Bill Hader: 'Make Stuff. Do Stuff. As Much As You Possibly Can'


Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader makes his leading-man debut at the movies this week in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs -- sort of. Sony's 3-D adaptation of the illustrated kids' classic features Hader's voice as that of Flint Lockwood, a young scientist who invents a machine capable of creating rather delicious meteorological phenomena. Complications naturally ensue in Flint's tiny island town, including hassles by the local cop (voiced by Mr. T) and romantic palpitations brought on by a visit from aspiring TV weathergirl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris). It's a fun, great-looking film with a bit of a cheeky streak (Neil Patrick Harris actually provides the "voice" of Flint's monkey Steve) and a showcase for Hader in a genre at which he's quietly excelled below the radar for several years now.

But there's way more back story that Movieline wanted to hear, including his days P.A.-ing for James Franco, his accidental film debut in Collateral Damage and his credo for getting ahead in Hollywood -- or anywhere else for that matter. Hader obliges us after the jump.

I like this film! I like this role for you. Were you a fan of the book?

Yeah, I was. It was kind of the book you read before you got into young-adult stuff. It was before A Wrinkle in Time or whatever. In first grade, when you would walk over and see the stack of books, it was always on top next to the Clifford books. "Oh, that looks interesting." It was cool to get a chance to be a part of that.

Is voice work and animation something you've been angling for, even while having broken through in so many major live-action comedies recently?

It's the kind of work that I enjoy doing, and it's been coming more my way. I did something in Ice Age 3, and then before that I did a movie for the Weinstein Company called Doogal. I've been doing more things for television -- a lot of Adult Swim stuff like Xavier: Renegade Angel and The Venture Bros. and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. There's Hoodwinked 2. And I like animated movies; I used to watch Pixar movies all the time. And Sony Animation is doing great stuff, too. That's what I liked about this: They were like caricatures who looked as real as possible. What a lot of animation is doing is to make people seem more lifelike, which I don't understand. Exaggeration is interesting. And also what they did with the elemental stuff: It's interesting to see those kinds of characters with realistic-looking props and the food. Even the way they get the water to look in this film is cool. I think it's from a program they designed for Surf's Up.


Did you actually log any studio time with Mr. T?

No! I wish I had. Mr. T is such a major part of my childhood -- pretty much around the same time as the book was. And then for my adolescent and high-school years, Bruce Campbell [who voices the film's mayor] was a huge part of that. I love the Evil Dead movies and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.. I haven't had a chance to meet him yet either, but he was a guy who had a big influence on me saying, "Hey, maybe I'll give this a shot -- going to L.A. to make movies."

But originally you went to film school, right? With the hopes of writing and directing?

Yeah. I didn't really go to any of the big film schools; I grew up in Oklahoma, and somehow I ended up in a film school in Scottsdale, Arizona. I ended up meeting Nick Jasenovec, who made Paper Heart; he was a good friend of mine. So Nick and I collaborated on some short films. It was kind of a great place, because it was the kind of place where they were like, "Hey, we have all this equipment -- go nuts." Even the instructors were saying, "We're figuring this stuff out, too, so have fun." It was a great place to learn and fail and do better. Then I moved to L.A. with Nick and some other friends, and we had no money. I was a crew guy forever, and I was writing the whole time. If I was 21 now, I'd just be making videos every weekend and posting them on YouTube or my own Web site. Back then it was like, "Oh, we've got to rent a camera. We've got to find a place to cut it. We're on an Avid! How crazy is that?" Now you do it on your laptop with your camcorder. You can make movies every weekend if you wanted to.

You P.A.-ed on TNT's James Dean biopic and then Spider-Man, both featuring James Franco. Did he remember you later on during Pineapple Express or his SNL guest-hosting stint?

No, he didn't remember me. I wouldn't have remembered me either; I was kind of a wallflower. You're just a P.A. bringing him coffee and stuff. The Rock had a similar reaction because I was a P.A. on Scorpion King: "What?" But it is funny to be friends with these guys now and working with them. James goes to film school in New York, and he made a documentary about a week in the life of SNL. For his class. It was pretty neat.

Has anyone seen it?

No, it was totally for a class. He just showed up for the John Malkovich show, and from Monday through Saturday he was there with a film crew. He said, "This is for my class." I said, "Oh." He's a really interesting guy.

And hadn't you run into Ben Stiller when you were younger as well?

Yeah, I met Stiller when I was still in Tulsa. He was friends with Jeanne Tripplehorn [also a native Tulsan], and we had Thanksgiving at a mutual friend's house. I was 17, and Ben and I basically sat and talked about movies all night. I made a short film, which I gave him; he wrote back and said, "Hey man, this is really good." He actually watched it and liked it. So years later, when I got SNL, I got a call saying, "Ben Stiller wants to have coffee with you." So I go to have coffee with him, and he says, "You've made it, man! That's so crazy!" It was 10 years later.


And then Tropic Thunder came along.

Yeah, I auditioned for it. It's not like I just got the job; I read for it and got the job, which felt really good. And I think he was helpful and getting me into Night at the Museum 2 as well. We just work well together. He's such a good guy; such an example. A really hard-working guy.

Is it true that your first role came about when an actor failed to show up on a film where you were P.A.-ing?

Collateral Damage, yeah. The actor was stuck in traffic, and they had to shoot the scene. So they put me in as the pilot in this uniform. I wasn't supposed to have a line, but my bosses, the first A.D. and second A.D., though it was so funny that I was in there that they said, "Well, maybe we should have him tell Arnold Schwarzenegger this..." And the director, Andrew Davis, was like, "Yeahyeahyeah, you say this..." So they were laughing behind the camera because they thought they were going to get me a line. And they did! I got Taft-Hartley on the show. If you rent Collateral Damage, there's a scene that takes place on a plane, and I'm the pilot. My line is, "Three or four hours, depending on the weather." Which we came up with on the spot.

How soon was it before you weighed a career change?

Well, even after that it took me three years before I went with a friend who said, "Come on, take classes at Second City." I was so focused on writing and directing, but I was being cast in all my friends' short films. I'd say, "I can shoot it! I can edit it!" They said, "No, we want you to be in it." So I took classes at Second City as a way of getting creative. I felt like I was living in L.A. and aside from writing, I wasn't shooting any shorts. I had no time; I was just working constantly on these crew jobs. But I could take Second City classes every Saturday. So once a week I could be creative and get that going. Then that led to me starting a sketch group called Animals From the Future; Megan Mullally saw me in that group, and that sort of changed everything for me.

So to what degree is your comedy career almost accidental?

I'd always liked comedy, and people would say, "You're funny," or, "You can do voices." I would always impersonate teachers and friends growing up, and I was a big comedy fan, growing up, obviously. I had comedy records, a Monty Python poster in my room -- I liked that stuff. It wasn't like it was out of the blue. But when I was in L.A., I was so focused on becoming a filmmaker that comedy or drama didn't matter. Once I got to Second City, though, I thought, "This is really, really working out for me." But for about a year and a half, at Second City or I.O. in L.A., if there was a show going on and I could get up on stage, then I would get up on stage. That was my mantra. I didn't care what it is; I just wanted to get up there and do it. It was more for myself, to get myself comfortable onstage and try different things.

That's the biggest [advice] people ask me: "What do I do?" I just say make stuff. Do stuff. As much as you possibly can. All my friends who are successful, that's the thing we all have in common. We're always making stuff. And you have to fail, too, and ask yourself, "Where did I screw up?" Like if I had read Steve Martin's book Born Standing Up when I was 15 years old, it would have changed my life. So it was luck, but it was only luck because I was always working on it.