Actor Jeff Hiller talks growing up in San Antonio and his HBO series Somebody Somewhere

The Churchill High School grad also had a recurring role as a serial killer in 2022’s American Horror Story: NYC.

click to enlarge Jeff Hiller is currently starring in the HBO dramedy series Somebody Somewhere.  - Courtesy Photo / HBO
Courtesy Photo / HBO
Jeff Hiller is currently starring in the HBO dramedy series Somebody Somewhere.
When actor and San Antonio native Jeff Hiller enrolled in Texas Lutheran University (TLU) in 1994, his plan was to become a pastor.

“I think one of the main reasons I wanted to be a pastor is because I knew I would have a built-in audience once a week,” Hiller, 47 and a Churchill High School grad, joked in a recent interview with the Current.

Along with all the theology classes he took, Hiller, who’s openly gay, spent much of his time performing on stage. He graduated from TLU in 1998 with a degree in theatre, and by then a love for acting had replaced his desire to preach from the pulpit.

In 2001, Hiller started performing and teaching improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. Since then, he’s made a name for himself mostly in the TV industry, starring in episodes of series including 30 Rock, Community, Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

He also landed a recurring role as a serial killer in 2022’s American Horror Story: NYC. In Hiller’s first feature film, the underrated 2008 fantasy comedy Ghost Town, he played a naked ghost opposite Ricky Gervais.

Hiller is currently starring in the HBO dramedy series Somebody Somewhere. The show follows a woman named Sam (Bridget Everett) who undergoes a mid-life crisis as she returns to her small hometown in Kansas. Hiller plays Joel, Sam’s gay and religious best friend, who happens to be maneuvering through his own issues.

The first two seasons of Somebody Somewhere are streaming on Max, and earlier this month the series was renewed for a third. During our interview, Hiller talked about his life in San Antonio, what film he saw as a kid that sparked his interest in acting and his thoughts on the anti-LGBTQ+ laws being introduced across the country under the guise of religious freedom.

What kind of a student were you at Churchill High School in the 1990s? Were you in theatre?

Well, I was the kind of student who was profoundly gay. So, I just tried to hide. (Laughs.) I was in the choir for four years. That was my big thing. I did school musicals. The drama program at Churchill had all these cool kids and stuff. So, I thought, “Oh, I can't be in that.”

What musicals do you remember doing?

I was in Oklahoma! my freshman year. I played Cowboy No. 4. I can recite my entire show for you right now! (Laughs.) It was an auspicious beginning.

What did you study at Texas Lutheran?

Well, I studied abroad my junior year in Namibia, and when I got back, they were like, “You need to declare a major!” That's how wishy-washy I was. So, I looked at all the credits I had and the classes I had taken. It added up to be a theatre major and a theology minor. I wanted to be a pastor at the time. That’s why I studied so much theology.

Musical theater and theology? I think you just made Ted Cruz’s head explode.

Exactly! Why don’t you take a trip to Mexico, Ted? That’s what you like to do when things get too complicated.

click to enlarge Somebody Somewhere follows a woman named Sam (Bridget Everett) who undergoes a mid-life crisis as she returns to her small hometown in Kansas. Hiller plays Joel, her gay and religious best friend. - Courtesy Photo / HBO
Courtesy Photo / HBO
Somebody Somewhere follows a woman named Sam (Bridget Everett) who undergoes a mid-life crisis as she returns to her small hometown in Kansas. Hiller plays Joel, her gay and religious best friend.

What was Namibia like?

Just to give you an idea, that’s where they shot Mad Max: Fury Road. So, it’s like a desert. You want to make sure you have a lot of water if you go there. The course I took was called Societies in Transition, and it was all about history, politics, religion and culture.

During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! this past April, you said San Antonio was “a nice place to visit” but that you didn’t “recommend growing up gay there.” Can you elaborate on that?

Well, I have friends who stayed there, and it seems like it's a much more accepting and progressive place today. I think it was more about the time I grew up there. It was at the height of the AIDS epidemic — and me being obviously gay. There were lots of bullies and cruelties. I don’t think it's specifically about San Antonio. I think it's more about being different in 1988.

How were you different?

I didn’t conform to the standard gender roles. I’ve always been giggly. I remember one time this mean kid at Eisenhower Middle School told me that I carried my books like a girl. I looked down, and I was carrying my books against my chest. I was like, “Oh, the other boys carry their books down by their hip.” They were constantly pointing things out to me that I didn't notice.

What sparked your interest in acting?

I wanted to do it since I was about four years old when I saw E.T.

Which has its own San Antonio connection too with Henry Thomas.

Exactly! When I found out he was from San Antonio, I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I remember he made Cloak & Dagger in San Antonio.

So, you saw E.T. and …

… and I was really concerned about Elliot. My mom was like, “Oh, he’s just an actor.” And I was like, “What? You can be an actor?” I was all in. But it wasn't a real goal until I moved to New York and I started taking classes at [Upright Citizens Brigade] and met people who were actors. They were in commercials, and they were doing off-Broadway theatre. I was like, “These people are just like me! In fact, I’m better than them at improv, so let’s do this!”

Do you consider Somebody Somewhere the highlight of your career thus far?

It’s definitely the highlight of my whole career. Sometimes people want to talk to me about American Horror Story, but I only got American Horror Story because of Somebody Somewhere. I've done a ton of sitcoms and am very proud of the work that I've done as a guest star. But it's nice to go to a set every day and play a character that's fully realized and three dimensional. It's a real gift.

You’re playing a character who, like yourself in real life, is gay and grew up in the church. The authenticity is baked in, no?

Yeah, [the series] wants to be very real. I know a ton of people in San Antonio and around Texas who are both queer and also a member of a church or a faith community. I know many people like that, but I've never seen anything like that on television. I think what's really interesting about the show is that they are being so truthful, and they’re doing something completely unheard of. It feels so different and so wonderful.

Do you still go to church?

I go to church when I go home to Texas, but I don't have a church in New York anymore. I used to, but it’s so hard to get up on Sunday. I'm being a little flippant. You know, it's still a part of my life but it’s not a huge part that it used to be. In San Antonio, I felt like the church was one of the few places where I was accepted. Even the mean kids from school would be nice to me at church. So, it felt like a real sanctuary.

What goes through your mind today when you hear stories about laws, under the guise of religious beliefs, that are stripping away the rights of LGBTQ+ kids?

I become very angry and hurt and truly confused, because so much of it is done in the name of a church. It makes no sense whatsoever — this regulation of how people should live and how people should be when it's not harming anyone else. At the same time, I have friends who became pastors, and they're at churches in San Antonio. I know for a fact that there are a lot of really wonderfully progressive churches in Texas and specifically in San Antonio that are doing amazing work and are all about accepting LGBTQ people. But there are also a lot of churches that are really doubling down and saying, “You have to be like us.” I think those churches are the reason that less people go to church. The Bible says, “Love your neighbor” not “Love your neighbor but make sure there are no trans kids first.”

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