In Barry on HBO, actor Paula Newsome portrays Detective Janice Moss, the thorough fly in midwestern hitman Barry Berkman’s ointment.
The talented thespian’s steely and secretly sultry detective has galvanized Barry’s narcissistic acting coach Gene Cousineau, played marvelously by Henry Winkler, to become a besotted suitor.
HBO’s wonderful dramedy is all about the extenuating circumstances. Newsome as the detective is the only one who feels like an unaffected adult not clamoring for a “big break” or any sort of front-of-camera fame, she’s just doing her job.
During an awkward one-week anniversary breakfast scene in Episode 6, Newsome’s Moss emotionally pulls back from Gene who says: “We are breathing rarified air and you know it. If we ran away from this because you were scared, wouldn’t this be oh so very sad?”
In her quest to find out why one of Barry’s acting class peers had wound up dead, shot in the head while sitting in his truck, Newsome’s character is trying to sort through complex mixed personal feelings about Gene as she pieces together flawed evidence and a cavalcade of alibis that go nowhere, except where her expert hunches lead her.
Season 1 of Barry presents as an elongated riotous scene study weaving the mitigating factors of Barry Berkman’s poor fellow acting student’s demise, while allowing star Bill Hader to flesh out the titular veteran who has taken a wrong turn and desperately wants to change his life course.
NoHo Chechens, angry Bolivians, cases of mistaken identities, old Marine gonzo buddies, windfalls of cash, acting notes and fledgling actors with big egos. Our Newsome’s competent Moss is standing in the middle of a Catherine Wheel of nincompoops, ne’er-do-wells, ninnies and not-so-nice guys. Much to Barry’s good fortune.
A trained professional singer, Newsome’s varied TV work includes Friends, ER, NCIS, Pretty Little Liars, and Transparent. Her film credits include Oscar-winning film, Little Miss Sunshine, Mike Binder’s Black or White and Reign Over Me, DreamWorks Pictures’ Things We Lost in the Fire and Lifetime’s Starving in Suburbia, among others.
Paula is also an award-winning stage actress, appearing in the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of Carousel, as well as Lady Day, winning awards for her portrayal of legendary jazz singer-songwriter, Billie Holiday.
We spoke to Paula about this plum fierce role, her multi-lingual talents, her European wanderlust and what kissing Henry Winkler is like.
Monsters and Critics: Your character seems to be the only grown-up responsible unaffected person in the cast of Barry. Could you talk about Janice and how you wanted to unpack this character?
Paula Newsome: First of all, it’s not a lot that, as an African-American woman, we get offered these characters in 3D. Characters that have heart and head and fragility and fierceness.
When I first got a peek at her and then I saw the whole arc, I was like, “Wow.” What was really important to me was to approach her as a human, not as a plot device. Because so many times we are part of a plot device.
What I love about her is that she’s really a person, with vulnerabilities, with strength, with rockiness, with humor, with tenderness; all of it. She’s a real human. So, my goal was to embody all that and to give her as much humanity or real-life-human-beingness as possible.
M&C: What is it like to be in a scene with Henry Winkler and how much fun was it to let Janice exhale with Gene Cousineau?
Paula: I will tell you, it was fun but it was almost like walking on a tightrope, because it was so otherworldly, you know what I mean? Because when you look at Henry Winkler, everybody’s going to see the Fonz. So, for me, it was almost always going to work with the freaking Fonz. And, in that, he’s such a kind [person], he’s generous, and he’s a gifted man.
So, in our scenes, what was lovely about it is I felt like I was sitting across from an acting peer and that made it really easy to really show up in those scenes with us. So, I will say, strangely enough, it was easy.
M&C: The scene after you took care of the rogue Chechen, you dismiss Gene. It was like you erected a barricade professionally and refused to allow him to interfere in any way. Then Janice breaks down. It was very powerful. Can you talk about that scene?
Paula: This was a pivotal moment for me in fleshing Janice’s emotional life out. The scene was just written, just solely…she says goodbye and then talks to her partner and the only question that he asks her, “Is it over?” and what was written on the page was, “Yes.”
In my research with her, as a police detective, when you involve yourself with someone in any of your crimes, in something that you’re investigating; when you have a romantic relationship with someone in your investigation, you put the whole unit in a jeopardized position…
Because what we’re essentially aiming for is when we testify [in court]. And during that testifying in court, it comes up that I’m having sex with…well, then the whole thing is over. And I paint the whole department because of my actions.
So, it was in that moment that Janice realizes what she gave up. You know what I mean? But at the same time, she’s giving up probably the first time that she’s ever felt loved.
It was really important to me that we get to see that. And to see that shift from work to romance, back to work. Hiro [director Hiro Murai] was very generous…I asked him if we could just lean up against the cars. You know, how guys talk? When they’re leaning up on something.
They don’t really look one another in the eye and have all these tender conversations. They kind of lean up or talk over the fence. I asked him if we could do that because that would help Janice be more vulnerable if she wasn’t looking somebody in the eye.
M&C: I’ve been watching every episode and that particular scene in Episode 6 with your character really struck me.
Paula: How did it strike you? Struck you as how?
M&C: Actually, the whole episode, Gene saying he was 47 years-old…and the opening and closing music. That Peter, Paul, and Mary song, I’m Leavin’ on a Jet Plane? It’s a noir comedy and yet this was a very emotional, dramatic episode ahead of an even more emotional episode.
Paula: You’re right, you’re right. That’s what I love.
M&C: Which is one of the reasons I love Barry, it’s not a cookie-cutter comedy. Okay, we know there’s going to be a Barry season 2. So, Barry obviously is going to continue, hopefully, in class and Gene’s ensemble is going to stay together. Are you going to be in Season 2?
Paula: Absolutely not. I cannot tell you anything.
M&C: Just one little thing.
Paula: I know, right? I cannot say anything. If I told you, I’d have to kill you. But, I will tell you that where it goes is really amazing. It’s really amazing.
M&C: Well, I’m hoping that the cast continues and that your character doesn’t peel away, and that the Chechen NoHo Hank…
Paula: Yeah. NoHo Hank. His name is Anthony Carrigan.
M&C: I hope he doesn’t peel away either. He’s great. Listen, I know you wear a lot of hats. You’re a multi-pronged talent. You do theater, you’ve been in many films, you parlez Francais, and parliamo Italiano, you speak Asian languages too. You’re multi-lingual. How did you start realizing that you had an affinity and an ear to pick up languages?
Paula: In high school, I started learning French. I studied for two years and it stuck. I’m fluent, which doesn’t make sense, but I am.
And then two years ago, I took off three months and then just traveled Europe. Originally, I was going to stay in France but I ended up going to London and Zurich and then I traveled to Berlin and Cannes and the last four days were in Florence. And I was like, “Oh, this is the language to learn. You will wanna learn this language.” And so I came back and started studying Italian.
I have a brain that is wired for sound, for languages. And yeah, that’s how that happened. I love languages.
M&C: You are like a savant with language. You really have a facility for that. It’s amazing. How did that happen?
Paula: I go to an acupuncturist every week and he’s Korean. And he teaches me Korean. And the nails girls…I learned Vietnamese from my nail girls. I love languages. I have an auditory brain.
M&C: If you had to pick a country…this is a hypothetical. What country would you pick to repatriate and why?
Paula: I’d go to Italy and I’d live in Milan, yeah. They love beauty. They love beautiful food, wine, architecture, women, anything, you know? And their passion and love of beauty…you know, that I’m very comfortable with. That feels good.
M&C: You’re also an equestrian and a hell of a baker I hear.
Paula: I am.
M&C: When did you learn how to ride a horse and was it for a film or movie or just you were always drawn to them?
Paula: Yes, it was just that. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in Chatham and we would take family vacations and then whenever we would go someplace, whether it’s south or north or east, I thought it was the whole family but I’ve since found out from my sister that it was me. That we’d end up riding horses. I’d be like, “Where’s the nearest stable?” And we got to do that on a regular basis.
When I moved out here to California, finally, there was an equestrian center near my home and it’s beautiful. That place is gorgeous. So for the first time, I started training. I love it, I love it. The baking thing is a little less glamorous. That Great British Bake-Off? You know that show?
M&C: I know that show very well.
Paula: I started watching it and then was like…it’s delicious, isn’t it? It’s great, I love that show. I do, I bake croissants, I bake tarts, I bake scones, I make…right now I’m perfecting my baguette.
M&C: You make a choux pastry from scratch? Are you making croissants?
M&C: C’est incroyable.
Paula: Yes, croissants and those baguettes, you would think that the dough would be really easy but they’re not at all.
M&C: What’s next for you and, other than Barry, what other things have you got your sights on or that you’re in production with or you’ve been approached about?
Paula: I’m waiting to hear some information for maybe…I’m technically a guest star on Barry, I’ve been offered a series regular on another show, so we’ll see what happens between those two. I’m waiting to hear about that.
M&C: Is it a network show that you’ve been offered a series regular or a cable show?
Paula: It is a network show.
M&C: That’s all you’re going to tell me, right?
Paula: That’s all I’m going to tell you, right!
Barry airs Sundays at 10:30pm on HBO