Jeff Hiller and Bridget Everett
Jeff Hiller as Joel, with Bridget Everett as Sam in Somebody Somewhere
Jeff Hiller has spent much of his career standing in other people's way. Whether playing a publicist, a salesclerk or a security guard, his character's reason to exist was generally, as he puts it, "to stop the main character from getting the thing they want." Finally, Hiller's gotten the thing he wants — the male lead in a hit comedy.
Playing Joel, a Zumba-dancing font of gay spiritual positivity on the recently renewed HBO series Somebody Somewhere, has been quite a 180 for him.
"I've never had the opportunity to play someone who has an interior life that you get to explore," he admits. Hiller rarely has played anyone nice, let alone someone as sweet as Joel, the upbeat best friend and coworker of downtrodden but gifted singer Sam, played by New York cabaret dynamo Bridget Everett.
A longtime improv teacher at Upright Citizens Brigade — he helped Donald Glover and the future stars of Broad City polish their skills — Hiller is grateful for his small roles on 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But he is thrilled to be playing someone like himself.
Though the series — set in Manhattan, Kansas, but shot about thirty miles outside Chicago — is based on Everett's life, there are numerous parallels to his. Like Joel, Hiller sometimes suffers from stress rashes, loves his Vitamix blender, was scared to adopt a pet but found the experience life-changing, and is both queer and faithful.
"I feel like I know this person, and I love portraying this person," he says. "If I had not moved away from Texas, I probably would be this person." Hiller was born in San Antonio, graduated from Texas Lutheran University and considered a religious life before becoming an actor.
"The range he has was very evident when he auditioned," Everett says. "We wanted someone who could disarm Sam because of their ease and warmth, but they also had to be super funny. Jeff is just perfect."
Luckier in love than Joel, Hiller lives on New York City's Lower East Side with his husband, visual artist Neil Goldberg, and their cat, Beverly Goldberg-Hiller.
Fans of Somebody Somewhere are gushing about the poignant monologue Hiller delivered to Joel's impulsively adopted pooch, Roger, while taking refuge from a tornado in the episode "Tee-Tee Pa-Pah."
"She was scared at first, but she did really great," Hiller says of his canine costar. "Like myself, she is not a trained actress, so this is her big break, too."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Somebody Special."