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Playing a religious character without making faith the punchline

I started watching this show a few weeks ago called Somebody Somewhere on HBO and raved about it to anyone who would listen. A lot of things struck me about it — the fullness of the queer characters for one, and the authenticity of the dialogue. But even more so for me, it stood out because of the way it represented religion through a character named Joel.

He's the best friend in this story. The main character is a woman named Sam, 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.

Joel feels an emptiness after leaving his church (a self-imposed punishment after telling a fairly innocuous lie to the minister). So Sam, who has zero interest in religion and has hardly stepped foot inside a place of worship, volunteers to take Joel "church shopping" one Sunday morning. It's a sweet scene about selflessness and the deep understanding that grows between true friends. But these are the kind of moments and ideas you can find in all kinds of pop culture.

What was so revelatory to me was how the show gently held the spiritual identity of this character. It wasn't a punchline. It wasn't a source of pain or trauma. It was just part of who this guy is.

Jeff Hiller is the actor who so brilliantly plays Joel, and after a quick Google search revealed that Hiller himself was raised in the church and almost became a pastor — well, I knew I had to talk with him.

And talk we did (and sang, and laughed) all about his big break, growing up gay and Christian in Texas, and forgoing life as pastor for a life of performing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: I saw this church shopping scene and I was like, wait, what? I kept waiting for the dig, right? Like 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.

Jeff Hiller: No. And in fact, the only jokes really come at the expense of Bridget Everett's character Sam just having no idea what churches do. She points at this beautiful stained glass window of Jesus holding a lamb, and she's like, "Who's that guy holding the poodle?"

Martin: Religion is treated so gently in the show. It's not treated with derision. It's just a part of who Joel is as a fully realized human being.

Hiller: Exactly. Because I know so many queer folks who are members of faith communities, and in fact that's where they've found their people, their found family. And I know so many churches that are basically the only voice of social justice in their communities. That's where you go if you need food, that's where you go if you need help on your rent. I think in pop culture, when you see church, you just think, "Oh, it's gonna smoosh down the gay people," right? And it's so much more nuanced than that.

Martin: So how would you define your spirituality?

Hiller: I grew up in the church. I was very obviously gay growing up and I was sort of mercilessly bullied, so school was just a nightmare. But my family was a safe space and so was church on Sunday mornings. Even kids who were mean to me at school would be nice to me at Sunday school.

My family went to a slightly progressive Lutheran church in San Antonio, Texas and I also worked at Christian camps as a counselor and those camps were super progressive. I studied theology at Texas Lutheran College in hopes of becoming a pastor and that school was very progressive as well. They were really focused on grace and the New Testament idea that God is full of grace and love. So I still hold on to that now.

I went to church even after I moved to New York to become an actor but I stopped partly because of geography and because my husband is Jewish. And I feel like for me at this moment in my life I don't need a church. I just need to volunteer and have a community and I have that without the sort of Sunday morning portion of it.

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

Hiller: I came out to my parents when I was doing a Churchy AmeriCorps-type program after college. I'd come out to some people in college, but this was Texas Lutheran College, it wasn't Berkeley, you know what I mean? There was no one else that was out. So you would whisper it and then somebody would be like, "I heard that person is gay, too."

I don't know what I was afraid of with my parents, my mom had been nothing but kind. And of course, when I came out, they were like, "Yeah, we know." I've never told anybody who was like, "Really?" I am who I am.

Martin: I am interested that at one point that you wanted to be a pastor. To use the terminology, did you feel called to that?

Hiller: Oh my gosh, we used that terminology like crazy. We love talking about being called. I think about that now and it's a word that you use to sort of hide ambition, you know what I mean?

Martin: Totally. Like, it's not me, I was called — what am I supposed to do?

Hiller: Exactly. I'm really wrestling with it. I'm wrestling with the call. Are you? I did feel called though. I was being sincere, I wasn't just using the language. But in retrospect I realized that I loved to perform and entertain and as a pastor you knew you had at least one hour every week, admittedly not the best hour, Sunday at 10am, but still.

Martin: There was an audience, they showed up.

Hiller: A built-in audience, if it's a big enough church you could get two shows: one at 8am and one at 10:30. But I really loved doing a sermon and things like that. And if I weren't gay I would be a pastor right now. But at the time in the ELCA, which is my Luthern synod, they said you could be gay but you couldn't have a partner. Which I found very rude.

Martin: Right. Like saying it's still a sin and so you can't live in your sin.

Hiller: Exactly. That has since changed but that was the rule when I was graduating from college and contemplating going to seminary. So that's when I did all this social work type stuff and I was a terrible social worker. Because you can't be afraid of conflict and I am. And I just really, really wanted to perform.

Martin: Did you grieve that at all? That you couldn't do this thing that you had thought you were going to do for a long time?

Hiller: I don't think grieve is the right word. I think I had some shame about it. And some embarrassment. Like I had been working with homeless youth, and I left the homeless youth to go do improv comedy. That's hard to spin as a positive. I remember one pastor telling me, "You're bringing joy to the world." And I was like, I don't know, it's a lot of fart jokes. And yet here we are.

Martin: You spent many years teaching people to do this craft, right? You were teaching acting and comedy to a whole bunch of people who are pretty famous at this point.

Hiller: Yes and it ate me up. I was very jealous of them. People like Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer Kate McKinnon, Ellie Kemper and D'Arcy Carden. It didn't matter that they were incredibly talented and gorgeous and smart, I was really jealous of them.

Martin: What was your internal dialogue in your head? The story that you were telling yourself?

Hiller: Well, the main story was, you know, too ugly, too gay, too large. Like it makes you feel worthless. You ask yourself, what am I doing wrong? I'm also talented, why am I not getting roles? And the basic answer is it's not fair. Entertainment isn't fair, life isn't fair. That's just how it works. Which is hard when you grow up believing that God will make it alright, you know what I mean? Like it's all part of the plan.

Martin: Yes. And you're like, I don't like this plan. I want a new one.

Hiller: Oh my God, Rachel, that is so true. I really did want another plan.

From left: Paul Thureen, Bridget Everett, Jeff Hiller, Murray Hill, Mary Catherine Garrison and Hannah Bos attend the <em>Somebody Somewhere</em> NewFest Special Screening in April.
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images
Getty Images
From left: Paul Thureen, Bridget Everett, Jeff Hiller, Murray Hill, Mary Catherine Garrison and Hannah Bos attend the Somebody Somewhere NewFest Special Screening in April.

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

Hiller: Absolutely. Undoubtedly. What other words can we say? I was playing waiters before this and to actually have an interior life, I mean just a name is a big deal.

Martin: Like a name attached to your role?

Hiller: Yes, as opposed to waiter or maître d'.That was the scary thing, I had aged out of waiter into maître d'.

Martin: What a trip though to be at this for so long and then Bridget Everett reached out, right?

Hiller: Yeah, she sent me an email and asked if I would consider auditioning for her show. And I was like, I'll audition for an internet commercial, yes I'll interview for your HBO show.

When I got the script and I read this role I was like, this guy goes to church, he sings, he plays the piano, he's warm and kind. I know how to play this. I kind of felt they wrote this role for me. But they were like, "No, we didn't."

Martin: Joel does vision boards. He cuts things out of magazines and puts them on his vision board to try to manifest them in real life. If you were a person who was inclined towards vision boards, is there anything left to put up there?

Hiller: Well, first of all, I am inclined to vision boards.

Martin: I knew it. I love it.

Hiller: I always just thought it was a really nice way of goal planning and then when I got that script I realized they're acting like it's cheesy and even Joel is self-aware that it's cheesy. I was like, oh, I thought this was just good. I used to be really embarrassed that I was a very ambitious person, but I just sort of own it now. I'd love to continue acting. I'm a writer, I'd love to create something for me to act in because I'm hard to cast. And I'd love to just continue having adventures.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.