Call Redialed: Jeff Hiller: "Heartbreak House", Remembering Composer Michael Friedman
It may have been eight years since I had the pleasure of interviewing actor Jeff Hiller, but I still remember that interview like it was yesterday, especially the amount of laughter that ensued between us. Jeff was one of my first in person interviews. We met at Sardi's when he was in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and we laughed for an hour.
Now, I am so excited to catch up with Jeff as we remember composer Michael Friedman and talk about Jeff's new venture in the Off-Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, presented by Gingold Theatrical Group. And in true Jeff fashion, his humor shines through brightly!
Heartbreak House is set during the first days of the London Blitz (September 1940). We’re in London’s Ambassadors Theatre when the sirens go off. With the performance interrupted, the cast and audience have joined together to seek shelter in the theatre’s basement. To entertain the crowd, the cast performs Shaw’s most vital paean to resistance and perseverance against tyranny.
Heartbreak House will play Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) from August 28-September 29! Click here for tickets!
1. It's been eight years since our last interview together. You were starring in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I was two years into my website. It was a very exciting time! What has been the biggest change(s) for you over these past eight years? It's been 10 years since you started your website? Congratulations!!! I think the traditional gift is tin, so perhaps I will get you a can of green beans? In the last eight years a lot has happened. I aged eight years, I moved to LA, did a few shows Off-Broadway, a few movies, played approximately 137 bitchy customer service representatives on sitcoms, gained the legal right to marry my partner, married the kind, hilarious, and dashing artist Neil Goldberg, moved back to New York, started a podcast with Jenn Harris about the "working" actor, took a cooking class, did a one-person show, protested the threat to American Democracy repeatedly, and became the parent to a beautiful, bouncing, 9lb cat named Beverly. You?
2. While I have you, I must pay tribute to composer Michael Friedman, whom sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 41. I knew Michael from my days of working at the American Repertory Theatre and you worked with him when you were in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. What are some of your fondest memories/lessons learned from working with him? What is one funny story you can share with us about Michael that you haven't talked about yet? It is so shocking even a year later to think that Michael isn't here anymore. I saw him a month before he died and we spoke about his inspired choice to cast Erin Markey in Assassins at Encores Off-Center. What I loved the most about Michael and working with him was his brilliant sense of humor. I remember in a workshop for Love's Labours Lost, Michael introduced the song "Love's a Gun" to us. As he sat behind the piano, he told us, "And then in the script comes this song, which will inevitably be cut, but you still have to hear it now" and then he sang this brilliant, emotional, harsh, gorgeous, heartbreaking piece of music. If you haven't heard that song, get ye to YouTube immediately and find your next cabaret/audition/recital piece.
3. Now, you are about to star in the revival of Heartbreak House, which will be presented this summer/fall at Theatre Row. What made you want to be part of this show? To say that I am the "Star" of Heartbreak House is a bit generous. Actually, seeing the starry cast of the show was a huge reason I wanted to do the show. I am most definitely NOT getting top billing with this crew. And in speaking with director David Staller, I was intrigued by his concept and his passion for Shaw is contagious. Plus the idea of some improviser from the UCB Theatre doing classical theatre feels subversive in a delicious way. Fart jokes by day, Shavian wit by night!
4. What do you relate to most about your character? What is one characteristic of his that you are glad you yourself don't possess? I am playing three different characters, which is sort of in my wheelhouse. This is a world of people rather self-absorbed, which I...well let's just say I have an intimate understanding of that.
As far as a characteristic that I am glad I don't have? Well, I play one character who is a self-confessed robber, pirate, and murderer. So obviously I am happy I have never been to sea cause humidity isn't great for my hair.
5. What excites you about performing with this incredible cast? I have gotten a few great theatre stories already but I want MORE. I want the T on Contact, The Lion King, Chicago, Rocky Horror..., Wicked, Romance, Romance and every other amazing show that they've been in. I wanna get more theatre goss from them than a Jennifer Ashley Tepper book.
6. What are some funny rehearsal stories you can share with us so far? I play a female housekeeper in the show and I realized that the accent I was doing was a straight up mimic of Alison Fraser's accent on the Original cast album of The Secret Garden. I told her this and she let me in on the secret to the accent, which is that it is super flat and even a bit nasal. And then she did it...SHE BECAME "MARY" RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!!! The musical theatre fan girl in me melted into a pool of "Fine-white-Horse-goo"!!!!
7. In Heartbreak House, a wildly disparate group of people are brought together in the English countryside over a September weekend to make major decisions about their future. What is one major decision you have made recently about your future? I'm gonna get extreme plastic surgery. My future will be young and hot.
Honestly, with the current administration's decisions around the environment, and their choices for the EPA that put business over the safety of the planet, I'm a bit concerned there won't be much of a future. Anyway, take that sweet thought to bed with you as a lullaby!
8. Each character is forced to come to terms with his or her past while finding a way to move forward in the face of the coming crisis. What is something from your past that you have come to terms with that has allowed you to move forward? Is this an interview or therapy? I'm totally in for either one, but it will effect which answer I give. If its an interview, I will say I've come to terms with the fact that I am a character actor and I am loving being a supporting role in these great shows and I've given up the hope for tons of money, fame and gold statues.
If this is therapy, I'll just go with "Low self esteem stuff."
9. You are one of the funniest people I know. I still remember how much we laughed during our last interview eight years ago. Living in these dark times, how do you keep the laughter going? I mean, we have to protest these monstrous decisions and for the love of all things good and pure VOTE IN THE MID-TERM ELECTIONS (!!!), but also we need some self care and so you gotta go see Mamma Mia 2 and watch The British Bake Off too. Even the Obama's go to Beyonce' concerts - you gotta take care of yourself. Although I have to give you a trigger warning about Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again. There is a surprisingly beautiful and sad ending and I did cry for about 20 minutes after the movie, so be careful and maybe pair it with a double feature of Book Club too.
10. We have to dig out something from one of the past shows you performed in Gem and the Holographs: A Truly Outrageous Parody. Jem and The Holograms was one of my favorite cartoons growing up! So, I have to ask, what was it like to be in this show? What was your favorite Jem episode? I played "Sinergy" who was obviously based on "Synergy." That terrible movie was in the works so Hasbro tried to sue the writer Amanda Allen, so we changed the names to show we were unauthorized! The best episode of the cartoon was when the "Misfits" concocted a plan to make "Jerrica" and the "Orphans" lose their house by rigging a battle of the bands contest...which was literally every episode. If you can dig up the picture of me in my wig, the world will be a better place. Wigs make everything better. Wigs and stories from musical theatre luminaries - so my fall is looking up!
More on Jeff:
Credits include Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Broadway); Silence! (Off-Broadway and L.A. premiere); A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; Love’s Labour’s Lost (Shakespeare in the Park); Lady Be Good! (Encores!); Bright Colors and Bold Patterns (Off-Broadway). Regional: The Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera, Bucks County Playhouse. Select TV: Nightcap, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Playing House, Broad City, Difficult People, 30 Rock, Law & Order: CI, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Psych, The McCarthy’s. Film: Ghost Town, Set it Up, Little Tin Man, Adam, Gayby, Morning Glory, The Widow. Podcast: Touché with Jeff and Jenn. Performer at the UCB Theatre in NYC and L.A.