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Actor Jeff Hiller feels fortunate to play a character who is both queer and religious


And we're going to hand things over now to NPR's Rachel Martin for another conversation from her series, Enlighten Me.


RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I started watching this show a few weeks ago. It's called "Somebody Somewhere" on HBO. And then I raved about it to anyone who would listen. A lot of things struck me about this show - first and foremost, the fullness of the queer characters, also the authenticity of the dialogue. But even more than those things, the show stood out to me because of the way that it represents religion through this one character named Joel. He's the best friend in this story. The main character is a woman named Sam, who's played by Bridget Everett. Sam has moved back to her hometown in Kansas, and she ends up reconnecting with this guy she went to high school with - Joel. The two of them fill voids in each other's lives in this beautiful way. In one scene, Sam is helping Joel shop around for a new church even though she herself is not religious in the slightest.


BRIDGET EVERETT: (As Sam) OK, I got my little notebook. I'll write down all the pros and cons. We can just pop in. And if you're not feeling it, we'll just check out the next one. You want to start over here?

JEFF HILLER: (As Joel) Yeah. Let's do Lutheran, Presbyterian, catch Methodist, swing around to Baptist...

EVERETT: (As Sam) OK, let's just...

HILLER: (As Joel) ...And then we can go to the next block.

EVERETT: (As Sam) ...Let's start and build one at a time.

HILLER: (As Joel) OK.

MARTIN: Jeff Hiller plays Joel in the show. I talked to him about his big break, also growing up gay and Christian in Texas, and forgoing life as a pastor for a life of performing.

This is really why I wanted to talk to you 'cause I saw this scene...

HILLER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...And I was like, wait, what? I kept waiting for, like, the dig - right? - like...

HILLER: Right (laughter).

MARTIN: ...The cutting joke that was going to somehow eviscerate this religious person or this character because that's what we're sort of used to seeing. And it wasn't that at all.

HILLER: No. And in fact, the only jokes really come at the expense of Sam just having no idea what (laughter) churches do or...

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right, right.

HILLER: She's...

MARTIN: What is this place?

HILLER: ...Points at this beautiful stained glass thing of Jesus holding a lamb, and she's like, who's that guy holding the poodle (laughter)?

MARTIN: (Laughter).


EVERETT: (As Sam) And that guy holding a tiny poodle.

HILLER: (As Joel) Oh, my God. You've never been to a church, have you?

EVERETT: (As Sam) Don't worry about it.


MARTIN: It's just treated so gently in the show. Like, it's not treated with derision.


MARTIN: It's just a part of who he is as a fully realized human being.

HILLER: Exactly. 'Cause I know so many queer folks who are members of faith communities. And, in fact, that's where they found their people, their family, their found family. And I know so many churches who - where - that are basically the only voice of social justice in their communities. They're - that's where you go if you need food. That's where you go if you need help on your rent. You know, I think, in pop culture, when you see church, you just think, oh, it's going to smoosh down the gay people (laughter).

MARTIN: Right.

HILLER: And that's - it's so much more nuanced than that.

MARTIN: When did you come out to your family? What was that like?

HILLER: I came out when I was - to my parents after college 'cause I had come out to some people in college. But I went to Texas Lutheran College. So it wasn't like (laughter)...

MARTIN: Right.

HILLER: ...Wasn't like Berkeley. You know what I mean? It would...


HILLER: There was no one else that was out. So you would whisper it, and then somebody would be like, (whispering) I heard that this person is gay, too - you know?


HILLER: So I told them after college because I was afraid that they would - I don't know. I don't know what I was afraid of.


HILLER: Like, it didn't make any sense. My mom had been nothing but kind. And of course, when I came out, they were like, yeah, we know (laughter). I've never told anybody who was like, really?


HILLER: I am who I am. And so anyhow, it was totally fine.


MARTIN: You were going to be a pastor. You...


MARTIN: This was - you felt - to use the terminology, you really felt called to that?

HILLER: Oh, my gosh. We used that terminology like crazy. We loved talking about being called. It's so funny. I think about that now, and it's like - it's such a word that you use to sort of hide ambition (laughter).

MARTIN: Totally.

HILLER: You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Right, right. Right, right, right. It's not me. I mean, I can just do anything.

HILLER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I was called. What am I supposed to do?

HILLER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Right.

HILLER: You know, I'm wrestling with it. I'm wrestling with the call. Are you? Are you?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HILLER: Yes, I did feel called, though. Like, that's the other thing - is that I was being sincere. I wasn't just using language. I really felt called.


HILLER: But I mean, in retrospect, it's like, I love to perform, and I love to entertain. And that was something, you know, you knew you had at least one hour every week. Admittedly, not the best hour - Sunday at 10 a.m. - but still (laughter).

MARTIN: There was an audience. They showed up.

HILLER: Built an audience.

MARTIN: Right.

HILLER: Some - you know, if it's a big enough church, you could get two shows...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HILLER: ...An 8 a.m. and a 10:30. But I really - I loved doing a sermon and things like that. And I think if I hadn't come out or, you know, if I weren't gay, I would be a pastor right now. But...

MARTIN: Really?

HILLER: ...At the time, in the ELCA - which is my - the Lutheran Synod that I was a part of - they said you could be gay, but you couldn't have a partner. You had to be celibate. And I found that very rude.

MARTIN: Right. This is still - it's a sin like everyone else's sin...

HILLER: Right.

MARTIN: ...And so you can't live in your sin.

HILLER: Exactly. And that's - that has since changed. But it - that was what the rule was when I was graduating from college and contemplating going to seminary. And also, I just really, really, really wanted to perform.



MARTIN: You spent many years teaching people to do this craft, right? You were teaching acting and comedy...


MARTIN: ...To a whole bunch of people who are pretty famous at this point.

HILLER: Yeah. (Laughter) Yes, Yes. And I - it ate me up. I was very jealous of them. But yes - Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Ellie Kemper, D'Arcy Carden - all of these people. It didn't matter that they were incredibly talented, you know, gorgeous and (laughter) smart and fun and kind, warm people. But yeah, I did. I got really jealous of them (laughter).

MARTIN: So is it fair to say that this role on "Somebody Somewhere" is your big break?

HILLER: Oh, my God, absolutely.


HILLER: Completely. I mean, undoubtedly.


MARTIN: What other words could we say?

HILLER: I mean, like, before this, I was playing waiters, you know? This is huge - to actually have an interior life and, I mean, just have a name. That's a big deal (laughter)...


HILLER: ...For my career.

MARTIN: Oh, like, attached to your role?


MARTIN: Like, you - that you have an identity?

HILLER: As opposed to, like, waiter or, like, maitre d'. (Laughter) That was the...

MARTIN: That feels fancy.

HILLER: That was the scary thing - I had aged out of waiter into maitre d'.


HILLER: And I really thought - 'cause I read this role, and I was like, I'm a theology major. This guy is - you know, he goes to church. He's - he sings. He plays the piano. He's, you know, warm and kind. And I know how to play this. I kind of felt like, oh, I think they wrote this role for me. But they didn't. They were like, no, we didn't. We didn't know who you were (laughter).


MARTIN: Jeff Hiller, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. Jeff stars in the show "Somebody Somewhere" on HBO along with Bridget Everett. Thank you so much for talking with me.

HILLER: Thank you. This was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.