For Emmy voters there probably isn’t a more relatable character on TV than Sarah Goldberg’s Sally. At the beginning of Barry, we’re first introduced to Sally as an aspiring actor in an LA-based acting class. In the critically acclaimed second season, Sally goes through an unrelenting roller coaster of a career journey meeting with agents and producers, auditioning for major roles, and putting on one of the most creatively challenging projects to date – all while processing her trauma from a past abusive marriage. She’s been through a lot, and she’s not going to let any of that get in the way of achieving her dreams, especially as she utilizes some of her most selfish qualities to get there.
For her performance as Sally, Sarah Goldberg was nominated for her first Emmy this year in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category. Sarah spoke candidly with ADTV on the polarizing online reactions to Sally, something she attributes to misogyny and a “repulsion of the familiarity.” The fact that some fans are scared of the similar qualities they see in themselves. She also spoke on the genre-defying tone of the show, that intense confrontation scene in the hotel, and what it was like finding out she was nominated for her first Emmy while sun-stroked on the islands of Greece.
Going back to Emmy nomination morning, what was your reaction to being nominated?
It wasn’t actually Emmy morning for me because I was on this tiny island in Greece and didn’t find out the news until very late in the day. I was incredibly sun-stroked and slightly delirious from being on this funny little tourist boat all day. I didn’t have great reception and got a kind of cryptic message from my manager. I didn’t even realize they were being announced that day but my boyfriend did and he checked but googled last year’s nominations by mistake. We were excited for Bill, Henry, and the show to be nominated again and went on with our day and went out to dinner. Then, later on, I stumbled into a patch of reception and my phone started buzzing nonstop. I thought it was a bit weird until my sister called me, and I asked, “Am I nominated for an Emmy?” From there I had to recalibrate and we began celebrating immediately.
I was so delighted to see that our entire cast of series regulars was nominated. The Barry text chain started coming through, and we were all celebrating. It was lovely seeing all of those nominations and I was especially delighted to see our stunt coordinator nominated. Wade Allen is so talented and he is such a wonderful human. He really takes care of us. It was thrilling to see so many of us nominated and it felt like the cherry on an already large cake.
One of the most innovative aspects of Barry is the way that the show effortlessly switches between comedy and drama and tonally there is nothing else like it on TV. What was it like as an actor to pin down such a unique tone?
It is a very tricky tone to find. It walks a fine tightrope between comedy and drama and satire and reality. It all begins in the script and our writers write in this way that is so specific and as actors we try to meet them there. We also have these brilliant editors who keep us in check. You can’t really consciously try to play with tone and all you can do is try your best to get under the skin of the character. We’ve worked really hard to find that balance as a group. You can feel it on set sometimes when a joke goes a bit too far or a serious moment tries to become too emotional. We’re all kind of there couching each other a bit and finding the collective hymn sheet.
I knew it was something different and special from the moment I read the pilot script even before my audition, before I was lucky enough to have the part. What was interesting about our process was that for two years we were almost like this little traveling troupe of circus performers doing regional theatre in Pasadena. So in a way, it felt like this private little play that we nurtured. I don’t think any of us could have predicted what was to follow. I was slightly nervous because the pilot had been written pre-Trump and since then the world had changed so much. I wondered about the appetite for this kind of dark comedy in the climate we’re living in. It was a bit niche and all we could do was hope for the best. There was no way we could have anticipated what was to come and the trajectory the show has had.
Speaking of reactions to the show I always find it interesting to read how audiences react to Sally. Barry is filled with organized crime and murder but somehow this woman chasing her dream is the character that elicits such vitriol. Why do you think that is?
Well, besides just your average everyday misogyny, I would say that she is the character that in a really funny way is the most relatable. I think that’s why people have such a strong allergy to her. Sally is a dialed-up version of a lot of negative qualities that we all have in us somewhere. I think the repulsion is the familiarity; like the girl your office that you don’t like or even qualities in yourself that you find a bit repulsive.
When we started out we were expecting this response. I was proud of all of us that we didn’t shy away from showing this really complex person and not dialing her off on the likability scale and falling into that trap. Personally, I don’t want to see that sweet girl next door, and I don’t want to play that either. I want to play somebody with darkness and complexities and the writers have really nailed that. She’s not a bad person it’s just that, unfortunately, life has thrown her in a direction where the worst sides of herself are the most prevalent. I also say that about all the characters in the show.
Yeah I mean it’s hilarious. The guys on the show kill people and Sally is a little bit ambitious and narcissistic and somehow she’s the focus. I’m not privy to a lot of what goes on in the shit storm that is the internet because I’m not on social media. So those reactions are really none of my business. I feel that if I fleshed her out enough that people are that mad then I’ve done my job.
I care about her. I have a lot of empathy for Sally. I think she’s really lost and she’s been through some real trauma. She’s looking up all the wrong mountains but she is trying. It does constantly surprise me to hear that that’s the response although it also doesn’t. We’ve always had an allergy to female characters. I think about The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and all those amazing female characters. So if I have to add value to the chorus then I feel like I’m in great company.
I remember reading an interview where you recalled something you said Bill and Alec while they were writing Sally. “I don’t care if you like her. You just have to know her.” That really stuck out to me because as someone who has lived and worked in LA for a couple years I feel like I know her well and experience her on a daily basis. What were your inspirations for her?
I appreciate you saying that. I really appreciate that a lot. She was an amalgamation of various people I’ve met over the years; a girl in a method acting class I took as a teenager, a girl I met in a bar in LA, someone I knew in drama school, and actually a lot of the men I’ve met in this business who are insecure and narcissistic. I sprinkled in a layer of those men, it wasn’t just the women. I wasn’t thinking of one specific person because in the pilot script what they had written for Sally was just rhythmically there. I read it out loud and immediately knew that girl. So I had a really good starting point with what they had written in that amazing pilot. From there we’ve taken her in directions we maybe weren’t in the beginning and I am so grateful that everyone is continuing to fight the good fight to keep her in the gray area.
I’m glad you say that you know her because that is what was important to me and I said it again and again. I think there were some early press screenings where there were some really negative responses to her saying she wasn’t likable. So I said to Bill “please, please don’t dilute her. You don’t have to like her, you just have to know her.” I’m delighted that they didn’t fall into that trap because the show would have been so lopsided. If you think about all of the series regulars, everyone is living in that same duality. All of those incredible actors in the acting class like D’Arcy Carden, Rightor Doyle, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Darrell Britt-Gibson they write all of their acting class stories in the second season as well.
Obviously, a lot has to be cut for time but if you pay attention to the stories they tell in their showcase everybody is living a lie. Every one of them has this duality where there is a person that they are pretending to be for survival and there is a person they are underneath. What’s fun about season two is the way we’re able to chip away at those veneers and get to the core of everyone and why they behave the way they are. No one is born an asshole. It takes a few experiences to get there! I there’s been a clever path drawn out for all of the characters thanks to our writers and I’m glad they continue to push Sally into darker territory.
Speaking of darker territory, Sally has been put through a lot these past two seasons in terms of depicting what women go through in this industry. In the beginning I was a little apprehensive about the path the writers were taking her because when shows have explored these themes in the past it’s felt like a gross trope to make a character more likable. However, as the story progressed it was proven to be this interesting, deeply layered, and thoughtfully fleshed out arc. What do you think made this storyline so successful and not fall victim to some of those gross tropes?
I think conversation. We were all in constant conversation and very vigilant about being tentative about the times we were living in. The Kavanaugh trials were playing out as we were shooting the second season and we were all glued to the news. We were all sensitive to what was going on around us. But we were also adamant about making it clear that Sally is not every woman; she is A woman and we needed to be true to her story. There’s that line in the monologue in episode seven where she says “this is my story.” That was a product of frustration of being the only female series regular on the show. We were often asking ourselves what we were saying about women and the onus of that is far too big for one character. It’s unfair that in this sexist world that we live in we have to continue to ask that question. In a meta way we were able to air some of that frustration.
Bill and Alec are both incredibly collaborative and we’ve got great female writers, great female directors, and everything was in constant conversation. There was a foundation to her story that was based in truth from all of our research and then there were elements that came from conversations in terms of how she would act in a particular scenario. Things were changed a lot as we went. Everyone was contributing ideas as to how this would actually unfold like when her ex-husband returning for example. In the initial draft, Sally was very defiant. I felt that wasn’t very realistic because she wouldn’t have the strength. So I said that to the guys and they re-drafted it and it was turned into this tap dance where she is floundering which felt much more authentic. We all understood the complexity of what we were trying to say within a half-hour comedy where there is so much story to get through. Bill kept saying “as long as we stay true to her we’ll be fine” and I felt the same way.
There was also this understanding as well that at the heart of what she’s going through in terms of trauma is shame. It’s not necessarily the abuse and isolation that has caused her this trauma; it’s the shame that she actually loved him and wanted to stay. I think that was the foundation that we started with that felt very true. Everything that I had read online from survivor’s stories it was something that came up again and again and again. We started from there and that authenticity and because of that we had a good foundation and from there it was then a lot easier to build the ladder.
The second season has seen plenty of tense moments from violent gunfights to a shootout in a church to a school bus on fire. However, I don’t think there was anything more intense and heart-pounding to watch than the hotel room sequence between Sally and her ex-husband. What was that like to prepare for?
Liza Johnson directed that episode and she’s absolutely brilliant. I was so glad we had a woman directing that episode. Liza and I had a lot of discussions in preparation for that big scene. In terms of the script I had a launchpad with the speech backstage where Sally was crying to Barry about what really happened. That was my way in throughout the episode on how to navigate what to do when this man comes back suddenly into your life. To a point I felt like I had to just be present and in the moment because there’s no way to totally prepare for how a scene like that will go. We had that location for a short period of time so there were so many unknowns when you get to work. But Liza had short-listed it so brilliantly.
Joe Massingill who played my ex-husband was so prepared, so well cast, and he’s just a real actors’ actor in terms of being present. As a group we mapped it out together and rehearsed it. That’s the beautiful thing about Barry is that we rehearse every little thing. Physical comedy and prop acting are not my forte so I was really anxious about not giving it away in my face that the gun was behind my head and Bill was right there. We had to get a few takes because I kept cracking up worrying that I was failing miserably and hamming it up. We worked it out like geometry because there is only so much space. It all worked because Liza cleverly set up the shot with our DP Paula Huidobro, our matriarchs of Barry, they really sold it.
I’m so glad that you say that it works because it was honestly something I was worried about. I’m not generally someone who needs more takes but I was constantly asking if we had gotten it. It was an incredibly intense and heavy scene but it was also fun to shoot. I really wanted to play the guileless quality of Sally. In some ways the part of Sally that I care about the most is the way you see her regress in front of him and become the caretaker in that moment, the way she cares about his father, and the way he ropes her in. You can see the naivety and her 27-year-old self comes out. I really wanted to be able to portray that and if we could see that 17-year-old girl who got into this horrific situation then maybe people can start to understand her other behavior as well.
It was tricky to figure all of that out. It was a curve for Sally as a character and for the show as a whole. Earlier we were talking about tone and this all of this was a slightly new tone for the show. Later in the season I felt like we had to do a bit of dancing between these two sides. A vulnerable Sally that has been through trauma who is trying to work through it and become a more honest person and a better artist. Then there was this yo-yo act between that Sally and the one who is still very present, who is narcissistic and self-involved, who can’t listen to other people. So as the season progressed it was fun to do that double act.
One of the questions that is constantly brought up among my friend group is the kind of cringe-worthy accuracy in the way that Barry depicts LA life, especially the acting class scenes. Is there anything that immediately stuck out to you or hit a little too close to home?
It’s funny because I went to school in the UK, so I had this completely opposite upbringing where they want you to learn your Scottish accent and proactive tap-dancing but they don’t want to hear about your childhood. There’s a scene in the first season when Cousineau walks in and the whole class stands up and applauds. I remember telling Bill that I felt it was too over the top, and he had to reassure me that this was something that definitely happens in an LA acting class. I was truly stunned. I was in a method class as a teen, and I do remember it being like competitive grief. I felt like every week somebody came in and talked about their dead dog which immediately had to be upped the following week by somebody’s dead dad.
For me the moment that immediately jumps out is everyone’s frustrations with Barry stumbling into a major audition.
That moment feels very real. I’ve definitely had experiences where there’s a young handsome boy who crosses the street and becomes a movie star. You hear those stories all the time. So Sally’s frustrations were very real because she’s someone who has literally been killing herself by working so hard to achieve her dream and then somebody can just jump the queue. But nobody said life was fair. People always say that it’s 50% talent and 50% luck, but I really think that ratio is off. It’s probably 80% luck. I have so many talented friends who can’t get arrested. There’s no equation so I feel very lucky.
The last time we see Sally this season is in the lobby as she is processing the reaction to her showcase performance. How do you think that will change Sally in the future?
What I’m curious to see is what happens to someone when they actually get the thing they want when the cost is too high. I want to see where she sits in the balance of the compromise she had to make with herself in order to achieve the things she has been so hungry for. I would be curious to explore that because I’ve seen it with so many actors. There’s a certain level of success that people crave but once it comes their way it’s not what they thought and maybe they achieved that success by compromising something they really didn’t want to. The challenge is arriving at the top of some hill and looking down and going “shit” and then falling down the other side. I want to see where that goes and what that might do to her and her mental health.