“The movie I want to make?” Billy Eichner, co-writer and star of “Bros,” asked that in a conversation he recalls having during the development phase of “Bros.” with his director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow.
“I said to Nick right off the bat,” Eichner is telling me, “even before we knew what the story was going to be: As much as I love ‘When Harry Met Sally’ we just can’t just do ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ slip in two gay guys and have that be authentic to gay men’s experience.”
Their response? “We don’t want you to hold back.” A year or so later, there they were, pitching the finished screenplay to Universal executives. Their odds were good going in: Universal Pictures already had scored with various Apatow- or Stoller-driven comedies built around the strengths and sensibilities of comedy-trained stars, ranging from “Knocked Up” to “Trainwreck.”
Eichner more or less performed the entire pitch meeting as a one-man show. And then “they basically bought it right there in the room,” he says.
And here we are. Opening in theaters Sept. 30, “Bros” is an R-rated romantic comedy about two New Yorkers finding each other through the maze of their clashing personalities and expectations. Universal bills it as a history-maker: the first gay major studio rom-com, with an all-queer ensemble in the major roles and an unapologetic degree of R-rated sexuality.
A generation ago, “The Birdcage” (1996) was a hit, but that’s different, Eichner explains. There, the central couple played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane “are married already, so you get to avoid a lot of the stuff that might scare people off.”
We’re in the Z Bar rooftop lounge at the Peninsula downtown, early in the day. The star, best known for his gleeful, Emmy-nominated sidewalk-harangue sketch series “Billy on the Street” (five seasons) and, with Julie Klausner, “Difficult People” (three seasons), has been on a publicity treadmill all month, most conspicuously at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Bros” enjoyed a warm reception.
Eichner acknowledges that he “ignored love and romance for many years.” He made a name for himself in the other direction: comic impatience, wound tightly and ready to spring. Part game show, part pedestrian harassment, Funny or Die’s “Billy on the Street” distilled a side of Eichner’s personality for fun (ours) and profit (his divebombed interview guests), as he offered a dollar in exchange for a quick answer — never quick enough for his taste — to questions such as: “Any thoughts on Anne Hathaway?” He mixed it up with Michelle Obama and, one time, with Jon Hamm, he offered unsuspecting citizens the chance to sleep with Hamm. And Eichner.
Eichner was the first in his family to go to college anywhere outside New York City. He grew up in the Forest Hills area of Queens. His parents are no longer living. They watched a lot of TV and went to a lot of Broadway shows together. Testing into the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Eichner didn’t love the math and science focus. College meant college in New York City; literally everyone in his extended family stuck close to home.
But in addition to NYU, Eichner was accepted into exotic, faraway Northwestern University. One look at the campus, followed by a longer look at an NU acting class in session, made up his mind for him.
He went and loved it. Early in his freshman year, when asked by the school about his major, Eichner didn’t really tell the truth: He said prelaw “or maybe theater. I was still trying to be a good boy. I guess I was scared of saying I wanted to be an actor.”
He came out as gay sophomore year to his friends, a year later to his parents. He credits “a truly life-changing, insanely wonderful acting teacher,” Mary M. Poole, now retired, with helping him find the courage to be who he was, and who he wanted to be.
“She really did change my life and opened me up as a human being,” he says. He pauses, which you notice because Eichner doesn’t over-pause conversationally. “I get super emotional talking about her.” Another short pause, and then: “I loved being in college. We did ecstasy and we did Chekhov. That was college to me. We’d go to the clubs with a huge group of friends. We were really, truly coming of age.”
Poole confirms all this the next day by phone. “Brave. He was brave from the get-go,” she recalls. “He would try anything. He just wanted to learn, and to get someplace. He had no pretense. Also no patience. Which, luckily, got better. Quick to judge, I think, but he wasn’t wrong — and he was open-minded and generous enough to change his judgments. I loved him from the start.”
Eichner’s Chekhov devotion was no joke. “He was born for those characters,” Poole says. “The comedy of Chekhov is large of spirit, born of frustration and huge, deep longings. That combination of pain and joy was something Billy understood from the beginning.”
In “Bros,” Eichner’s character Bobby hosts a popular, quippy podcast and, early in the story, lands a job running an LGBTQ history museum, strapped for funds en route to its gala opening. That’s plot B; plot A in the Eichner/Stoller screenplay is the push-pull relationship between emotionally guarded, commitment-averse Bobby and lawyer Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a strapping gym rat who loves “The Hangover” and likes Bobby. But the two men’s vibes, upbringings and pop-cultural savvy exist in separate worlds.
Eichner’s character is, in his words, “really career-focused. I get that. I spent so much time and energy scraping and clawing my way to where I wanted to be.” Along the way, he says, he’d get periodic, unwanted reminders that “there’s going to be a ceiling to what you’ll be able to accomplish.” Meaning: an out gay man has a limited pool of roles.
“Bros” came together as a project with unusual ease, though, straight out of a long working relationship with director Stoller. They did “Neighbors 2″ and “Friends from College” together, and between Season 1 and 2 of “Friends from College,” Stoller “emailed out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, thinking about my next movie, I love romantic comedy, and I’d like my next movie to be a rom-com. And I think it’d be cool it was about a gay couple because we haven’t had many of those.’” Did Eichner want to collaborate, and play the lead?
Yes, he did.
“I was sort of stunned by the whole thing,” Eichner says. “I’d never even had a large supporting role in a live-action movie.” (He voiced Timon in the live-action-esque repurposing of Disney’s “The Lion King.”) With the developmental offer came a certain degree of, well, certainty; as Eichner puts it, “Judd and Nick are two of the last people in the industry who can get a comedy made by a major studio.”
The writing took the better part of a year in between other commitments. It was, Eichner says, “a two-way education process. Nick showed me how to write and structure a major studio screenplay. And I taught him about gay culture.”
There were bumps en route. At one point in Stoller’s office, he and Eichner were trying to locate their protagonist’s chief flaw, an obstacle to happiness. So: here’s Eichner, “single most of my life. I’ve had a couple of serious relationships but I’m single right now. And there’s Nick, who is very traditional in how he sees love and romance, marriage, his kids; his family means everything to him.”
Eichner says Stoller put it this way: “I mean, if your (character) is single and in his 40s there must be something wrong with him!” Joking or not, Eichner says, “I got angry with him. And he understood afterward that wasn’t accurate.”
Here’s how Stoller, who says Eichner is “like a brother,” remembers it.
“We were having this debate in my office, and Billy kept saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m 40 (he’s now 44), and I just don’t need someone, I’m too busy at work, I’m too busy at work.’ And finally, I said, ‘Look, being too busy at work is not a problem. Certainly not enough of a problem for the character in the movie.’ I was talking about the character’s flaw. But in that heated moment, Billy opened up to me and told me a version of what became the beach scene, where Bobby opens up to Aaron and explains why he hasn’t dated much. The core of that speech was delivered in my office, and Billy teared up, and it was amazing. A real ‘Prince of Tides’ moment. I was so touched, but then the cold writer’s side to me said: ‘OK. That’s what you have to say in the movie.”
Up next for Eichner is a comedy cowritten with Paul Rudnick, “Ex-Husbands.” Eichner’s also working on a biopic of “Hollywood Squares” legend Paul Lynde, a fellow Northwestern theater department graduate.
“A fascinating guy,” Eichner says. “He had relatively supportive parents for the time, and a really complicated relationship to his sexuality. He was also an abusive drunk. For a lot of America, he was the first gay man they met. ‘Hollywood Squares’ was a Top 10 hit at a time when there were only three networks. He was a huge star, although not the type of performer he wanted to be. A tortured man.”
Another pause. “Privately, he didn’t feel the same level of confidence that he projected in public. I understand that as an actor, I suppose. Something about going on stage, or on camera — that’s where you feel strong. Martha Plimpton once said something about only being able to experience a real emotion if 1,700 people were watching. That’s so weird. But so true.”
“Bros” opens in theaters Sept. 30.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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