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Somebody Somewhere’s Jeff Hiller Has Never Played a Character As Likable As Joel

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

The surest sign of a gay man in crisis is that he’s just decided to adopt a dog. That’s what Jeff Hiller’s character Joel does in the latest episode of Somebody Somewhere. But before he can find a new home for the dog he knows he’s not capable of taking care of, they get caught outside in the midst of a tornado warning. As Joel comforts the dog, named Roger, he calls his boyfriend Michael and leaves a message about how he wants to get married and have kids and get a house and own a Vitamix. It’s a breakthrough moment for the character, who’s spent much of the lovely HBO series set in small-town Kansas propping up everyone else around him (like getting Bridget Everett’s heroine Sam to come to the cabaretlike Choir Practice gatherings he organizes in secret at a local church).

It was also a cathartic moment for Hiller, who, like Everett, is a veteran of New York’s own cabaret world but has typically played minor bitchy side characters onscreen — never anyone as emotionally warm and open as Joel. Hiller spoke with Vulture about filming that scene in the midst of a storm, seeing Joel as the alternate-universe version of himself if he never left Texas, and working with a dog who was getting a big break in middle age.

I need to know how you found that dog who plays Roger. He is very adorable!
First of all, here’s some hot goss: Roger is played by a female dog. Gender is nothing! Her name is Charlie. This is her first professional acting gig. I felt like, of course, on this show where everybody is realizing that dreams don’t have deadlines, even the dog is like, Finally, my big break at middle age!

What was it like to film the scene with Charlie when you’re sheltering from the tornado?
It was really intense to shoot, because all these factors coalesced and we basically had to do that scene in one take. I don’t want to brag, but I got it in one take! We were losing the light, and also a real storm was rolling in. The week we were filming the tornado episode, an actual tornado hit the neighborhood we were in. Bridget and I were living in the same house, and she was so Kansas calm. I was texting her saying, “There’s a tornado. Should we go in the basement?” She’s like, “Eh, it’s kind of cold down there,” so we just didn’t. The place we were supposed to film that monologue had actually flooded with rainwater, so they had to dummy up a big corrugated-iron thing, and we lost time doing that. And there was a lightning storm coming!

You must’ve known going in that this would be an important moment for Joel. How did you prepare for it?
There’s a joke answer and a real answer. The joke answer is that Murray Hill used to make me run my lines every single night, and so I was completely off book. But just as an actor, that was the part where Joel had been so much about shining his light on Sam, and this was the first time in the series where he’s saying, “This is what I want.” We saw it briefly with his dream board, but this was the first time he was honest and open about it. It was so nice and so different from every other gay character in mainstream television. He does want to have a family. You see that as a joke on Modern Family, but this has a sincerity to it, which I really loved.

It feels like Joel is always trying to create community and bring people in his life together. That must be a lovely aspect to play.
I’ve never played a character who’s likable before. I’ve always played the mean waiter or the bitchy flight attendant. It’s so nice to play that. It’s also something I aspire to be. I want to be the person who throws the dinner party, but I don’t have that skill set. I love that I get to pretend to be that person who’s created a whole world at Choir Practice. It’s rare to see a character like that, gay or straight, on TV. Or maybe I’ve just watched Succession too much.

This show brings together so many people from what feels like the Joe’s Pub–adjacent downtown New York theater world. What was it like getting to know each other filming on location?
I’ve always wanted to be Bridget’s best friend, so it’s fun to get paid to be it. I lived in a house with Bridget and Murray, both of whom I knew but wasn’t particularly close with. It was like mirroring the show where we were creating a community together and we were really bonding.

How did Murray become the one to make everyone run their lines?
Bridget used to call him “Coach Hill” because he has a very specific process and he wanted us to get in line on that process. We would run lines and if you messed up the slightest bit, even taking a breath in the middle of the sentence, he would say, “From the top!” But we were shooting like ten scenes a day, so it was actually quite helpful.

That’s surprising to me, because it feels like the show could be pretty loose!
Well, he didn’t want to hear that it could be loose on the day, but that was okay. With that prep, we could give one perfect take and then give a couple more that had spunk.

In episode four, Joel’s given an offer to become part of the ministry. He decides against it, partially because he’s anxious about secretly holding Choir Practice in the church. How did you think about his faith in playing him?
I think he still has a lot of faith, but he’s not sure he’s the cog in this particular wheel. If anything, he might even see Pastor Deb as someone who would have been okay with Choir Practice if he said, “This is what I’ve been doing.” But he also has this strong moral center that is true to him. It’s not about following church dogma, but what is right to him.

Bridget has talked about Sam as an alternate-universe version of herself if she had stayed in Kansas. Do you think of Joel as an alternate-universe version of yourself?
One hundred percent, and it wasn’t intended to be so, but yes. I was a theology major in college, and I was planning on going to seminary. The only reason I didn’t was because I came out. I had the choice to stay in Texas and be a part of a faith community. I even found one that accepted queer folks and was a really nice place to be. The show feels exactly like that, except I wouldn’t be the person creating the community.

What made you want to move on from Texas?
Unlike Joel, I wanted to perform for a living. I wanted that to be my exclusive outlet. For Joel, it’s a fun part of a community, not the driving force. For me, it’s a driving force. I’m just this gaping hole of need for the audience to clap.

I want to know about Joel’s vision board. Did you have much of a say in designing it?
It was a surprise, and I enjoyed filling out what each picture meant for Joel. She was just supposed to say these things about each of them, and I got to add in, improvisationally, what they meant for Joel. I loved being able to look at it and go, It’s not just the Vitamix, he wants a kitchen and a home. She just improvised, “Oh, you’ve got the Eiffel Tower here,” and it really did come up from my soul that of course Joel is like, “I just want to go to Europe.” Before I had been to Europe, that was a big goal. I just wanted to get to Europe. Not just the U.K.! The real mainland. Foreign languages and everything. It’s like dipping your toe into world travel.

What’s it like to film those performances in the Choir Practice scenes?
It was very strange, because for sound reasons, they don’t play the backing tracks. It’s us just pretending to play the music and then we have a little earwig and sing live and the people are just pretending to clap. It’s a very bizarre version of a cabaret, and it’s also being filmed at 10 a.m. But it doesn’t matter, even if you see Bridget singing a cappella, it’s still like, Man, you are a star.

He is pretty similar to you, but were there aspects of Joel where you felt like you had to play against your instincts?
No, actually, because I am a generally happy person. I don’t like conflict, but my whole IMDb page is playing somebody who’s mean to the main character. I’ve never really played anyone nice. I was in the movie Morning Glory where I was just a benign co-worker friend of Rachel McAdams, and when she’s leaving our station, her character hugs me. I started crying because no other actor had been nice to me in a scene. They were always giving me side-eye. That this character is nice is so good. But the fact that Joel is not afraid of conflict — when he says to Sam she hurt his feelings or, “Wow, sitting around drinking wine in your underwear, sounds lonely” — the real Jeff Hiller would never. I’d just be like, “Oh, fun! Good for you with the underwear and the wine.”

Do you have a favorite of the many host and maître d’ roles you’ve played?
I played the head flight attendant on an episode of 30 Rock where Matt Damon was playing the pilot and Tina Fey and him were having a breakup on the flight. There’s no airline in the world that would hire me — I’m six-foot-five, I’m way too tall — but I have played four of them over the years. And I really loved that, because Matt Damon, who is a straight-up movie star, was like, “After we do that, why don’t you fist-bump me,” and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to fist-bump Matt Damon?”

Also, I did once restrain Isabelle Huppert when I was playing a maître d’ in Greta. The stunt coordinator was like, “Be careful with her. She’s a national treasure!” And I was like, “What if I break Isabelle Huppert?” And she was, like, way tougher than me. She could have plowed me down in a heartbeat.

Somebody Somewhere’s Jeff Hiller on Finally Playing Likable