‘American Horror Story: Cult’ – Billy Eichner on Harrison and Kai’s Bond
In Episode 4 of American Horror Story: Cult, entitled “11/9,” we return to Election Day and learn more about who each of the characters voted for, as certain other pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. We also get to learn more about how Kai (Evan Peters) first crossed paths with Harrison (Billy Eichner) and why the two men found a connection with each other.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Billy Eichner (whose performance on this season of American Horror Story has been truly revelatory) talked about why he wanted to work with show creator Ryan Murphy and why American Horror Story was a good fit, knowing that he had this kind of performance in him, what he’s learned about himself, as an actor, from being a part of this TV series, establishing the bond between Harrison and Kai, just how often he finds himself doings things on this show that he never thought he’d be doing, and why Harrison thinks what he’s doing is right.
Collider: First of all, bravo on your work this season! There are some great performances on this show and in the world of Ryan Murphy, but I think you’ve been an absolute revelation on AHS: Cult.
BILLY EICHNER: Oh, wow! Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thank you for watching!
Your work on this show, playing this character, is not what we’ve gotten used to seeing from you. You’ve said that you began your career as a dramatic actor, but then you made a name for yourself in comedy. Had you been looking to return to drama for awhile and just had to convince other people that you could do that, or did the Ryan Murphy blend of horror, comedy and drama just seem like the perfect way to do that?
EICHNER: In this business, there’s always a lot of convincing to do, especially when you’re trying to veer away from the thing that people know you for. I knew, because I know myself, that prior to the public persona that people know about, I was doing more varied things. I went to Northwestern, which has a pretty well known and competitive theater program, and I was a theater major there for four years. I did musical theater and all types of plays, and I experimented with all types of genres. We did Shakespeare, we did Chekhov, we did Greek drama, and we did more contemporary comedy. We did a lot of different things, so I knew that I had certain skills that people are not aware of.
And then, it’s a matter of finding the right time, the right part and the right show, in order to show people that you do have those skills. I was a huge fan of Ryan Murphy’s work. I actually sought him out, on some level. We kind of sought each other out. He came up to me at a party, three years ago, and said that he was a fan, and that led to longer conversations and meetings and getting to know each other a little bit. From that point on, I expressed a really passionate interest in working with him. I’ve always been pretty good at pin-pointing the people that I really want to work with and the people that I think would really get me, and also the people that I think would have enough vision to allow me to do things beyond what they’ve seen, perhaps. I had a feeling Ryan would be that guy. I was hoping he would be someone like that, and it turned out that he was. He told me, in the first meeting that we had, that he really wanted to work with me and he was going to find a role. A couple of years later, here we are. As always, in acting and in show business, you’re waiting for a lot of different elements to fall into place, and I got lucky and this all fell into place for me.
It certainly seems like the perfect marriage that I never knew I wanted or needed, and it’s been exciting to watch. I love being surprised like that.
EICHNER: I do, too, actually. Ryan is so great at casting and at making unexpected casting choices. He’s very bold and confident, in that way. In addition to liking his work, I also had observed that, over the years. That was another reason why I thought maybe this would be a good work marriage, of sorts.
Was it specifically American Horror Story that you wanted to be a part of, or would you have been happy in any of Ryan Murphy’s worlds?
EICHNER: Honestly, I probably would have followed him, within reason, into any of the worlds that he’s created. We did not initially start talking about American Horror Story, but if I remember correctly, it did come up pretty soon into our conversation. You also have to take into account that this was a couple of years ago, so this was actually pre-O.J. and pre-Feud. American Horror Story was really popping, at that time, and there have been so many great actors that have been involved with American Horror Story, over the years. Our initial conversation wasn’t totally about American Horror Story, but we did end up talking about it and the idea that he wanted to see me be murderous. I remember him saying that. That was the word that he used. I pitched him on the idea that it would be an interesting thing to play around with my image to make me more of a darker figure who’s a complicated, brooding and possibly violent person.
One of Ryan Murphy’s gifts is that he can see the talent in actors and draw things out of them that even they might not realize is there, inside of them.
What have you learned about yourself, as an actor, from working with him?
EICHNER: That’s a really good question. I think I’ve learned a lot. It sounds a little cheesy, but you actually do learn things on every job that you take. On this job, it was a completely different genre for me, in television. I had done plays in college, and things like that, that were more dramatic, but I’d never done anything on TV. So, watching a one-hour show and the way it comes together, and especially in a completely different genre of horror, as opposed to a sitcom or comedy or certainly Billy on the Street, which is its own unique animal, it was really interesting and fascinating to see, production wise, how that comes together. I’ve gotten to see how the camera moves and what the priorities are for the producers and the writers because it’s different.
In a comedy, you get to set every day and your big problem is, “Okay, how do we make this funnier?” It was interesting for me because my first couple of days on Horror Story, I had to remember that the priority wasn’t to necessarily make it funny. I certainly wasn’t trying to make it funny, and there actually are funny parts, especially in the first couple of episodes that we appear in. I had to realize that that wasn’t going to be what the focus of my day was at work because that’s what I’m used to having to do.
So, wrapping my head around that was interesting, but also liberating. I could let go of the pressure to be funny, and also encounter new challenges, like how to make things emotionally full and real, stay in the moment, not be intimidated, and just really go for it and just be relaxed. You’re surrounded by all of these really accomplished actors, some of whom have been working on the show for years and to great acclaim, so you want to make sure you’re relaxed and also very present, emotionally, you really dive in there, and you can’t be intimidated. I think that’s key to giving a good performance, as well. In terms of other things that I’ve learned, I guess, in some way, you learn that you belong. You learn that I wasn’t crazy to think that this could work. I’ve always felt that there was a world out there for me, beyond Billy on the Street and just doing very comedic roles, but it was nice to see that I was right and that people are embracing that and actually celebrating it. That’s very cool for me to see. So, it taught me a lot.
I love how, in Episode 4, we get to go back to Election Night again and learn a lot more about your character, and we get to see more of Harrison’s relationship with Meadow and how Harrison and Kai first meet.
EICHNER: That’s actually my favorite episode.
What is it about Harrison that allows Kai to reel him in?
EICHNER: I think Kai meets Harrison at a very low point in Harrison’s life, and I think that he’s lost. Harrison is a bit of a lost lamb, and he’s in this very bizarre, dysfunctional, almost archaic arranged marriage with Meadow. He’s not really living his life with a lot of confidence and he doesn’t really have much to believe in. And then, their house gets foreclosed upon and they don’t have money. He’s lost and he’s in this terrible fake/sham marriage, and I think Kai prays on that. Harrison is just very vulnerable, in that moment, and Kai exploits that. Harrison says that he’s looking for something to believe in, something that’s bigger than himself, and something to make him feel powerful because he’s feeling pretty powerless.
That is when you see people who get mesmerized by a Charles Manson-like figure, or a cult-like figure, or even by a Donald Trump-like figure. There is something to be said about the cult of personality and people who are feeling down on their luck and that the world has rejected them, and they’re lost and angry. Those people are very vulnerable and can be easily brainwashed and exploited. That’s what you’re seeing, to a certain degree, with Harrison. I think he’s also very physically attracted to Kai, and Kai uses that and exploits that, as well.
Have there been any moments on this show, where you found yourself in a scene, doing something that you couldn’t believe you’d actually agreed to do, or have you been all-in and totally game, throughout?
EICHNER: There are many things I could not believe I was doing, and I think that’s true for a lot of the cast. It’s a very bold show. It’s a show about extremes, and it’s a show about shocking people while also trying to keep the reality of the situation intact and keeping it as emotionally grounded as you can. It is American Horror Story, after all. You are asked to do some very bold, shocking things, violent things, sexual things, and things that I’ve never had to do on camera before, but that’s also part of the fun. After doing three or four comedy series, back to back, I wanted something that was going to force me into a new realm and challenge me, and that was something that would actually scare me a little bit. I don’t like being stuck in a rut. I really like to evolve, creatively. I like to try new things. I am an actor, first and foremost. Actors’ careers can really plateau, if they don’t force themselves into new territory, so although it was scary, at times, it was also really exhilarating. It’s actually one of the best experiences I’ve had so far, as a performer in TV.
Is that why you decided to follow AHS: Cult up with playing Timon in The Lion King for Jon Favreau?
EICHNER: Well, I cannot actually talk about that yet. That hasn’t been confirmed. But, that would obviously be a great opportunity. My goal is to create a very eclectic and evolving career. I like to push myself, and I like to challenge my audience. To limit myself is a mistake. I want to be able to try new things and I want to be able to surprise people. That’s what keeps it fun and interesting for me and I don’t want to keep repeating myself, and I think that’s important. If you’re going to limit someone, you’re inevitably going to end up limiting yourself. I expect that the audience will keep an open mind, and I’m going to keep trying new things. Hopefully, everyone is as excited about that as I am.
In Episode 4, Kai says, “A man with no label has an allegiance only to what’s right.” What does Harrison think is right?
EICHNER: That’s a good question, and it’s a complicated answer. You’re talking about someone who is essentially brainwashed, to a certain degree, so in terms of what Harrison thinks is right, I think Harrison is desperate to feel empowered. I think he loses his sense of right and wrong, as it goes on, and his moral compass is really hindered. He ultimately betrays any decent person’s sense of right and wrong because they’re obviously in a very morally and ethically fucked up situation, and he’s going along for the ride. I think he’s just completely mesmerized by Kai. He’s desperate and looking for any way to feel more powerful than the forces in the world that have, in his mind, betrayed him and worked against him. He’s looking to assert his own power and his own authority, but he does not go about it in a morally or ethically responsible way, to say the least. For him, it’s less about what’s right and wrong, at this point. He’s thrown that out the window. It’s about feeling like he is controlling his own destiny, and that he’s in control and the world is not in control. It’s also about rebelling against the world.
AHS: Cult airs on Tuesday nights on FX.