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Billy Eichner on the Homophobia He Still Sees in Comedy and Hollywood

On “Billy on the Street,” Billy Eichner has made a name for himself running up and down Manhattan’s sidewalks, ambushing clueless New Yorkers and interrogating them about pop culture. A brash physical comedian, Eichner has no qualms about asking perfect strangers embarrassing questions, hectoring pedestrians about their willingness to have a threesome with Jon Hamm or confusing middle-aged men into believing that Kate McKinnon is actually Reese Witherspoon.

But one A-list guest has eluded Eichner’s show. “I’ve always wanted Meryl,” he says. And in fact, one of the greatest actresses in film history hasn’t turned him down. Not exactly. “She’s aware,” Eichner says dreamily. “It almost happened once and then it didn’t happen, but I’m really, really crossing my fingers. So Meryl, if you’re reading this, let’s do it. It’s time.”

Eichner isn’t just focused on landing big-name sidekicks for his show. In recent years, the comic has moved more deeply into the political realm. Since Donald Trump started running for the White House, Eichner has made it clear that he’s determined to use his microphone for good. On social media, he’s become one of the most vocal gay voices of the resistance, slamming Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their hostility to the LGBTQ community while urging his 2.2 million Twitter followers to get politically involved. In 2018, Eichner partnered with Funny or Die on “Glam Up the Midterms,” a get-out-the-vote campaign that he says was more validating than any of his other career accomplishments.

“I was flooded with Instagram messages with people sending me photos where they were voting for the first time,” Eichner says. “I’m not Taylor Swift, but I do have a big platform and a really unique connection with my followers.”

Eichner isn’t ready to reveal his plans for 2020, but he’ll be involved in the efforts to unseat the president. Like many Americans, he’s still figuring out which of the dozens of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination he’ll throw his support behind. He says he’ll wait until the debates are over before making up his mind, but he admits that as a gay man, he’s inspired by Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy.

“I was a child in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic,” Eichner says. “I was a gay kid way before ‘Ellen’ and ‘Will & Grace.’ Pete is doing for the political world what people like Ryan Murphy have done in my industry for LGBT people, which is to create a space where a space did not exist.”

In his own career, Eichner is breaking barriers too. He recently signed a deal to make a gay romantic comedy for Universal Pictures, which Judd Apatow’s company is producing. It marks an important milestone. It makes Eichner the first openly gay man to write and star in a major studio movie.

“I’m honored that it’s me, but it should have been someone else 30 or 40 years ago,” he says. “I hear people talking about diversity and inclusion, but I often see gay people left out of those conversations. The comedy community, which has always been such a straight man’s game, has not been kind to openly gay men, and I still see so much homophobia when it comes to casting.”

Eichner has experienced some of that prejudice himself. Without naming names, he says that a prominent producer recently told him that he was fine with including more gay characters in shows and movies, but he didn’t understand why those roles should go to gay actors.

“No one wants a world where a straight person has to play a straight person or a gay person has to play a gay person, because part of the fun of acting is seeing someone become a character that they are not,” Eichner says. “The problem is that the playing field is not equal right now.”

He had an epiphany while watching “Love, Simon,” a high school love story with a gay protagonist. “Straight people go to the movies and literally see themselves all the time,” Eichner says. “It was so unusual to have a connection to what was happening on-screen instead of being a step or two removed. ‘Love, Simon’ really got to me. I was shocked, because I think of myself as such a cynical bitch.”

Eichner’s next role is one that will reach a new generations of fans. He’ll be the voice of the wisecracking meerkat Timon in this summer’s remake of “The Lion King,” joining a cast that includes Beyoncé, Seth Rogen and Donald Glover. It’s a part made famous in the 1994 animated film by his friend Nathan Lane. As soon as Eichner accepted the offer, he emailed Lane telling him it was an honor to follow in his footsteps.

Lane didn’t miss a beat in his response. “He was like, ‘What are you going to do next? Remake ‘The Birdcage’ with Ryan Gosling?’” Eichner says with a laugh. “Which, by the way, isn’t a terrible idea.”

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