There’s a moment in the fourth episode of HBO’s new hit series, Barry, where you begin to feel the spotlight shift from Bill Hader’s titular hitman-turned-wannabe-actor over to Sally Reed, his acting classmate and love interest.
Up until that point, Sally felt like a fairly conventional, thankless, almost tertiary female character primarily there to serve the male lead’s story. But Sally’s portrayer, Sarah Goldberg, is the breakout star in episode 4, “Chapter 4: Commit … to YOU,” as her character becomes her own person in the narrative independent of Barry and delivers a brilliantly subtle, heartbreaking performance.
Goldberg comes from a theatre background, performing on Broadway as well as in the UK, and this is her first big television role. “I remember being very much unemployed,” Goldberg tells me at HBO’s New York City offices, “like 3pm in the afternoon, absolutely nowhere to be, like talking bathrobes, peanut butter on toast unemployed.” That’s when her manager told her about the part. She thought the role was out of her reach at the time.
On Barry, her character endures some nightmare audition experiences. “She’s definitely been through the ringer.” That’s an aspect to Sally with which Goldberg can relate. “I did an infomercial for Best Buy,” she recalls. “I remember going in for a commercial for a mattress company, and I had to do a pantomime version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And I mean it was traumatic. ”
As early as the audition process, Goldberg explains, producers Bill Hader and Alec Berg were open to new ideas about Sally’s background, inviting her to improvise scenes as the character at a time when only the pilot script had been written. At the same time, they didn’t want to get too committed to ideas that could potentially hinder future stories. But they discussed Sally’s life in Missouri before moving to L.A. and why she moved out there. “Some of that will come out in the show,” Goldberg says.
Returning to that fourth episode, the most memorable scene finds Sally facing an unwanted sexual advance by a male agent who has yet to officially sign her but is acting like her agent on a kind of trial basis. When a flustered Sally insists she wants to keep their relationship professional, the agent awkwardly tries to pass it off as a joke. “Unfortunately, what happens in these scenarios,” Goldberg says, “when you’re so taken aback and so taken off guard, you don’t have time to recalibrate and come, in the moment, come up with the words that you’re looking for. And so this horrible thing happens in that scene that I think is so real, where Sally ends up apologizing for him and, like, laughing it off and being more concerned about his embarrassment than her own wellbeing.”
A few scenes later, Sally faces public embarrassment when the agent disavows her as having ever been his client. She’s confused until it slowly dawns on her in a quiet, understated moment in her car. Though the episode was shot prior to the #MeToo Movement catching fire, it feels remarkably timely. And if the scene with the agent feels authentic, that’s because of the women working behind the scenes. The episode was directed by Sarah Soleman, and Maggie Carey is its credited writer.
“I think that Bill and Alec did a really smart thing where, when they originally wrote that scene with the agent,” Goldberg explains, “they wrote a draft of it. And then they brought it to the writer’s room and brought it to all the women in the writer’s room and said, you know, does this feel true? And all the women said no.” Goldberg adds, “And then having a woman director on that episode was, I think, crucial.”
As for what to expect from Sally later this season, Goldberg says, “Well, I think, unfortunately, her sort of narcissistic tendencies are not necessarily going to totally yield, but we do see, like, a slight evolution of Sally.” This evolution will be helped by her acting teacher, Gene, played by television veteran Henry Winkler. “Gene is on a mission to help her understand the lesson, you know, she needs to work with others in order to improve. Like, that’s the leap she needs to make. And so we see a push for that. Whether she gets there or not remains to be seen.”
Sally catching onto Barry’s secret life as a hitman is perhaps less likely this season. “Sally’s got such extreme tunnel vision. She can’t even really see other people yet. So I don’t think she has any clue about his other life.” Goldberg sees Sally’s interest in Barry as a product of her neuroses. “I think that she’s merely sorta seeing herself. So she was sort of obsessed with him when it suited her because he was obsessed with her. So all she was seeing was this projection and that being reflected back.”
Goldberg has some thoughts about where she’d like to see Sally go in Season 2: “If she could relax a little, she might be less of a nightmare. I would like to see her have some kind of positive change and that that could possibly lead her to being a better person, more able to play with others.” Still, Goldberg admits, “The cruel side of her is always fun to play. You know, it’s done with such lightness of touch and a kind of guileless quality. Like, they write this person who doesn’t even know she’s being mean . . . It’s not calculated cruelty; it’s like she’s oblivious.” Goldberg also hasn’t gotten the chance yet to act alongside Stephen Root, who’s part of Barry’s hitman life, so she hopes to see that in season 2.
I couldn’t resist asking Goldberg about her IMDB credit on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. “So yes, I auditioned for Analyst #1, and I had one line, which ended up in voiceover.” While she was living in England, American-accented performers were in demand for American movies shooting overseas. “I have one shot where I see something awful, and I have a reaction shot.”
She was also very impressed by Nolan’s treatment of the day players. “He was such a class act. I mean he came in. He knew all of our names. Like, I had nothing to do with this movie. And then he let us improvise, all day. I mean we shot all day this kind of CIA scene behind the scenes. And he gave so much room for collaboration and treated us all with so much respect even though he knew this was probably only going to be one second in the movie.”
But Goldberg won’t be giving up the theatre any time soon. One role she is dying to play is Kate Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, despite being too young for the part.
In the meantime, she’s also playing Alexander Skarsgård’s wife in the upcoming Kim Nguyen film, The Hummingbird Project, that also stars Jesse Eisenberg and Salma Hayek. And Barry has been officially picked up for a second season. “I’m thrilled because I honestly would happily keep making this show for the rest of my life.”
New episodes of Barry air Sundays on HBO.
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