlfriend Janice (Paula Newsome). However, the narcissistic Cousineau can't resist the lure of fame and fortune — especially when a supposed Hollywood agent calls and tells him that Daniel Day-Lewis wants to unretire to play him on screen. Before long, cops and Janice's dad Jim (Robert Wisdom) discover that Cousineau previously accepted $250,000 in hush money from Barry — and now, it looks like his narcissism might be his undoing.

Ahead of the show's finale on Sunday, EW sat down with Winkler to talk about bidding farewell to Barry, from the lessons he's learned from Gene Cousineau to his emotional last day on set.

Henry Winkler in season 4 of 'Barry'
Henry Winkler in season 4 of 'Barry'

Merrick Morton/HBO Henry Winkler in season 4 of 'Barry'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take me back to when you first read the scripts for season 4. What was your emotional reaction?

HENRY WINKLER: You know, it's so interesting. This is what I learned: You have an idea of where you think the story will go. You do your work, you do your rehearsals and everything, and it's all great. And then, you get to set. Bill [Hader] directed all eight this year, and all of a sudden, he's got a vision. It's a big vision. My job is to see if I can help him create his vision and the writers' vision, and I'm the third prong of the triangle.

You've obviously worked with Bill so much over the last few years, but like you said, he directs all eight episodes of the final season. What's it like to collaborate with him as a director?

I'll tell you exactly: Bill is generous. Bill is strict. Bill is clear. Bill is funny. So if you're in a scene with Bill, one part of his brain is directing, the other part is acting. And if you do something funny, he'll start laughing. You've got to remind him: "Hey, you're not in your chair at video village! You're in the scene!" You know what else he does? He mouths the words with you because he knows them so well. [Laughs]

But Bill, he is a wonder. He and [co-creator Alec Berg] created an atmosphere where there are no a--holes allowed — not on the crew, and not in the acting department. It's not hyperbole to say that it is a joy.

You've talked a lot over the years about how you've had an incredible career, but Barry has allowed you to try new things. For you, what is it about this show that's felt so rewarding?

Everything starts with the writing. Everything starts with the people at the top. I have worked on some wonderful shows. I am one incredibly lucky dude. But there is something about Barry. If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. When we rehearse, we read through the scenes, and we talk through the scenes, and changes are made right on the spot. That's their secret sauce. I don't know how to describe it. I'm just lucky enough to have it on my meal.

What's it like to say goodbye to this character and that special sauce?

On the one hand, my rational adult self understands that this is the end. This is it. The other part of me is so sad! I was lucky enough to be the last shot for the end of Barry. I'm in a room, I walk through the door, and the entire crew was there. Bill gave me a hug, and he whispered in my ear: "Thank you for being such a great collaborator." And my heart flew out of my body.

That was something I wanted to ask about. Your last day on set was the very last day of production?

Yeah. And I talked to the crew and I thanked them because they are the other half of the circle. There are the actors, and then there is the crew. Without them, without their support, you wouldn't be filmed or lit on set or dressed. Or you wouldn't eat.

It's the same with the audience. If they don't come and join that circle with me, we are off the air. Without the audience, you can have a great idea… and then you go home and have a salami sandwich.

The final season involves a pretty major time jump, where we check in with Cousineau years in the future. What was your reaction when you first read those scripts?

I went back and read it again. [Laughs] There were whole scenes that unfortunately were cut, but I built houses on a kibbutz. Who thinks of that? "Yeah, let's send him to a kibbutz in Israel! He'll go build houses!"

I love the idea that Cousineau finally tries to do the right thing, but he ultimately can't resist the promise of fame — or of Daniel Day-Lewis playing him in a movie. What did you find interesting about that arc?

There are two things: One is that we go out the door we came in. Two, my metaphor that came to me is that [Cousineau] is like an insect that skirts across the top of the water. I never really get wet. I finally fly out of a well and sit in the sun on the stone at the top of a well. But then, my wing breaks and I fall off the stone back into the water. And I'm not sure if I have drowned or not.

So, if Daniel Day-Lewis is Gene Cousineau's dream casting—

Henry Winkler would also love to meet Daniel Day-Lewis, let alone this a--hole! [Laughs]

That was my question! Who would you cast as Henry Winkler in the movie of your life?

Brad Pitt.

I like that.

I like that too. I met him twice. He is wonderful. He's delightful, and he's wonderful on the screen, in a good movie or not. You can't ask for more than that.

I'm curious: When you think about saying goodbye to Barry, what's been the biggest takeaway from making this show for the last five years?

I have become a better actor. I have. I'm getting closer to the actor I dreamt about being when I was doing the Fonz. Some of my idols in acting are Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins, where there's no distance between their soul and their character. You can't even put a sheet of paper between the two. There is something so magnificent about that. And I have been working to try to get there.

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