Billy Eichner is most famous for running through the streets of New York City with various celebrities in tow, shouting at strangers. The comedian has built his public persona on being brash and larger-than-life fearless — which is why it’s particularly fun to watch him transform into Timon, the melodramatic, gently neurotic meerkat who takes the traumatized Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover) under his wing in Jon Favreau’s new “live action” version of The Lion King.
As Timon, Eichner runs away with the movie, threading a difficult needle perfectly: He’s not imitating Nathan Lane’s iconic performance in the 1994 original, but he’s not entirely abandoning what made it so charming either. With help from co-star Seth Rogen, who plays Timon’s gaseous sidekick Pumbaa, Eichner infuses the role with his own dry, lightly deranged comedy. When he first meets Simba and realizes the young lion might become his charge, Eichner lets out an exhausted sigh that evokes a lifetime of successfully evading responsibility. “How are you,” he asks Simba, “in as few words as possible?” He and Rogen riff off each other nimbly throughout the film, most memorably (and darkly) on the concepts of morality and human connection: At one point, Timon calmly informs Simba that life is not, in fact, a “circle,” as the film’s famous song suggests, but a “meaningless line of indifference.”
The most surprising part of Eichner’s performance, though, is his singing voice. When I hop on the phone with him a day after the film’s L.A. premiere, he tells me he always thought he’d become a Broadway star, but “life had its own idea” for him. In The Lion King, Eichner belts alongside the likes of Beyoncé and Glover. The role might mark a new phase for the actor, who’s built a career out of hilariously scrutinizing the careers of other people; now he’s the one fielding questions, including those about the time he had Thanksgiving with Barbra Streisand, what happened behind the scenes of the incredibly stacked Lion King cast photo, and what it’s like to be hugged by Beyoncé.
How are you, in as few words as possible?
Ohhh! That was good. [Laughs.] That line got a big laugh. I was happy about that.
Was that improvised or written in the script?
Oh, boy. I’m trying to remember. I think that came out of an improv session that we did; we eventually landed on that as the line. A really remarkable part of the Timon-and-Pumbaa dialogue came out of improv and ended up in the finished version in the movie, which I was really happy about. I thought it worked really well.
Do you remember anything specific that you and Seth came up with together?
A lot of the banter, when we first find Simba, that first scene came out of improv. When I say, “Oh, great, now his problems are my problems,” that was all improv. I think that was improv we did on the very first day we recorded together. And when we’re talking to him about how the circle of life doesn’t exist, and how life is meaningless — that whole thing.
I mean, it was always guided by Jon. Nothing came out of thin air, necessarily. There was a theme to the scene, like: What would Timon and Pumbaa’s perspective be in this scene? And we’d use it as a launching point for a lot of riffing. And I was surprised that a lot of it ended up in the movie. Something that often happens when you’re improvising, there’s a kernel of something that Jon or one of us hears, and it’s not in its perfect form yet, but you turn that into a more polished joke. But honestly, a lot of the raw improv is in the movie.
I had no idea you had such a great singing voice. What’s your singing background?
Well, thank you. I am an amazing singer. Beautiful singer. [Laughs.] This isn’t the first time anyone’s asked me to sing professionally; the first thing that ever got me onstage as a kid was that I opened my mouth and had a really good singing voice, like, in kindergarten. I became that one boy in your public-school class who could sing. So I ended up getting all these roles in musicals, going to a lot of Broadway shows while growing up in New York, falling in love with theater, then going to Northwestern, where I was a theater major and did a ton of musicals. I thought I was on a Broadway, musical-theater track. But life had its own idea. I started to take improv classes in New York, did a comedy-driven stage show in New York, did Billy on the Street, and then everything kind of snowballed and all of a sudden I was a comedian. Now no one knows that I can sing, so I can’t think of a cooler project to introduce people to that.
Did you sing when you had Thanksgiving with Barbra Streisand?
Woooow. You’re a real fan. I did not, but that was veeerrrry exciting for me. I promised my friends who invited me that I’d never talk too much about it. But she was lovely and funny and down-to-earth. She was great. That was a really, really fun night. I obviously worship her for just about every reason.
Did you get to have any sort of normal conversation with her?
We did! We did. And part of me wanted to pull her aside and talk about work and talk about career; I would have loved to have done that. But it was not the right time to do that. And she was there with family, and I was there with some very close friends of mine. It was beautiful to be in her presence. But no. Maybe one day I can talk to her about work and stuff, but that wasn’t the night to do it.
I wanna talk about the Lion King cast photo. How were you all assigned your placements?
We were just told where to sit by the photographer! So that’s really a question for him, I guess. We were all just doing what he was telling us to do. But it was fantastic to be in that room. The photographer — I’m forgetting his name — kept yelling at us, “It’s the Lion King! This is history! It’s iconic!” I was like, “I don’t know how to look iconic! I’m just sitting here in my sweater and looking at the camera.” John Oliver and Seth and I were all cracking up. It’s obviously an incredible group of people.
What sort of mingling happened that day — did you meet anyone you hadn’t met yet?
I had not met Alfre Woodard yet. I was really starstruck, because I grew up just loving her. She’s so brilliant. I mean, Scrooged alone! I happened to be obsessed with that when I was a kid. We’ve been hanging out a lot during these press events, and she is a really good time, Alfre Woodard. She’s hilarious.
When was the first time that you met Beyoncé?
I met Beyoncé for the first time last night. Right before the premiere. That was the first time we met, and she was lovely. We were backstage before they announced the cast, and Seth and I were the first to arrive, and the next to arrive happened to be Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And Seth and I were very shy and didn’t know whether we were allowed to approach her, or whether she wanted to talk to us.
But she came right up to us and introduced herself — not that she needed to — and gave us all a hug. I nervously said, “Hi, I’m Timon, I play Billy Eichner.” [Laughs.] I mean, I said, “Hi, I’m Billy Eichner, I play Timon!” And then she laughed and said, ‘I know,” and gave us all hugs. She was totally lovely and looked outrageously good.
I want to talk a little bit about your tweet recently where a Twitter user asked you, “Are the lions gay?” And you just hilariously wrote, “yes.” Is Timon gay? Is that canon now?
Timon is not written as … we don’t know what Timon is, really. What I like is that Jon Favreau kept up the tradition of hiring a gay actor, or an actor with a gay comedic sensibility. Although for me, it’s really a theatrical sensibility that Nathan Lane brought to the original. I’m assuming Jon was looking for someone who had a similar, larger-than-life theatrical quality to bring to the role. I’m honored to walk in those footsteps.
For years, gay people have been forced to look for the secret gay characters, especially in genres like family entertainment or animation, where we just do not have a presence. So we’ve been forced to have these kind of irritating conversations about whether children’s characters like Bert and Ernie and Timon and Pumbaa are gay or not. But what we need are openly LGBTQ characters, where we don’t have to have a debate about it. As you find gay people in life every day, you should find them in family entertainment as well. And I do see it starting to happen. So hopefully there’ll be more of that, so we don’t have to talk about potentially closeted cartoon characters.
You also tweeted about being excluded from Taylor Swift’s video. What kind of role do you think you would you have played in it?
[Laughs.] Were they playing characters? Anyway, I was kidding around, but I think it’s great. We need all the allies we can get. I honestly didn’t realize people had roles; I haven’t thought about that too much. But the video is cool. The more gays, the better.
You’ve said you wanted Meryl as your dream guest on Billy on the Street. What would you do with her?
I’m not telling you! No way. You’ll find out when we get her. We’ve gotten close to getting her. And I’ve met Meryl off-camera a number of times, and she’s always so lovely. We’ve had some great laughs. She’s obviously … Meryl! It’s thrilling to be in her presence. One day we’ll get her on the street. I’m optimistic. I don’t know why I’m optimistic? But I remain optimistic.
Where are you in the process of your gay rom-com with Judd Apatow?
We’re currently writing the script. We’re on our third or fourth draft of the script right now and just working away all of the day. We’ve been working on it really hard the past few months. We’ve had some very preliminary early casting sessions that I obviously can’t talk about at all, but our goal is to shoot next year. I’m really excited about it, really honored that it’s the very gay rom-com ever produced by a major studio.
I think somebody said I’d be the first openly LGBTQ person to ever write and star in their own film of any genre, which, on the one hand, is thrilling and lovely for me selfishly, but also kind of infuriating when you think about it. We’re about a century into Hollywood filmmaking, maybe more? It should have happened a looong time ago. Hopefully this will be the first of many to come.
And when will we get to see your Netflix comedy special?
Hopefully soon. I hope to shoot it this year. That’s definitely my goal. Watch my social media for any and all announcements!
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.