Actor and Comedian Jeff Hiller on the Acclaimed HBO Show “Somebody Somewhere” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, June 19th, 2024  

Actor and Comedian Jeff Hiller on the Acclaimed HBO Show “Somebody Somewhere”

Explaining Friendship

Feb 24, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by Elizabeth Sisson/HBO Bookmark and Share


Jeff Hiller is one of the most sincere and delightful humans in Hollywood. And, boy, is he in Hollywood. The comedian and character actor has a lengthy IMDB page, including 30 Rock and Broad City, but his most recent project is a starring role in the popular and acclaimed HBO series, Somebody Somewhere.

In that show, Hiller displays his charm and capacity for friendship (much more on that below). We caught up with the hilarious and warm Hiller to talk to him about his career (from beginning to now), what it’s been like to “scrape” his way to the “lower middle” and what it’s been like to work on the new HBO series. Will there be a season 2? We hope to god!

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Hello, Jeff!

Jeff Hiller: Hey, Jake!

How are you? Enthusiasm!

Hello! I’m okay! I appreciate it.

It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’ve of course seen Somebody Somewhere, which we’ll talk about in a second. But just before calling in here, I watched a clip of you doing standup and talking about buttholes. So, thanks for making some time!

[Laughs] Oh my gosh! You know, I told them to take that down! But did they listen? They don’t listen!

Not only is it not down, it’s number-one in the queue!

Oh good! Oh good! I’m so glad!

But yes, thank you for making some time. I have some questions for you, so we can dive in, if that’s alright?

Yes, yes! I hope they’re all about buttholes!

It’s funny, the first letter of each question spells out butthole, so you’re in luck! Okay, to formally begin, let me ask: when did you start acting and doing comedy? I believe I read something about Upright Citizen’s Brigade, but how did all this start for you?

Well, yes. You know, I always wanted to be an actor growing up but I didn’t know you could until I was in an improv group in Denver. And then I applied to get my Master’s in social work from NYU. And I took a class at UCB in the summer before we started it. And I just deferred my enrollment because the UCB—basically because one person at the UCB was in a commercial. And I was like, “Oh, people who are regular can be actors!” [Laughs] So, that’s when I started. And I improvised there for a very long time before I got a commercial.

And then inspired somebody else probably. I’m one of those people who loves UCB and who is also too scared to ever take a class or try to perform. So, since you are not someone who is scared of that, let me ask: how did you dive in, how did improvising at UCB begin for you?

Right, well, I thought I couldn’t do it either. And then I just tried because I thought what’s the worst that could happen, it’s just a class, you know? Lorne Michaels wasn’t going to be there! And I was like, “Oh, I’m good at this!” And what I really love about improv is—it gets this bad rap, like you see people make fun of it on The Office, or whatever. And by the way all of those people who make fun of it started in improv! So, you see these people making fun of it but really it’s the only art form where you can be anyone. You can do anything. You know, I’ve seen young, like, a 16-year-old kid play the boss. And I get to play a cockroach and a rock! And it’s very exciting to be able to do that. It’s very freeing. So, I always love it.

Okay, allow me to be the one-millionth person to say that your TV resume is extensive. In that butthole clip mentioned before, you say in it how you “scraped and clawed” to be in the lower middle of your profession, which I resonate with in my own! But is there an experience or something that sticks with you today in the forefront of your mind when it comes to your career to date?

You audition for anything—it’s so funny, when people ask you, “What attracted you to the role on 30 Rock?” And you’re like, “Uh, they said I could do it!” It wasn’t like, “Oh this is the role for me that I’ll turn down other ones for!” You know, other actors would be like, “Your career’s going great, you were on two shows this year.” And then you’d be like, “That’s two days of work out of 365.” So, it’s not that great. But I think what I really loved doing was taking a role that was just sort of, you know, just a waiter. And imbuing it with some specificity. That’s something I enjoyed doing and felt good about. But you know what was really depressing?

What?

When you’re no longer auditioning to be the waiter and you start auditioning for the maître-d’. [Laughs] You’re like, oh wait a minute! I’m aging out of the waiter now?

Gotta buy a tux!

Exactly.

And how about Somebody Somewhere? What a beautiful show, in many ways. My wife and I love these shows like Joe Pera Talks With You and How To with John Wilson—these smaller shows, these shows where cell phones and technology aren’t the main character. But how did Somebody Somewhere manifest for you? How did you get the gig, what drew you to it?

You know what it’s kind of like? I’m just having this thought right now so it could go nowhere, so just be careful. [Laughs] But it’s almost like these are the—now that TV is so much more arty, you know? These are like the indie films but of the television landscape.

Totally.

Oh good, I landed it! Let’s see what was your question? Oh! Of course, I wasn’t in the position to be like, “I guess I’ll choose this show!” Let’s just face facts. I was definitely like, “Please pick me!” But I was really, really wanting this role. I was really burning sage, or whatever, for it. I mean, it was written for Bridget, who I know. But the role was so similar to me, because I grew up in the church. And a faith community wasn’t scary to me, it was actually one of the few safe places where I could be when I was growing up.

And I loved that everything was authentic and small and it was about friendship, which—I had moved from L.A. back to New York. And all of my friends were gone. They had all moved to L.A. But I came back because my husband was here. And I had to make new friends when I was turning 40 and it was very stressful and difficult. A lot more difficult than I expected! And I loved that this show dramatized that.

Interesting. I have no friends, so I don’t know what that ambition is like. I have no desire for friends!

Oh, you don’t even want them? Oh, okay!

No. Uninterested! [Laughs] But there’s also—I am a 38-year-old straight white guy. But it’s impossible not to notice that in the cast…

What if I just hung up when you said that?

What?!

[Laughs]

That would be fine if you did! I’d just turn in what we had so far.

Okay, what were you saying? You’re a 38-year-old straight white man.

Yes. But there’s a great queer sensibility to the cast and to the show. The person who plays Fred Rococo [actor Murray Hill] is so good and the series centers people untraditionally centered. Was this something you thought about when taking the role, how do you think about it now?

Totally. Because, I mean, I know you abhor friendships [laughs] but some people in the world, they enjoy finding other people in the world that they can be in community with. For me, I think everybody—like when you go to college or when you move out for the first time, you are no longer with your biological family. Even if your biological family is wonderful and you really get along with them, you have to find your people. The people who are just like you. Not just because of environment but because of passions and beliefs and stuff like that. So, I loved that. But I would imagine—again, I don’t know. I’m not a 38-year-old straight man, but…

You’re missing out!

[Laughs] I think I would have—well, maybe not now—but I think I would have ripped it pretty good, like, 10 years ago. But I think even people who aren’t necessarily from a marginalized community understand and identify with what it’s like to try and find people who are like you, you know? Because you don’t necessarily find the people who are the same as you in your English class. You have to kind of search for them, to find the people who like the weird stuff that you like. You know, you found your wife and you two like your little independent TV shows. It’s not just—I don’t know, maybe you can find it in your English class because you all like Marvel, I don’t know.

Marvel…

But I like the idea of searching for your family. And for your Marvel friends…

Do you identify with your character Joel in the show? Are you similar to Joel? He seems to be very giving and empathetic and supportive and friendly—do you have these in common?

Yeah, I think he is definitely like me in that I think we are both very empathetic. I don’t know that—I think he’s probably kinder than me. I said that to my husband and he was like, “Oh, yeah! He is!” And I was like, “Alright, calm down.” [Laughs]

You’re like, “Wait, you weren’t supposed to agree with that!”

Exactly! Like, “I said that for you to disagree!” But yeah, in that sense, I think we are a little different. I don’t think I would have just like this sixth sense to know, “You need to come up here and sing and that will cure you” [which happens in the show]. But like I said, I grew up in a faith community and I’m definitely a nerd—well, not a nerd. Nerd now is cool, isn’t it? I’m definitely not “conventionally attractive,” how about that? And I am a little bit, you know, awkward and strange and obviously gay! So, I think all of those things are true. I think I maybe have a few more hang-ups about how not mainstream I am and that Joel seems to be able to accept in a way that I can’t or haven’t.

The final episode in the barn—okay, so I’m watching the series and the main character, Sam, is kind of demanding, subtly, of Joel. And I keep watching, being like, why is Joel still acquiescing? But it really does seem to be that Joel really honors and cares about friendship in general and their friendship in particular.

That’s really outside of your comfort zone!

Yeah, I’m wondering why people would do this for each other? [Laughs] What is this quality?

Oh my god. This is good. This is like a breakthrough for you. This is therapy.

It is! What is this F-word? But that last scene in the barn is this real celebration of friendship. It’s a culminating moment of the whole first season, in a way. You see the payoff. And maybe Joel always knew a payoff like this was going to happen, somehow. Not that he cared about the reward, so to speak. But that’s what he had faith in. So, what would you like to say about the finale and that barn moment? Was it difficult to shoot, was it a joy?

Yeah, what I liked about it was Bridget [Everett, who plays the lead role, Sam] hadn’t played that song for me, so that was my actual genuine reaction to hearing that song, which was a really beautiful song. And I don’t think Joel was doing all of this for the reward. First of all, I think he sees Sam as—because he remembers her from when he was young, she doesn’t remember him, but I think she holds a special power over him. And I think you’re right that there are times when it’s not necessarily healthy, when you see how it affects his romantic relationship and stuff like that.

But I think for him, this was such—he wanted to be there for her. But he also was thrilled at the fact that she was there with him. There’s that line in the pilot where he says, “I can’t believe I, like, know you-know you now.” And I think that’s such a reward for him. So, I think when she does do that [sing for him], it is such a beautiful moment for Joel, it’s really a beautiful moment for Sam because she is able to give back. And [to that point] she’s been so shut down that she hasn’t been able to, which is what I think you were picking up on, her being subtly demanding.

How was it working with the Duplass Brothers on the show?

I loved working with them. Jay, I worked with closer because he actually directed three of the episodes. So, I actually worked with him a lot more than I did with Mark. But I loved that he was able—see now I’ve said this thing about indie movies and I’m like, “It all makes sense!” But I love that he brought that indie film sensibility to this TV show. I think Hannah [Bos] and Paul [Thureen], the creators of the show, really had this mandate on authenticity. So, it was already there. But what I think he really brought was that visual style that is distinctly him and this show. And I really liked working with him a lot. You know, they’re indie superstars for a reason!

And how about you, another indie superstar? What do you see for yourself in the future? Is there going to be a season two of Somebody Somewhere? Is that something you can talk about?

Well, we did find out there’s going to be a second season!

Nice! Great!

Yeah. We haven’t shot it yet, though. And as far as for me in the future, I don’t know! I just hope I get to work somewhere. There’s no real grand plan, unfortunately. No movie offers just falling at my feet. But the hope is—you know, I’m a character actor. I’m not a figure skater, you know? I can go until I’m about to keel over.

You’re going to get your own show one day. On, like, Hulu. Or Adult Swim. And it’s going to be a favorite!

I love it!

And then you’re going to think back about this interviewer who told you so who has no friends and is happy about that. And you’re going to wonder what he’s doing!

Out there in rainy Seattle!

Yes, searching for the Duplass Brothers somewhere! Okay, but yes, final question, Jeff. What is it that you love most about what you do?

What I love most about Somebody Somewhere is that all of us are there having a very similar moment together. Bridget and Murray and Jon [Hudson Odom], who plays my boyfriend, and Mary Catherine [Garrison], who plays the sister, we’re all people who have been, as I said, scraping and clawing our way to the lower middle. And so everyone there is completely grateful and just wanting to do a great job and getting to, which is so rare.

What I love about performing, in general, is—I don’t know. The cynical thing is that I like not having to be myself for a little bit. [Laughs] But the more sincere thing is I do like change. I like new worlds. I like discovering new things and new people. I like hearing about journalists in Seattle who don’t believe in friendship.

That’s right!

I think as a profession, it’s very—it’s great. It’s great to be able to dip your toe into a world and have a whole new experience. So, that’s what I like.

Well, thanks a lot, Jeff. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. And I wish you all the best on your new Hulu show!

[Laughs] Oh god, are you going to be a producer on it? This is amazing!

That’s right! Revealed! This was your interview for your brand-new show! Scooby-Doo Ending!

Yes! It’s just a direct-address-to-camera show where I explain friendship.

That would be great!

(The season one finale of Somebody Somewhere airs this Sunday on HBO.)

www.hbo.com/somebody-somewhere

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