The deadly skills of Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) may be a match for the physical threats of Barry’s criminal underworld, but there’s one menace he’s never been able to overcome: the need for his acting instructor’s approval. Going into the series’ fourth and final season, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) has been at times Barry’s mentor, father figure, hostage, and now betrayer, but the hold he has over the series’ central anti-hero is a bug Barry just can’t shake.
“Do you know what is interesting?” Winker asks rhetorically in a Zoom chat with Inverse. “There was a teacher here in L.A. years ago, and [Barry co-creator] Alec Berg’s wife went as a student, and took notes… those notes were the basis underlying Gene Cousineau.”
“Oh my goodness, he’s an asshole!”
Winkler continues to reveal the moment the character truly clicked for him.
“When I started to play him,” he says, before noting how much Bill Hader loves to tell this story, “I was just playing him with my imagination, and they were going, ‘Yeah, I guess he could be kind of warm and that could be all right.’”
In a moment of epiphany, Winkler had other ideas.
“Finally, I said to them one day, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s an asshole!’ They went, ‘Yes!’”
The inner jerk of Gene Cousineau is on full display in a key scene from Barry Season 4’s second episode. Gene arranges for a clandestine meeting with reporter Lon Oneil (Patrick Fischler) to set the record supposedly straight on Barry in the aftermath of his Season 3 incarceration. For the limelight-starved Cousineau, this meeting turns out to be an elaborate, one-man play.
“It was great,” Winkler confirms. “Two cameras were rolling, I rehearsed it for a week or two in my house.”
The scene in question sees Winkler perform a little tit-for-tat dialogue between himself and an imitated Barry–lower register, with a somewhat dulled voice that perfectly showcases how Cousineau would imitate Barry Berkman in a sort of nesting doll layering of performances.
“I always think that Bill has kind of a forward lip,” he notes of the imitation’s origins, “so that's where it started, I started with the lip, and I had the best time.”
Later in the season, Cousineau has a 180-degree change of heart after a series of monumental events — for at least a moment. On his repeated back-and-forth between ego and conscience throughout the series, Winkler comments, “That's who he is, isn't it? He knows what's right and he literally caaaaan't hold on to it.”
Winkler has an interesting way of understanding the complexity of Cousineau.
“I have a metaphor that Gene is that kind of insect that skirts the top of the water, never gets wet,” he says. “So he's in a well and he flies up to the sun and he lands on the rocks that surround the well, and then his wing breaks and he falls right back into the well, and I don't know if he's drowned or not.”
It’s a bleak but apt picture.
“That's my metaphor,” Winkler says of the character’s inability to escape old patterns. “He tries.”
Discovering Cousineau’s inner jerk also provided the source of the acting teacher’s psychological power over his students: he breaks them down before building them back up. Despite Winkler’s skill at breathing life into the character, it’s a strategy he personally disagrees with.
“Teachers think they have to break you down in order to build you up again,” Winkler says, “I don’t know over the long haul whether that’s true or not.”
What’s most interesting is that, despite their instructional differences, Winker and Cousineau have one obvious thing in common: they’ve both taught sought-after masterclasses.
“I've taught seven masterclasses in different places over the years,” Winkler says, “and I found straight talk, rather than mean talk, gets you where you want to go.”
It’s a strategy quite unlike Cousineau’s methods, the same that Sally (Sarah Goldberg) finds herself absorbing for her own Season 4 path.
“I'm strict with the kids,” he notes, always willing to say “‘you're telling me what the scene is about, I don't hear that, so let's do it again,’ but I don't rip them to shreds.”
Characters like Sally adopt Cousineau’s “asshole” tendencies because his instructions play on their Hollywood dreams. In fact, a key to the series lies in the duel poles fueling Barry’s own allegiances: the power of Hollywood weighed against the power of the criminal underworld. In the world of Barry, there isn’t much difference between the two.
“Everybody tries to leverage the power,” Winkler says. “Everybody tries to have power over the next guy, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how you get it, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how they use it.”