Jeff Hiller is defying the “gay best friend” trope in the clever comedy series Somebody Somewhere, writes Siobhan Duck
WHEN Jeff Hiller was a child, he would sneak in viewings of awardwinning US sitcom Soap in the hopes of seeing a character he could relate to. A chaotic parody of long-running serials like Days Of Our Lives and The Young And The Restless, Soap aired from 1977 to 1981 and poked fun at the genre’s melodramatic storylines and tropes (think kidnappings, amnesiacs and even an alien abduction). But it wasn’t the show’s send-ups or over-the-top drama that drew in the aspiring comic actor.
“I wasn’t old enough to watch Soap when it [first] aired, but I would watch it [later] in syndication because I knew Billy Crystal’s character was supposed to be gay, and I was really titillated by that,” says Hiller, who is openly gay. “But I never saw him be gay. And, in fact, at one point, he was dating a woman, so I was like… ‘I don’t get it.’”
While Hiller notes there is certainly far better representation for queer people on screen four decades later, his own role in the dark comedy Somebody Somewhere is groundbreaking in its own quiet way.
Instead of one of the many characters dubbed the “gay best friend” – written as stereotypically catty, image-conscious or flamboyant – Hiller gives us Joel, an average and loveable guy leading a decidedly unflashy life in small-town America.
It is a role that rings particularly true for Hiller, who, like Joel, was raised in a religious community and was bullied so much as a child, he developed a stress rash.
“I grew up in San Antonio, which is actually a very large city, but it was the ’80s in Texas and it wasn’t an especially progressive area,” he recalls. “And it was pre-internet, so even big towns felt like a small town to a teenager, so I do identify with that [experience].”
While Hiller is aware of the daring nature of his series, he baulks at the suggestion that he could inspire a new generation coming to terms with their own sexuality. “I think the teens are watching Euphoria rather than Somebody Somewhere,” he says with a laugh.
“For me, it’s just nice because I’ve never seen a character who is like Joel – who is not a saint, but also not just there to hit on the male main character,” Hiller adds.
Hiller, whose more than twodecade career is peppered with appearances on comedy shows including Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Crazy Ex- Girlfriend and Broad City, admits, “I have played a tailor on a TV show, and
I was in it three times, and every time, I was measuring the guy’s inseam. I love that Joel isn’t just there to be bitchy. A lot of my career has been playing bitchy customer service representatives.”
He also knows all too well that he doesn’t look like a textbook leading man, jokingly relaying how he has “been asked a few times [by journalists] what it is like to be the lead of a show and not be conventionally attractive. I mean, ouch. What’s weird about it [is that] in my life, I’m the main character. In my professional life, I never was before [ Somebody Somewhere]. So it doesn’t feel that odd to be the lead, because it’s not like in my personal life all I am doing is servicing my friends’ wants and desires.”
Likewise, Somebody Somewhere star Bridget Everett, his on-screen partner in crime and one-time real-life housemate, is not a stereotypical leading lady.
As Sam, she is a grief-stricken woman who feels purposeless and lonely until striking up a friendship with Joel (Hiller) after returning to her hometown.
“It’s basically a show about not giving up on yourself – even in the second half of life – and that resonates with a lot of people because we’re told that we should give up on ourselves and that sucks,” says Hiller, who offers himself up as the perfect example of the opposite. “I am not an ingenue,” he explains.
“I am on the wrong side of 45. I have been trying to be an actor for 25 years, just hoping to get health insurance each year. And to finally get a role where I have an arc and an interior life – after 25 years of just trying to be the mean waiter – gives me continued hope that good things can happen.”
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