Generation X is often referred to as the “slacker generation,” the “forgotten middle child,” or the “latchkey kids.” No matter what you call them, we will always be eternally grateful for their gift of “the music video.” For waving the flag of individuality and independence. This generation displayed a casual disdain for authority and structured work hours, yet brought us the motto work hard play hard—the MTV Generation.

Which brings me to Jeff Hilliard, a prodigal son of “the overlooked and undervalued.” I came upon Jeff’s work by happy accident. (You can see an archive of Jeff’s artistry on YouTube, where the “satirist/filmmaker/singer/songwriter/actor/jumpsuit-designer” recently posted “Mulletude,” the greatest COVID-19 quarantine mullet haircut song of all time.”) My first impression was, “Hmmm…interesting.” But as I unearthed the cornucopia of insanity, slithering deeper into his average white guy psyche, my senses bubbled with jubilation. I laughed and winced. Gawked at its saturnity. His work is brilliant. A pristine reflection of trash and haunting glimpses into the eclipse of a human soul. Jeff isn’t an eccentric star hopeful. He is kind, thoughtful, disciplined, a consummate artist, and a true craftsman. Much like the rest of Gen Xers, his message is resoundingly clear, “I want you to know I am here.”

I learned how to adjust socially by being funny. I would do characters to make my friends laugh. That’s how I survived. 

Audrey:

What was Jeff like when he was little?

Jeff:

I was a very weird kid. If you were a substitute teacher I would be the worst nightmare in your classroom because I was constantly screwing around. When I went to Catholic school it was a really terrible experience. We had a psycho crazy nun teacher who I was so scared of. I remember my mother was coming to pick me up because the nun was certain I had a chemical imbalance or something. I was so scared of her I recall stuttering and while she was on a swing set with other students she’d mimic me. After that I just couldn’t learn how other kids learned and developed dyslexia, and was diagnosed with ADHD, hyperactivity. My mind would race and I had trouble sleeping when I was a kid. I’d stay up past midnight to watch Eddie Murphy on SNL and thought he was the most amazing comedian ever. I learned how to adjust socially by being funny. I would do characters to make my friends laugh. That’s how I survived. 

I’ve been doing characters my whole life and recently someone I knew from my past found me on Facebook, and she had watched all my videos. She sent me a message saying, “Oh my god, you have not changed one bit since you were a kid.” She said, “You were always doing these different characters, but it wasn’t just to get attention. There was always a meaning behind it.” That was probably one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.  My characters are how I interpret the world and express myself. 

My work either comes from a place of something that I’m offended by, and I’m mocking it, or I’ve taken on some persona I am intrigued by. For instance I was in a Paul Schrader film called Dog Eat Dog and I just knew I had to grow a mullet for this character. As a character actor you just sense what you have to become. I recall Paul saying in a Q&A that if he didn’t write the character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver he was afraid he’d become him. When I heard that I realized, oh my God, this is why I do all these crazy things because it helps me release something inside me. 

Audrey:

I can hear how these characters open this whole world for you. Starting with your childhood where they helped you survive. They have helped you interact with the world. Whether that’s diffusing your own experience, or embracing an aspect of your experience through these characters. That is so relatable. I think we all created our own version of how we survived the pain of childhood. Do you feel that you can only create one at a time because they’re so deeply connected to you? Or do multiple ones come to life simultaneously? What is the process that you go through in creating them? 

Jeff:

It’s pretty easy, it is just energy. I studied acting in college and performed with Second City winter conservatories, and I did extensive scene studies. So there’s a whole process to become a character. My approach to that world is I play it real, as if it’s me. I live that person’s life. I figure out the energy and that energy will dictate everything from how the person walks to how the person talks; everything. The more detailed you are, the more you live in that character’s world. A lot of people don’t have any idea what all the backstory is, or should be, you know, they’re just there to watch. I acted in this short film, and there were a bunch of rockstar people that weren’t traditional actors. My scene was kind of a crazy scene where I was an arrested character that was a complete psychopath type. Before we were shooting, I was joking around with one of the musicians, and then they were like, “Okay, action!” and I just went right into my character, and delivered the performance. I didn’t think anything of it, but he was like, “Oh my god!” How did you do that?!”  It was hard for him to figure out that I was able to switch right into that energy and then go back to being myself. As a performer, as far as an actor, I think that they have the ability to separate ego, vanity and all that stuff, and they understand how to surrender to an energy.

character actors that are really good, have a sense of self and that’s why they’re able to lose themselves into an energy or a character or what have you.They understand that it is an art form.

Audrey:

Yeah, completely. It’s so amazing. I’ve been around acting coaches and have been trained myself. You’re literally the first person who said it starts with energy. You mentioned, “I start with the energy, there’s a particular energy that they have, and then everything else falls into place.” What I think is so significant in terms of your characters, is that it’s literally the same  place you start with manifesting, attracting and meditation, it starts with energy, You can’t create or have anything outside of the energy that you vibrate at. 

Jeff:

That’s right. We’re just energy, that’s all that we are. 

Audrey:

You’re creating characters in the most pure space possible, which is everything that we are and everything that if you strip away from us, the ego, the physical body, everything is just all energy. I think that’s amazing. 

Jeff:

Well, everyone has their own unique approach. When I was in college, I remember seeing the movie Sling Blade with Billy Bob Thornton and I was like, really impressed. I thought, wow, this guy’s really amazing, and it made me want to be a character actor. I don’t know how the hell this happened but I ended up working for this family living in their guest house and it turns out Billy Bob lived in the house behind us. Talk about manifestation. 

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I met David Milch who recommended an acting class. I was put into class with all these working actors, I remember, one of them telling me, you’re gonna be a working actor for sure. While that was really complimentary I was doing something completely different from what the teacher was teaching and what everyone else was doing. I kind of felt like an alien. Then it was funny because I met Billy Bob, and we had some amazing conversations. He told me someone asked him, what’s your craft and he said I just play myself real in the situation. That’s all I do. It was a moment of like, oh, what you do naturally, what you’ve always done is actually correct. 

Audrey:

I think in some ways, maybe that is the misinterpretation of your art. That some people cannot allow themselves to go to certain places because they actually think they’re not capable of it. You know, I used to say to friends, the people I am most concerned about, the ones I have my eye on, are the people that are super, super, super, super nice. Because there’s something very dark they can’t be with. It’s the ones who scream or yell or throw things I have no problem with, I know what’s going on with them. They’re just all soft on the inside and I get it. But those people that can never be angry, crochet in their spare time and they make all these little bears—those people are like, walking evil to me. 

Jeff:

Hahaha. I had a funny experience similar to that. I was in traffic and this lady next to me, was the perfect ideal corporate put together scenario, and was frantically putting her makeup on—she looked like a psychopath, like a real crazy person. It was like looking behind the veil of that presentation. You’re right, people that are so perfect like in American Psycho, they’re really covering up something by having that perfect presentation down to the tee. They don’t really have an authentic self or they’re not real and mimic a myriad behaviors that they’ve witnessed and seen. Which is another whole fascinating type of character. I feel like there’s a lot of the population like that is caught up in that perfect presentation.

Audrey:

That type of delusional perfection also shows up with people who go around saying, “Just be positive.” I’m like, “I don’t even think you understand what you’re saying.” Because to force somebody to be positive is the equivalent of saying just be evil. We are emotional beings that need to feel whatever we are feeling. We’re not fixed creatures. In the terms of energy, energy takes different shapes and forms and so it isn’t static, ever. I think that’s something that truly resonates with me about your work and why it is so unbelievably funny to me. I do not have that experience often but when I do I know it is an artist who can tap into the spectrum of human nature. I feel like you can go anywhere, you know, with these characters. I think it is a blessing and because you get to be free but you are also potentially misunderstood as an artist. But my theory is that it’s not “misunderstood.” It’s just scary. It’s scary to people to take that journey with you. Like, what if I go there and I can’t come back. 

Jeff:

That was the one really interesting thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker performance where they were saying he never came back from it. I just think they don’t understand that thought process. I guess that could happen to somebody if they don’t have a sense of themselves. But I think I’ll accept, like character actors that are really good, have a sense of self and that’s why they’re able to lose themselves into an energy or a character or what have you.They understand that it is an art form. I think there’s a lot of confusion, and there’s not as much of an appreciation for the art of acting. I think because of the rise of reality stars and social media. Because part of the illusion of acting is people think, I could do that. I could be a movie star. But the reality is you’re on set, there’s 50 people there, millions of dollars in investment and you’re now required on cue to exchange a realistic emotion, and dialogue with a person who’s so in the scene. There’s so much pressure to be totally comfortable and relaxed, and in the moment, which most people aren’t able to do in their everyday life. It’s the illusion that’s part of the beautiful art form. 

Audrey:

Do you still watch Saturday Night Live now or it was just your Eddie Murphy days and now you’re done with it? 

Jeff:

No, I have this amazing girlfriend who keeps me involved and also their culture because I’m getting to that point of like, the middle age weirdo that just is not into anything. There are some really talented performers there, there’s that woman I can’t remember with brown hair. She is great. 

Audrey:

For me, it’s Leslie Jones. I remember I was watching her when she first started on the show, with my husband at the time. I was mesmerised. I told him, “She’s gonna be super fucking famous one day.” He looked at me and said, “Are you drunk right now? You’re literally out of your mind.” And look at her now. She has totally blown up. 

Jeff:

You have insight because you’re a fully formed real person. So you recognize that in other people. A friend of mine I went to college with many years ago told me, dude, I have to tell you something, because every time we would go see a band or something, you would go, they’re gonna make it, they’re gonna break, they’re gonna be huge. And he said to me, because you were, you were never wrong. And I didn’t have any kind of magical skill. It’s obvious, you know what I mean? It’s like, it’s completely unique. It comes from a real place. And it’s like a fully formed personality. So you recognize it. You just have an eye for that. Like when we all saw the movie Boogie Nights. There’s a scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was like, this guy’s gonna be a massive superstar. 

Audrey:

That recognition has a dark side as well. I remember watching Major Payne starring Damon Wayans because my son was obsessed with that movie. There’s this one scene, he plays this military guy, who’s now overseeing this kid’s camp, and he is awkwardly telling a bedtime story which is supposed to be really sweet. He goes into this super crazy intense flashback of just violent nonsense. There’s this one slice of the moment where there is just complete lunacy, I mean, in the darkest way in his eyes, and, for about a few seconds there it is literally, a brilliant performance. So fast forward about eight years after that, and I’m talking to him in Los Angeles at a bar, and I was like, my favorite thing that you ever did was these two seconds. I said, the world got you all wrong. You should have been a brilliant, award winning dramatic actor. You know in that moment he was capable of that level of depth. You can see there’s this massive human being capacity of emotion that never can come out. That is art that we will never experience with him again. This was my conversation with him at the bar. So basically, I just depressed the shit out of him when I had this conversation. 

Jeff:

Well, you get it. That’s why I was so moved by Billy Bob Thornton because he is an outsider. And he did it. He did it himself. He wrote it and made Slingblade happen. And that’s it’s so hard to do you know. It is such a gift to get to meet and work with such incredible people. I got to work with Bernard Rose on Frankenstein who did Candyman the original, he did Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman. It was my first feature film I played a lead in. A producer friend of mine showed him my stuff.

Audrey:

I was gonna ask you would you think of doing a one man show and giving like 20 minutes to each of your characters?

Jeff:

I thought about that. I had a guy years ago tell me you could do an off Broadway show. It sounds wonderful. I would love to do that. I mean, if a producer came to me and said, “Hey, we’re gonna put together a live show, like a multimedia show, and we’re going to go in and out of your characters.” Great! 

You know, it probably isn’t obvious but it takes an incredible amount of time, resources and effort to make just one of my videos. People are shocked when they find out it is all just me, and a cinematographer I have been working with for a long time. 

Best dream scenario, I’d have a television show that I would be able to do these different characters. There is a show called Lunatics and this guy that does satirical characters and I would love to do something like that.

I just want to be a working actor, really, at the end of the day that is kind of all I want. I mean, I kind of fell into directing because I had to, to make my own stuff. I had to learn how to produce-direct-write, perform the whole thing. You know, it would be nice to have the luxury of focusing on just being an actor. My favorite thing to do is to get cast in something, just show up, deliver a performance and then be done with it. 

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