Somebody Somewhere feels like a show from another time — the long ago era of the 2010s. With its patient storytelling, deeply felt performances, and focus on character, it’s an outlier in a TV landscape where greedy streaming platforms are scrambling to have bigger — and less inclusive — programming.
One of the greatest joys of this show with many is Murray Hill’s performance as Dr. Fred Rococo. Fred is a soil scientist, a professor, the emcee of the underground cabaret Choir Practice, and the stable friend to the more chaotic leads. Murray has been a staple of night clubs, drag, and many other areas of showbiz and it’s about time he be a series regular on TV. As Fred, and just talking to him, Murray has a light unlike few others around. His joy is infectious, his humor is plentiful, his talent is immense.
I was lucky enough to chat with Murray and experience some of that light. We talked about his childhood, how he’s dealing with the current moment, and, of course, showbiz.
Murray: I’m figuring out how to use this. Still! After all these years.
Drew: Honestly, same — there you are!
Murray: Oh there we go. Drew! Good morning! Where are you?
Drew: Well, I’m in Toronto so it’s more like afternoon.
Murray: Yeah it’s afternoon here too. But basically anything before 8 p.m. is morning to me.
Drew: Well, that makes sense given your career!
Drew: Exactly. Showbusiness.
What I would love to do with this interview — if it’s okay — is walk through your entire life.
Drew: (laughs) Your life, your career. Whatever stories come up. So to start, where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
Murray: Jesus Christ.
Murray: I did a show last night with Sasha Velour in Philadelphia and she asked me the same thing. “Tell me something about your childhood.wp_postsI was like (various noises I do not know how to recreate with onamonapia).
Murray: Well, I grew up a long time ago. And I grew up in a very conservative, religious household. The town that I lived in was also pretty conservative. So my home life kind of sucked to keep it simple and going to school and being out in the world in New England as somebody who looked — we didn’t have the language we have now. You were either butch or femme or a faggot.
Drew: (laughs) Sure. An umbrella term.
Murray: Yeah. And people always thought I was a boy. Tomboy was the name. I was always butch, I always looked like a boy, and I always thought I was a boy. There weren’t any problems in my head, it was everybody else that had a problem — and that’s still how I think about it today.
In elementary school, they separated us by gender — home ec and shop class — and for whatever reason they put me in the shop class. I was making stuff with tools and doing that kind of thing. But then in 2nd grade they were like no more of that. So my first couple of years in school, I was hanging out with the boys, I felt more comfortable with the boys, I sat with them at lunch, played with them on the playground, and then all of a sudden I was sitting with the girls and was like what the fuck is going on?
Murray: It didn’t make any sense! And I wasn’t even out yet as a kid. I didn’t come out until college. But I was still ostracized and made fun of. I was pretty ignorant to it, but I knew that it was bad from the religious part of my upbringing. My immediate family made it clear that I was not a girl the way I needed to be a girl. They wanted me to wear a dress and do my hair a certain way, and I just could never understand it. Why? Why would I wear a dress?
So I was getting a lot of heat at home and getting a lot of heat out in the world. But I’ve always had a lot of energy. I’ve always had a spirit, Drew. No matter how bad things got, that spirit never got squashed. That little candle inside never went out. Liza Minneli has that. Even now she still has that light. My personality and the way I interacted with people was my saving grace. I made people laugh. I was funny. And that was my way of connecting with people. And it was also my way of disarming people. I say this today too. You can’t hate and laugh at the same time. Even today in my act. At first, the audience was like, what the fuck is going on? There’s no frame of reference for me, I’m not a drag queen. It was in London I decided that I’m always going to do a funny song before I start talking. That’s because it gives them a chance to see that I’m this nice, funny guy and it disarms them. I’m like, hey hey we’re all having a good time.
So to take it back, it was my humor and cracking jokes that helped me survive elementary school, high school, and college, and then when I got to New York eventually that coping mechanism became a career.
Drew: How did you first find drag? Was it in New York?
Murray: Actually I was in 7th grade. I had one cool teacher. There’s always one! I had one cool teacher in this very conservative town. It was a media studies class or something and one day on a little TV with a VCR tape, she popped in two movies: Paris is Burning and The Queen. I saw those two things and I can’t even describe the experience. I’d never seen anything like it! There was such joy and happiness and chosen family. Now I didn’t know anything about chosen family — I didn’t even know that was an option — but I could see in those films that these outcasts and misfits were the star of their own show. They were their own parents, they were their own sisters, they were their own brothers, they were their own daddies. So that was my first conscious awareness of drag.
And then in high school, I used to dress up as my subject matter for book reports and shit like that. As I said, I always thought I was a boy, I didn’t dress feminine at all, but this was drag. I dressed as Schneider from One Day at a Time. You know he was like the guy with the mustache and the toolbelt, the handyman. I was doing drag in high school. Also we had opposite sex day — wait, I’m going to show you a photo.
Murray: I’ll never forget my art teacher said, “You look much better as a man.”
Murray: Here it is.
Drew: Ah! That’s incredible.
Murray: This is the fucking 80s, Drew. Look at that! I’m embarrassed about the middle part but…
Drew: No, no, you’ve got to be with the trends.
Murray: Then I went to college in Boston which is also very conservative. Liberal pockets for sure, but conservative. I started taking pictures of drag queens in night clubs and I saw firsthand what I saw in those films. I witnessed these beautiful, loving, funny, positive, upbeat, not-discriminating spaces of drag and gay people and this, that, and the other thing. It was so beautiful and I started photographing them.
Long story short, I got to New York, and I was like okay where are the lesbians? Where are the trans guys? Where are the drag kings? What’s on the other side of this spectrum? So then I stopped taking photos of drag queens and I went to an early drag king pageant. Maybe 1993? It was more like butch women passing as guys. There wasn’t really that camp element. But then I became the subject matter! It went from always thinking I was a boy to seeing drag and trans people on-screen to dressing up as a guy in school to watching drag queens to photographing and documenting drag queens to documenting drag kings and then, finally, I became the subject matter.
Drew: You’ve been an icon for a long time, but I imagine being an icon in underground queer spaces isn’t the most lucrative kind of icon to be. So I would love to talk about your day-to-do in the 90s, the 00s, and the 10s. How much were you able to perform vs. day job stuff? What has the trajectory been throughout those decades?
Murray: I did have a day job. I was a visual artist and my day job was design and coding. I worked for this branding company and I had clients that were Fortune 500 companies like Kodak and fucking IBM and shit like that. I was the creative person making sure everything was on-brand. When the bubble burst the first time it was 2001. I’d been going out every night, doing shows, and then going to work. So when I was laid off, I was like, I’m not going back. That’s it.
I’m from the clubs. Not the comedy clubs. Nightlife. And I was in those clubs every night gigging, doing shows, doing the hustle. I wasn’t making tons of money, but I made enough to live. And the more gigs I did, the more exposure I got. I was really just pounding it. Pounding the boards is the old Vaudeville phrase. I always did shows in the queer community and in the mainstream. And one day Dita Von Teese’s manager saw me at this hole in the wall in Soho and was like “You’re funny! We want to try you out touring with Dita!wp_postsAnd I was skeptical. You know, LA people. “We’ll call you.wp_postsSure, sure. But they did! And the trial went great and I ended up touring all over the world with Dita for ten years.
Murray: And from that, some people with the Sydney Opera House saw me, and I did a couple of big seasons there. So I was in the underground in New York and then expanded out and out. And in the meantime, I’m trying to get on TV, and it’s like no, no, no. Gatekeepers. No, no, no.
I say this a lot, if you don’t see yourself represented, go out and represent yourself. I just created my own shows. I created my own events. I created my own one-man shows. I created songs. I did pageants for the community. The Miss Lez Pageant. The Transman Pageant. I was always making sure that I was represented. Because if I waited, I’d still be waiting. I would have had to go back to work… for the man!
Drew: (laughs) You mention wanting to be on TV and the gatekeepers. So going back to the 90s and the 00s, was being on TV the goal? Even though there wasn’t necessarily a model of someone like you on TV, that was still the ultimate goal? You could still see it happening? You had that vision?
Murray: For me, as far as show business goes, my whole mission statement, what drives me, is equal rights and that also means — and this is a touchy subject — equal rights within our own community. Because we know that’s not equal. So my whole thing was to raise visibility, be at the table, and to represent people like me. And in show business, you reach the most people if you’re on television. I can work in New York in the clubs for twenty years but if I’m on TV for two seconds a lot more people will see me. We didn’t have Instagram back then or any of that stuff so as far as reach went, TV was the goal.
Drew: Speaking of television, you’ve known Bridget Everett for a long time—
Murray: Oh hell yes!
Drew: (laughs) So I assume Somebody Somewhere wasn’t the average audition process. Can you walk us through the experience from first hearing about the show to finding out you got cast to filming?
Murray: Well, even if you’re an old-timer newcomer, most shows you have to audition. That’s just the way it is.
Drew: Of course.
Murray: But I didn’t have to audition for this! And I always say, thank God because everytime I do audition for a show, I don’t get it!
Murray: So thank fucking God I didn’t have to audition! The show is loosely based on Bridget’s life so the writers knew about me and Fred is loosely based on me. I got a free pass. Bridget called me and I was like, what? You’ve got a show on HBO? I’m going to be on it? I don’t have to audition?? Shit! And, you know, six months later we’re doing table reads and then we shot the pilot. And then after we shot the pilot, they greenlit it. It was a very long process.
Drew: I feel like people who aren’t in showbiz don’t realize how much is just waiting to be told by someone who you would never encounter in the real world whether or not you get to do the thing you love or not.
Murray: It’s pretty nuts.
Drew: So now that you’re on an HBO show and have that mainstream validation, what are your dreams for the future? What’s the dream project?
Murray: Well, Drew, since I was a kid I was very inspired by Johnny Carson. I would sneak down late at night and watch him. I’ve always wanted to have my own talk show and with every project, I’m getting a little closer.
Drew: I see it! I see it so clearly!
Murray: Last Monday, I shot Family Feud with the Drag Me to Dinner cast. And being there with Steve Harvey, on a game show, I felt so close! It’s very exciting. But it’s very subversive to have somebody like me in that kind of space. I was there with six drag queens. It was pretty nuts. It’s going to come out sometime in June to coincide with Drag Me to Dinner.
Drew: I want to shift slightly to talk about the current legislative and cultural backslide against trans people, against us. Witnessing this do you feel like well things used to be so much worse and this is just how it goes or do you feel more like shit we finally got there and now it’s getting bad again. Where are you at emotionally?
Murray: Because I am older, it hasn’t always been rosy. And it does feel like we’re going back to a time when gay and trans people were protesting in the streets. But I struggle on a daily basis to try not to buy into the ruse of it all. I honestly believe that it is a minority of people that feel hatred and want to harm us and want to erase us and take away our rights and healthcare. I do feel it’s a minority. That said, looking at the news today the reality is that things are being passed. It’s real. Laws are getting changed. That’s the scary part. And on a daily basis I have to remind myself to turn anger into action. What can my action be? How can I as a person in the community, as an elder person in the community, be of service? And I really think that my whole thing is — and this kind of goes back to me in elementary school — I want to show people one-on-one or in a group or through Fred or by being a host on a TV show that I’m just a human being. We breathe the same air, we eat the same bad foods, I don’t like to exercise, I’m a human being first.
Cardi B tweeted something like I don’t know what everyone’s problem is, everyone has a gay best friend, everyone has a gay cousin, and if you’re homophobic you’re ugly. Most of the people who are spewing this hate don’t even know any trans people. I want to be the guy that they meet or who they see on TV and they go oh hey this is just a human being, a person with a heart. The same problems, the same issues. I want to build a bridge with my anger. I want to turn it into a handshake.
Drew: Does that ever get exhausting? I know sometimes when I go out into the world, especially in certain places, I can feel this pressure to be super friendly because if I’m the first trans person someone is meeting or the only one they’re going to talk to this month I need to make a good impression. And that can be exhausting. How do you deal with the burden of that?
Murray: I find other things more exhausting. The misgendering. Even when I’m in full drag, in a completely queer space, I’m sometimes still called a girl, people use she and her. I could go on and on. It blows my mind. And that’s in our own community. Then out in the world, forget it. That’s a whole other story. And I’m not necessarily the type of person who is a corrector. I usually have a three strike policy and then I’m like okay time to get the schoolbook out.
But in response to what you’re saying about having to be friendly, this is how I feel: I need to be myself and I actually am a very upbeat, friendly, warm person. My first instinct is actually to dull that. Because enemy! enemy! danger! homophobe! transphobe! So I have to dig deep to remain who I am even in the face of a threat.
Drew: I love that.
Murray: And then most of the time, we can reach some sort of human understanding.
Drew: The last thing I want to ask you is a very broad question.
Murray: Well, I love broads!
Drew: What does showbiz mean to you?
Murray: It has many meanings! One example is you’re on tour, you’re doing great, the show starts at 7 o’clock, and then the bus doesn’t show up. And you look at your friend and you’re like, “Showbiz.wp_postsRight? Or you’re watching Judy Garland and she’s doing her thing and you’re like, “Showbiz! Now that is showbiz!”
To me, showbiz means the spotlight is on you. And not only is the spotlight on you, but you’re feeling the light. You’re feeling the light and then you’re giving the light. And when you’re feeling the light and giving the light, hey, maybe you share a couple of things that might help somebody else out. But then when things go wrong and you can’t fucking believe it even though showbiz is a pain in the ass most of the time, well, that’s showbiz too.