On ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ Jeff Hiller Has Found Himself in One of TV’s Greatest Friendships

The prolific former sitcom guest star tells us about acting opposite Bridget Everett, mixing ‘the light with the heavy’ and why his playing Joel feels ‘ordained’
On ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ Jeff Hiller Has Found Himself in One of TV’s Greatest Friendships

When we meet Sam (Bridget Everett) in the first season of Somebody Somewhere, she’s having a hard time. She’s mourning the death of her sister Holly, for whom Sam had moved back to her home town of Manhattan, Kansas, at the end of Holly’s battle with cancer. Her mother Mary Jo (Jane Brody) is an alcoholic, about which both Mary Jo and Sam’s dad Ed (Mike Hagerty) are in deep denial. Sam’s surviving sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) is hostile. And Sam’s job, reading college application essays at a testing center, is stultifying. 

When she’s at her lowest point, Sam receives an offer of comfort, and Kleenex, by Joel (Jeff Hiller). Currently a work colleague, Joel is also a former high school classmate; while Sam doesn’t remember him, it’s clear he’s known who she was all along, and has been so starstruck that it’s taken him some time to approach her. The prickly Sam tries to resist Joel’s attempts to make friends, but she can’t, and soon joins his social circle at Choir Practice, the underground cabaret he runs after hours at church. Through the show’s first season, the two are nearly inseparable: Joel joins Sam on a stakeout to see what secret shadiness her brother-in-law Rick (Danny McCarthy) is up to; Sam helps Joel through his breakup with Michael (Jon Hudson Odom) and a crisis of faith. Mostly, they make each other laugh, with roasts of each other, scandalous stories about everyone they know, and raucously filthy songs (which Everett is known for).

As Somebody Somewhere returns for its second season this weekend, I spoke with Hiller about Joel’s friendship with Sam, what it’s like acting opposite Everett when she’s performing a musical number and how life has changed now that he’s at the top of the call sheet.

How is it different coming back to shoot a second season of Somebody Somewhere?

It’s just a lot easier. You know the character, you know the crew, your castmates, the directors. It feels easier, but also… I’m going to say something really annoying and pretentious, but (puts on a snooty voice) I really love the character that is Joel. It was nice to get to go back and play him, because I liked being him, so there it is: I’m an actor who talks about my character in the third person.

What did you miss about Joel between seasons?

I love his optimism. I know the character well enough that when I improvise, I know exactly where to take it. If I see a line and I think, “Oh, that’s not how Joel would say it,” I know exactly how Joel would say it. It just feels like, for 25 years, I’ve been playing little tiny bit parts, where I come in and I say, “Here’s your check.” Those are actually much more difficult roles. I felt like I had so much more to give. With Joel, I’m able to give it.

Other commentators have called Joel and Sam platonic soulmates, and you see from the start how much their friendship really depends on Joel’s patience, but also his determination. He is going to make this happen.

Yeah, that’s so true. I think one of those things on the vision board was probably a friendship with her. He’s been idolizing her since ninth grade or something, and yeah, he really does make it happen. 

Talk about a character that isn’t me. He’s able to see what Sam needs and bring it out of her in a way that I could never. I could never be like, “What she needs is to sing. I’m going to create an entire party where that could be facilitated.” I wouldn’t even know how to buy the drinks for a party like that, much less getting a band and stuff like that. 

Her friendship means so much to him because I think he was rejected by most of his peers in high school, and she was the star of those peers. It’s exciting to get to know her. He sees her as a true artist and the others as fluff. Yeah, he made it happen.

Talk about how things have changed in this new season for Joel and Sam. They’ve really reached a new level of intimacy. 

They have become so close that it’s at the exclusion of others. I think Fred (Murray Hill) being out of town — and Choir Practice being over because he doesn’t have the space for it — has forced them into a very solitary relationship with just each other, which I think is beautiful and sort of a honeymoon phase, but isn’t sustainable in the long run.

I feel like that’s very relatable. I’ve definitely done that. Not with romantic partners — I’m talking as if I’ve had so many romantic partners — but I’ve done that with friendships, specifically with cisgender straight women, where we become a little unit against the world. It’s such a lovely place, but it also can be limiting. 

Everything about the relationship feels so deeply observed. Do you get to be part of those conversations about where the characters are going, or is everything on the page when you get there?

We improvise lines, but not plot points. It’s really all on the page, but it’s very strangely accurate to my life, like bizarrely. I’ve told this story in other interviews where I thought, “Maybe this role was written for me.” Then I talked to a thousand gay actors over 40 who are like, “Yeah, I auditioned for it too.” 

I think the reason I got it is because it’s so much like me and it continues to be like me, in bizarre ways, and little ways where they write to it. They know that I love getting my 10,000 steps every day, so they wrote that into the character, but other things have come up that are very strange. They had no idea I was obsessing over getting a Vitamix, or that I was a theology major, or that I had a skin rash from stress, or that I drove a Buick LeSabre. These are silly things, but it does feel sort of ordained.

One of the many things that makes the show so special is that it balances these screamingly funny scenes with scenes of absolute emotional devastation.

What’s great about the show is that it will often have both of those things mixed together, so that they’ll be light with the heavy. They have this mandate for authenticity. It’s really all about being real. I think that, in a way, that makes it easier to act, and also strangely harder, but you know these situations, and so you know how to craft them into the way they would be in your life. When you get a little too sitcom-y, they might let you film it, but they won’t ever put it in the final edit. Even when it’s really, really funny.

A couple of characters get new recurring love interests this season. As you already alluded, you have been a guest star on a lot of different shows. This time, you’re a series regular. What was it like being on the other side?

Oh, it’s so much better. You’re treated with so much more respect by the crew, by the cast. I won’t mention the show, but I think of it often, because they only referred to me as Number 28, which was my number on the call sheet. My food, when it got delivered to me, was just Number 28. This was shot after Season One of Somebody Somewhere, and I thought, “Oh God, I’ve gone back to just being a number. I’m not even a name anymore.” 

It’s a little demoralizing. You still want the work and you still want to get the health insurance and everything like that, but it’s just so nice to be on the other side. Then artistically, it’s so much nicer, too, to have to have an investment in the character and for people to listen when you say, “What if I tried it like this?” without worrying that they’ll say, “No, you’re fired.”

In your guest-star days, did you ever have a mental list of dos and don’ts that you wished other people would observe, or did you have a list when you were cast here?

Yeah, you’re giving me a little too much credit on my self-esteem. A lot of times, I was just like, “I deserve this.”

Yes, I work very hard to make sure that everyone who comes on that set, whether they have one line or a several-episode arc, feels welcomed. I don’t have any say in whether or not they like their character or the story arc or whatever, but I make sure I know everybody’s name, and that I have at least a little connection with them. 

I sound like I think I’m a saint for being like, “I recognize humanity.” But if you’ve ever been on a set, there’s a lot of humanity that goes unrecognized. It’s exhausting. It’s hard to do that. I get why a lot of people are just like, “I don’t want to talk to anybody. I’m just going to ignore you, even though you’re playing my sister” or whatever. I try very, very hard not to do that.

Before Somebody Somewhere, could you tell as soon as you arrived on set, “This is going to be a Number 28 experience”? Is there a vibe you can detect right off the bat?

I don't know if this is my pessimistic nature or what, but they all started as Number 28. Really, you had to prove otherwise. I’ll give you the first television show where I was like, “Oh, people are being nice to me,” and it was Sarah Baker on the set of a show called Go On. She was the first person that was ever nice to me on a set. It was so meaningful. I later said that to her, because she sent me a really nice email about Somebody Somewhere. She goes, “I’m a straight-up bitch to normal people, but you just were talented.”

Another time, I was in a movie called Morning Glory. My scenes were all cut out, but Rachel McAdams was leaving our tiny news station to go be a big fancy producer or whatever, and she just improvised something where she hugged me, and it was so tender. I had never had any actor be nice to me before that. I started crying in the middle of the scene, and I feel sure that’s why it got cut. They were like, “Whoa, slow your roll, dude.”

One of the truest things that the show captures is how Joel and Sam are good people overall, but we definitely see them being bitchy with each other.

Maybe this is too strong a word, but when you’re members of marginalized groups, when you’re othered, there’s some power in that. They’re not punching down. They’re not making fun of people who can’t take it. They’re making fun of the people who are in charge and who are mean, and yeah, I’ve done that. I’ve done that a lot.

You’ve appeared in a Broadway musical. We’ve already heard you sing on the show, but this season we get to see you dance. How much of what we see you do is choreography versus just you freestyling?

Oh, that’s all freestyle. Can you imagine? That poor choreographer’s like, “Please take my name off the credit.” I’m an actor who— God, am I even an actor who moves? I’m not even sure if that’s true. I like to freestyle and move around, but I’m not really a dancer. 

What preparation is required for you to be in a Sam singing scene? Speaking of physicality, Bridget Everett’s got it.

Yeah, really. Well, those scenes are so interesting, because for sound reasons, you don’t hear the background. It’s not usually late at night that it’s happening. It’s very much, like, 10 a.m., a little earwig. There is some acting involved to seem like you’re really feeling it or what-have-you. The best thing about Bridget is when you watch her, she’s such a star. It’s really easy to act like you’re in love with that because you are. It’s so dynamic and powerful. It’s not that hard. Unless the people from the Emmys are asking. Then I worked hard.

There’s still a lot for Joel to explore in a third season and beyond — what the deal is with his dad, who comes up occasionally; what he did to survive in that snowstorm he mentions in Season One, because we still haven’t heard that story. Are there stories you especially hope come up in the future?

I would love to meet either of his parents, to be honest. He also alludes to having a really close relationship with his mother. I would like to just see what his friendship with Sam is like when he also has a romantic relationship. That’s a strange balancing act that I’ve also experienced, and it didn’t go so well with Michael, his first boyfriend. I’d love to just see a more successful attempt.

Last year you joined American Horror Story. Creator Ryan Murphy has a kind of repertory company across his shows. Is there one other actor who has worked with him a lot that you’d especially love to come back and co-star with?

The one thing about Ryan Murphy is he knows how to pick really cool actors. I’d really love to work with Kathy Bates or Angela Bassett. Jessica Lange. Sarah Paulson. Any of them. They’re all great. 

The one thing that was hard on American Horror Story was that it was, like me, and every single other actor was the most gorgeous gay man in the history of gay men. I would love to not just be the old troll on a set sometime.

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