For Billy Eichner, getting cast in Disney’s photo-real remake of The Lion King as Timon — the wisecracking meerkat companion to Seth Rogen’s happy-go-lucky warthog — was a Broadway kid’s dream come true.
“I grew up doing musical theater,” Eichner told BuzzFeed News. “I was on a track to be on Broadway in my head. I was taking singing lessons with this big singing coach in New York who taught all the kids who wanted to be Gavroche in Les Mis. I was always too tall and fat to play Gavroche at the time. But I wanted to be on Broadway.”
Eichner kept chasing after his musical theater dreams in college, but after graduation, he fell instead into a career in comedy, first with a popular off-off-Broadway stage show that ultimately led to his signature series of Billy on the Street videos in which he yells at people in Manhattan about pop culture with celebrity guests in tow.
“All of a sudden, I was a comedian, which was always sort of weird to me,” he said. “The first few times I saw people write ‘comedian Billy Eichner,’ I was like, comedian? What are they talking about — I’m an actor. But then I got over it because it works.”
Billy on the Street’s viral popularity has led to more-straightforward acting gigs for Eichner, including Hulu’s Difficult People, Netflix’s Friends From College, and two seasons of American Horror Story on FX. And he’s currently writing a romantic comedy he’ll star in for director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors) — the first-ever same-sex rom-com backed by a major studio.
The Lion King, however, is where most audiences will be introduced to Eichner’s considerable singing chops — which, as it turns out, was also the case for the people making the movie.
Just before his interview with BuzzFeed News, Eichner said Hans Zimmer, the film’s composer, reminded him about the day they recorded Timon’s rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for the film.
“He said, ‘I thought you were going to be there for, like, 20 hours,’” Eichner recalled with a smile. “He was like, ‘And then you started singing.’ They just didn't know. They just hired me to be funny.”
Eichner is indeed earning considerable praise for his performance in The Lion King, with many saying he outright steals the movie. The reception is particularly meaningful for Eichner. In his interview with BuzzFeed News, Eichner made clear he considers the man who originated the role of Timon in the 1994 original animated version of The Lion King, Broadway icon Nathan Lane, to be a personal idol of his — as an actor and as a gay man.
What do you most remember about seeing the original animated version of The Lion King?
Billy Eichner: Hmm. I remember vividly seeing it when it first came out in the theater, with my parents. And I loved it. I always thought of it as a musical because I love musicals. Because I grew up in New York and I saw Broadway, I knew Nathan Lane before Lion King. He did this revival of Guys and Dolls that I saw for, like, my bar mitzvah. And I literally was like, “Who’s that?” I mean, it’s an iconic production, people still talk about it, but I just was so drawn to Nathan. I adore that man, and we’ve become friendly in the past few years. So in terms of seeing the movie, I loved it in the way that I love musicals.
So how did you reconcile what Nathan Lane did as Timon with what you wanted to do?
BE: There was an initial thought I had of, How am I ever going to top what Nathan Lane did? It’s not only iconic for the world, but for me, personally. Nathan is a god, really. But you can’t do your job if you’re constantly thinking about what a genius Nathan Lane is.
I emailed Nathan — one of the first things I did — and I wanted his blessing. He gave it to me, and he made some very funny jokes about how I was going to steal other roles of his. And one thing that really helped is that Jon Favreau had Seth Rogen and I improvise a lot, and a remarkable amount of the improv ended up in the movie. Once you’re improvising, you have to be in the moment, you can’t be thinking about Nathan Lane and the original and all of that. And I think that really helped us tap into our version of who the characters were going to be.
The Lion King really launched Nathan Lane’s career outside of Broadway, but it’s remarkable to realize now that it wasn’t until years after his huge breakthrough role in The Birdcage in 1996 that he publicly came out. You’ve been out, though, from the start of your career. Did you think about that at all, the difference between where Nathan was then and where you are now?
BE: Yeah. I mean, I just got chills when you said it. I have thought about that. You know, I’m glad that Jon Favreau kept the tradition of Timon being played by a gay actor, with a certain type of comedic sensibility, alive.
There was also the quasi controversy with the original Lion King about Scar being coded as gay — even though he’s, you know, a cartoon lion. Do you remember that at all?
BE: I vaguely recall that. People are always trying to find the gay character in animated movies. I think the way to correct that is to actually put gay characters in animated movies. I’m actually in the very early days of working on a project like that. One of the last frontiers for LGBT representation is animated family films. Didn’t some rat just get married on something? Arthur or something like that?
BE: Well, that really opened the door to more gay rats getting married, which I really appreciate.
But yeah, gay people always had to sort of search for the closeted gay character, because there were no openly gay characters, and we were so thirsty for them. I would love to see a world where we don’t have to argue about, you know, whether what’s his name in Beauty and the Beast is gay or not. I don’t want it to be subtle or a question mark. It just should be gay.
“I don’t care if Bert and Ernie are gay. The way to move on from all those debates is to just create openly gay characters in children’s programming and family entertainment.”
I’m not saying that character’s gay, but in the new movies that are made, there should just be existing openly LGBT characters so that we don’t have to keep arguing about Bert and Ernie. I don’t care if Bert and Ernie are gay. I want to see actual gay people that are not a mystery. The way to move on from all those debates is to just create openly gay characters in children’s programming and family entertainment. I think we’re on the verge of that. You’re starting to see it happening.
So did you think about Timon’s gayness? At least in regard to how much of you was already in the character?
BE: I mean, he’s a cartoon meerkat. I’m not even sure how old he’s supposed to be. Timon and Pumbaa are different species — I don’t even think that’s ethically correct, you know, that they would be a couple in some way.
I didn’t think about him being gay so much as I thought, Well, I’m gay, and I have what some may consider a gay sensibility, and I’m going to bring that to the table, just the way that Nathan did. I’m certainly not going to shy away from it. In fact, I lean into it more in my performances than I even do in my everyday life.
I love that style. For me, it’s not gay or straight. No one ever looks at what Martin Short did in the ’80s and says, “What a gay sensibility!” But it had one, you know what I mean? Like, Will Ferrell does things that are big and theatrical, and no one ever says, “That gay Will Ferrell sensibility.” But because I am gay, you sort of get pegged with that — pardon the pun. But um, hey, I like getting pegged. So there you have it.
Are there other times when you’ve had to deal with, you know, getting pegged?
BE: Well, I never censored myself, even when I was doing live shows back in New York, which is where Billy on the Street videos started. I had representatives at the time — no one who I currently work with — who would tell me, “Such and such important person’s coming to the show, maybe you can make it less gay this month.” I would always make it more gay. I just refused to do that.
For me, it was always very practical. I was like, I’m a person that has a lot of gay friends. We go to gay bars. I go to Fire Island, Provincetown, Palm Springs, and do all these gay things. And I’m going to tell people I don’t talk about my sexuality?
I wasn’t even looking to make a political statement. I was just like, “Guys, number one, this is who I am, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Number two, I’m a comedian, and we talk about our lives.” Who am I supposed to be? Like, I’m not like a Lily Tomlin that’s gonna do 50 characters. I created this persona, and to say the persona wasn’t gay would have been a joke. I was happy that he was gay.
Billy on the Street has always been a send-up my own crazy, irrational passion for the entertainment industry. That’s a gay man. So your telling me make it less gay, it’s like telling me to make myself less white or less tall — it’s just ridiculous.
You’re also working on a gay romantic comedy right now. And as you’ve said, queer audiences are used to discovering LGBTQ characters in mainstream entertainment by getting really good at reading between the lines. So what has it been like for you to be able to write gay characters without having to do that?
BE: There’s a lot of pressure to get it right. Because we don’t get to make those movies very often — or ever, as it turns out — but I want to get it right. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve paid my dues in that respect. It’s kind of the culmination of everything I’ve worked towards, to make a real, mainstream funny movie about gay people, that straight people go to and laugh as if they would laugh at any other movie, but that remains authentic to the gay experience.
It’s kind of shocking that it’s 2019 and you are the first person to be making a gay romantic comedy for a major studio.
BE: It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, it’s an honor. It’s wonderful for me selfishly, but it makes me angry. You know, where were Nathan Lane’s 10 vehicles after The Birdcage? Where were Sean Hayes’ vehicles after Will and Grace? I mean, the classic story of Rupert Everett being the breakout star of My Best Friend’s Wedding, this huge, mainstream movie with the biggest movie star in the world, and then he made one bad movie with Madonna, and that was it. Had he been some straight male actor, he could have made one terrible movie with Madonna and then made more movies after that. That one strike would not have killed him.
Not to pick on Paul Rudd, but Paul Rudd played a gay man in a version of that same movie with Jennifer Aniston.
BE: Object of My Affection. Saw it in the theater.
And that wasn’t a huge hit. But he obviously went on to a lot more.
BE: Yeah, that’s considered a fluke. Really, you know, the industry should be ashamed about how it’s treated openly gay actors over the course of its history, especially when you consider how dedicated gay men are as consumers of pop culture. I don’t like that ratio.
With The Lion King, though, you are about to be introduced to a much, much wider audience as an openly gay actor.
BE: Seth texted me the other day, and he was like, “Dude, we’re gonna be on a Billboard chart — which is so ridiculous.” I was like, “If I get a Grammy before I get a GLAAD Award — I think that’s progress.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.