Henry Winkler on His Early Years and Playing an Acting Teacher on ‘Barry’

"Acting is relaxation, concentration, and listening." - Henry Winkler

Actor Henry Winkler in Barry

“Acting is relaxation, concentration, and listening.” – Henry Winkler

In the HBO TV series Barry, the titular Barry (Bill Hader) is a hitman who decides to make a career change and become an actor. Of course, to become an actor one often enrolls in acting classes, which brings Barry to acting teacher Gene Cousineau, played by iconic Happy Days star Henry Winkler. Speaking about his role on the series with Gothamist, Winkler reveals what he enjoys about playing an acting teacher and what he has learned from both good and bad acting teachers in his past.

While Winkler is forever grateful for the opportunity to play a character with the pop culture love of the Fonz, the role didn’t fulfill him as an actor in the same way he feels with the roles he plays now He explains, “I’ll tell you what my terror was: knowing who I wanted to be as an actor. Knowing what I wanted to achieve as an actor and knowing deep down, really knowing deep down, I wasn’t there. So I’m 27, I get the Fonz, I enjoy it. I love it. I love him, but I know what I want and I can’t quite achieve it. I am now 72. I flipped the numbers and I am closer to where I wanted to be at 27. Some people, it just comes to them. Ryan Gosling can do it at however old he is and for however long he’s been doing it. It took me quite a journey to get better. That was my terror. Does that make sense?”

Playing an acting coach on Barry allows Winkler to draw on some of the best and worst aspects of the acting education industry that he’s learned of over the decades. He says, “Some of it is, believe it or not, some of it is the way I would be as an acting teacher myself. Some of it is watching other acting teachers, having them, hearing about them, researching them online, listening to the stories. I mean there are acting teachers who use these poor children… My kids they’re young adults, but they’re working really hard at whatever they’re doing, being a barista, whatever it is. And this one acting teacher forced them to buy his artwork. With what?”

As such, Winkler has had both extremely positive and terribly negative experiences with acting teachers. He recalls, “I had one woman in drama school who called me up in front of the class and she said, ‘You’re trying to undermine my class.’ I said, ‘Madam, I don’t even have a point of view on who I am. How am I undermining your class? I’m flopping out here in the breeze like spring wheat. What the hell are you talking about?’ And then I had Bobby Lewis who was one of the founding members of The Group Theatre in the ’30s, who just was walking talking teacher. A real teacher. What he taught me was invaluable. Also Stella Adler. The size of these people. The knowledge of these people having had done it in every shape and form.”

But of all he has learned about acting, he points to one piece of advice as the most valuable: “Acting is relaxation, concentration, and listening. That was Bobby Lewis.”

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