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It was a Dior death match at Out’s photo shoot of Bros stars Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the actors arm-wrestled in designer plaid shirts before jumping into a freestanding copper tub in the middle of Bathtub Gin LA, a Prohibition-style speakeasy located in the middle of Tinseltown. Framed by butterfly wallpaper and a wall of booze, the pair then toasted glasses of brown stuff (which was, in fact, just iced coffee).
The space was filled with eclectic vintage items: a taxidermy possum, an Imperial typewriter, a yellowed 1929 issue of the New York Times. Music piped in, alternately, between a Bluetooth speaker and an old grand piano, from which a team member played a few bars of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and the theme song of Jurassic Park.
The dinosaur franchise was also on the mind of Eichner, who marveled that Bros — the first gay romantic comedy to be released in theaters by a major studio (out September 30) — shares the Universal Pictures umbrella with blockbusters like Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru. How does it feel for him to break this gay glass ceiling?
“It feels really exciting, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity,” says the 43-year-old actor, who also admits to carrying some “anger and confusion and curiosity” as to why it took a purportedly progressive industry until 2022 to reach this milestone. (Fire Island also made history as a gay rom-com from a major studio released on a streaming service, Hulu, earlier this year; Happiest Season was poised to earn this distinction for queer women in 2020, but its distribution was disrupted by the pandemic.) “I keep making jokes like, ‘Oh, Hollywood made two movies about an animated talking hedgehog before they made one major studio rom-com about a gay couple.’ And that’s a funny joke, and it gets a big laugh, but it’s also bizarre that is, in fact, the case.”
Initially, Eichner didn’t set out to make queer history when he wrote the screenplay with director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors); Judd Apatow is also a producer. “We just thought, ‘Let’s just go make a really fucking hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny, honest, heartfelt movie about a gay couple,’” he recalls. And the groundbreaking aspects — the film also boasts a nearly all-LGBTQ+ cast, even in the straight roles (save for gay icons Kristin Chenoweth and Debra Messing) — were a happy by-product.
Although Bros is breaking the mold, there’s a dose of old-school nostalgia in its DNA. In his writing, Eichner was inspired by the romantic comedies he adored growing up, what he calls the “movies that made me fall in love with movies.” These include Moonstruck, Working Girl, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, and (his favorite) Broadcast News, the 1987 film by James L. Brooks. “They were not at all avant-garde, and yet they felt sophisticated,” he says. “As a kid watching them, and probably as a gay kid, it made me want to be an adult…in a complicated relationship in Manhattan. That’s what I wanted to be. But we [as gay people] were never in those movies, ever. We weren’t even the best friend at that point.”
“I would never say [Bros] met that standard. Those are classic movies that have stood the test of time. But…I really wanted to do a movie at that level and that style, but that was about a gay couple, because we truly had never gotten that.”
The influence of these classic rom-coms is evident in Bros, in which podcaster Bobby (Eichner) and estate lawyer Aaron (Macfarlane) navigate a budding romance with the Big Apple as a backdrop. But as Bobby declares to the audience of his podcast (and film), gay dating is different from straight courtship. “Yes, fundamentally, in a very oversimplified way, love is love…. But truthfully, we know, as gay people, especially gay men, well, love is not love in the way that the rules of our relationships function in the dance that we do, metaphorically speaking, when we’re getting to know each other,” Eichner explains.
So in between dates in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow and meeting the parents, Bobby and Aaron navigate queer-specific rituals of dating apps and group sex. They also contend with generation-specific issues related to gay men in their 40s, who came of age after the height of the AIDS pandemic with little positive media representation. There’s a lot of baggage to unpack related to masculinity, intimacy, and life’s meaning.
The depiction may well be an eye-opener for straight audience members accustomed to two-dimensional portrayals of gay men in sitcoms. But the task for Eichner was not to dredge up old tropes but to aim for honesty. “Socially, my best friends are other gay men. And on a very practical level, I did not want to disappoint them,” he says. “And I didn’t want to disappoint myself in telling a story that didn’t feel real and authentic.”
This authenticity extends to the sex scenes, which are both hilarious and tender in their navigation of awkward positions, cuddling, and, say, toe-sucking. “I love the idea of making the sex scenes both funny and absurd, but also very sweet and romantic,” Eichner says. “Because sex can be all of those things…. I think it’s important, especially in the world we live in to…remove the stigma from all of this stuff around two guys hooking up. What the fuck is the big deal? It’s been happening literally since the beginning of time. We just weren’t allowed to show it.”
For all the messy difficulties that can come with gay dating, Eichner enjoys the ritual. (Macfarlane refers to Eichner as the “Margaret Mead of the gay generation” for his sociological interest in the topic.) “Maybe it’s the writer or the actor in me, I’m very curious about other people’s lives, especially other gay men’s lives, because we truly don’t hear about them in a real authentic way very often,” Eichner says. He adds, “I love other gay men. And we are not a perfect group, by any means. We’re human. We have our flaws. We have our hang-ups. We have our insecurities, obviously. But I’m fascinated by those too. And I don’t think we talk enough about them because we’ve all been silenced, honestly, for the majority of our lives.”
Finding acceptance is a pivotal journey in any queer life. Eichner says he had a “really lucky” middle-class upbringing in New York City, where he fondly recalls his parents taking him to Broadway shows and Barbra Streisand concerts. And in his career, he’s always been out. In fact, his queerness has long played a central role as a comedic entertainer, from his Billy on the Street interviews to his lead role on Hulu’s Difficult People, in which he also played a gay New Yorker. “Hollywood was the first time I ever experienced homophobia,” admits Eichner, who cites a female manager who asked him “to make my live show less gay” when he was in his 20s. Thankfully, he rejected the advice.
NYC also played a role in Macfarlane’s coming-out. Raised in the “smallish” town of London, Ontario, he moved to New York to study drama at the Juilliard School. The experience was like going over the rainbow. “I remember walking on the streets in the Upper West Side and going like, ‘I think everybody here is gay,’” marvels Macfarlane, who was inspired to come out to his parents during his second year at the prestigious performing arts conservatory. Initially, the reception was “very hard, I think particularly for my father, but he never made it my problem,” Macfarlane says. “He was always able to be self-reflective enough to understand that any of his ideas about what his son was going to be was his problem.” He now counts his family as a strong support network.
Hollywood was a different story — but like New York, it also provided a strong motivation to live his truth. “My first television show that brought me out to L.A., I didn’t talk about [being gay]. And I was never asked about it. And I remember going like, ‘Oh, I’m unhappy…I don’t want to live like that. That’s a waste of time.’”
After he secured the role of Scotty Wandell on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, playing the husband of Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys), he felt the impulse of, “‘Oh, I have to come out.’ And this was in 2008. This was before Zachary Quinto. This was before Matt Bomer. And it was just this effort to sort of get out in front of it. I think, in hindsight, I didn’t realize that was a significant step.”
In the wake of the coming-out interview with The Globe and Mail, Macfarlane lamented the “toxic” reaction from some queer online commentators who claimed they had always known his identity or that his remarks were a “waste of news” — “comments come from the devil,” Macfarlane asserts. But he never regretted coming out when he did, even if it may have impacted the handsome actor’s leading-man trajectory.
“What other assignment do we have in life, other than just trying to be the most honest to the world as possible?” Macfarlane says. “Whether that’s telling jokes that are true or acting that is true. And that’s just one of those things that you can’t avoid. It’s an intrinsic part of who I am. So no. Did it have effects on my career? I’m sure it did. But I’ll never know that.”
“I always wanted to be a leading man,” Macfarlane says. “And I didn’t have that 1,000-yard kind of perspective of what that would [entail]. And it really wasn’t until I read Bros that I was like, ‘Oh, now there’s a place for me that people can understand where they’re going to put me.’” (Now 42, Macfarlane has had a steady career of headlining Hallmark Channel movies and broke ground in last year’s gay Christmas Netflix flick Single All the Way, which is playfully referenced in Bros.)
Of Macfarlane’s early coming-out, Eichner says, “I can’t speak for him, but I think because somewhere deep down, he just on a very primal level thought it was the right thing to do. And I really respect and admire that. And it was another reason why I wanted him to be part of [Bros].”
Times have changed, as evidenced on the set of Bros. Its rainbow cast engendered an atmosphere that dispelled the cloud of Hollywood’s historic homophobia. “We could all be ourselves,” Eichner attests. “It also allowed us to poke fun at each other, to be honest about our lives. Someone could make a comment about gay sex or dating or Grindr without feeling weird about it.”
This dynamic made an impression on straight observers like Apatow. “God, these actors are so funny,” he said while watching filming, as Eichner recalls. The actor adds, “But it was also making him sad because he thought, Wow, why did it take this long?”
Whether Bros represents a turning point in Hollywood may rest on the economic reality of its box-office numbers. Knowing this, does Eichner feel a pressure to perform? “The fact of the matter is, we need people to go see this movie, gay people and straight people, in order for them, meaning the powers that be in Hollywood, to green-light more movies like this,” he says. “I don’t want it to feel like a homework assignment or an obligation, because the movie is fucking great. And it’s hilarious. And that’s the main reason people should go.”
And seeing Bros is also an opportunity to marvel at its broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ talent, from acting pioneers like Amanda Bearse and Harvey Fierstein to up-and-coming stars like Bowen Yang and Symone. Other cast members include Monica Raymund, Guillermo Díaz, Guy Branum, Jim Rash, Ts Madison, Miss Lawrence, Eve Lindley, Jai Rodriguez, D’Lo, Peter Kim, and Dot-Marie Jones.
While the supporting cast is undeniably diverse, Bros does ultimately center on two white gay cisgender men. To potential critics of this relatively privileged point of view, Eichner says, “No one is denying the privilege of being a cis white gay man, compared to being a person of color in the queer community or a trans person in the community. In terms of writing this movie, I only felt that it was my own story that I could tell authentically.”
“It was so important to me to be as inclusive as possible,” he adds. “And you see it in the cast. And I really do think that they all get a chance to shine. And all I can hope is that the success of this movie…will lead to other movies getting made, which center stories around other people in the community, stories which I don’t have the life experience to tell with authenticity and nuance.”
Another groundbreaking character in Bros is one of its key settings: a national LGBTQ+ history museum, whose launch is spearheaded by Eichner’s character. (Mirroring reality, its LGBTQ+ board members often spar about which stories most deserve inclusion.) After all, history, like cinema, is a form of storytelling, and Bros becomes a vehicle for showcasing pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and Alan Turing while also shining a spotlight on their real-world erasure.
The impact of this erasure is seen through Macfarlane’s character, Aaron, who, while visiting the museum, realizes that his struggles are not unique and the freedoms he enjoys were built on the backs of others. “Aaron’s journey is so much about realizing he’s part of a continuum,” Macfarlane shares. “I think so many gay people think they have to do it all for themselves, every generation, because we’re not talking about the people before. And that is such a fucking shame…. For me…one of the [film’s] most powerful moments [is] when I realize that I’m part of a whole history.”
Education on LGBTQ+ issues is now center stage in politics — more than 20 states have proposed “don’t say gay” bills or other curriculum censorship measures in 2022 — which was not the case when Eichner began penning the script in 2019. A prescient scene features Aaron’s mother, a teacher, contending that her elementary-school students are too young to learn queer history. “I was worried that [this storyline] would seem dated,” Eichner says. “And, in fact, what happened is that things got worse, which just shows you that we’re always going to be in this pendulum historically and politically. We’re constantly going to have to fight for even our most basic rights.”
Eichner sees Bros as part of this fight, as it screens in movie theaters and multiplexes alongside straight-centered franchise films. This marquee placement has been a long time coming. “We are not something for a niche audience,” he asserts. “We belong there. We are here. We’ve always been here. This is for everyone.”
“And this is a love story,” he concludes. “Because no matter what you do or don’t do in a classroom, there will always be gay couples. There were gay love stories since the beginning of time; we just didn’t hear about them. And this, in a very big funny way, is our way of saying, ‘This is just one of millions of love stories. And you’ve never let us tell our stories. But we’re here now, and we’re going to keep telling them.’”
All portraits shot on location in Los Angeles at the Bathtub Gin LA, a Prohibition-style speakeasy where the gin is cold and the scene is hot. Drink in the glamour of Old Hollywood and the Roaring Twenties with live jazz performances, period furnishings, and even take a dip in the copper bathtub. @bathtubginla bathtubginnyc.com
Billy and Luke in DIOR MEN all clothing and accessories available at all DIOR MEN boutiques and dior.com
Talent Billy Eichner @billyeichner and Luke Macfarlane @ten_minutes_younger
Creative Director Ben Ward @_benjaminward_
Photographer Easton Schirra @eastonschirra for @theonly.agency
Digital Tech Kim Tran
Photo Assist David Koung
Stylist Kenn Law @kennlaw
Grooming Jason Schneidman @themensgroomer
DP Arian Soheili @arianshreds
This article is part of Out's September/October 2022 issue, out on newsstands August 30. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.