The comedian and actor makes us laugh while making history with the gay rom-com Bros
Billy Eichner has been pounding the pavement for years, figuratively and literally. TV audiences first met him running through the streets of Manhattan with a microphone in one hand and the likes of Debra Messing or Mariah Carey in the other for his comedy game show Billy on the Street. He hatched the idea back in 2004, while performing a stage show in New York City, and the viral clips his TV interviews generated would thrust him into the national consciousness. In between screaming at strangers for not being able to “name a woman,” however, he was also steadily building his résumé as an on-set performer.
Over the years, we’ve seen Eichner steal scenes in Parks and Recreation, Difficult People, and The Lion King (not many can say they’ve shared a song with Beyoncé), as well as flex his dramatic chops in American Horror Story and American Crime Story. “Slowly but surely people started to realize I was more than Billy on the Street,” he says of his decades-long climb. “It really feels like I led up to this moment.”
“This moment” is the premiere of his new film, Bros, the first gay romantic comedy to be released by a major studio, as well as the first to feature an entirely LGBTQ+ principal cast (which includes Luke Macfarlane, Bowen Yang, Harvey Fierstein, and many more). The landmark movie, cowritten by Eichner and Nick Stoller and produced by Judd Apatow, also afforded him a chance, he says, simply to make “a great comedy that makes people laugh out loud.” Here, Eichner talks about what it’s like to make Hollywood history, his upcoming plans for a Paul Lynde biopic, and how he thinks the industry has changed for gay performers.
You’ve said that you never thought a major studio would make an authentically gay film. How much did achieving that authenticity mean to you?
It was incredibly important to me from the very beginning. Nick Stoller, who cowrote the movie with me and directed it, came to me and said he wanted to make a gay rom-com and build it around me—which I was shocked and very flattered by. But before I even knew what the movie would be about, I said to him at our very first meeting, I wanted it to be honest. I wanted it to be an authentic reflection of what it means to be gay and single.
How does that compare to what we’re used to seeing in straight rom-coms?
On some level, being single is being single, and looking for love is looking for love, but at the same time there are differences. Two men being together just comes with a different set of issues sometimes, and different things that you’re navigating. As we point out in the movie, love is love on a very simple, fundamental level, but the nuances of a gay relationship aren’t identical to [those of] a straight relationship.
Something else that we get to see for the first time is an almost entirely LGBTQ+ cast. How did come about?
This movie was such a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me that I never saw coming, and I thought it was essential that I use it as an opportunity to showcase as many LGBTQ+ actors and actresses as we can, because I’ve seen my fellow LGBTQ+ performers struggle to get roles in mainstream films and to get an opportunity to shine. I know how hard that struggle is, and I’ve been luckier than most. But beyond that, they’re all f****** hysterical.
You mentioned how historic this movie is—is there pressure that comes with that?
I’d be lying to say you don’t feel a certain burden or certain amount of pressure to really deliver and get it right. In terms of the actual writing of the movie, Nick and I never sat there and thought, Oh, this movie is historic, so it has to be a certain way. We thought, How do we make this as funny as possible? It’s only once the movie was announced, and now the closer we get, that that part of it is starting to really hit me.
I read that in 2006 you had a manager who told you to make one of your live shows “a little less gay” because she had invited some big agents. We see something similar happen to your character in the movie, Bobby, when he’s told to tone it down. Has the industry changed since then, or is that still a common experience?
Things have definitely gotten better, but only in the past handful of years. We’re finally getting opportunities and respect, and we’re being considered part of the mainstream, but it’s really important to take a bird’s-eye view of it and ask ourselves why it took us so long to get here. Julia Roberts and George Clooney have a rom-com coming out three weeks after me, and they don’t have to worry about the burden of representing an entire marginalized community, nor is anyone going to ask them about the pressure of having the first LGBTQ this or that. So although it’s a celebratory moment, because it took Hollywood so long to make this movie, it does put this, this burden on the movie, which a typical rom-com is not gonna feel, you know? So have things gotten better? Yes. Are they easy? Absolutely not.
The movie jokes about the trend of biopics of gay figures starring straight actors. A rare exception to that rule is a film you’re planning to do about Paul Lynde, the actor best known for Bye Bye Birdie, Bewitched, and The Hollywood Squares. What drew you to his story?
I think [he’s] an undervalued cultural figure, and it’s a really fascinating story. He was a really interesting, complicated man, and I am grateful and excited that we are moving into a time when LGBTQ+ actors are actually getting a chance to tell our own stories, which really hasn’t happened [before]. On the rare occasions a big mainstream movie centered on a gay person, it was almost always played by a very famous straight actor looking to show everyone his range and how brave he was and win awards.
The title of that project , Man In the Box, refers to The Hollywood Squares, but also to the idea that Lynde felt boxed in as a performer on that show. Was that something you related to, coming off of Billy on the Street?
Absolutely. I think any actors, especially comedians, who get known for a larger-than-life persona have a hard time breaking out of that and getting the powers that be in Hollywood to give them opportunities to show their range. Though the straight male stars got a lot more leeway to show their range—even in the ’90s, when you had someone who was so over the top, like Jim Carrey. He got a chance pretty early on to star in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine, and that was coming off of Ace Ventura, one of the most ridiculous movies that’s ever been made. I’m not saying he didn’t have to fight for it—I’m sure he did—but he pretty quickly was given an opportunity to show his range, and you don’t see as many examples when it comes to gay comedians or gay male actors, you know?
Are you thinking of anyone specific?
There’s a long history of that. Nathan Lane has talked about the shocking lack of opportunities he was offered after The Birdcage. Same thing with Rupert Everett and My Best Friend’s Wedding. So, of course, with something like Billy on the Street, you do worry about being stereotyped, but that’s why Bros was such an exciting opportunity for me, and why I’m so excited for people to see it. There are [parts] early in the movie where you see elements of the persona that people know, but it quickly becomes something else, and I really get a chance to play a three-dimensional, complicated human being.
How do you compare the comedic persona that people expect from you with who you really are as a performer?
Before Billy on the Street, I was a theater major at Northwestern and was doing Chekhov and Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. I never even thought of myself as a comedian. Billy on the Street was this persona that evolved in my live stage show I was doing in New York in the early 2000s. Then we started making these videos, [then] YouTube came along and they went viral and became a TV show and this social media phenomenon in a way I could never have predicted. But the real me is someone much different than that—much more multidimensional and much more of an actor and writer than this comedic persona.
There’s a scene in the movie where your character talks about the importance of educating kids on LGBTQ+ history, which feels prescient in the wake of the controversy over the “Don’t Say Gay” law. What has it been like watching that debate happen in the real world, knowing you have that conversation in the film?
It’s really remarkable, because I wrote that scene in 2019. I was actually worried that maybe it felt dated, because we had evolved so much politically, and it felt like we were on the right track. Just a handful of years later, here we are, the movie is about to come out, it’s coming out in the middle of a new culture war, essentially, and not one that I could have ever predicted. I think it’s a reminder that we are always going to be in the fight for equality. Our equal protection under the law is always going to be a fight to maintain.
Think back to your childhood, growing up in Queens: What in your career so far would be most exciting to 13-year-old Billy?
Well, I loved Hollywood as a kid, and my parents and I would go see movies every week. So many of the movies that I grew up loving and watching over and over again were romantic comedies like Bros. There were never any gay characters in those movies, let alone a gay couple being at the center of one of them, but they were the movies that I loved the most, and I guess I would tell myself as a kid that one day you will have an opportunity to do a movie like the rom-coms you grew up with. And the best part is that I got to do it on my own terms.