There is no denying the fact that we are in a new golden age of television. Ask anyone and they will tell you there is just too much to watch. But it’s not just quantity, it’s quality. Standards for television are now equal to or have surpassed that of feature films, thanks to the booming streaming market, and there is no longer any taboo about acting on television, in fact, it is now considered de rigeur, even for movie stars like Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Michael Douglas.
The good part, for actors, of this television boom is the glut of opportunities now. With so many parts in legitimate and high-quality productions, there is possibly no better time to be a professional actor. The flip side is, because there are so many opportunities and so many good parts, it’s even harder for a performance to jump out of the crowd and garner attention. Much like the Tonys now, Emmy nominations are now littered with famous names, leaving the unknown working actors to continue to toil away in relative obscurity.
But, every once in a while, an actor makes such an impression in a role that is impossible to ignore. Such an example is Anthony Carrigan, an actor who has taken the role of NoHo Hank in the HBO series Barry and has delivered a performance that jumps out of the screen, certifiably becoming a star. Carrigan’s embodiment of a goofy, cheery, pop-culture obsessed Chechen mob boss has left such an impression that he’s already earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for the show’s second season in 2019 and seems certain of earning another for this, the season’s current third season.
I had the opportunity to talk with Carrigan about playing NoHo Hank (before the season finale), what it’s like to be in the company of such show business (and comedy) legends as Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and Stephen Root, how his character is developing this season, and what he loves so much about playing such a quirky, different and appealing character in a show that is otherwise so dark and heavy.
Catherine Springer: I absolutely love the show and I love you in it. Barry really is one of those unique shows that gets stronger as it goes. In this season we obviously get to know Hank a bit more. Was it always the plan to have the relationship or did that emerge from the chemistry you had with Michael Irby, who plays Cristobal?
Anthony Carrigan: I don’t think it was necessarily a planned thing. But when I read the scripts for season three it just made so much sense to me. When you look back on the first and second season, there were these breadcrumbs that were left, and you can trace back the whole thing. In fact, I was thinking about it yesterday, the first conversation that Cristobal had with Goran about reading The Four Agreements and how Hank just perked up. [laughs] I think instantly there was this kind of connection. And, once Michael and I began to kind of play and find this really wonderful dynamic, I think it just made all the sense in the world to explore that relationship.
CS: It’s not played for laughs, which I love. There’s no mockery involved. It’s really sweet and tender, which is contrary to the rest of the show, for the most part. Even though they’re star-crossed lovers, in a way, there’s a hopefulness there. Talk a little bit about building that relationship, and where you hope it goes.
AC: Well, one of my favorite things about playing a character like Hank is this kind of sweet naivete and optimism and lightheartedness. So I think this new aspect of exploring this character behind closed doors is very much in keeping with that as well, this very tender, loving, soft and wonderful relationship, which is a real contrast to all of the toxic traits that are exhibited in so many other relationships. And I think it’s very buoyant and it does kind of keep some hope for the rest of the show. But that being said, it’s like you said, it’s a kind of star-crossed situation. It’s difficult to have a relationship with the head of your enemy crime syndicate. [laughs]
CS: Despite how hilarious you are, Barry is obviously a very dark show at its core. Everyone’s having an existential crisis. But Hank, as you said, is very optimistic. He loves himself. He loves life. He loves where he is. Were there discussions before the show started about the importance of getting the right tone for Hank so it doesn’t throw the show off balance?
AC: You know, it’s always kind of miraculous to me that you can look at each of these pieces, which really have no business being in the same story. [laughs] It’s mind-boggling to me that each of these storylines, but also just these characters, can exist within the same world. And our main objective, this season, which we talked about a lot, was just trying to do each of these characters justice and find new textures for them, but also to examine who they were in these very real circumstances. So, there was no commenting. There was no putting jokes on top of anything. It was all very much examined through the lens of how would a real person be responding in this kind of outlandish scenario. We wanted to really ground it in a very human way.
CS: You mentioned texture and that’s a good word for Hank. Obviously, to get where he is, he had to have done some really bad things, but he’s such a lighthearted, fun guy. How did Hank get to where he is without getting cynical?
AC: In a word, denial. [laughs] I think that there is a certain level of denial that the character has within him, that he’s oblivious in a certain way to all of the really horrific things that he’s had to do to get where he is, especially getting to sunny Los Angeles, and wanting to just live the life. It comes at a cost. I mean, when you actually examine what he’s done, dealing fentanyl and putting hits on people or bombing people, it’s really intense stuff. So there’s a certain amount that I think Hank is just keeping compartmentalized and very, very sequestered. Obviously, it’s a comedy, so there’s an element to it as well, that the audience’s suspension of disbelief plays a huge part in that. But that being said, I think that yeah, Hank’s obliviousness is probably the main factor.
CS: Yes, but in episode 7 he didn’t just put his head in the sand. He actively goes to Bolivia to seek answers.
AC: I think he’s following his heart. I mean, that being said, I think he’s following his heart quite blindly. There’s the scene where he’s walking through the streets of Bolivia, saying Cristobel’s name. [laughs]
CS: I love that.
AC: That was his plan. That’s his great plan to track down the love of his life. He is making the choice to go out and save this person who he loves dearly, but at the same at the same time, is he cognizant of exactly what he’s getting himself into? Not really.
CS: So, you don’t think he’s crazy like a fox? You don’t think he’s a mad genius? You just think he’s like a child just following his feelings?
AC: There are moments of real discovery that he has, there are moments of real understanding of the situation and what’s going on. Like that scene in season two where he confronts Barry outside of the theater. No, he’s not so much of an idiot. He knows when he’s being taken advantage of, and then he’s not afraid to throw his weight around when he does realize that. That being said, yeah, he’s more aloof than not, I would say.
CS: What’s your favorite thing about Hank?
AC: [Pauses] Ooh, that’s a great question. My favorite thing about Hank is just how deeply invested he gets in what he’s doing, whether that’s the kind of gadgets that he’s using, or these plans that he’s coming up with that he’s roping Barry into. I think that Hank, when he comes up with an idea, puts 1000% of himself and his belief into it, no matter how ridiculous it may be. And it’s just wonderful to play a character that’s so deeply invested in whatever he has cooked up.
CS: So, dovetailing off that, as we see in the brilliant scene in the closet in episode 5, although Hank does have high expectations, it means that he gets crushed pretty easily by them, too?
AC: Yeah, he does. And that scene is incredibly layered. And one of my favorite things that we shot this season because of the amount of discoveries and what is unfolding in the scene. It was just a joy because, for me, a lot of what I was able to do was just watch everything unfold and witness it. Having the discovery of his henchmen being kidnapped, to wondering what’s going on, to who is this Elena character, to trivializing that Cristobal knows, to then running because he knows he’s in danger, to then feeling shame about running, and then the discovery of who this woman is based on what she is seeing, and piecing all these things together. There’s just so much going on in that scene. There’s a lot of moving parts, but it was just a joy to be able to bring that to life.
CS: And an absolute masterclass piece of acting by you. I don’t want to use the term comic relief because I hate that and I don’t want to reduce Hank to that. But with the acting class sort of phased out, his scenes are almost the only moments where we can take a deep breath from all the really, really heavy lifting. So, using that term comic relief in a very light way, how does it feel being the funny one in a show with Bill Hader, Stephen Root and Henry Winkler?
AC: Yeah, I still don’t think that fact has landed. I don’t know, it’s surreal. But I think it’s a trap also to think about the world as a comedic world and to play for laughs and to try to make things funny. Anytime I do that, I fall on my face. It has to be grounded so heavily in reality and in the reality and in the seriousness of what we’re doing. And I think it comes back to that earnestness, the more I can just dive into the earnestness of this character. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, he believes fully in what he’s doing. And if there’s comedy in that, great. But for the most part, we never want to sacrifice the storytelling for the comedy.
CS: How much improv is done in the show?
AC: It depends on the scene. If it’s a five, six-page scene like the interrogation scene, that one we peppered in a little bit, but you go too far off course in something that hefty and you’re going to run into problems. But other than that, we like to keep it loose and keep it fresh. And that’s when it’s really exciting. It’s really exciting to be working without a net most days. To truly not know where something is going, where somebody’s going to take off from and where it’s going to land. But that’s one of the most exciting parts of being on the show, that unexpected quality.
CS: I have to ask you because Bill Hader is famous for being easy to break. Have you ever tried to break him on purpose?
AC: Oh yeah, my God! [laughs] Like consistently, it’s one of my favorite activities to do.
CS: And is it really easy?
AC: Well, yes, I mean, it is. Yeah, he’s kind of a pushover. But that being said, Bill is wearing so many hats throughout the day, so you’ll either be working across from him while he’s directing. And he’s kind of rewriting things as we’re going. I remember doing a scene with him where it was on his coverage, and he was on a second take, and he was like, give me this line halfway through the scene. And I was like, okay, and I fed him that line. And then he gave me two lines. And then he yelled, cut. He was editing it as he was going. He was editing it in his mind. And all he needed was that little piece. So he’s got this kind of omniscient presence as we’re going. And he’s incredibly focused. But yeah, but it’s always nice to kind of knock him off balance.
CS: Who’s the hardest to break?
AC: Oh, god. Um, I don’t know. We’re all such goofballs, we’re all guilty. We’re all guilty of it. No one is safe on the show. It’s kind of a miracle we get through it.
CS: When I told my wife I was going to be speaking with you, she said “Ask him why he’s so adorable.” So?
AC: [laughs] I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask my Mom. [laughs] I don’t know. I mean, I’m in love with this character. He’s so unique and so different. And I’ve got such a soft spot in my heart for him. So, I am just trying to do this character justice. I take no accountability. Put on the tight pants and then kind of let it go.
CS: Last question: what’s your greatest fantasy as an actor?
AC: My greatest fantasy as an actor…gosh, I don’t know if I can if I can pare it down to one specific job because jobs are there and then they’re gone. But I think the real fantasy is continuing to create things that really move people and make them feel something and really make them examine the human condition. And if they happen have a good time while they’re doing that, then that’s a bonus.
Anthony Carrigan is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Barry.
This interview has been edited for content and brevity.