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When viewers were first introduced to Billy Eichner’s character on American Horror Story: Cult, his gay was showing — according to his wife.
On the seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s and Brad Falchuk’s FX horror anthology, Eichner joins the franchise as Harrison Wilton, a fitness trainer turned beekeeper with more than a few deep, dark secrets. His wife Meadow (played by Leslie Grossman) married Harrison, her gay best friend, because she doesn’t care to be touched after getting skin cancer. In return, Harrison has one night of the week to go out and do whatever he pleases.
The gun-toting pair’s politics seemed muddy and their reasoning for moving into the neighborhood was mysterious, but their initial scenes provided moments of levity amid a dark post-election set season. But the revealing fourth episode, which aired Sept. 26, allowed Eichner to peel back the layers of his character — one that serves as a stark departure from any of his past comedic roles.
“I’m known for doing comedy and even though I know I have certain skills, the world hasn’t seen me on camera in a more dramatic or serious role,” the host of Billy on the Street tells The Hollywood Reporter of his dramatic midseason shift. “If there was someone out there who had a vision and who could potentially see me in a different type of role, and be willing to give me the opportunity to venture off into new creative territory, I knew that Ryan Murphy might be one of those people.”
Eichner says he first met Murphy three years ago at a pre-Emmys party in Los Angeles and was stunned to find out that the admiration was mutual. The pair kept in touch and Eichner, who was a theater major in college and has a stage history of doing musicals and plays, confessed to the showrunner that he had merely stumbled into comedy and was interested in drama. Flash to Murphy putting together his ensemble for Cult, and a new marriage was born.
In the comedy realm, Eichner was used to playing bold, confident and slightly delusional characters. In addition to hosting his fast-paced game show Billy on the Street — which recently parted ways with TruTV and is looking for a new home — he stars on Hulu’s Difficult People, playing a struggling comedian.
“With Harrison, there is some crossover in the first couple of episodes with the Billy persona that people know,” says Eichner, referencing his and Grossman’s banter. “But from the fourth episode on, it quickly starts to veer away from that. We start to depart pretty intensely from where the character began.”
After beginning the season on 2016 election night, the fourth episode flashed back to election day to reveal to the audience how the cult that is newly terrorizing the divided town came to be. Led by mastermind Kai Anderson (Evan Peters), viewers learned that Harrison was indoctrinated into the rising cult after murdering his boss at the behest of Kai, who easily pushed his buttons and promised him salvation.
“Harrison is much more lost, afraid and down on his luck than any character I’ve ever played. He doesn’t have a sense of humor about himself or the world,” says Eichner. The murder scene took place in the gym where Harrison works, the trainer gradually succumbing to Kai’s manipulations during workout sessions. “Harrison has a lot of masculinity issues. Although he’s gay, he’s in this awkward, kind of archaic marriage relationship with his best friend, which is obviously very dysfunctional to say the least. In so many ways, this character called on me to find parts of myself and bring them to the surface that are not necessarily personality traits that I have, and go to a very vulnerable, emotionally raw place.”
Over the course of the season, Peters will embody multiple cult leaders, in addition to his fictional character Kai, and the daunting task required the actor to stay somewhat true to character during filming. In turn, Eichner says he also leaned into method acting in order to fully let his guard down during the tense gym scenes, which included a locker room masturbation scene but even more demanding emotionally intimate moments.
“It’s one thing to be vulnerable, it’s another thing to put yourself in a place where you believe that Harrison can be manipulated and preyed upon by Kai to this very extreme, violent degree,” he says of Harrison representing the portion of the country who have felt ignored and partly became responsible for the result of the 2016 election. “To be such an open wound and so malleable was an incredible challenge as an actor.”
For Eichner, the role came along just in time. After two years at TruTV, his Emmy-nominated Billy on the Street, which first began as video segments in 2004, is now a free agent. The current plan is to shift gears to find the show a new home, and although Eichner says it “isn’t going away,” he had been looking to expand his résumé.
“I’m very lucky because I was looking to start branching out from the types of roles that people were getting to know me for and ones I was getting used to doing,” he says. Eichner also co-owns the rights to Billy on the Street, along with producers Funny or Die. “We are transitioning and it is going to evolve as it always has. I can’t announce all the details yet, but the way we distribute it is going to change. I really want to meet the people who are watching me, where they are. We are taking all that into account and we’re finding a new situation.”
Despite the dark and twisted plot on Cult, Eichner also found a new home with the AHS family, bonding off-camera with the cast and team. Though he put his “blood, sweat and tears” into Billy on the Street over the years, Cult was liberating in a different way. “If you could go back in time and speak to me in my early 20s, I just wanted to be an actor,” he says. “I never though about improv or stand-up and I certainly never thought about running up to people on the street.”
That’s not to say that Eichner doesn’t find comedy in Cult. As intended, the season is darkly comedic as it satirizes both the left and right, proving Murphy’s earlier words that the 11-episode cycle is not only for a liberal audience. Amid the jump scares and the gore of the psychological thriller, the season is also, frankly, meant to be funny.
“This season more than anything is a really dark and twisted satire of everyone on the political spectrum,” Eichner says. “From manipulative, dangerous, racist, misogynistic, homophobic assholes like Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, we explore the way someone like that can brainwash and exploit the ignorant and vulnerable people for his own personal gain with Evan’s character Kai.”
But in addition to relating that to other historically famous cult leaders like Charles Manson, David Koresh and Jim Jones — all to be embodied by Peters — Cult satirizes die-hard liberals.
“I’m a die-hard liberal and I hate Trump and I would do anything to have him impeached, etcetera etcetera,” says Eichner. “At the same time, no one’s perfect. We all have our own internal hypocrisies. You can argue that it was the infighting among Democrats and liberals which brought us to this place, because we were out there assuming Trump could never win and overestimating the intelligence of the electorate, meanwhile fighting against ourselves about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. We’re satirizing that too — our own hypersensitivity, internal hypocrisy and biases.”
Not only does Sarah Paulson’s leading character, Ally, argue with her wife (Alison Pill) because she secretly voted for Green Party candidate Stein, but one scene between Ally and Kai also sticks out as a perfect representation of Eichner’s point. After the election, Ally, who suffers from a multitude of phobias, snowballs into an unmanageable paranoia and adds bars to the entryways of her home. Kai, who is campaigning for city council, knocks on her door and questions her own hypocrisy.
“That is one of my favorite scenes. Ally is going on and on that she wants to build bridges and not walls and Kai says, ‘Then why do you have bars on all of your doors and windows? What are you so scared of?'” recalls Eichner of the scene. “It’s much different when it starts affecting you and your family. We’re shining a light on all of that and how it’s a lot for people to handle right now. We’re all a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals making this show, as far as I know. But we are looking to dive into the identity politics of it all, in addition to entertaining people and taking them on a wild ride. There’s a lot to absorb, depending on what the viewer brings and is open to taking away.”
American Horror Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. For more on the series as the season continues to air, head here.
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