“Barry” star Sarah Goldberg loves playing her unlikable role: “Make her a monster. I’m all for it”

Getting a TV show made can be a notoriously cutthroat affair. Ask anyone in the business. Better yet, tune in to the third season of “Barry,” where Sarah Goldberg’s determined actor Sally Reed has finally realized the goal she’s been working toward since she first landed in Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) acting class: She’s created and stars in a TV drama based on her life called “Joplin.”

Realizing a lifelong dream should, in theory, make a person more gracious. But Sally is still the same self-involved spotlight hunter that Bill Hader’s assassin Barry met in the first season, when he’s immediately struck by her talent for making fake emotions seem real. Now that he needs her, she’s less present than ever, to the point of staging their public demonstrations of affection.

The people Sally works with have it worse, since she uses the power she’s given to softly berate and belittle her support system. Sally is, in a word, horrid. But the worse Sally gets, the more the Emmy-nominated Goldberg enjoys playing her. Goldberg comes across as the absolute opposite of the character she plays; she’s as mindful about what her character could have been in the hands of less skilled writers as she is of what the typical viewer might have expected Sally to be.

But “Barry” is a show about “morally corrupt people making bad decisions,” the actor reminds me in our thought-provoking “Salon Talks” episode. Why should Sally play nice when nearly every other major character is a contract killer, a cartel boss or, in Gene’s case unbearable enough to be blackballed by producers and fellow actors?

“I was really adamant about Sally not falling prey to the likability barometer and not becoming any kind of moral litmus test for this show, just as the only female character,” she said. Now that she’s running her own TV show, getting that kind of power after years of being without it brings out behavior in Sally that Goldberg characterizes as its own type of violence.

Find out what Goldberg means by that, along with other aspects of Sally’s third season mission, in this excerpt from our full “Salon Talks” conversation.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

RELATED: “Barry” returns three years later and is funnier and darker than ever

“Barry” is entering its third season, and Sally has evolved so much since the first time we met her. Before we go into the intricacies of the third season – without giving anything, away of course — I just wanted to look back at a couple of things from Season 1, from the perspective of where Sally is now. And specifically there’s this idea, and I saw it in a couple of headlines, that she was referred to as dislikable. There was one that referred to her as “wretchedly self-absorbed.” I just wonder from your perspective as Sarah, what was that like for you, knowing what the character was and knowing where the character was going?

“if you want to call her unlikable, let’s make her a monster. I’m all for it. “

I was thrilled with that response, because we were never setting out to write her as a likable character. . . . I found it fascinating invariably that we have a show here about people who kill people, and we don’t seem to have any issue watching men shoot each other, but a woman who’s a little bit self-involved is wretched.

That was a good mirror-to-society moment that I found fascinating. . . . I feel like Sally, Season 2 and now going into Season 3, we do get to see a lot of what makes her tick and why she behaves the way that she behaves. And I find the psychology of it really fascinating. She’s someone who’s bullied, but then when she’s in a position of power, what does she do with the power? Does she become a generous leader or does she bully herself? And sadly it’s the latter.

So it’s fun stuff to play. I felt like if you want to call her unlikable, let’s make her a monster. I’m all for it. . . . She’s as violent as the others, in a different way.

It’s interesting to hear you call it violent in a way, that she’s her own kind of violent, but I’m also wondering if that context of knowing that Sally has lived in trauma and is dealing with it, adds a different element to how she reacts when she has power.

Definitely. And I think that what’s really interesting about it is Sally has had a traumatic past and she has not had the financial means to get any therapy. And she hasn’t had the proximity to the help that she actually needs. Instead she goes to Gene Cousineau, who’s not a licensed therapist, to explore her trauma in front of a room full of also self-involved acting students. And so it’s a dangerous cocktail and what she thinks she’s working through, she’s not necessarily working through it.

What becomes interesting this season . . . is, what do you do when that trauma actually becomes commodified in some way? She is using her trauma as a currency at this point. And what do you lose and what do you gain from that? And is there any real catharsis in that space or are you just entering the corporate world with no armor?

. . . What we do in this season with the world that she’s working in, it’s a very female space and we’re playing with the hierarchy within that ecosystem.

And we didn’t want to make it one-dimensional. We wanted to show this ecosystem where Sally is working with her boss, and when she’s in that space, she doesn’t have the status. . . . Then quickly we flip it and she’s with her longtime friend, Natalie, who D’Arcy Carden plays, who she feels she’s elevated into a job. But she orders her around and immediately becomes the bully. So without any awareness . . . cruelty just oozes out of her. So we were interested in showing all of that workspace violence, I suppose, as well.

This is the first season where that corporate hierarchy – in this case, at a TV network – is introduced. And we actually get to see how the industry looks at Gene, which seeing that trickle down where there’s this idea that Gene Cousineau is genius, and teaching everybody how to method act. Then watching that trickle down from the outside world gives us a new understanding of this paradigm that has absorbed both Barry and Sally, which is so interesting.

Yeah. And who we are to different people. Who are we kind to, and who are we cruel to, and who are you in one scenario? No, speaking of corporate structure, I really tried to steal from Matthew Macfadyen’s brilliant performance as Tom on “Succession” this season, because that’s the perfect example of somebody who when they’re in the vulnerable position, you really feel for them. And then just one whiff of that power, and they become the bully and behave in the way in which they have been so far done by before. So that is something with all of these characters that is interesting to play. Who Barry is with Sally is not who Barry is with Fuches, and we all wear a lot of masks.

I wanted to go back to something that you said about the commodification of trauma. One of the commentaries within this season is that there’s another show that’s similar to Sally’s show “Joplin.” What exactly are the writers and you, what are you trying to tell us about this whole idea that these traumatic stories sell?

“I don’t think art is a place for therapy, but I do think that art is a place for expression of what you might have been through in your life. “

Well, I think with all art, what are we looking for? We want to connect or we want to be entertained. And ultimately, I think people putting their trauma into their art is important. It’s how we heal or how we find each other or how we relate. But at the same time, we live in a fast world and where the bottom line tends to win, particularly in a corporate structure that is some of the TV world, not all of it. And I think that the show is trying to put a lens on that. I think Sally’s really trying to do something and she’s being met with someone who’s not getting it. And I think the other show, we’re showing how you can truncate something, how you can give something a . . .  sexy poster and attract an audience to something and not actually dive into something that deserves more nuance and attention.

I don’t think art is a place for therapy, but I do think that art is a place for expression of what you might have been through in your life. And that’s what we’re all trying to do, we’re trying to tell stories that people can find themselves and feel a little better about something in their life. So Sally is trying to do that. She’s just not necessarily the right person for the job because she’s not so healthy herself. And I think she hasn’t fully formed where she’s at, with everything she’s been through, and then introducing it to a corporate world is dangerous.

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I want to go back to one more aspect about the first season that I really think informs going into this season. I believe the first thing that we see Gene Cousineau ask Sally is, “What do you want?” And I’m wondering if in this new season, she truly has the answer to that question.

That is a great question. And I think the truth is that Sally thinks she knows what she wants, but she doesn’t really know what she wants. . . . Acting is a funny profession because there’s a lot of highs and lows. . . . And the resilience that you have to build to navigate that kind of life takes a lot. And there’s such a luck element to be an actor that you can work so hard, but you’ve got to be met by that luck. And Sally has been working so hard for something for so long, and then she is met with some luck and she’s standing on top of the mountain.

I think the view isn’t what she thought. And I think there’s a really dangerous thing that happens to actors where you can easily compare yourself or it’s just that next job. And it’s the thing around the corner. And that’s just bottomless. I mean, that could be your entire career. And I feel like you’ve got to enjoy what you’ve got when you’ve got it.

On “Barry,” we have great scripts, a great cast. There’s not a day that I’m not delighted to be there. And Sally hasn’t got that. She got where she thought she wanted, but the goal post immediately shifts and . . . she’s not fulfilled by it.

Long answer to your question, I feel like she doesn’t know what she wants. She hasn’t even begun to figure that part of life out yet. And I think it’s dangerous to get success before that.

I was thinking about what you just said, and a particular scene came to mind . . . that’s an example of how there seems to be this switch in every season, and we see it more prevalent with each season, between that comedy and that other darkness, by nature of what we’re seeing. Just like you said, at the beginning, these are a lot of people who do violence to other people and to each other. And so I’m wondering where you see that balance is, with this third season. People who have seen the second season know that Barry is consistently unraveling, while Sally is seeming to get it more together. But as we know, we discussed, that’s acting.

So I’m wondering . . . how do you see that balance in the third season between that complete darkness and comedy?

I think that the comedy in the show we’ve always tried to pull from the darkness, and there’s actually a lot of macabre humor in the darkest moments. One of my favorite moments in cinema is in “Manchester by the Sea” when . . . I don’t want to expose if no one’s seen it, but there is a scene where a bed is being pushed into an ambulance. And it’s a really incredibly dark emotional moment in the movie and it’s devastating, and . . . then the ambulance drivers go to lift the wheeled bed into the ambulance and they can’t get it in and they keep jamming the wrong way. And it’s suddenly this really macabre humor. And I read an interview with Kenneth Lonergan and he said it was an accident and they ended up keeping it in the movie.

I find it to just be one of the most beautiful examples of the clumsiness of humans even in our darkest hour. And I think the humor that comes out of “Barry” is this kind of clumsy real-life, real-time situations while the stakes around these characters happen to be very, very high. And then within that, you just have a tiny, very human exchange or human moment.

We see that again and again in “Barry.” And I think it’s a kind of comedy that works very well. I think that we push the darkness in the show. We haven’t shied away from these characters becoming more and more complex. And we’re enjoying that process, but we try to get a few laughs in there as well. We’ll see. It gets heavy.

“Barry” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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