“I never thought a major studio would do an authentically gay film,” says Billy Eichner, “and treat it the same way they would treat Bridesmaids or 40-Year-Old Virgin or Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”Eichner is the star Bros, the groundbreaking, hilarious gay rom-com he also co-wrote, which — defying his initial doubts — is due in theaters Sept. 30, with a big push from Universal Studios.
The movie was co-written by Nick Stoller, who also directed Sarah Marshall) and co-produced by Judd Apatow (who directed 40-Year Old VirginEichner is the director of two films Eichner mentions. He plays Bobby, a media personality. His neurotic self sufficiency is disrupted when Bobby falls in love with Aaron Macfarlane (a guileless lawyer).
For Eichner, arguably still best known for the daredevil comedy of his pedestrian-accosting, celebrity-razzing series Billy on the StreetAt 43, being a leader man feels like a late return to the path he had always intended to follow, and the next step after some well-received dramatic turns. American Horror StoryAnd American Crime Story: Impeachment. “You don’t sit there as a kid thinking, ‘Oh, I could be the star of this movie, if only I wasn’t gay,’”He said. “I went to see Steve Martin and Tom Hanks movies and I thought, ‘Oh, I could do something like that.’ It was only when I was in my mid-twenties when I started to think, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll be lucky if I can just play the neighbor on a sitcom.’ Because that’s what Hollywood was telling me.”
Bobby’s opening rant, excerpted in the movie’s First trailer, is a brilliantly meta attack on the idea of making a gay movie that’d make straight guys comfortable. What is the secret to this idea?
It’s one of the first things I wrote for the movie. And it’s something that’s always been on my mind. We’re getting so much queer content, and all great and it’s a sign of progress. But we’ve spent a lot of our time as queer people telling stories about ourselves while being concerned that we’re palatable to straight audiences. For me, and a lot of my friends, when we watch some of those shows, although there are gay characters, we don’t recognize those people. They’re a two-dimensional sitcom character, wearing cutesy little outfits, and it’s all done with this satirical veil. There’s an archness to so many of the gay male characters we get. One of my goals is to work with Bros was, I wanted to be as funny as I’ve been before, or funnier, but funny in a different way. I wanted to shed that archness. I wanted the characters feel full-fledged, fleshed-out and complex.
This is a throwback to the past, with a large, lush, urbane comedy about grown-ups.
I’m in my forties, and I look around at movies in general — about straight people, about gay people, especially comedies — and say, “Where are the adults? What happened to the adults?” [Laughs.]I grew up watching those James L. Brooks and Nora Ephron films and Woody Allen movies. These movies are gone. I hoped to at least have those movies. [Bros] to a higher standard than what’s passing for rom-coms these days. But as much as I love all those movies – Broadcast News, Moonstruck, Annie Hall, Tootsie – LGBTQ people are literally completely ignored and erased in those worlds. We weren’t even the best friend!
A rom-com that’s not about straight people opens the door for an incredible amount of fresh material. That was something you were aware of immediately.
Honestly, there’s an excitement to the reaction we’re getting from straight audiences who’ve seen the movie at early screenings, because it feels like you’re getting a little peek behind the curtain at a culture of dating and relationships and sex that straight people maybe think they understand, but they don’t. Two men in a relationship is very special. Because yes, we’re gay. But we’re still men. I think straight people think we’re basically women. We are all men! My straight male friends always hear me say, “We are men!” “Think about all the weird, fucked-up male shit you have in your brain, about sex and monogamy and being vulnerable, and now times that by two.” That’s going to be a very complicated situation sometimes, and we’ve really never seen it explored.
Nick Stoller, a straight man, said you that he taught your how to make a movie and that you taught him about gay culture. Are there any bumps in the road?
Nick has been married for a long time. In a heteronormative way, Nick considers family and marriage very important. We create our families, while gay men set our own rules. The one time I got mad at Nick, and I hope he’s OK with me saying this, we were thinking about Bobby’s arc in the movie. He said to me: “If you’re 40, and you’re single, there has to be something wrong with you.”I burst! I was so mad! I think that’s an old-fashioned notion even for younger straight couples. They’re polyamorous, and they’re this and they’re that. Even if you wanted to remake Sally Met Harry about a straight couple, it wouldn’t apply. As much as I love those movies, for gay people, especially gay men, they never applied and they certainly don’t apply now.
Have you ever tried to write a screenplay? Bros?
I have never written any spec for anything, even a half-hour sitcom. Writing was my saving grace. For myself, I created a New York stage show called Creation NationRobin Taylor was my stage version of Letterman or Conan. I also wrote original songs. That show was now called the Billy on the Street persona. Actually, the first Billy on the StreetThese videos were made especially for the stage. I wrote all the segments, and they were very topical — they took on politics and pop culture, and I was very open about being gay. It was called “Gay sex” and it got very specific about straight sex. “Sex Talk.”It was quite a challenge to be onstage in 2003 and speak out about gay sex even in New York City. You just didn’t see that very much. It was exciting for the audience because it felt new.
You’ve said that you never experienced homophobia until you entered the entertainment business. How did you experience homophobia?
A lot of Broadway talent was represented by my manager in 2006. She’s a fairly well known manager who represents a lot of famous people. She was trying to get me agents. She said, “I’m inviting big agents to your next stage show. Can you make it a little less gay this month?”It was shocking. It was both insulting and impossible because it would mean that my whole personality would be changed. I replied, “You don’t really know what you’re dealing with, because I have a little bit of a rebellious streak, and I’m not going to deal with that shit.”They signed me nonetheless.
Was it difficult to accept your identity growing up?
Because I was raised in New York City with liberal and accepting parents, my perspective on these matters has always been distorted. My parents lived in the West Village at various times in their lives, when they were single. And I’m not saying they were dying for me to be gay, or absolutely thrilled that I was gay, but they knew who I was really early on. They were so supportive, encouraging, and kind.
There’s a part in Bros A teacher asks whether elementary school students are old enough for learning about gay history. Did that end up being more timely than you expected given what’s going on in Florida with the “Don’t Say Gay” law?
It was something I couldn’t have foreseen. I still remember writing that, and thinking. “I hope people don’t think that this is unrealistic,”It seemed like we were moving forward. However, we weren’t taught our own history as LGBTQ persons, not even in a bare and generalized manner, like they teach in elementary school. We didn’t even get that version of it. Historically, we have lost all sense of who we are. And I don’t think that we realize what that did to us, [to]We know very little about ourselves.
What’s the closest experience you’ve had in real life to the romance in the movie, where your self-reliant character finds himself falling in love for the first time relatively late in life?
In my mid-thirties, I had never dated seriously in a while and then I met someone who shocked me. I fell in love with him very quickly. It didn’t lead to the kind of relationship that Aaron and Bobby have in the movie. It was much shorter-lived. It did however open my eyes to the possibilities of love and relationships. “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t completely ignore that part of my life.”When I was discussing it with friends, they said: “Wow, Billy has feelings!” Anyway, that didn’t work out and then I put the wall right back up! [Laughs.]
You’re also working with Paul Rudnick on a movie for Amazon called Ex-Husbands. What’s going on with that?
It’s in the early stages. We’re just starting to write it right now. But I’m very excited about that. I had an idea during Covid when everyone was just sitting there and had nothing to do. And I thought: “What if we did a gay version of [the 1989 Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner film] The War of the Roses?”Because so many gay couples are happy. It’s beautiful to see gay teens and gay people fall in love. This is almost the opposite of Bros. Just because we can get married doesn’t mean that marriage is the answer to everything for gay people, and that all those marriages are gonna work out. And I think there’s a certain pressure on LGBTQ people who get married to really try to work it out. The idea of gay divorcing was something I found very funny. It was just a great idea to see two gay men fighting it out, physically and emotionally. It’s gonna be really fun.
You’ve stopped doing Billy on the Street in 2017, but it feels like it’s never left.
It’s had a whole new life over the course of the pandemic. It’s on streaming services, and the biggest thing of all became TikTok — which, I don’t have a TikTok page! I should have created one. But I just couldn’t handle another social media page in my life. [Ed note: In mid-July, Eichner finally launched a TikTok page.] Billy on the StreetFans began to tear the clips apart, and there are many. Billy on the StreetThere are millions upon millions pages on TikTok. I took a look yesterday. [and]There was one clip that had 50 million views. People are still discovering these clips, some of which are as old as 15 years. These clips are actually being seen by 12-year olds who were not born when they were first created. This is truly shocking. It’s a crazy afterlife. I’ve had people come up to say to me, “Oh my God, Billy on the Street! I know you from TikTok!”It is quite bizarre.
What vision do you have for the future? Billy in the StreetWhich, if any?
I think the majority of it is gone for the future. Maybe for special occasions we’ll bring it back. It wasn’t Covid-friendly, obviously. It’s a big part of my life, and it’s most likely why I’m getting the opportunities that I’m getting now, and I’m proud of it. But I’m never going to do half-hour episodes of Billy on the Street again, and I don’t ever see it coming back as a regular thing. I’ve just moved beyond it creatively. It was so hard. People don’t realize but the first Billy on the StreetThis was a style video that I created for my September 2004 live show. It was made before YouTube! It was a slow-burn success story. I’m not saying never ever, but I’m never gonna do it regularly again.
It seems that some people are misinformed about your abilities as a performer due to its success.
I have never considered myself to be a comedian. Growing up in New York, I was a theater kid. I wanted to be on Broadway and off-Broadway. I was a very good singer so I wanted to do musicals. I was accepted to Northwestern University. [where]I studied theatre and was an actor. Angels in America. When Billy on the StreetWhen I was flying, people would call me “The Flying Dutchman”. “comedian Billy Eichner.”And that is what I believed all my life. “Comedian? I’m not a comedian.” Now I’m used to it — and being a comedian is a fantastic thing. It’s just not what I was really going for. So I’m trying to get back to doing what I really wanted to do. And BrosThis is a large part of it.
It was amazing! Billy on the StreetChris Pratt, a moment many years ago. He says something to the effect of: “Someday you’re gonna play gay and win an Oscar, and I’m still gonna be on the street doing this shit.”
It was a joke. It was hilarious. wasn’t kidding. But, take a look at me now! [Laughs.] So I mean, he’ll still win an Oscar for playing gay, but I’m not on the street anymore.At least I get to be in a movie playing gay also. That is progress.