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In “Barry” Sarah Goldberg learned to love television

LONDON — Over two and a half seasons of “Barry,” Sally Reed, the rising star played by Sarah Goldberg, has become one of television’s most complex characters, evoking both sympathy for her Hollywood struggles and disdain for her excessive self-absorption.

In Sunday’s episode, that empathy whiplash came into its own. Overwhelmed with emotion on stage at the premiere of her new show, “Joplin,” Sally is a picture of hard-won triumph. But her treatment of others before that moment — she admonishes her friend-turned-assistant Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) for speaking in a meeting, demands that her carrots be cut that way, and refuses, Natalie taking her to the premiere shows how success has strengthened some of Sally’s worst tendencies.

“We saw her being bullied, and now she has a little piece of power,” Goldberg said in a recent interview. “I’m so endlessly curious about what people with power do.”

We also saw Sally shake up the show and end a toxic relationship with Barry, the assassin protagonist, played by Bill Hader. This subplot was also delicately layered, with Sally’s initial resentment giving way to defiance in a way that perhaps reflects her past experiences in an abusive marriage discussed in previous episodes.

The showrunners say it was Goldberg himself who transformed Sally, who was originally conceived as a more straightforward love interest, into a persona of such complexity.

“When we wrote it, you saw it a hundred times,” said Hader, who created “Barry” with Alec Berg. “As Sarah read, our view of the character changed in very positive ways, like, yeah, that’s supposed to be more of a complicated person.”

The role has earned Goldberg, 36, an Emmy nomination, as well as more informal tributes that speak to Sally’s mix of heartbreaking and annoying qualities. (Refinery29 once dubbed her “TV’s least likeable woman.”) But in conversation, Goldberg’s affinity for her character is clear.

“I feel for Sally; I’ve met a million Sallys,” she said. “I think she had a tough life and a big dream.” Which doesn’t mean she approves of Sally’s chasing after that dream.

“Her tunnel vision is so extreme that she doesn’t take in anything around her,” Goldberg said. “And when you come into this room, well, what do you bring to your work?”

It’s an unSally-like way of thinking about acting that explains why Canadian Goldberg left New York for London during the uncertain days of summer 2020. She loves London partly because of the sense of perspective it gives her.

“The acting is treated in a much more functional way here, a little bit like a plumber,” she said. “I know I’m not saving lives and I think London is helping you keep that in check.”

Sitting in an eccentrically decorated Georgian townhouse hotel near the city center last month, Goldberg was warm and engaged in conversation. Her accent often slipped into a slight British inflection common among North American expats, and her speech was peppered with Britishisms. (She referred to television as “television” more than once).

Moving here was a kind of homecoming; Goldberg spent most of her 20s in London. “I’m a London girl again,” she said, “and I’m here to stay.”

Goldberg, who was born in Vancouver, discovered acting at a young age and was motivated by a beloved high school acting teacher to apply to a drama school. A self-proclaimed “precocious” teenager, she only applied to Juilliard and the National Theater School of Canada. After being rejected by both, she spent a year backpacking around Europe. Her first stop was London, where she had an “epiphany” in front of the British Museum.

“I just thought I have to live here,” she said. “Something has overwhelmed me”

Shortly after returning home, she made it possible. She auditioned in Seattle for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Britain’s oldest drama school, and was accepted – she spent the next three years there, studying everything from Chekhov to flamenco. (LAMDA alumni include Benedict Cumberbatch and David Oyelowo.)

After graduating, she had what she called “few happy moments” in the London theater world, including an Olivier nomination for her performance in Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park at the Royal Court Theatre. She also found work in New York, reprising her role in the Tony-winning Broadway version of Norris’ play and starring opposite a young Adam Driver in an off-Broadway production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

Though Goldberg’s heart has always been in theater, in her late twenties it became clear that film acting was a necessity to make a living — and, perversely, to land more theater roles. The transition, she found, was not easy.

“I always felt like I didn’t understand the media of film and television,” she said. “I was always very nervous in front of the camera. It took me a long time to learn how to work with this machine in such close proximity.”

After a few small roles in movies and series, Goldberg landed her first big TV job on Hindsight, a 2015 VH1 time-travel comedy.

“It was my first time in front of the camera, every day, five days a week, 17 hours a day,” she said. “It was a really great training ground where you’re too tired to be nervous.”

Hindsight didn’t last long — after the production was originally picked for a second season, it was bought out by the network and the show was canceled. But the money Goldberg, then approaching 30, received from the acquisition paved the way for two firsts in her life: a savings account and the power to refuse bad parts.

“It was really liberating to say no to a series of poorly written pilots where the female characters are there to ask questions and make explanations,” she said. Then came “Barry”.

“I read the script and it was just so unusual; the tone was so original,” she said. Goldberg thought Sally had a hidden depth. “They kind of put her in the typical girlfriend role as a Trojan horse, seemingly cute as pie, small town girl, perfect teeth,” she said. “We undercut it very quickly with their true colors, which are much more complex and morally bankrupt.”

The creators credit Goldberg with upping the role, in part because they’re not afraid to be off-putting. “Sarah always pushed us to make the character real and complicated,” Berg said. “Even if it makes her less ‘likable,’ whatever that even means.”

Hader described Goldberg as an agile and creative performer who has become a valued collaborator — when he’s writing episodes, he occasionally calls her to hear what she thinks about his plans for Sally.

“I trust her instincts,” he said. “She’s a very good writer, so people who have that want to bring that in.”

Henry Winkler, who plays drama teacher Gene Cousineau, also praised Goldberg’s wide-ranging creativity. “Sarah is the real deal,” he said in a video call.

“She’s an improviser, she’s a writer,” he added. “She thinks in detail, like a stage actor, about how to put this person’s puzzle together.”

Goldberg’s next project will see her harnessing those skills and instincts into something of her own, a dark comedy series called SisterS, which she worked on for six years alongside her best friend and former LAMDA classmate, Irish actress Susan Stanley , wrote. Filming is slated to begin this summer.

Goldberg’s initial reservations about television have given way to a genuine appreciation for the medium. “The camera’s ability to be up close and personal means you have access to vulnerability and performance that are difficult to capture in a large theater,” she said. If that makes it easier to embody a woman just as adept at mesmerizing and infuriating viewers, sometimes in the same scene, so much the better.

“I hope that with Sally there are moments where we cheer for her and there are moments where we are repelled by her,” Goldberg said. “Because that’s the gray area of ​​life.”

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