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Billy Eichner knows his way around a rom-com — wisdom he put to good use making his own. Universal’s Bros, which Eichner co-wrote and stars in, harks back to the classics of the genre while setting a new precedent with the movie featuring all openly LGBTQ actors in the principal roles (yes, even the straight ones).
Eichner, who is being honored at this year’s CinemaCon with the Comedy Star of the Year honor, talks Bros and the rewards of making theatrical R-rated comedies.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in the theater?
I could go on and on. The first movie I ever saw in a movie theater was Bambi. But I was obsessed with my parents taking me to see a movie at night, which as a 5- or 6-year-old felt very exciting and glamorous. The first movie I saw at night was Flashdance. I was definitely too young to see Flashdance in the movie theater, but my parents never cared about anything like that. I became completely obsessed. So, even though Bambi was technically the first movie I saw in a theater, I consider Flashdance the first movie I saw in a theater. That led to a lifetime of moviegoing.
What is unique about experiencing rom-coms in a theater setting?
We’ve had these test screenings of Bros all over the country. Of course, like any person making a movie and showing it to people for the first time, you’re absolutely petrified. And this whole process was new for me. I’ve never been as nervous in my life as the first time we screened this movie at the theater in Times Square. You’re screening at these big multiplexes; I’m out here showing this R-rated gay rom-com at theaters where next door they’re playing Spider-Man. One thing that I realize is I had forgotten — even as a lifetime moviegoer and even as someone who went to movies every week — how much fun and how moving it is to sit in a dark theater with hundreds of strangers where you’re all escaping the chaos of our cruel, fucked up, chaotic world.
During COVID I watched a ton of movies at home, like everyone else. And I started to think, “This is pretty good! I’m in the comfort of my own home and I can be on my phone during the movie and I can take breaks.” Then we started to screen Bros at packed movie theaters, and we all kept turning to each other and just saying, “Wow.” We had forgotten how special and how much fun that experience is.
Was the plan always to have LGBTQ actors in all of the principal roles?
When we first started writing Bros, it was 2017. It was a different time. We weren’t talking about diversity and inclusion as much as we are now. I always assumed that the powers that be were going to have — if I was playing one of the main roles, which I was obviously going to do because that was the whole idea — my love interest be played by a famous straight actor. We all kind of made the decision at the same time, including Universal, that as the movie was developing, it didn’t make sense for the other lead actor to be played by a straight actor. That was going against everything the movie was trying to say. And then I said to [co-writer and director] Nick Stoller, once that decision was made, that the entire cast should be openly LGBTQ+ actors, including in the straight roles.
On a cultural level, it’s a powerful statement to make. But on a practical level, we’re doing the first gay rom-com ever made by a major studio, and most of the characters in it are LGBTQ — there are some straight characters as well. I want to give other openly LGBTQ actors these opportunities. It’s a really funny movie — and it’s consistently funny, but something else is happening in it that I didn’t even expect or think about. It becomes very emotional for people because you realize: “My God, what we’ve missed!” All those years of me seeing those movies with my parents as a kid — Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, I could go on — they were never about people like me. There are no stories about us falling in love, navigating love, dating, relationships, and you don’t realize what you haven’t gotten until you finally see it. This is an event. It’s the first of its kind. You can feel that in the theater when you’re watching it.
There is so much talk about how hard it is to make a theatrical rom-com or an R-rated comedy. What was the most rewarding part of making one for you?
Bros is the best thing I’ve ever done. Creatively, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and the most meaningful thing, professionally. We shot it in New York last fall and it was magical. Me and Luke [Macfarlane], who plays my boyfriend in the movie, were shooting these scenes where we’re walking around the Upper West Side, the way I saw Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan walking around the Upper West Side, or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, or watching Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange walk down the street at the end of Tootsie. For me to be doing it, but with another man— you’ve just never seen it before produced at this level and with this level of support.
It’s something you don’t even realize when you’re not getting it. You only realize it when you’re finally getting a movie like this. Even me, who worked on it for years, it took me sitting there with an audience of strangers all looking up at this big screen —the way I looked up at the screen when I was a kid and saw a Pretty Woman and Moonstruck and all these movies that I loved but never saw myself. I’m not saying that we are up to the standards of those movies — those are classic movies — but we were trying to hold ourselves to those standards. Now you do see gay characters and queer characters all over streaming — and that’s wonderful if you’re growing up now — but there are several generations of LGBTQ people who had nothing. At most, we were the best friend. Most of the time we were ignored, and often we were the butt of the joke. Now, we get to see ourselves falling in love and falling out of love. And for all of that to be on the big screen in a fun, hilarious, romantic way, that’s what’s so rewarding.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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