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Henry Winkler Revisits The Delusion Of Gene Cousineau

Apr 11, 2023

Not to be a downer, but “Succession” isn’t the only great show ending this spring. Bill Hader and Alec Berg‘s genre-breaking dramedy “Barry” is also coming to a close with its fourth season. And like its HBO stablemate, there are massive surprises and “must-see” episodes that will set social media buzzing. The program’s end also means saying goodbye to one of the best portrayals on television this decade, Henry Winkler as Hollywood acting teacher Gene Cousineau.
READ MORE: ‘Barry’ Season 4 Trailer: HBO’s Lovable Killer Tries To Convince Himself He’s A Good Person In The Final Season
Winkler has already earned three Emmy nominations for his work on “Barry” and it would be shocking if he didn’t snag a fourth (he also deserved to win last year). Like many of Hader and Berg’s creations, Cousineau is a complicated human being who you somehow still end up rooting for even after he makes one cringe-worthy decision after another. Speaking earlier this month about the final season, The Playlist asked Winkler if he thought Cousineau wasn’t just narcissistic, but delusional as well (yes, there is a difference).
“I played him as a person who wanted to be a good person. He never quite got there,” Winkler says. “He thought he was really helping these young people. He thought he was really giving them a foundation. Now, in a way, he did. But mostly, he was delusional.”
Over the course of the rest of our interview, Winkler discusses Hader’s direction of all the season’s eight episodes, how he wishes he didn’t know about the season’s twists, whether today’s acting students would put up with the teaching techniques of 40 years ago, and much more.
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The Playlist: They’ve shown us the first seven episodes and we’ll be very careful with spoilers, but I can’t remember a season of “Barry” that has had this many twists and turns. Did Alec or Bill give you any heads-up about where the season was going?
Henry Winkler: No. Halfway through, Bill told me what was going to happen. But then I was sworn to secrecy, I couldn’t even tell my wife. So now, I rather I didn’t know this secret. But I knew where it was going. But Bill is so specific and he directed all eight episodes this year. And he’s so clear about his vision that you can’t really plan that far ahead. I would rehearse at night. I would memorize. I would know my lines. I would go in the next day. And if I thought I was in LA, Bill took me to Peru because I had no idea that that was even in the script.
So without giving anything away, there is a scene this season where Gene puts on a performance as multiple characters to tell a story to someone. Is that an example of where you showed up that day on set, not 100% knowing how Bill wanted to execute that?
Without a doubt. Without a doubt. Because there was much more to the story. And I worked out the script. I worked out the voices. Jim Moss was in there. When I was at Emerson College, there was a professor, Professor Kenneth Crannell, he taught that form. He did the entire “King and I” just no costume, no makeup, no nothing. Just this character, that character, change the voice a little bit, change the voice a little bit. It was mesmerizing. So what I learned in 1968, I applied to 2023.
We’ve always known that Gene is super narcissistic and definitely self-obsessed. But for the first time, and maybe I should have realized this previously, is he delusional?
I don’t think so. I don’t think so. And you know what the scene was? The scene at Joe Mantegna’s house at dinner and I’m talking to my old flame. Right? He doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying: being hurtful, revelations of dating, I had a child with her best friend. Crazy. He’s crazy.
But throughout most of the show, he, unlike many of the other characters, has never done anything that’s truly out of bounds.
I played him as a person who wanted to be a good person. He never quite got there. He thought he was really helping these young people. He thought he was really giving them a foundation. Now, in a way, he did. But mostly, he was delusional.
Is it a given that you run into people either in New York, LA, or wherever, who say they had an acting teacher like Gene?
Absolutely. And he is a conglomeration of my 14 teachers, my imagination. And Alex’s wife went to a teacher in Hollywood, took notes when she was younger, and those notes were the foundation of Gene Cousineau.
There is a scene this season where a number of young kids in an acting class are upset by the techniques their teacher is using. Techniques the instructor learned from Gene.
Yes.
Do you feel that some of the things that were taught in acting classes decades ago did cross the line? Are they not acceptable today?
Well, I don’t know if they’re not acceptable because what I was told is they did it in order to break bad habits. Only break bad habits by getting somebody’s full attention.
Yeah, yeah.
But I don’t know that that’s true. I have done seven classes, three at Emerson, one at Northwestern, two for Vulture, and one at SXSW. And I made sure the actors tasted something different than when they rehearsed it, and I was kind.
Is that the most important thing? That people just aren’t kind enough in this business maybe?
I think in our country, for sure. I think that being kind, being thoughtful is much more effective.
Is there one memory that you will always take with you from the show?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure I have an answer for that question.
That’s OK. But I’m assuming this has been a rewarding experience?
That, I can tell you without a doubt it is a gift in my life, a gift I will miss desperately. I will miss those people. I will miss that crew that took care of us within an inch of their life. I’m going to have breakfast with Bill as often as I can. You know D’Arcy Carden?
Of course.
She bought a new house. Her husband went to New York for work. She was scared. [My wife] Stacy and I said, “Come with us.” She got her toothbrush and her pajamas and came over and stayed over.
That’s fantastic. Henry, sincere congratulations on this show. Your performance has been utterly incredible.
Thank you so much. Let me just say that in October, my 38th children’s novel comes out with Lin Oliver, and it’s called “Detective Duck.” It’s about a little duckling who wants to be a detective.
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Props to Winkler for always being on the lookout for a new gig.
“Barry” returns to HBO on Sunday, April 16

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