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Billy Eichner wrote himself into the romance he wanted with ‘Bros’

The actor Billy Eichner, on Sept. 27, 2022. In new comedy “Bros,” Eichner, he channels his relationship angst into something hopeful: “I was like, ‘Why is the fictional version of me happier than I am?’”RYAN PFLUGER/NYT

When he was still figuring out who he was as a gay man, Billy Eichner found himself at the movies. As a college student in Chicago, he caught “Jeffrey” and “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” at the Music Box. Later, after a move to New York, Eichner watched films like “All Over the Guy,” “The Broken Hearts Club,” and “Another Gay Movie” at the Quad.

“Some of them were great, and some of them were a little less great,” he said, “but I always ran to see them because I had a hunger to see our stories on screen.”

Now it's Eichner who gets to star in one of those stories. In "Bros," which Universal released Friday, Eichner plays Bobby Leiber, a cynical Manhattanite who is surprised to find himself falling for Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), an affable jock. With most romantic comedies, the question is whether the central couple will ever get together, but these modern gay men quickly tumble into bed with each other (and sometimes with guest stars). Here, the conflict arises from whether they'll actually stay together, since Aaron can be aloof and Bobby has never dated someone who's such a … well, bro.

Although Eichner became famous for loudly haranguing passersby about pop culture on his series “Billy on the Street,” in real life, the 44-year-old comic actor is low-key and thoughtful. He hopes that “Bros,” which he co-wrote with director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), will demonstrate that he’s capable of much more than just bellowing.

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“I think until very recently, if Hollywood was willing to put a gay character in anything, it was often to be some version of a live-action cartoon,” Eichner told me recently over dinner in Los Angeles. “But with ‘Bros,’ one of the things that excites me the most about it is I get to be a real, multidimensional person.”

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Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q. At what point did you decide to call this film “Bros”?

A. Very early on. One of the initial inspirations for the movie was this “Billy on the Street” segment I did with Jason Sudeikis called the “Bro Lightning Round,” where I dropped my normal “Billy on the Street” persona and did a different character. It was this very bro-y guy, and I would ask [a passerby], “Hey bro, is masculinity a prison?” and the guy would say, “Yes,” and we’d all cheer. A gay friend of mine said to me, “You were kind of hot in that segment, when you talked like that. You should dress like that more often.” He was half-joking but half-not.

Q. Inside every joke, there’s a kernel of truth.

A. One hundred percent, and I could tell. I said to him, “Are you saying I should have a completely different voice and dress like a completely different person in order to seem sexually attractive to you?” I always thought there was something there to further explore about gay men, at least those of my generation — I can’t speak to the younger ones, I don’t think they’re as focused on this issue of masculinity. But I told Nick that anecdote, and that’s when the idea of calling the movie “Bros” came to me. I liked the irony of it, that this big mainstream gay rom-com would be called “Bros,” but also when people see the movie, they’ll realize it actually is tied into one of the themes.

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Q. How would you define that theme?

A. That the gay male community, or at least parts of it, put a certain type of jocky, all-American masculinity on a pedestal. I think that for gay men of my generation, it was less of an issue to simply be gay — many of us were OK with that, for the most part — but we wanted to be masculine, and we were attracted to this very old-fashioned sense of masculinity. And although things are definitely changing for the better, a lot of that stuff is still ingrained in us.

Q. What’s your own journey been like with masculinity?

A. Complicated. When I was in my 20s, you would go to the gay bar with your friends and we always talked about how we’re gay, but we’re not that gay. I remember my father saying that to me as if that was a good thing.

Q. “Bros” has an almost entirely LGBT cast, but your director, Nick Stoller, is straight. Was there ever a conversation about whether a gay person should direct it?

A. This was five years ago, and I think the culture and the industry have evolved a lot since then. If we were making the movie now, would the studio maybe insist it was a gay director? It’s possible, but the project started with Nick emailing me and saying, “I love your work. Do you want to write a gay rom-com with me and you can star in it?” I’d never written a movie before, I’d never even had a large supporting role in a live-action movie, and he’s made many movies. I was confident that he could walk me through all of that and protect my vision.

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I do love working with gay people. I’m writing my next project with Paul Rudnick, and Greg Berlanti is producing it. But at the same time, I love that Judd [Apatow, a producer of the project] and Nick and I made this movie together. I love the idea that we could make a movie that has three raunchy sex scenes, two of which are orgies, but it still has this Nora Ephron glow.

Q. To what extent is this film drawn from your own dating life?

A. The inspiration for it came from an experience I had in real life, but I’ve never had a relationship like the one Bobby and Aaron have in the movie.

Q. A lot of rom-coms end with the first kiss. You never saw Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have sex …

A. God, I wish they would have!

Q. … but in “Bros,” sex happens early and often. Did you have an idea about how you wanted it to be portrayed?

A. I think sex can be very funny. Maybe not in Nora Ephron movies, but in Judd Apatow movies, there’s nudity and raunchiness that’s played for laughs and can also be really poignant. I love “Borat,” and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in a movie theater than that scene where Sacha Baron Cohen and that naked guy are wrestling. The audience was really falling out of their seats laughing.

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Q. Your character is insecure that he’s not enough of a jock, but you’re pretty fit, Billy. Do you feel pressure to look a certain way?

A. I work out, I exercise, but I don’t consider myself a jock by any means. I never really played sports.

Q. When gay men call themselves jocks, I don’t think it has anything to do with sports.

A. No, of course it doesn’t. But I do feel that pressure, and that’s part of being a complicated human being. You can criticize people who are trying to conform to that look and be buff — you can know intellectually that this is a ridiculous thing to pursue — and also, at the same time, you can want to actually be part of that convention. Look, it’s complicated. As Madonna once said, “Life is a paradox.”

Q. How much of a say did you have in the film’s marketing campaign?

A. Ultimately, Universal makes those calls. I’m not someone who’s constantly starring in three movies a year, so they knew that this was a first for me personally and they wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable with everything. But they did initially present a poster for the movie that had Luke and I in tuxedos, like we were having a gay wedding.

Q. Like you guys were a wedding topper?

A. Exactly. I did politely push back on that and I said, “Guys, I know that we have a movie to sell here, but this is not a gay wedding movie. In fact, on multiple occasions, my character specifically talks about how he doesn’t want to get married.” Then almost overnight, they were like, “Well, what about this?” And it was the picture of us grabbing each other’s asses. I said, “Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s great.” Then I got a scare, I was like, “That might be too far,” and they said, “No, we love it. It’s bold, like the movie. Let’s be unapologetic.”

Q. How will you measure the success of this movie?

A. I want the people who see it to laugh a lot and to be moved. A lot of what we get in movie theaters and even on TV to a certain degree is cynical and dark and gritty, but “Bros” is about the good things in life. It’s about love and sex and romance. That’s something that I think is lacking in a lot of our lives — it certainly has been lacking for a good part of my adult life, and I don’t want it to be. I think movies like this are a reminder that we shouldn’t ignore those things.