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Somebody Somewhere's Jeff Hiller Is More Than Ready to Play a Romantic Lead

Hiller talks Joel and Sam's natural chemistry, playing a romantic lead, and how much he likes working with women directors (men too!).
  • Jeff Hiller in Somebody Somewhere (Photo: Sandy Morris/HBO)
    Jeff Hiller in Somebody Somewhere (Photo: Sandy Morris/HBO)

    In the second season of Somebody Somewhere, HBO's tender and funny series about how it's never too late to find your voice and your people, one of TV's best realized friendships goes through some changes. Sam (Bridget Everett) is still dealing with the aftermath of her sister's death and various family crises, all while leaning on her friendship with the sweetly unassuming Joel (Jeff Hiller). They'll power-walk through the park to get their steps in, partake in a "tiny 'tini" cocktail or two at the end of the day, and try to make sense of the Manhattan, Kansas, folks who surround them. They are, to borrow the parlance of another TV show, each other's "person," and in Season 2, Somebody Somewhere pokes at that dynamic to see how well it holds up.

    That prodding creates some great material for Jeff Hiller, the UCB-trained comedian and character actor who has found his career-best role in Joel. Sweet, affable, and incredibly loyal to Sam, Joel emerged at the end of Season 1 with a strong sense of his own character, his wants and desires (a nice kitchen with a Vitamix! A stable relationship and maybe a dog!) and struggles, particularly when it comes to his faith. In the universe of queer characters on TV, normalcy can often appear bland, but in Joel, Hiller delivers someone refreshingly recognizable from many of our lived experiences.

    With Somebody Somewhere's second season joining Succession and Barry on HBO's Sunday night lineup, we spoke to Jeff Hiller about Joel and Sam's on-screen chemistry, making a show about queer characters in the current political climate, and playing Joel's new romantic storyline.

    The rapport between Joel and Sam on the show is so fun; it's casual and loose in a way that feels very natural. What kind of work do you and Bridget do in preparation to arrive at that kind of vibe?

    I think that there is just a natural chemistry that for whatever reason works. But I think we also — you know, I say we improvise, which I think sometimes when you hear "improv," you think like Jane Lynch in The 40-Year-Old Virgin doing crazy things, and it's not like that. It's actually improvising to get the exact same point across as what the writers wrote but in words or language that feels natural to the way it would come out of our mouths. Also, we lived together while shooting both seasons! [Laughs.]

    Did you find yourselves ever, as you were living together on set, dipping into Joel and Sam?

    Oh that's interesting. No, but sometimes they do take Jeff and Bridget stuff and put [that] on Joel and Sam. Like their obsession with steps is totally organically coming from us.

    Joel and Sam's relationship undergoes some changes over the course of the season. And it feels like it happens very gradually, with the seeds planted early on. Was that something you were excited to play? Was there some nervousness about changing up that dynamic? How did you approach that?

    I actually did have some nervousness, just because… I don't know, I want to be liked, I guess. But I really trust the writers, of which Bridget is one, and this season they also had Rachel Axler and Lisa Kron, like, Fun Home's own Lisa Kron?! The Five Lesbian Brothers?! And Rachel Axler is an old friend of mine, and she's really great too. And Bridget — well, she was in the room all last season too, but she's actually getting credit this season. So I really trust them. I also really trust, like, sometimes we film things and I'm like "I don't know if this feels right." And at least so far in these first two seasons, all of those things are gone. They're really good at editing, they really kill their darlings. they're not afraid of that. So I just always have to be like, "I guess let's go for it. Let's try!"

    How did you feel about those more highly emotional scenes towards the end of the season?

    Well, for most of those, they were really well-written already. Bridget actually likes to rewrite even the night before, and she was doing some of them with Carolyn Strauss, our producer, who is like the queen of television. She also lived with us. [laughs] And [one scene], she kind of rewrote that that night. And I heard how she was rewriting it, and it really helped explain what I needed to do. I think also the prep is just… I'm not one of those actors who's like, "I've got this process," you know? [Laughs.] I just go with how my gut feels, and I do feel like I really know who Joel is. So I just trust that I know how to play him.

    One thing I made note of while watching the episodes was that Joel's wardrobe is so consistent on the show: the striped polos and the khakis from scene to scene. Is that something you worked with the costume designers on, to arrive at that look? Or did they just present that, like "This is Joel"?

    Well, in Season 1, [costume designer Lindsay Monahan] tried a lot of things, and I was like, "I mean, this feels right." We decided on the fact that [Joel] just always buys extra-extra-large no matter what. Like he doesn't try it on first, he just is like [shrugs]. And then the second season, we had a different costume designer, and she said "Is there anything that you really want?" And I said I want him to wear some of the same looks that he wore from Season 1. And she was really smart about it — her name is Tasha Goldthwait, she's actually Bob Goldthwait's daughter.

    Oh wow, fantastic.

    Fun fact! But she only bought clothes from stores that are also in Manhattan, Kansas. Primarily Kohl's. I like that. Also, I love the fantasy of And Just Like That, where they never wear the same thing twice, I love it, don't get me wrong. But, you know. We're not And Just Like That.

    Obviously, there's a political significance at this time for a TV show set in the Midwest to feature queer characters and trans characters, and one of the ongoing stories this season revolves around a trans wedding. Was that something that the cast and writers and producers had on your mind or talked about on the set, as events around the country have been ongoing.

    I know, right? Well, you know, I'm a queer person, Murray [Hill] is a trans man, and — Murray also lived with us, by the way. [Laughs.]

    That's a house, man. I love that.

    Our director called it the Ding-Dong Dorm [laughs.] So in that sense, we talked about it. But also I think — you know this, too — it's just like, "Oh yeah, of course. Of course they're coming for us. They're always coming for us. Of course they're coming for the kids." And, you know, we want to fight it, we do benefits and protest and vote and every way that we can. But as far as this show, I think that this show is sort of revolutionary in that it's just showing these people as people, realistically. We're just showing our story. And it happens to be that we are these groups that are maybe not so beloved by everyone.

    It's also a show that brings a queer sense of humor in a setting that feels "typically American."

    I love that that's what they do. You know, the creators of the show are both — well, I don't know, maybe they're bisexual or whatever, but they're both currently married to people of opposite genders than they identify. And Bridget — like, you don't go to Bridget’s [cabaret] show and be like "Whoa! That's a show for straight people!"

    Exactly, you go to Bridget's show, and that's a queer experience no matter how anybody identifies.

    Exactly, and so you tend to think of that as like this New York or LA or San Francisco experience. You don't think about that in the middle of the country. And I'm from Texas, Bridget's obviously from Kansas, and I have friends who still live in Texas, and some of them go to church! And that is what's nice about this, is that it's real, it's just not real in pop culture.

    At the end of last year, I wrote a piece for Primetimer about the high degree of flexibility for you specifically playing Joel on Somebody Somewhere and then this terrifying serial killer on American Horror Story. And I wanted to ask you what that experience was like, and which one you found more daunting: something heightened like Mr. Whiteley or someone closer to your own experience, like Joel?

    I shot Somebody Somewhere Season 2 first. There was a real quick turnaround for Horror Story. And I did find Horror Story more daunting, just because there were things where I had to do stunts and cut up bodies and stuff. [And on Somebody Somewhere] it was like… it's not my first time wearing a Kohl's shirt, you know? [Laughs.]

    That's not to say that Joel isn't challenging, especially some of those later episodes, they were difficult. I think it's challenging just to play friendship naturally on camera. But also I already had a season under my belt as Joel, and I knew everyone that was on the crew. And then when I was going into Horror Story it was like, you know, I'm sitting next to the guy who directed Wicked! Or like the ghost or whatever from– and they're all hot, they're all sexy, and I'm like sweating and cutting them open or whatever. That was actually the main fear: Is anyone going to believe I could kill someone? Because between you and me, Joe, I'm not very good at it.

    Try as you might!

    And I have!

    I noticed in the credits that Lennon Parham directs two of the episodes this season, and obviously I remember you were on Playing House for a few episodes, and I know you've been on Lennon and Jessica [St. Clair]'s podcasts, and I imagine some sketch stuff?

    Yeah, we knew each other from the UCB back in the day.

    What was it like welcoming Lennon into this show of yours and working together with her again?

    It was amazing, she fit in perfectly. If there is a Season 3, I'm sure she will be there because everyone was like, "Oh my God, you're so good!" It was just so beautiful, because she is someone who, you know, she's an actual friend. And at first, Bridget was like "Is that gonna be okay, is that gonna make you uncomfortable?" And I was like no! She's so smart, and I had already been on three episodes of Playing House where she was the showrunner. It was just really… I like working with women directors. I just do. I will work with men directors! Lest I never work again!

    To be clear! Jeff will work with male directors!

    [Laughs.] I'm always so afraid I'm gonna limit myself. I need any job I can get. She's just such a good director, she's so grounded. She's like, “This is what we're going to do, I made a plan.” She's funny, she understands the sensibility of the show. It was just wonderful.

    Now did she live in the house?

    No, she did not. She was about the only one!

    I wanted to ask about the moment where Bridget sings [Laura Branigan's] "Gloria" and Joel has this wonderful reaction to it. Do you guys just like, throw requests in the hat for Bridget to sing on the show?

    There is an exceptional temptation to throw songs in the hat. It's not necessarily invited. [Laughs.] I'm constantly being like, "Oh you'd sing that so good." I'm just straight-up a fan. But "Gloria" came about because in Season 1, I would drive them around mainly to Target or to brunch — it was during high COVID, that's the reason we started living together, and so Murray and Bridget and I would drive around. I had the biggest car, and I had this playlist called "Yes, Gurl" that was basically "Gloria" was the root and then Spotify populated it with other badass singers. And it's one of my favorite songs, and I think it was kind of a gift to Joel and also kind of a gift to Jeff. I mean, [Bridget] also loves that song too, and she can sing it really well. But it was sort of a special thing; in the same way that the steps were pulled [from real life] that was pulled out as a song that we really love.

    I did want to ask about Joel's new love interest this season and how much fun it was to play something new for Joel and have him experience this thing from the early stages. Those early scenes are so sweet as he's discovering he has these feelings for this guy who he didn't regard at first.

    I know, I think they plant it really well, that you think he's someone to be made fun of. I loved playing that. I've never been… I mean, obviously no one's going to cast me as the romantic lead. But I loved playing that tenderness, I loved playing that romance, and I loved thinking about it for Joel and how specific he has laid out what type of relationship he wants. It was sweet, it was tender, I liked it.

    Somebody Somewhere airs Sundays at 10:30 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Jeff Hiller, Somebody Somewhere, Bridget Everett, Murray Hill