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Bill Hader on 'SNL' anxiety: 'I was so uptight and so afraid of doing wrong'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Comedian/actor Bill Hader, left, and Olympic athlete/actress/author Alexi Pappas participated in a SXSW Online discussion on March 17, 2021.

Bill Hader was frank on Wednesday: "It took me a long a time to realize I had a mental problem."

He also was funny — obvi — throughout his virtual South by Southwest conversation with Olympic runner, actress and author Alexi Pappas, who described Hader as her mentor. The pair took a deep dive into mental health in their respective lives and fields, with a candor that they underlined as intentional. It's like peeing your pants and then owning up to it, Pappas said. No one can make fun of you without shame present on your part.

Hader's struggle with anxiety has surfaced in his career as a comedian and actor. Early on in Hollywood, he learned that talking himself up to kingmakers wouldn't cut it; he would have to take himself seriously and create things that he could show.

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In March 2003, he put himself out there on an audition at Second City in Los Angeles, where someone told Hader he was "really good at this," the first time he can remember hearing that.

"You have to put yourself into a position to maybe fail," Pappas said. "That muscle is one you grow and keep exercising."

USA TODAY gives you an exclusive peek of the back of house, at the Emmy Awards, on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.  
Bill Hader is a smiles.

There's no place you learn to fail better than "Saturday Night Live," the show that made Hader a household name. From the Monday pitch meeting and straight up to the live show on Saturday, "you’re in a position to look like an idiot," he said.

On "SNL," Hader learned to have confidence in his creative vision. Amid so many other writers and performers with defined tastes, he had to stick to his guns.

"I was so uptight and so afraid of doing wrong," Hader said of his early days on the show. Even when he returns to "SNL" to host now, Hader is a "basket case," he said. The pressure has manifested itself in the past as irrational thoughts, and he's found himself hyperaware of minutiae, like the sound of the stage lights swinging overhead while performing in a sketch like "The Californians."

Being on live TV was so anxiety-inducing that he sought professional mental health care. Hader didn't quite believe the first therapist who told him he might have an anxiety disorder, but a second opinion made him rethink things. Medication has helped a lot, he said, as has making other adjustments.

"I was 40 when someone was like, 'You know caffeine makes your anxiety worse.' I was drinking coffee before every 'SNL' episode. I was out of my mind," he said with a laugh.

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A key to managing intrusive thoughts: differentiate between your emotional reality and actual reality, said Pappas, who opened up about her own mental health struggles. Her mother died by suicide when Pappas was young, which brought confusion about her own value, she said. She also suffered from post-Olympics depression. A sports psychologist she worked with would ask Pappas what the worst part of a problem was, eventually drilling down to the core fear. She found the process helpful.

"It's an injury to my brain," she said. "It can heal, I can nail this down. ... All we ever want is to feel safe."

Pappas told Hader that his advocacy for mental health makes a difference, and she pointed out a philosophy they've both come to share: choosing to see the world as a place that takes things from us and is not abundant, but that does not preclude finding new opportunities and happiness elsewhere. 

"If you had a sprained ankle, no one would be like, 'Fix this tomorrow,'" Pappas said. And Hader has come to see his anxiety with healthy familiarity: "It comes, but the best thing is it always goes." 

People need to not feel so crazy for feeling crazy, they agreed.

"Then you can be more compassionate to your yesterday self," Pappas said.

"And not feel shame," Hader said.

Pappas ending by telling Hader he was like a sun to her. S-U-N, she clarified, not S-O-N — which got a chuckle from a briefly confused Hader..

"I was like, 'That's cool!'" he laughed.