How Jeff Hiller Went From ‘Gay Hooker’ to ‘Somebody Somewhere’ newsusface


There was a time when Jeff Hiller would have killed to play the stereotypical “gay best friend” on TV. Now, after years of fleeting guest spots, from “gay hooker” to “bitchy” flight attendant, he’s showing the world what he’s capable of as the sweetly hilarious Joel on HBO’s Somebody Somewhere.

In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Hiller talks about how his real-life friendship with star Bridget Everett is reflected on screen and why it’s so important for “normal” queer characters to exist on TV. He also shares what it was like to pop up on shows like 30 Rock, Community, and Broad City and recalls that time he totally botched his SNL audition.

When I point out that he had been a working actor for almost 20 years by the time Somebody Somewhere came along, Hiller replies, “You’re kind to say ‘almost’ 20 years.” It felt even longer.

“It’s definitely the biggest role I’ve had,” Hiller says of Joel, his mild-mannered, church-going character. “I’ve been an actor for quite some time, but this is really the first time in my career where I’ve been able to just be an actor and not have to also teach improv and immediately run to get on unemployment as soon as the play ended. It feels great. I never want to wait a table or make a spreadsheet ever again in my life.”

Hiller had met Everett, who stars as Sam, in and around New York’s downtown theater scene. “We kind of vaguely knew each other,” he says. It was Everett who asked him if he would be “willing” to audition for the part of Joel. “I was like, I guess I’ll audition for your fancy HBO show,” he recalls with a laugh. “And I really felt like the role was written for me, but I’ve since found out it was not. A lot of other gay men over 40 auditioned for the role too.”

When Everett was a guest on The Last Laugh podcast around the show’s Season 1 premiere, she told me that she “knew of” Hiller and felt like he was being “underutilized” on screen. “I think Jeff brings something so dynamic and sweet that in the wrong hands could be too precious,” she said at the time, “but it’s just so genuine with him.”

Hiller had similarly never seen a character like Joel on television before, but immediately felt a strong connection to him. “I look how I look. I am obviously gay. I am on the wrong side of 40,” he says. “And I’ve never seen someone on TV who’s religious and happy being religious. And it’s not a joke that they’re religious. And they’re not being persecuted by the Church.”

The actor grew up going to church in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and was a theology major in college. To this day, he has friends who are pastors that are “good people focused on social justice, not on persecuting queer people,” he says. “And I just love that that person is finally on TV because that person is totally a real person.”

While there’s “no word yet” on the possibility of a third season for Somebody Somewhere, Hiller says, “There’s not a single person involved that doesn’t desperately want a Season 3, so that’s the hope. I know it’s a small show that is not loud, so it might be too quiet, but if there’s even a tiny peep in us, I hope they give us a Season 3.”

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

Your relationship on screen with [Bridget Everett’s character, Sam] just feels so natural and deep and real. It feels like you’ve been close friends for a long time, but even on the show it’s kind of a reconnection, right? When you meet at the beginning of the pilot, one of the really telling details is that you remember her, but she doesn’t really seem to remember you.

Let’s just say I brought some real authenticity to that role, because that happens to me quite a bit.

It does?

Less so now, less so now. But yes, throughout my life, absolutely. I remember them and they don’t remember me.

Does that happen with famous people? Or just anyone?

Sure, it happens with famous people. It happens with people that I went to high school with. It happens with people who were my students, people who I was their student. All of them.

How do you feel like that fact informed the dynamic between your two characters?

Well, I love what Joel says: “It’s OK, a lot of people don’t remember me.” It is kind of rude when people are like, “We do know each other.” You kind of have to just let that go. And then hopefully, the next time I speak to you, I will be more memorable. But yeah, I think it informs exactly what the relationship is because there is a bit of an idol worship there. He’s desperate for her approval because she’s someone who he idolized in high school. He saw her talent even before anyone else did.

Do you feel like that’s reflected in your own feelings about Bridget? What do you remember about the first time you saw her perform?

There is something about seeing her perform live. It’s electrifying. It’s magnetic. There’s a little bit of terror that she might choose you to do things to… But also, it’s undeniable. You cannot watch her and not just think, “Oh my God, you’re such a star!” And I absolutely had that belief. I jokingly say I’ve been wanting to be Bridget Everett’s best friend for 10 years. But there’s some truth to that. She was the cool kid. And you wanted to be in her orbit.

Her talent on stage was undeniable. But I didn’t know that she had this acting depth in her that she displays on screen in Somebody Somewhere. I don’t know if you did, or what it’s been like to witness that up close and personal?

No, I had no idea. And from the fame that she had accrued already, being on Inside Amy Schumer and Camping and all of these shows—Patti Cake$, where she was bawdy and raunchy and dirty—you wouldn’t expect her to choose the show for herself where she has to put herself out there this much, to be that vulnerable. She’s incredibly raw and I think most people would be too scared to do that. So it’s really impressive that she is willing to go there.

The first season of the show is a lot about your two characters reconnecting and really becoming close. A lot of the second season—I don’t want to spoil anything—but there’s some tension and there’s a lot of difficulty in their relationship as well. What was it like to play that side of things with her?

It is a little stressful, especially because she is so good. She does this silly, self-deprecating thing where she’s like, “Well, as someone who’s not a trained actor…” She’s a great actor. There was one point where I was like, “Are you really mad at me?”

She was so convincing that you thought something really was wrong?

Yeah, exactly! She seemed genuinely hurt.

[Trans people] have been turned into these cartoonish, evil folks. And in real life, if you actually meet people who are trans, you realize, oh, you’re just a human.

Jeff Hiller

So, as you were saying, this show and this character really defies stereotypes in a lot of ways. And I think Somebody Somewhere is this beautifully queer show that exists outside of hate and bigotry and all of these things that tend to dominate headlines about queer people. I’m wondering if you feel like that is deliberate. Do you feel like it’s more reflective of real life than what we often see?

I do, yeah. I think especially right now with trans folks, and even with all these silly drag queen bills and things like that, they’re all aimed at trans people. And it’s because trans people have been othered in a way that is… the word I want to look for is ridiculous. They’ve been turned into these cartoonish, evil folks. And in real life, if you actually meet people who are trans, you realize, oh, you’re just a human. You’re just like me. You’re also like, “Ugh, I have to go to work today.” And I think in a certain way our show is political in that it does paint queer people—one of the main characters is a trans man—as people, as opposed to a thing. And in a certain way, that’s revolutionary.

Yeah, I think there’s a way to look at it where you could say, “Is this realistic that this trans man could be living in this community in the Midwest and have no problems? Nobody’s going after him?” But there is an argument to be made that this is a more realistic, or at least more optimistic and hopeful, way to look at things.

Yeah. And I don’t think that it’s painted that he has no problems whatsoever. Especially in the second season, there are some issues that come up. But also, not every trans person’s life is just being murdered. I think it’s important to show Murray Hill [who plays Fred Rococo] being misgendered. But I also think it’s important to show Murray having joy and having friends. Trans folks do have normal lives too, and not even just in New York City.

I’d love to talk about how you came up in this business, and it’s sort of related to this conversation. I imagine that a lot of the roles you were being offered and auditioning for early on were not quite as complex or nuanced as Joel. One of your first roles, on IMDb at least, is a character just called “Gay Man” on a show called Starved.

I swear to you this is true: Someone changed it, because it used to say on IMDb, “Gay Hooker.” [Laughs]

Someone thought, “This is too offensive, we’ve got to change it to ‘Gay Man.’”

Exactly. I played a lot of “Gay Man.” I’m sure there’s another one on there.

Was that emblematic of the types of roles you were getting early on?

Sure. And I mean, I think that there’s something to be said there about homophobia, and then there’s also something to be said there about just paying your dues as an actor. You need characters that are just there to make the plot move along. It would be an exhausting movie if every character had an arc. But as an artist I kept thinking, I have more to give. I’m really good at playing the waiter, but I swear to you there’s more inside of me. And I also realized that I’m lucky. There are lots of other actors in my situation who didn’t get a role that allowed them to do more. And it’s not like I’m more talented than them. I just happened to be there when the right role came along. That’s it.

How do you feel like this experience of being on Somebody Somewhere has changed things for you, opened doors for your career? Do you feel that yet?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not like Pedro Pascal. I can walk down the street. But my manager had sort of given up on me. And now I have a new manager that’s excited about me. I just sort of felt like, OK, it’s back to just doing off-Broadway shows and guest stars occasionally and hopefully I can get enough health insurance. I was 44 when I got this part, so it really felt like it’s probably not gonna happen. I remember on my 40th birthday, I looked up actors who got famous after 40 and there was this article about actors who made it later in life. It was like, “Naomi Watts didn’t get Mulholland Drive until she was 31!” So it just feels like I’m able to have a career. You’re not going to want me on your podcast when I’m the waiter. So it’s very exciting.

Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.


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