When he was still figuring out who he was as a gay man, Billy Eichner found himself at the movies. As a college student in Chicago, he caught “Jeffrey” and “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” at the Music Box. Later, after a move to New York, Eichner watched films like “All Over the Guy,” “The Broken Hearts Club,” and “Another Gay Movie” at the Quad.
“Some of them were great and some of them were a little less great,” he said, “but I always ran to see them because I had a hunger to see our stories onscreen.”
Now it’s Eichner who gets to star in one of those stories. In “Bros,” which Universal is releasing in theaters on Friday, Eichner plays Bobby Leiber, a cynical Manhattanite who is surprised to find himself falling for Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), an affable jock. With most romantic comedies, the question is whether the central couple will ever get together, but these modern gay men quickly tumble into bed with each other (and sometimes with guest stars). Here, the conflict arises from whether they’ll actually stay together, since Aaron can be aloof and Bobby has never dated someone who’s such a … well, bro.
Though Eichner became famous for loudly haranguing passers-by about pop culture on his series “Billy on the Street,” in real life, the 44-year-old comic actor is low-key and thoughtful. He hopes that “Bros,” which he co-wrote with the director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), will demonstrate that he’s capable of much more than just bellowing.
“I think until very recently, if Hollywood was willing to put a gay character in anything, it was often to be some version of a live-action cartoon,” Eichner told me recently over dinner in Los Angeles. “But with ‘Bros,’ one of the things that excites me the most about it is I get to be a real, multidimensional person.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eichner in a scene from “Bros,” with, from left, Dot-Marie Jones, Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence and Eve Lindley.Credit…Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures
At what point did you decide to call this film “Bros”?
Very early on. One of the initial inspirations for the movie was this “Billy on the Street” segment I did with Jason Sudeikis called the “Bro Lightning Round.” where I dropped my normal “Billy on the Street” persona and did a different character. It was this very bro-y guy, and I would ask [a passer-by], “Hey bro, is masculinity a prison?” and the guy would say, “Yes,” and we’d all cheer. A gay friend of mine said to me, “You were kind of hot in that segment, when you talked like that. You should dress like that more often.” He was half-joking but half-not.
Inside every joke, there’s a kernel of truth.
One hundred percent, and I could tell. I said to him, “Are you saying I should have a completely different voice and dress like a completely different person in order to seem sexually attractive to you?” I always thought there was something there to further explore about gay men, at least those of my generation — I can’t speak to the younger ones, I don’t think they’re as focused on this issue of masculinity. But I told Nick that anecdote, and that’s when the idea of calling the movie “Bros” came to me. I liked the irony of it, that this big mainstream gay rom-com would be called “Bros,” but also when people see the movie, they’ll realize it actually is tied into one of the themes.
How would you define that theme?
That the gay male community, or at least parts of it, put a certain type of jocky, all-American masculinity on a pedestal. I think that for gay men of my generation, it was less of an issue to simply be gay — many of us were OK with that, for the most part — but we wanted to be masculine, and we were attracted to this very old-fashioned sense of masculinity. And although things are definitely changing for the better, a lot of that stuff is still ingrained in us.
What’s your own journey been like with masculinity?
Complicated. When I was in my 20s, you would go to the gay bar with your friends and we always talked about how we’re gay, but we’re not that gay. I remember my father saying that to me as if that was a good thing.
Meaning you presented more masculine?
Right, that I was presenting as more “straight-acting,” which is an outdated term, but that’s what we used to use all the time. Then an interesting thing happened when I started to perform live onstage: I was more flamboyant. It’s like I leaned into the opposite extreme, but that wasn’t a premeditated choice, it’s just what came out when I started to develop what eventually became the “Billy on the Street” persona.
Was there a freedom in leaning into that side of yourself?
I guess there was. I think it was a bit of a [screw you] to what I was observing in gay men at the time. Also, I know I’m so loud and outgoing onstage or on camera, but I can be very shy. At gay bars in my 20s, I was known as the quiet one who stood next to my best friend, who was extremely social and gorgeous. He would bring his gay friends to see my live show, where I was so outrageous, and they would look at me like, “Who is that person?”
So how do you reconcile those extremes?
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but I struggled with it. I remember being in Provincetown once, when “Billy on the Street” had been on TV for a few years, and a guy came up to me and said, “Hello, I’m a fan.” And I was talking to him for a while and he said, “Oh, I guess you’re really gay on TV but you’re not in real life?” That was such a confusing moment, but it stuck with me. In a way, you do start to question which is the real you.
Do you think he wanted you to be more performative?
Yes, and I do think that’s a little silly, because I’m clearly playing a character. I’ve sat down with journalists sometimes and they’d be disappointed that I was just normal and I wasn’t coming at them and shouting. They wanted the character, and I would always say, “Do you think Sacha Baron Cohen shows up as Borat?”
There are some comedians who are always on, who never drop the act.
I would rather die than be that way.
“Bros” has an almost entirely L.G.B.T. cast, but your director, Nick Stoller, is straight. Was there ever a conversation about whether a gay person should direct it?
This was five years ago, and I think the culture and the industry have evolved a lot since then. If we were making the movie now, would the studio maybe insist it was a gay director? It’s possible, but the project started with Nick emailing me and saying, “I love your work. Do you want to write a gay rom-com with me and you can star in it?” I’d never written a movie before, I’d never even had a large supporting role in a live-action movie, and he’s made many movies. I was confident that he could walk me through all of that and protect my vision.
I do love working with gay people. I’m writing my next project with Paul Rudnick, and Greg Berlanti is producing it. But at the same time, I love that Judd [Apatow, a producer of the project] and Nick and I made this movie together. I love the idea that we could make a movie that has three raunchy sex scenes, two of which are orgies, but it still has this Nora Ephron glow.
To what extent is this film drawn from your own dating life?
The inspiration for it came from an experience I had in real life, but I’ve never had a relationship like the one Bobby and Aaron have in the movie.
What was that real-life experience?
For the vast majority of my life, I always prided myself on not needing a boyfriend. I always silently judged friends that I thought were codependent, and then in 2015, I met a guy and instantly felt a really strong connection to him. He was really smart, a little aloof and emotionally unavailable — which, of course, makes you want them even more.
Overnight, I went from a person who never needed anyone to being completely obsessed, dying to star in a Hallmark Christmas movie with this guy. I remember being out to dinner with some very close friends around that time, telling them that I was just obsessing over this guy and I couldn’t tell how he feels, that we hooked up but I can tell that he’s not into it. All these things were driving me insane, and my friends looked at each other and they said, “Wow, Billy has feelings,” and they all laughed. Literally, that could be in “Bros.” And then a year and a half later, after trying any which way to convince this person to date, I finally got over it.
How long was your longest relationship?
Oh, boy. I dated someone for two and a half years, but that ended in 2003, a really long time ago. After that, I was very much like Bobby Leiber — I loved my work and it was hard to get this career off the ground, so I put all my energy into that. The experience I had with that guy in 2015 really shifted my focus for the first time, and after that, my walls went right back up. But even though it didn’t work out, it taught me not to ignore these other parts of my life.
When I’m watching “Bros,” and the guys start becoming more romantic and intimate … well, everyone can make fun of me for saying this, but I get swept away by it, too. Especially at those first screenings, I remember thinking, “Wow, those guys in the movie are so happy.” Then I was like, “Why is the fictional version of me happier than I am?”
A lot of rom-coms end with the first kiss. You never saw Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have sex …
God, I wish they would have!
… but in “Bros,” sex happens early and often. Did you have an idea about how you wanted it to be portrayed?
I think sex can be very funny. Maybe not in Nora Ephron movies, but in Judd Apatow movies, there’s nudity and raunchiness that’s played for laughs and can also be really poignant. I love “Borat,” and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in a movie theater than that scene where Sacha Baron Cohen and that naked guy are wrestling. The audience was really falling out of their seats laughing.
Do you think part of the reason they laughed is because they found the mere idea of male nudity to be funny?
Maybe it was shocking to them that Sacha was willing to go there, but I did think to myself, “Well, if they can do that, then 15 years after ‘Borat,’ we can certainly do this.” It’s also on-story for the characters in “Bros”: They’re trying to keep up this masculine persona even when they’re intimate, and they’re both fighting so hard against being vulnerable with each other. I just saw no reason not to do it. If it shocks people a little, well, I grew up with Madonna. I like to be a little shocking, a little provocative. I really never cared about being for everyone.
Your character is insecure that he’s not enough of a jock, but you’re pretty fit, Billy. Do you feel pressure to look a certain way?
I work out, I exercise, but I don’t consider myself a jock by any means. I never really played sports.
When gay men call themselves jocks, I don’t think it has anything to do with sports.
No, of course it doesn’t. But I do feel that pressure, and that’s part of being a complicated human being. You can criticize people who are trying to conform to that look and be buff — you can know intellectually that this is a ridiculous thing to pursue — and also, at the same time, you can want to actually be part of that convention. Look, it’s complicated. As Madonna once said, “Life is a paradox.”
It’s interesting to go back and read old interviews with you because once you started working out and became fitter, every profile mentions it.
On Vulture, bless their hearts, I remember waking up one day and seeing an article that my publicist did not pitch that said, “When did Billy Eichner become hot?” It’s an odd thing. I’ve seen tweets saying that I’m too hot to play the role, and tweets saying I’m too ugly to play the role. Literally in the same breath, “Oh, how could Billy be playing the nerdy guy that no one wants when he’s so fit?” and guys saying, “There’s no way Billy could pull Luke Macfarlane.”
How much of a say did you have in the film’s marketing campaign?
Ultimately, Universal makes those calls. I’m not someone who’s constantly starring in three movies a year, so they knew that this was a first for me personally and they wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable with everything. But they did initially present a poster for the movie that had Luke and I in tuxedos, like we were having a gay wedding.
Like you guys were a wedding topper?
Exactly. I did politely push back on that and I said, “Guys, I know that we have a movie to sell here, but this is not a gay wedding movie. In fact, on multiple occasions, my character specifically talks about how he doesn’t want to get married.” Then almost overnight, they were like, “Well, what about this?” And it was the picture of us grabbing each other’s asses. I said, “Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s great.” Then I got a scare, I was like, “That might be too far,” and they said, “No, we love it. It’s bold, like the movie. Let’s be unapologetic.”
How will you measure the success of this movie?
I want the people who see it to laugh a lot and to be moved. A lot of what we get in movie theaters and even on TV to a certain degree is cynical and dark and gritty, but “Bros” is about the good things in life. It’s about love and sex and romance. That’s something that I think is lacking in a lot of our lives — it certainly has been lacking for a good part of my adult life, and I don’t want it to be. I think movies like this are a reminder that we shouldn’t ignore those things.
Ben Stiller came to the premiere in New York, and he looked at me like, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that.” Meaning the movie and the sex scenes. We premiered the trailer on Jimmy Kimmel and he watched an advance screener of it, and he said to me, “Wow, is it really like that?” I think for us as gay people, we’ve lived these lives, but for straight audiences, it is a bit eye-opening. And that’s good, because that’s why we go to the movies — not only to be entertained, but to develop a richer understanding of who we are and who other people are.