Billy Eichner won’t mince words, and you shouldn’t expect a man who has assembled his career out of madcap, grating and hilarious roles to do so. Most famous for his street-side, Emmy-nominated social experiment Billy On the Street, where he confronts New Yorkers with pop culturally soaked questions like “Do gay people care about John Oliver?” (answer: kind of!), the brash actor-comedian is also platform-agnostic, starring in both Hulu’s darkly beloved Difficult People and Netflix’s Friends From College. This fall, Eichner joined Ryan Murphy’s close-knit American Horror Story family for the anthology’s seventh season, Cult.
AHS is a consistently successful show that blends Murphy’s penchant for horror and big ol’ helpings of camp with cultural commentary. Cult is different from past AHS chapters, however (it’s void of supernatural elements; no aliens, ghosts or supreme witches in fabulous hats here) and like the topic it tackles—the 2016 election—it is already immensely divisive. It’s also Murphy’s most ambitious season; with a country bristling with political turmoil, Murphy and his actors are walking straight up to controversy to punch those buttons, no matter how hot they are.
Amidst this season’s safe spaces, creepy clowns and callouts to Black Lives Matter, Eichner is bringing his own brand of off-the-cuff mania to Cult, his character feeling like a cousin of his Parks & Rec character, only madder. To note, his most meme-able line so far: “Lesbians! We’re under attack!”
SPOILER ALERT: Last night, we watched Eichner’s character Harrison, a Gary Johnson-voting libertarian, get pushed to the point of extremism and indoctrinated by Kai (Evan Peters), who is turning out to be this season’s Big Bad. Eichner spoke with Playboy about how exactly his character got so desperate—and what desperation means in Trump’s America.
On last night’s episode, 11/9, we got some insight into how Harrison and Kai met and also got to know exactly what Harrison is capable of. Can you unpack the relationship between him and Kai?
The fourth episode is perhaps my favorite because you literally see the moment we meet, and you see how Kai begins to indoctrinate me into his tribe and his way of thinking. You see how things have transpired between him and Meadow. Financial issues, other issues, and all of that is dealt with up front and center for the first time. You get a sense of who Harrison is and why he might be at a point in his life where he’s vulnerable and lost enough to actually listen to what Kai has to say. And to potentially be exploited by Kai.
We also see the beginning of what may or may not be a sexual relationship—or at least an attraction—between Kai and Harrison. At least that’s how Harrison sees it. It could be the beginning of something real, or it could just be Kai exploiting the fact that he knows Harrison is attracted to him, and senses some sexual tension there. We don’t know yet.
A lot of these neo-Nazis, you can’t say that they’re all toothless hicks. These guys went to college and yet they’re still ignorant.
This was a big episode for me as an actor because it really is a dramatic episode. Up until this point, there’ve been more dramatic moments, but there’s also been a healthy dose of Harrison and Meadow functioning as the comic relief and fulfilling the more satiric element. In 11/9, we start to see the emotional reality of Harrison’s life and it’s a big moment for him. It’s big for me, too, as an actor to a certain degree because I’m doing things in this episode that people haven’t seen me do.
The most campy, fun, Murphy-esque moments have all come from Harrison. Twitter freaked out over the “Lesbians, we’re under attack!” line, which is now becoming iconic. Is any of this improved? It sounds like your brand of comedy.
Nothing is improvised. All of that was scripted—every word of it. I would have never been able to think of the sombrero scene, throwing the Taco Bell coupons. To be honest, no one’s ever told me the role was written for me, so I can’t say it was written for me. Maybe they had me in mind early on, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence or whether they were writing for my comedic style, for lack of a better term, but none of that was improvised.
Personalities on the right are incredibly popular these days, and they have become popular by harnessing fear, similar to Kai in Cult. Is there a message in the show about the narcotic effect of fear? Is fear really that powerful? Absolutely. Donald Trump’s campaign was a campaign based on exploiting people’s fear and ignorance and that can be successful in the short term. This season of Cult is about many things, but in terms of Kai’s character and his effect on the rest of us, we’re seeing how someone can find a vulnerable lost member of society and exploit them, their fear, their despair and their anger. We saw that with Trump and we see it on Cult with the way Kai ends up brainwashing so many people in this one neighborhood.
This one town in Michigan, we’re using as a microcosm of America. One of the things we’re exploring this season is, how do you get to this place? To so many, it couldn’t be more obvious that Trump is a liar and a and a racist. So how do we get to a place where more than 60 million people feel empowered by him? Who is he giving a voice to, and why? What has happened in their lives? What’s transpired in their lives, to find someone like Trump and his message of hate and his lack of tolerance and his racism and misogyny, not only appealing but empowering?
A lot of those guys in Charlottesville, a lot of these neo-Nazis, you can’t say that they’re all a bunch of toothless hicks. They don’t necessarily fill that stereotype. These guys went to high school and college and yet they’re still ignorant. It’s just this evil vein of intolerance that has always lurked in our country. Trump emboldened it and empowered it and brought it to the surface. But he exploited it for his own good.
American Horror Story is this gory, violent take on the current political climate, and it is still within the horror genre and it’s certainly a psychological thriller. But there are elements of it that mirror the way Trump exploits people, and that’s something we’re looking at this season.
The entertainment world is so liberal. Has this country gotten to the point of having a giant rift between the people in entertainment and everyone else? Are people on the coasts or in entertainment out of touch with those in the middle?
If there’s a rift, I don’t think about it. You’ve gone beyond politics now. If we’re talking about Trump specifically, it’s not even about Democrats and Republicans, you know? He’s a liar and a con-artist and someone who’s in it for all the wrong reasons. He’s a racist and a misogynist and basically everything that’s wrong about society.
I don’t think Hollywood should be blamed for being on the right side of history, celebrating diversity and being compassionate.
I don’t even think of it at this point in terms of Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. We’re talking about people who are decent and compassionate human beings versus those who are not. We’re talking about people who celebrate diversity versus people who are ignorant, uneducated or sometimes educated racists, homophobes, misogynists, Islamophobes, the list goes on.
If there is a divide, and I guess there clearly is, I just want to make sure I’m on the right side of history and being a decent human being. [I’m interested in] being progressive and celebrating diversity. I don’t think Hollywood or anyone should be blamed for being on the right side of history, for celebrating diversity and you know…being compassionate.
Following the protests by NFL players, there’s growing criticism toward performers with some saying, "Hey, stay in your lane. People in Hollywood, don’t talk about politics. People in sports, don’t talk about politics.”
We’re all citizens first and foremost, and we’re all protected by freedom of speech. The First Amendment of our Constitution gives us freedom of speech and the right to protest and the right to peacefully assemble, and that’s what this is about. It’s not about whether you’re a celebrity or an actor or a coal miner or no matter what you are. If you are an American, you have that right. We all have those rights and we are simply exercising our right in the face of the most corrupt, the most evil administration that we’ve ever had in this country.
Now more than ever, it’s up to all of us, no matter what your job might be, to speak up and to use whatever platform you have. Sometimes that’s as vast as sending out a tweet to millions of people and sometimes it’s as small and simple as speaking to people in your family or in your church or whomever sits at your dinner table. We’re all speaking out in different ways, and we have to speak out. Our entire future is at stake, so we’re speaking out on behalf of ourselves and our future generations of Americans and people all over the world. If someone has a problem with me speaking out because I’m an actor, I don’t give a shit. I’m just doing what I feel is right, particularly in the face of Trump, who’s an evil, ignorant, mentally deranged Commander in Chief. If we’re not going to speak out now, then when are you going to?
Do you think people who are similar to Kai believe what they say or do they just use fear to control people?
Look, who knows how they really feel deep down, but we have no choice to take them at anything beyond face value, and on face value, they are racists. And anti-Semites, and homophobes. They’re screaming “Jews will not replace us,” they’re screaming the N word and they’re screaming faggot. Once you’re at that level, I don’t care what got you to that point in your life—and there’s part of me that might feel sorry for you—but ultimately I think that those people are living in the past. That’s what Make America Great Again was subtly or not-so-subtly implying: We’re going to go back to a more racist time when we didn’t celebrate diversity in this country. That scares a lot of white people.
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays on FX.