Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller Are the Soulmates of 'Somebody Somewhere'
Talking faith and tee-tee pah-pah with the stars of the HBO series.
In the most recent episode of HBO's sleeper hit Somebody Somewhere, Jeff Hiller asks a puppy if he needs to go "tee-tee" or "pah-pah" in the middle of a field with a Kansan tornado on the horizon. Hiller's character Joel has just adopted this adorable pup in a crisis of faith, and it all seems to be going very badly, but even amid impending weather Joel's sweet midwestern optimism keeps him saying "tee-tee" and "pah-pah" instead of pee and poop. It's a line that Hiller does so well—and "Tee-Tee Pah-Pah" is in fact the name of the episode—that it almost seems like something he could have come up with himself.
But, no, it's actually from the mind of star and executive producer Bridget Everett. It just goes to show you how in sync these two are. "Tee-tee pah-pah is something that I said to my dog Poppy," she says over a recent video chat. "'You do a tee-tee pah-pah?' In fact, I just did a tee-tee pah-pah before I came on here. I was going to text Jeff and be like, 'Uh oh. 911.'" (Speaking of dogs: Our interview is interrupted a couple of times by Everett's neighbor's dog Arlo who appears at her back door, wanting attention. "I'm sorry, Arlo. I love you so much," she says as she moves to a different part of the apartment to avoid his very cute but very pitiful stares.)
While Somebody Somewhere was created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen with Everett in mind, and Everett weaved her personal experiences into the plot, she found an ideal match in Hiller, a kindred spirit, another downtown New York theater artist finally having an on screen moment. Everett plays Sam, a woman who has returned home to Kansas following the death of her sister. She's working at a standardized test grading facility when she reunites with her high school acquaintance Joel—he remembers her; she does not remember him. They become fast friends as he introduces her his world, which includes "choir practice," a queer gathering he runs at his church under that semi-secretive moniker. Throughout the rest of the series they are thick as thieves, each other's platonic soulmates.
In the context of the series, "choir practice" gives Everett license to sing, which is how she became a New York City phenomenon. Her bawdy cabaret act, which calls The Public Theater's Joe's Pub its home, features diddies like "Titties," Chardonnay-swigging, and audience interactions that include motorboating, facesitting, and fondling. Hiller and her knew of each other, but not well. He was starstruck when she asked him to perform at one of her shows. (That night, he did a, in his words, "dramatic interpretation of Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In the World),'" during which he slowly got into drag and begged a male audience member to think of him instead of his wife.) "I would say that we were friendly and I had a lot of respect for Jeff, but we weren't like Sunday nights, all you can drink, Chardonnay buffet friends," Everett explains.
She thought of him when casting for Joel and it turned out to be a perfect match. Almost eerily so. "This role was obviously written for Bridget, but it was not written for me and still as the scripts came in, each script, I was like, 'Oh, God, that's me too,'" he says. "This is just like me and so much so that I had a stress rash in seventh grade, for real, because of bullies." Joel, the audience learns, gets stress rashes too.
Like Joel and Sam, Jeff and Bridget quickly became more than just mere colleagues when filming in Illinois—which stood-in for Kansas. They shared a house along with Murray Hill—the legendary drag king, who plays "choir practice" emcee Professor Dr. Fred Rococo. They would all eat dinner together, and then Hill would help, nay demand, everyone run lines. "Murray had a much lighter schedule than Jeff and I," Everett says. "But had all the enthusiasm of a Rudy Ruettiger trying to get into Notre Dame." On Saturday nights they would order pizza and dance it out. "Bridget would make homemade margaritas that taste…" Hiller pauses for dramatic effect before raising his voice, "good." (She wouldn't share the recipe.)
Somebody Somewhere is a quietly groundbreaking portrayal of a part of America that rarely is represented with the kind of nuance for which Everett, Hiller, Bos, and Thureen are striving. In the Manhattan, Kansas of the show there is a strong faith-based conservative streak, but also a thriving queer community. "We didn't want to do a show that was super political or looking down on the community where we were, because it's also really not how life happens," Everett explains. "There are those moments when somebody says 'love the sinner, hate the sin' or something like that, but there are progressive people that live in my hometown. It's conservative, but it's still a college town and there's queer people."
The idea of "choir practice," which was conceived by Bos and Thureen, wasn't based on any specific story from Everett's past, but it was something that felt innately familiar to Hiller, who went to a college in a "small conservative" town in Texas. He was part of a group that met to drink champagne on Saturday nights with a "cool, liberation theology-focused pastor." It wasn't an entirely queer group, and there was no singing, but it was a home. "Especially, at that moment when I was just coming out, it felt like oxygen," Hiller says. "It felt like this is where I can be, this is my safe place."
For Hiller, there's not much of a disconnect between faith and the New York scene he and Everett have occupied. To be an artist requires a certain amount of belief. "I told someone that I had a faith background, recently. They said, 'Well, that makes so much sense. You're an artist and you've been trying to make it as an artist. So of course you would be someone who's attracted to faith and to hope,'" Hiller says. "I think that there is some sort of connection with the fact that, yeah, we've been duking it out in downtown New York City, the most expensive city in the world, doing the not most profitable art form in the world. We did it because we always had hope. We always had faith."
Between Joel and Sam it's Joel, a gay man, who has a meaningful relationship with Chrisitanity, one that is tested when his church's new pastor asks him to be a lay minister and he declines. "I struggle to have a relationship with the church," Everett says. "I am not a church person. Faith and hope are things that I don't really relate to. So I think it's interesting to have a queer person be the one that loves the church, as opposed to Sam." She trails off. "I don't know; I'm not making sense. I think you should strike all that from the record and just let Jeff's answer stand alone because Jeff is 100 percent more eloquent than me. Usually in a writer's room, I'll just sit there and talk for 20 minutes and then you see people scribble stuff down because it's just diarrhea. It's just diarrhea of the mouth until it's pah-pah time."