Murray Hill never pictured himself in Kansas — he doesn’t even know where Kansas is. But the New York City cabaret legend is right at home as Fred Rococo, a soil scientist who’s among the many lovable heroes of HBO’s Somebody Somewhere, which had its season 2 finale on Sunday. Airing after Succession and Barry, Somebody Somewhere was a balm by comparison, a show about friendship and finding yourself led by Hill’s friend and fellow cabaret veteran Bridget Everett (the Big Apple imprimatur doesn’t stop there — it’s created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen of the Debate Society, co-star stage vets Mary Catherine Garrison and Jeff Hiller, and counts Lisa Kron among its writers).
Fred Rococo is a guy with a big heart, and the larger-than-life Hill is enjoying his chance to shed his Showbiz persona and play someone a little quieter. With the second season recently concluded (it is streaming on Max), Hill discusses the project and what it means to him.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When you were first reading the script, did you see yourself as Fred Rococo?
When this show came around and they gave us the opportunity to do the pilot, of all the cast members — you’re not gonna believe this — I’m the only one that didn’t have to audition. And thank God, because if I did, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the part that’s based on myself! I don’t want to get myself in trouble, but I’d never been to Kansas. I am not sure where it is. I know it’s over there somewhere, right? The water’s here, so it’s gotta be that way. So yeah, they said that I was gonna be an agricultural soil scientist professor. I actually looked it up and it was all these, like, middle-aged men with khakis and bad shirts and stuff. And I was like, “Yeah, OK, that’s Fred.” He’s a professor during the day and then he has a little bit of hosting showbiz flair at the choir practice by night. It’s loosely based on me, but I remember the first season, I’m walking with Sam [Bridget Everett’s character] and we’re talking about all this technical, scientific soil stuff and I was selling it, and I had no idea what I was talking about.
It must be really nice, though, to be able to just play with your friends and make this show that’s really sweet and special.
Yeah. We were so excited, because we are New York performers that have been grinding it in nightclubs and comedy clubs and all that stuff for decades. It’s all our first big project and we all know each other. I’ve known Mary Catherine Garrison and Bridget for a long time, and I’ve been a fan of Jeff Hiller in New York for a long time, so we’re all friends, but then we’re all so grateful to finally get on TV. Going to work was like, “Oh, my God, pinch me, I can’t believe we get to do this.” It wasn’t like going to work and being like, “Ugh, I gotta go 10 hours on a set today.” And you can probably tell when you’re watching the show, but some of the directors never said cut. There are scenes where we’re just going, and that’s our New York theater and improv background coming in. They use a lot of it.
When I first heard that HBO was developing a show with Bridget, I thought it was going to be this big, wild thing like you’d see at Joe’s Pub, and then you watch it and it’s this small show about people and grief and Kansas.
It’s like the opposite energy of all of us!
And there’s something really bold about HBO airing a show with multiple prominent queer love stories in a peak slot on Sunday nights after Succession and Barry.
It’s fantastic. What you said made me think of something. We all have these big personas. There’s been controversy forever about the gay pride parade, that it’s too gay, it’s too flamboyant, it’s too nuts, it scares the mainstream people. Me and Bridget and Jeff have these very big personalities with edgy humor. That’s just who we are. And then on this show, the flash is gone and we’re human. That’s what I think the boldest part is. That Fred is this trans guy in a small town and he’s found some love, he has all these friends, he’s got his chosen family, and he just exists like every other person in the world. He’s not marching down the street waving his flags. He’s not leading with an aggression of “This is my identity. Accept me.” He’s leading with his heart. To me, that’s the bold thing, to show a trans character who is just like you. It’s like, if you watch that show, how can you not like Fred? That’s how you build a bridge.
Have you heard from younger folks who look up to you and Fred?
The messages that I get on Instagram and Facebook kill me. I forget that I’m an elder now in the community, so when the younger kids send me messages, it’s very heartwarming. It reminds me of the bigger picture. I get a lot of messages from parents who are like, “My son is 16 and hasn’t seen people on TV like you. Thank you for showing trans joy.” There’s a lot of thanking. I got a message the other day which really touched me, saying, “I’m a young trans man in middle America and I hope that somebody loves me the way you found love in the show.” That’s what keeps me going through the dark days. As I said before, I want to bring people together and lead with the heart, so the fact that people can feel that and it gives them a little sense that things can get better, my work here is done.
Do you have a persona that you prefer, the Murray that the cabaret world knows and loves versus the demureness of Fred?
You are the first person in 25 years to call me “demure.” I don’t even know how to say it. So that’s fantastic. I’m always gonna remember you. To answer the question, it’s a great privilege for me to get to do both. A lot of the times, when I’m cast in something or hosting something, whatever it is, it’s always the big personality. I get to use the other side of Murray on this, the guy who’s not always onstage. You see him at the coffee shop. It took 50 years, but I’m here.