"Hiiii!" exclaims the pretty young hostess, her eyes beaming with recognition as Bill Hader walks through the door of Manhattan's Cafe Luxembourg. It's a muggy Sunday in July, smack-dab in the middle of brunch, and Hader doesn't have a reservation. Still, within a minute we're being ushered into a booth, not just because he's Bill Hader, but also because, he explains, he was once a regular here.
Before he wrapped his eight-season, Emmy-nominated run on Saturday Night Live last year and moved to L.A., Hader and SNL writer John Mulaney would come to the bistro to write sketches for Hader's most popular alter ego, Stefon. A tweaked-out "city correspondent"-slash-scene queen, Stefon would horrify Seth Meyers on "Weekend Update" with his recommendations for hot spots like Gush, a nightclub that had, as Stefon emphatically declared, everything: "geeks, sherpas, a Jamaican nurse wearing a shower cap, room after room of broken mirrors...a fat kid on a Slip 'N Slide."
The idea for Stefon originated from an actual invite Mulaney received for a trendy NYC club. "The email did say, 'This place has everything,' " says Hader, dressed in a faded blue Strand bookstore T-shirt. "And one of those things was a room full of broken glass." The character was also inspired by a barista who used to serve Hader at a coffee shop in Chelsea, his former neighborhood. "His attitude was really funny," Hader recalls. "I'd be like, 'So how's it going?' and he'd be very suspicious. Maybe he thought I was hitting on him or being patronizing."
Hader's latest role sees him portraying another gay character, though one of a decidedly different stripe. In queer filmmaker Craig Johnson's new indie dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, he plays Milo, a failed actor who waits tables at a "shitty tourist restaurant in Hollywood." After he tries to kill himself, his estranged sister, Maggie (fellow SNL alum Kristen Wiig), pays him a visit in the hospital and persuades him to return to their small hometown in upstate New York to live with her and her husband (Luke Wilson). The siblings soon discover that one is just as unfulfilled, self-destructive, and ready to end it as the other.
There's hardly a trace of Hader's fidgety, cartoonish Stefon in Milo. In many of the film's scenes, the actor sits with his shoulders slumped, his heavy-lidded eyes glazed with defeat. His humor is rarely goofy, but rather bone-dry and caustic (Milo's suicide note: "To whom it may concern: See ya later").
"We had the first screening at Sundance, and at the Q&A afterward someone asked, 'What would Stefon think of Milo?' " Hader remembers. "And we heard this collective groan from the audience, which I thought was nice. Like, Come on, man. The only thing Stefon and Milo have in common is that they're gay."
The Skeleton Twins marks Hader's first crack at serious acting. He signed on to the project back in 2010, but his patience through its financial setbacks and scheduling conflicts paid off: His performance was met with raves at Sundance, where the movie took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. "I'd never really done that kind of work before -- just being vulnerable and realizing I may fall on my face," he says. "The difference with comedy is that you immediately know if it works -- you get laughs or not."
Yet this sort of risk-taking is exactly what Hader is after these days. He says he chose to depart SNL before he got too comfortable ("You don't want to leave when people know all your moves and are a step ahead of you"), and though his next major role is the lead opposite Amy Schumer in the upcoming Judd Apatow rom-com Trainwreck, he's "not the funny guy in the movie."
He'll never shake his associations with his famous, German Smurf-fetishizing club kid, but if his turn in The Skeleton Twins is any indication, Hader is quickly molding himself into a charmingly multifaceted entertainer. "People say, 'Take the fucking reins. Why aren't you doing a Stefon movie?' " he says. "But people know I can do that thing. If you walk in thinking you know what you're doing, you're fucking toast. I want to do something different. And who knows what the next thing will be?"
Hader recently found himself back in his old Chelsea stomping grounds and decided to pay his favorite barista a visit. "The minute I walked in, the cashier was like, 'He doesn't work here anymore!' " Hader chuckles. "Isn't that weird? Now he works in, like, fashion or something." Like Hader, he's moved on.