Q&A with Jeff Hiller of HBO’s “Somebody Somewhere”

bridget-everett-jeff-hiller
Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller in “Somebody Somewhere” on HBO.
Courtesy of HBO

In the last year or so, HBO has served up a tantalizing smorgasbord of LGBTQ-flavored fare with shows like “It’s a Sin,” “Veneno,” “The Other Two,” and “We’re Here.” And now there’s “Somebody Somewhere,” starring and executive produced by Bridget Everett, the sharp-witted, fearless performer. Perhaps you’ve seen her comedic sketch skills on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” Or shaking her ample booty while belting out a naughty ditty at Joe’s Pub in NYC.

The original dramedy series, created by “High Maintenance” writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and directed by Jay Duplass and Robert Cohen, delivers a fresh dose of queer representation. It debuts January 16 on HBO and HBO Max.

The “alt-cabaret provocateur” plays Sam, loosely based on her real-life upbringing in Manhattan (the one in Kansas, not New York City). After more than a decade away, Sam returned home to care for her ailing lesbian sister Holly, who subsequently died, and she’s now coping with supreme loss while trying to find acceptance where none previously existed. Her sister Tricia is a homophobic shrew, her mom is a sloppy drunk, and her dad is in deep denial.

Enter Joel, a chipper gay man comfortable in his own skin living in “the eighth biggest town in Kansas.” He instantly befriends Sam, whom he idolized in show choir back in high school. She barely remembers him.

Not only does Joel instantly become Sam’s cohort and confidante, but he introduces her to a veritable underworld of fantastic misfits, finding fellowship in a secret weekly party (dubbed “Choir Practice”) that he hosts in a Presbyterian church in a dying shopping mall. Part dance party, part queer cabaret, the proceedings are emceed by Fred Rococo, played by Murray Hill, the beloved drag king.

Perhaps most importantly, Joel coaches Sam to rediscover her voice, both figuratively and literally.

Joel is played with preternatural charm by Jeff Hiller, who started his career doing improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade and appeared in a raft of TV shows such as “30 Rock” and “Broad City.” Hiller also starred on Broadway in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and took over the solo show “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” from creator Drew Droege. The highly appealing, clever actor is married to artist Neil Goldberg and currently lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Gay City News caught up with Hiller to chat about working with Bridget, the joys of connecting with a tribe, and why the underlying message of this quirky, heartfelt, Kansas-set series is, oddly enough, “There’s no place like home.”

David Kennerley: What drew you to “Somebody Somewhere”?

Jeff Hiller: I’m an actor, so a paying job draws me [laughs]. But I was super excited about this one because I’ve done a lot of television where I play a waiter, a flight attendant, or a bitchy customer service representative. To actually have a character with a name and an arc and a wonderful personality was so gratifying.

It almost seems that the role was written with you in mind. Did you find getting cast was difficult or a breeze?

It was not a breeze, but I did kind of know Bridget and I think that’s what got me the audition. I’ve since found out that every gay actor on the wrong side of 40 auditioned for this role, so I’m very grateful. It does feel right because I’m also from a small town — in Texas, not Kansas — and I grew up in the church and I was gay. Plus, I’m someone who legitimately worships Bridget Everett, so the prospect of playing a character who worshiped Bridget was like, “Awesome, I can do that!”

Is this the first time you’ve worked with Bridget?

She used to run a show at Joe’s Pub where she would feature several guests. And so I did that, but that was it. We didn’t really hang out much.

You seem to have such a wonderful chemistry, like you’ve been friends forever.

We do have a special chemistry. When shooting the pilot, we were all in the same hotel and had dinner together. When shooting season one, Bridget and I lived in a house together, along with Murray Hill, who plays Fred Rococo. Fortunately, we all had our own bathrooms.

Murray Hill stars as Fred Rococo.Courtesy of HBO

The show is loosely based on Bridget’s own upbringing. Do you know how much is fact and how much is fiction?

It’s more based on themes rather than specifics. I know she did lose her sister. And I know that she is from Manhattan, Kansas and that she really does love to sing. And I’m pretty sure she likes to drink wine in her underwear.

Is it true you were in the middle of a Joe’s Pub residency when COVID first hit?

My residency was just one show a quarter, but I was writing a new show every single time. I got two of them in, and then the other two were taken away. I was like, “Lockdown? But I have plans!” It was actually much harder with “Somebody Somewhere” because we had to wait a full year and a half before we shot episode two. And I had to work hard to get down to my pre-COVID weight! For continuity reasons [laughs].

The show is heartbreaking, yet there’s an element of hope. And Joel offers a ray of sunshine in a bleak landscape. Would you agree?

I would, and I think Sam offers that for Joel too. The show is about friendship and community and that nice ray of sunshine is finding others that share the same passions and values. Those Choir Practice parties provide that for folks wondering, “Where are the other weirdos like me?”

Historically the “gay best friend” is often two dimensional, but you bring a rich texture to the role. Did you set out to redefine the gay best friend?

Not really. First of all, the show’s creators, Hannah and Paul, took their time to make these characters three dimensional with lots of nuance. I set out to make Joel more human. Yes, he is the gay best friend when you really reduce it, but he’s complicated. He has his own thoughts and dreams and he’s not just there to serve Sam.

Unlike most gay people in small towns, Joel is not bent on escaping to the big city to fulfill his dreams. He likes his hometown, even if it’s in the red state of Kansas.

I love that he’s staying. He’s not saying that he feels rejected by this place he calls home, he’s owning it. He’s saying, “This is my space too, and I’m going to claim my part.” When you look at Kansas, it’s beautiful and you can find wonderful folks there. I love that this show doesn’t paint people from the red states one way and gay people another way. It portrays everybody with different layers.

The show is about finding your tribe and your voice. Can you relate to that?

Yes. When I came out as gay, I assumed all the gay people would be my friends. Wrong. It was hard to find others who shared my interests and who wanted to kiki and giggle with me. And it took a lot of effort.

Murray Hill has been performing in New York forever. Have you crossed paths before?

Sure, we were both on the docket on certain shows, so I knew him a bit. He is New York royalty, a legend. But it wasn’t until this where I really got to know Murray behind the mask. He’d probably hate me telling you this, but he’s a Teddy bear, a mensch. And he pretends that he’s all showbiz and Don Rickles, but he’s got a heart under there.

Is there anything else that you have in common with Joel?

When I was in junior high, I had a stress rash, just like Joel. I can’t say I have a vision board, but I definitely write out my goals. I journal every day and meditate because I want to manifest things in my life. I think Joel is much better at fostering community and being the person who hosts. I’m not so good at that.

Do you wish you had that quality?

Desperately. I wish I could be the host where everybody comes over and the wine flows and everything is perfect. In reality, I’m all sweaty and dropping salmon on the floor.

SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE | Available on HBO and HBO Max | Season 1 premieres January 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Watch a trailer for “Somebody Somewhere” below:

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