“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 of 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.
In the movie, co-written and directed by Nick Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) and co-produced by Judd Apatow (who directed 40-Year-Old Virgin and produced the other two films Eichner mentions), Eichner plays Bobby, a media personality who finds his neurotic self-sufficiency disrupted when he falls in love with Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a guileless lawyer.
For Eichner, arguably still best known for the daredevil comedy of his pedestrian-accosting, celebrity-razzing series Billy on the Street, becoming a leading man at 43 feels like a belated return to a path he always meant to pursue, and the next step after well-received dramatic turns in American Horror Story and Impeachment: American Crime Story. “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 says. “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. How did you come up with it?
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. And one of my goals 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 lose that archness. I wanted the characters to feel like fully fleshed-out, complicated, funny, sad, three-dimensional people.
Sexuality aside, a big, lush, urbane studio comedy about grown-ups is actually a throwback at this point.
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 with those great James L. Brooks movies and Nora Ephron movies and Woody Allen movies. Those movies have disappeared entirely. I at least wanted to hold [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. Were you aware of that 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 together is a very unique, specific romantic situation. Because yes, we’re gay. But we’re still men. I think straight people think we’re basically women. We are men! And I always say to my straight male friends, “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 is a straight guy; you said that he taught you how to write a movie and you taught him about gay culture. Did you two hit any rough spots in the process?
Nick has been in a marriage a very long time. Marriage and family, in the very heteronormative sense, are very, very important to him. Whereas gay men make up our own rules, we create our own families. 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.” And I exploded. I got 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. So even if you were going to remake When Harry Met Sally 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.
Had you really never made an attempt at writing a screenplay before Bros?
I have never written a spec, not even for a half-hour sitcom. Writing, though, was my savior. I wrote a stage show in New York for myself, called Creation Nation, which was my version onstage, with my friend Robin Taylor, of what Letterman did, or Conan. And I wrote original songs. And what evolved in that show would now be referred to as the Billy on the Street persona. In fact, the first Billy on the Street videos were made for that 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. There was a sketch that got very specific about gay sex, and straight sex, it was called “Sex Talk.” To get onstage in 2003 and talk explicitly about gay sex, even in New York City, was really pushing people outside of their comfort zones. You just didn’t see that very much. But the audience was thrilled by it, because it felt fresh.
You’ve said that you never experienced homophobia until you entered the entertainment business. What form did that take?
In 2006, I had a manager who represented a lot of Broadway talent. She’s a fairly well known manager who represents a lot of famous people. And she was trying to get me agents. And she said, “I’m inviting big agents to your next stage show. Can you make it a little less gay this month?” And I was shocked. It was insulting, and also impractical, because that would be like literally changing my entire personality. I said, “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.” And they signed me anyway.
What was it like coming to terms with your identity growing up?
My perspective on these things has always been so skewed, because I was born and raised in New York City, with very liberal, accepting parents. I mean, my parents, at different points in their lives when they were single, both lived in the West Village, like in the Sixties and Seventies. 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. And they were so supportive and so encouraging.
There’s a part in Bros where a teacher questions whether elementary-school kids are old enough to learn 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?
I could not have anticipated that. I remember writing that and thinking, “I hope people don’t think that this is unrealistic,” because it seemed that we were making progress. But we were never taught our own history as LGBTQ people, even in a threadbare, overly generalized way, the way they teach history in elementary school. We didn’t even get that version of it. We have no sense of ourselves historically. And I don’t think that we realize what that did to us, [to] know nothing 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?
I had an experience in my mid-thirties where I had not seriously dated anyone in a long time and all of a sudden, I met someone who really shook me up, who I really fell for very quickly. It did not lead to the type of relationship that Bobby and Aaron have in the movie. It was more short-lived. But it did open my eyes in terms of relationships and love, and made me think, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t completely ignore that part of my life.” I was talking to friends about it, and 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. During Covid, when everyone was sitting around and had nothing to do, I was thinking of ideas. And, I thought, “What if we did a gay version of [the 1989 Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner film] The War of the Roses?” Because we see so many happy gay couples. We get gay people falling in love and gay teenagers falling in love, and everything is beautiful and hunky-dory. So this is almost like the other side 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. So I thought the idea of a gay divorce would be really funny. I just liked the idea of two gay men really being able to go at it, you know, emotionally and physically. It’s gonna be really fun.
You 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 made 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 Street fans started to rip the clips, and there are multiple Billy on the Street pages on TikTok with millions upon millions of views. I took a look the other day, [and] there was one clip with 50 million views. There are these clips that are like 15 years old that people are just discovering! There are probably 12-year-olds watching them who were literally not born when I first started doing them, which is really shocking. It just keeps having this crazy afterlife. I’ve had people come up to say to me, “Oh my God, Billy on the Street! I know you from TikTok!” which is just very bizarre.
How do you see the future of Billy in the Street, if any?
In terms of the future of it, the vast majority of it is behind me. Maybe for special occasions we’ll bring it back. Obviously, it was not Covid-friendly. 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. I did it for so long. People don’t realize but the first Billy on the Street-style video I made was for my live show in September of 2004. It predates YouTube! So it was a very, very slow burn of a success story. I’m not saying never ever, but I’m never gonna do it regularly again.
It seems like its success led to some misconceptions about who you are as a performer.
I never even considered myself a comedian. I was a theater kid growing up in New York. I just wanted to do Broadway and off-Broadway. I was a really good singer, I wanted to do musicals. And I went to Northwestern, [where] I was a theater major doing Chekhov and Shakespeare and Angels in America. When Billy on the Street took off, people would describe me as “comedian Billy Eichner.” And I always thought, “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 Bros is a big part of that.
You had an amazing Billy on the Street moment years ago with Chris Pratt. You tell him something like, “Someday you’re gonna play gay and win an Oscar, and I’m still gonna be on the street doing this shit.”
It was kidding. And it wasn’t kidding. Although, 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. So that is progress.