Despite his 20-plus year career on the internet, on TV, and in movies, Billy Eichner admits to his anti-Los Angeles bias. “As a native New Yorker, you’re taught to hate L.A., even though you’ve never been there,” the 42-year-old tells The Manual with a laugh. And yet, in the next month, Hollywood is offering the biggest opportunity of his life. That’s still not enough to keep him west of the Mississippi, though.
On the phone from the very place he once hated so much, Eichner is a case study in how L.A. has a way of sneaking up on you. He’s at the tail-end of filming the third installment of the Ryan Murphy series American Crime Story while concurrently nailing down the final pieces of pre-production to his first feature role in a film, Bros. In his telling of it, it’s hard to tell who seduced whom. Was Eichner, who was born in New York and went to high school in Manhattan, lured by the bright lights of the big screen? Or did his granite jaw and full-send commitment to roles woo an industry jaded with business as usual?
Whoever is responsible, Eichner makes one thing clear: “I do enjoy L.A.,” he says. “But I’m a New Yorker.”
To be fair to Eichner, he tried: After a childhood in New York, the young man struck out for parts unknown and college in the Midwest, landing as a theater major at Northwestern University in Chicago. Despite what many assume to be a liberal upbringing, it was in the Windy City, not the Big Apple, where he first came out, and it was also in the City of Big Shoulders that he grew in confidence with both his sexuality and in its culture, using the neighborhood of Boystown as his rubric.
Calling his time at his university, in the city, and of that season of his life itself as “an almost unbearably, annoyingly magical experience,” Eichner has nothing but fond memories, though he readily admits it has been years since he went back. (A recent 20-year reunion was unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19.) Still, the city was fertile for both experiences and friendships that continue to the present, and it provided him with such a solid foundation that, for the entirety of his professional career, he has been openly gay.
With a degree in hand, Eichner returned to New York, and with two fellow Northwestern alums, he began his online comedy career, including an early iteration of what would become his wildly funny Billy on the Street with Billy Eichner, which would be brought to life by FuseTV in 2011. Helmed by the man himself playing a caricature (think: A manic, shouting James Corden loosed on an unsuspecting New York City population), it produced scores of viral clips before seeing a second boom with the series’ re-release through Netflix in April 2021.
But despite its New York setting, L.A. beckoned. It was through acting, of course, although admittedly first on the small screen: His recurring role in Parks and Recreation in the show’s sixth and final season in 2013, for instance, or, after Street found a second lease on life through Funny or Die in 2018 and Eichner had the opportunity for a hands-on approach to editing at its offices in L.A. His then-proximity to Hollywood was so great that bleed-over was bound to happen, and there he was as the voice of Timon for 2019’s The Lion King remake. Work on both coasts requires “[bouncing] back and forth like a lunatic,” he admits, but his career has only continued its ascent despite the punishing schedule.
At the time of writing, Eichner is continuing to juggle projects, and he’s currently wrapping a bow around his performance as journalist Matt Drudge in Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story. “[Drudge is] a really complicated, fascinating character, and although I don’t ethically agree with many of the things that he’s done, and I certainly don’t overlap with him in terms of what I believe politically, you can’t help but admit that he really changed the face of the world,” Eichner says. “You can draw a direct line from him to the way we’re seeing information get distributed on Facebook and social media.”
Still, Eichner is much more liberal in his praise of Murphy himself, a man he calls “a groundbreaking presence in this industry.”
“I adore him as a person,” Eichner says. “He’s brilliant and obviously so smart and funny, and, in terms of being an LGBTQ in Hollywood, there is life before Ryan Murphy’s success and there is life after Ryan Murphy’s success.”
Eichner has had a long and fruitful partnership with Murphy, including roles on his seminal American Horror Story in the seventh and eighth seasons. The show continues to draw a wide viewership, and, following its ninth season, was recently renewed through 13 seasons. But while there is a direct line between the pair through the Horror and Crime series, a more hereditary connection can be drawn from Murphy to Eichner through the latter’s latest project, the feature film Bros. The doors that Murphy opened, Eichner is walking through.
Bros, which was co-written, stars, and is produced by Eichner (along with Judd Apatow), is slated for release in 2022 through Universal. The comedy follows two gay men who may be falling in love, provided their schedules can sync. It stands distinct in Hollywood history as a first in many categories, some of which Eichner only discovered after the project’s announcement. It is the first rom-com from a major studio about two gay men and the first to feature an openly gay star.
“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” he says. “There are many, many, many LGBTQ people smarter than me, funnier than me, more talented than me, who should have had this opportunity decades ago, but they didn’t because they were born earlier than I was. I want this movie to speak to that generation as well.”
Eichner knows there’s a lot on his plate, both in ambition and sheer work. “That’s a lot of responsibility!” he says, laughing. But with Bros pre-production in L.A. nearly finished, and shooting set to commence in New York in September, he’s primed for a return home.
Of course, all of this work, combined with a pandemic, has meant that Eichner has not had the social-life release he once did. And so, in addition to the other Herculean tasks he’s undertaken, he partnered with Neon Zebra, a brand of just-add-booze canned mixers, for its IRL Again campaign.
“I don’t like to promote anything that doesn’t feel organic with my life,” he says. But for some reason, the Neon Zebra concept does. With his own reemergence into social gatherings and dating following an 18-month hiatus, he’s trying to remember how this whole thing works, and downing a few cocktails can certainly lubricate rusted gears. “[Social awkwardness] is something I was going through, too,” he adds. “It just made sense to be a part of the campaign.”
With his viral success and burgeoning career, Eichner sounds anxious to begin shooting Bros, a project that was sidelined for a year due to COVID-19 and faced an uncertain future. He knows his place in history and the responsibility that rests on his shoulders. And despite opportunities in Los Angeles and Chicago, there’s only one place he wants to be: “I’m a diehard New Yorker,” he says. “It’s still my favorite place in the entire world.”
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