Interview: Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane Talk Casting Bros, Rom-Com Chemistry and Celebrating Queer Stories

For years, many people only knew comic performer (and Northwestern University theater graduate) Billy Eichner as the crazed street interviewer on his wildly popular internet series “Billy on the Street,” but in more recent years, he’s popped up in supporting roles (American Horror Story, Parks & Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, Friends from College, The Lion King), as well as in his series with Julie Klausner, Difficult People. Now, Eichner gets the chance to take center stage for the first time in a feature film, Bros, which he co-wrote with director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, both Neighbors movies, The Five-Year Engagement). Not that Eichner and Stoller get lost in its significance, but Bros (produced by Judd Apatow) marks the first R-rated gay rom-com released by a major motion picture studio, and like most Apatow productions, there’s a whole lot of movie packed into this two-hour ditty.

But Eicher cared first and foremost about the comedy, believing that he and his writing partner could handle the romance elements just fine thanks to their extensive knowledge of dozens of straight rom-coms. The resulting work is not just funny, but speaks to the idea that gay relationships are both remarkably similar to straight ones and quite unique because they still are not entirely accepted by the world that surrounds them. There are conversations about the definition of masculinity, being comfortable in one’s own skin, queer folk telling their own stories, and the benefits of remaining detached from coupling (or thruppling). 

Eichner plays Bobby Leiber, a successful podcast host who is also spearheading the completion of the world’s first LGBTQ+ museum in New York City. He meets the uber-hunky Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane, a designated king of many a Hallmark original movie), and the two stumble through what may turn out to be love, despite the fact that they both pride themselves on not needing romantic entanglements. I recently had the chance to sit down with this on-screen couple to discuss the relatively painless process of getting Bros made and what Eichner hoped to accomplish with it, beyond the laughs. Please enjoy our talk… 

Bill, always happy to meet a fellow Northwestern graduate.

Billy Eichner: Oh yeah! My acting teacher from Northwestern came to the screening last night. I hadn’t seen her in person in like 20 years.

Luke Macfarlane: Oh, that’s cool.

As is often the case with Judd Apatow-produced films, there’s a lot of movie here. In your head during the writing process, did you think “This might be my only shot to say these things; let’s just put it all in until we scale it down later”?

BE: This movie is a long time coming, it’s long overdue. We’ve have a lot of Judd Apatow movies but never one about a gay couple or LGBTQ characters, so we wanted to cover a lot of ground, and there’s a lot of time that we’re trying to make up for here. If the movie is 10 minutes too long, well, we weren’t allowed to make movies like this for 100 years, so I think we’ve earned those 10 minutes. With Nic and I, we wanted the story on one level to be epic, in terms of looking at it in a macro way. This is the first gay rom-com from a major studio, it’s cast with all LGBTQ actors, we have a lot to say, we want it to be really funny, we want it to be moving, we want it to be poignant. So we wanted the movie as a whole to have an epic feel; we really wanted you to feel like you were getting to know these two guys. 

For most rom-coms—and I love rom-coms, but sometimes the two central characters are thrust upon the audience, and we’re supposed to believe from the first second they meet that they’re in love, even though we don’t see how they fell in love or why. We know that we’re supposed to assume they’re in love so that the rest of the story can transpire, right?

LM: All you need to know is on the poster.

They are of a type, so we don’t need to know the details.

BE: Exactly right. But what we wanted to do here is really show you in an intimate way how their relationship develops. These are two guys who at the beginning of the movie really pride themselves on not needing a relationship, not wanting romance. They’re very out and sexually active, they put love and intimacy at arms length. So the whole fun of the movie and what makes it poignant, I hope, is watching them both let their guard down. But that doesn’t happen overnight. That’s a small, incremental process, and there are ups and down. By the end of the movie, we want people to think they really know these characters, what they’re doing for each other, and watching how they grow in a very nuanced way. That was the goal.

It’s interesting you say that we get to know these characters well, because with the extra running time, we get to know a lot of the characters in this movie very well. I know more details about the other board members of the museum or Aaron’s brother than you normally would in a rom-com.

BE: I think that’s important too. We’re trying to show how expansive the LGBTQ community is and the wide variety of relationships you can have these days. You can have what we consider a heteronormative marriage with a family and kids, a monogamous relationship in the traditional sense. Or you can be in a thrupple. Or you can be happily single, like my friend Henry. Or you can be like these two guys, who are really stumbling through the early stages of a romance, trying to figure out if this is something they want and if they’re capable of it.

When you were writing this with Nic, I have to imagine this was something of an education for him. Do you remember anything in particular that you had to educate him about that was completely unknown to him?

BE: A lot of it was unknown to him, in terms of how it really is. Nic brought the idea of doing a gay rom-com to me, so this is a guy who is interested in this culture and in the world and wanted to make this movie very much. At the same time, what’s fun about the movie for straight people is that, hopefully it makes them laugh a lot, but you’re getting a peek behind the curtain at a culture that you think you might know based on seeing some wacky sitcom characters over the years, but you don’t really know. I remember early on in the process, I took out my phone, pulled up Grindr, and was like “Alright, Nic, this is Grindr, this is how it works.” I showed him photos and conversations, chats I’ve had with guys on Grindr. You’ve got to know this stuff. I talked to him very specifically about all my friends and all the permutations of relationships that they had, some monogamous, some very not monogamous. Some of that really was eye-opening to him and Judd, but to their credit, they and the studio always encouraged me to make it as honest as possible.

In finding your Aaron, I imagine that was your toughest search because he had to check off a long list of very specific physical and personality types. He’s not dumb, but he’s also not used to being challenged about the way he lives his life, and now it’s driving him crazy that someone is. What was perfect about Luke? And Luke, what do you remember about that audition process?

LM: Yeah, Aaron has built an entire life for himself where he doesn’t have to be challenged. He’s taken the one thing that he can be in control of, which is the sense of physicality about himself and uses that as his appeal point. The first time I ever read the script, I identified with Aaron tremendously, in a way that was both very scary and very useful as far as understanding the character. I knew that they were going to cast an openly gay guy, and I remember stepping into the audition room and seeing all the other guys waiting—all the other gay guys in Hollywood who wanted this role. Some of them were much more famous than me. But I did feel really good afterwards; I’d never met Billy before but I think I got it pretty quickly, and they all seemed to laugh a lot in the room. And they were all there in that first audition, which is rare. Usually you have to build your way up to the big room.

BE: A romantic comedy, no matter how well written, lives or dies based on the chemistry of the two central actors. We’ve seen movies where they put together two movie stars who are both great individually in their own right; sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s hard to explain. We saw many wonderful actors, and I read with all of them. The first words we said to each other were the words we say in the first scene where Bobby and Aaron meet in the club, and there was a spark there, luckily. There’s mutual admiration there, and we also maybe scare each other a little bit, or did at that point, and that created some excitement and a cool energy.

LM: I don’t know why this came to me, but there’s something in Aaron that is a persona, for sure, but it’s also real. This stripping away down to the person he needs to be in order to fall in love is absolutely a sort of vulnerability. But there is an aspect of him that is bro-y. I’m not even sure what my point is. He’s not pretending in the beginning.

BE: He’s built up an armor over the years, and that armor feels real to him. But it also needs to come down. Bobby too. Bobby is who he is; he didn’t contrive a persona, it builds up over time, and all the sudden, you’re 40 and you have whatever armor you have. With Bobby, it’s how outspoken he is. They are both very tough in different ways; they both made themselves impenetrable.

LM: It’s the chicken or the egg: identity version. What informs what? Is the world informing who we are? Does that make any sense?

BE: It’s too early for me wrap my brain around that, but I’ll get back to you [laughs].

I could have watched an entire film just about the people responsible for getting this museum open. Those characters are so fun, and I loved checking in with them every so often. And it’s a huge part of Bobby’s life—his life’s mission. Can you talk about writing those board room scenes, and did you have to rewrite anything once you starting casting those parts?

BE: Like anything else, those scenes developed over time. The original version of it had one less character in it, and then we kept seeing so many funny people. That’s what’s remarkable about the whole thing, there are so many hilarious LGBTQ actors out there who have never been given the opportunity to be in a movie like this. We could have cast 30 more people who are amazing. Those scenes always existed from the beginning, and some of those lines are from the very first draft of those scenes, and some were developed over time for the actual actors we cast, some were improvised in the room or written in the room in the middle of the day because we were all very On at that point. 

They’re all so funny, uniquely funny, and they bring a different energy to the room, like Eve Linley, who plays Tamara, the Gen-Z trans woman, this was a first opportunity for her. And then you have people like Dot-Marie Jones and Jim Rash, who have been doing it for years but haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to be a major-studio rom-com like this and really get to shine. Jim and Dot were at the first table read in 2019, and they crushed; they were so funny, and from that point on, we kept seeing other actors who we thought were great, but we kept looking at each other going “Jim and Dot, we can’t replace them.”

Best of luck with this, seriously. It’s so funny.

BE: Oh, thank you very much.

LM: Thanks.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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