‘Togetherness’: The life comedic with Steve Zissis

For the most part, the excellence of HBO”s “Togetherness” isn”t surprising. Co-creators Mark and Jay Duplass have a long track record with films they either wrote and directed themselves or supported in some way, Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet have lots of fine performances on their resumes, and even Mark Duplass himself has turned out to be an interesting and versatile actor as his career has evolved.

The one unknown is the man who is in many ways the reason the show exists: co-star and co-creator Steve Zissis, a longtime friend and collaborator of the brothers Duplass who hasn”t had many prominent roles outside of their films. As Alex, a talented but underemployed actor crashing on his best friend”s couch, Zissis gets to be funny, charming, and at times heartbreaking over the course of this eight-episode first season. (Four episodes have aired so far; HBO recently ordered a second season.)

I recently got on the phone with Zissis (pre-Super Bowl, so no talk of his worldless role in the Mindy Kaling/Matt Damon Nationwide ad) to discuss the origin of his friendship with the brothers, how the idea he and Jay took to HBO evolved into “Togetherness,” the challenges of having a “tweener” body type as an actor in Hollywood, and a lot more.

I know you grew up in New Orleans; did you know Mark and Jay back then or did you meet them later on?

Steve Zissis: To be honest, Jay, Mark and I all went to the same high school and we knew of each other, but we really didn't get close until after college when we started working together.

Was acting what you wanted to do back then?

Steve Zissis: Yeah. I was acting in the plays in my high school, and Mark was a year below me and he actually saw me play Jesus in “Godspell” my senior year. And we referenced that in the pilot a little bit, even though we say “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

So how did you wind up working together?

Steve Zissis: I was doing regional theater in New Orleans with a guy that was in Jay's class and Jay saw me do a couple plays because Jay was living in Austin; we took a play from New Orleans to Austin. Jay came out and saw us and that's how I got on his radar. And then later when Mark and Jay were filming “The Astronaut,” which was a movie that never got made because Mark and Jay were still trying to figure out how to make a good movie, I was on their radar so they had me audition. I got cast and that was really the unofficial beginning of our working relationship.

So how did you go from people who vaguely knew of each other in high school to a guy acting in their movies to someone who now you have created this show with?

Steve Zissis: It started because of what I just said. When I auditioned for “The Astronaut,” even though that movie never got completed, they loved me and they thought I was talented, so we just stayed in touch. And Jay and I became sort of like soul brothers. And then we were all living in New York at the same time and I acted in a short film for them called “The Intervention,” which actually did get completed, and that went on to win a couple awards at the Berlin Film Festival. So the rest is history. We just had a set of great relationship since them.

When was the point at which someone said, “we should all make a show together”?

Steve Zissis: T very seed of that was Jay and I wanted to do something together. The very beginning, we just started doing absurd things in his back house. Like, we started reenacting soap opera scenes from the '80s and filming them, and Jay and I were playing all the parts. And it never got edited because it was just too silly. But then that creative impulse gradually evolved into a pilot that Jay and I put together called “Alexander the Great.” And the pilot, it was mainly centered around my character. And that's initially what we went to HBO with, but HBO was like, “This is great; we really want to work with the Duplass brothers, but can you make it about four people, we want a relationship show?” So we said okay, and then Mark was involved, too. And then we went back to the drawing board, and reshaped the initial pilot to center around four people to become more of a relationship show. And it was actually pretty great that HBO redirected us in that way because we ended up coming up with a better show. So they were right.

Was the original show just about the struggles of an out-of-work actor? What would it have been?

Steve Zissis: It was a little different. It was centered on my struggling actor character, but there was also an element of mental illness involved and some other things. But it was a long process to get to the “Togetherness” pilot, which we were happy with, which HBO was happy with.

One of the through lines of the season is that Alex is a much more talented actor than he has perhaps gotten a chance to demonstrate throughout his career to this point. You've worked with Mark and Jay quite a bit and you've acted in other things, but how much of an art imitating life desire was there in this for you and Jay when you initially started: to say, “Hey, let's really show what I can do here”?

Steve Zissis: This might be more of a question for Jay. Jay jokes sometimes and says that's one of his missions in life to let the world know who I am. And I guess this is part of his plan. For a long time, Jay and Mark would joke and say that I'm their Greek muse. But it's nice now for a larger audience to see my work. Of course it's thrilling and I'm just happy to be working. Any day I'm not waiting tables is a good day.

What would you say before this was the most prominent thing you've done? Is there a role you tend to get recognized for?

Steve Zissis: It just depends. A lot of people, not a lot but in the indie world people have seen “Baghead,” which I did with them in 2008, and then I also did a movie called “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon” with Mark and Jay. Probably one of those two films. But a lot of people seem to have seen “Baghead” that are interested in indie films.

How much before this was your life as a working actor trying to avoid waiting tables similar to what Alex is going through at the start of the series?

Steve Zissis: We're, of course, fictionalizing things and we never let the truth get in the way of a good story. But certainly I have a lot to draw upon emotionally. I was waiting tables at a Greek restaurant in L.A. right up until we shot the pilot for our show. So I know what it's like to do the survival job thing in L.A., to wait tables, to struggle, to worry about money and to not have enough money to pay your SAG union dues. I've been there; I know it and, who knows, I could know it again one day. But for the time being, it's nice to not be there. But certainly, we're drawing a lot upon all of our lives. The character Brett is loosely based on Jay Duplass's life. There's a lot we're fictionalizing it, and we're twisting things for the purpose of the storytelling, but we're using all of our lives as inspiration and the lives of our friends and the lives of our relatives.

The business tends to typecast and tends to stereotype based on appearance. I imagine you have gone into casting sessions, and you're looking around and you're seeing these other actors and you're saying, “Okay, this is how the business sees me.”

Steve Zissis: Yes. Absolutely. And I've come out of auditions before being so dejected because I wasn't fat enough where I was in this in-between state of fatness and I'm looking at the other guys in the waiting room and they just had this amazing girth, these amazing bellies. And at that moment I'm so upset that I just wish I had 15 more pounds on me. And then conversely I've been in auditions where I'm a little bit too fat and out of shape and if I had just exercised more and dieted for a few weeks, I could have maybe gotten the part. So all these things they're real. The stuff I talk about in episode 2 about being a tweener, that's real stuff. I hear that from many actors

Having been through those experiences, have you ever been counseled by an agent or a manager that you need to either do P90X or start eating lots and lots of pizza?

Steve Zissis: (laughs) I was never told that, but I know of someone else who was told that.

What did that person do? Which way did they go?

Steve Zissis: They lost (weight).

That's probably the healthier decision.

Steve Zissis: Yeah, it is. Jay was always worried about my health, too. Over the course of the first season, as you'll continue to see, I transform, to a certain degree, physically. So, yeah, I definitely go the healthy route. Again, this might have just been Jay's attempt to make me lose weight for a television show.

The whole show was just created to get you on a diet and exercise regimen.

Steve Zissis: The whole show was created by Jay to make me more famous and to make me lose weight.

So what's it like as a working actor, but not a high-profile actor, to have this show? You're creating it, you are therefore going to be in it as Alex and suddenly you're getting these high-profile actresses like Amanda Peet coming in to audition and they are the ones reading with you to see if they have chemistry with you?

Steve Zissis: That's a great question. The audition process that we went through was so incredibly thorough. We saw so many people for these parts and I read with everyone. And then initially we didn't know that Mark was going to be in the show, because there was scheduling conflicts with his show on FX, “The League.” So I read with every actor that came in to play the part of Brett, and I read with every actress that came in to play the role of Tina. I was reading with a lot of people, and 99 percent of them were more famous than I was. But it was kind of great, because there was a little bit of a baptism by fire and I really learned a lot and got to just work with amazing people in the room. It was a nice learning experience.

And I assume most, if not all, of them were smart and polite enough to understand they were auditioning with one of the creators of this show and weren't just, “And you are who, exactly?”

Steve Zissis: Most of them may did their homework. Since they were major roles we were auditioning for, they probably, if they hadn't already, did some research with Jay and Mark's indie films. And if they did that, of course they would see and learn who I was, too. But no one came in and gave me attitude because I wasn't famous. That would have been interesting, though.

What do you remember from when Amanda came in?

Steve Zissis: I remember we met in the parking lot on the way to the audition. And I remember she was studying her lines outside the audition room while doing some sort of yoga stretch at the same time; I think she was stretching out her back or something. So that caught my attention. But then in the audition room, I think she started throwing things at me. I think they were either peanuts or some sort of a snack. And that's the main thing I think of when I think about her audition for the role; she started to throw things at me.

And you're like, “This is perfect. This is what we want.”

Steve Zissis: Exactly. She had a lot of fire in her belly, which I think is what we wanted for Tina. And our chemistry was palpable immediately, which is why auditioning is so important because you have to make sure that the chemistry is there, especially for a show like this, because a lot of what you're seeing is stuff that is happening organically and spontaneously in the moment. For example, at the end of the pilot, when I sing a little hooky song to Amanda and I shove an Oreo in her mouth, that whole ending of the pilot, I largely improvised all of that. So there needs to be that underlined chemistry there to make those scenes be vibrant.

One of the things I like in the episode that aired last night was how smooth Alex is with Tina”s friends, and how even after Tina starts throwing herself at him, he”s not desperate or pathetic enough to toss aside the friend he”s having a good time with. How important was it to show that Alex is confident and charming in this way, and that he”s not just pining for his pretty roommate?

Steve Zissis: We knew this. I don't know if you've ever seen the movie “Baghead” that we did, but in “Baghead” there's a little bit of a similarity with how I approached Greta Gerwig's character. I'm kind of like the overweight teddy bear slubby guy in “Baghead” too, but I'm really charming and charismatic and I'm sort of going for the girl I can't get in “Baghead.” So we knew this from the beginning. Jay and Mark know me inside and out as an actor, and they know that they can count upon my charm and stuff like that in terms of the character, which would make it really interesting. Because it needs to be believable that Amanda Peet would fall for me, so I do need to have these certain qualities that you're mentioning. But certainly Alex is charming; he has his own confidence in a way.

Where did the “it looks like a comma” reference come from when she”s describing that patch of hair on your forehead? Was that something that someone had ever said to you?

Steve Zissis: No. Jay, Mike and I have always talked about the concept of the island (of hair), but I think the comma was maybe Amanda's improv in the moment. And that was very real. Like when that conversation was happening it was spontaneous. And often times Jay and Mark do this in a scene: they'll take one actor to the side and whisper something in their ear. So they're whispering like a direction or a tactic or an angle they use in the scene. And I think they may have whispered something in Amanda's ear and she came back and started deconstructing the different patterns of my hair. And the way I was reacting in the scene, that was all very real. So yeah, I love that scene, too.

And obviously when you do a scene like that you can't have any level of self-consciousness, it's just you got to be willing to go with whatever it is she's saying.

Steve Zissis: Right. That and also when you wear Spanx.

Were the Spanx comfortable?

Steve Zissis: They were a little constricting.

I can imagine. Were they Spanx sized for her and you squeezed into them, or they got a bigger size for you?

Steve Zissis: Well, I don't want to give away the magic. No, I'm just kidding. They were actually Spanx for men. I don't know if they're called Manx or what but I think they were Spanx for men. So they were a larger size Spanx.

One of the nice physical comedy touches that recurs throughout the season is how every now and then, we'll just get this random shot of Alex crashing into one of the bounce houses as we're coming to the end of a party scene. How long did it take you to develop proper bounce house deflation technique?

Steve Zissis: It was immediate. It took no time. I love the physical comedy. It's something that I've enjoyed doing ever since I was a child, to be honest. I love whenever I get the chance to do it. Interestingly, Jay and Mark are the king of cinema vérité and subtlety, so they always have to strike a good balance with me doing big physical comedy and the subtle Duplassiean world. But usually we find a good balance and I think it works.

You co-created the show, but it's Jay and Mark writing the episodes. You've talked about how much room there is for improvisation and collaboration and everything else, but once the show was actually in production, how much do you feel like your voice was involved in shaping things overall, or was it mainly Jay and Mark were laying out the season and breaking the stories and you would just come up with character bits and things for Alex?

Steve Zissis: Well, initially I was a very large part in creating the pilot and also the big ideas for the arc of the characters and the first season. And now I'm part of the writers group, so I in the very least represent ideas for Alex, but I'm also pitching in on all the character arcs, all the ideas. Again I'm sort of like the Greek muse, so Mark and Jay have to have me around, otherwise the gods will be angry.

So if you've got some great character arc for Melanie's character, you can just come in and pitch it to them?

Steve Zissis: Well yeah, but Mark and Jay are more of the masters of plotting. That's their expertise. They're so good at plotting and I'm inspiring ideas and things, whether it's like Mark whacking off next to his wife, or whether it's Alex putting on a puppet show. I'm coming up with different ideas for the characters. And we actually have a writers room that meets once a week and in the room is Jay, Mark, myself, Amanda Lasher, who is a writer and producer on the show, and Jay Deuby who's our editor that's actually been editing with us for years and years and years. But in terms of the actual writing of the episodes, it's only Mark and Jay.

The renewal came a few days ago, but I know that oftentimes these are formalities and HBO has people working ahead on the new season already. How long have you guys already been working on season 2 at this point?

Steve Zissis: Well, we already handed in episodes 1 through 4 before Christmas. Basically, HBO was paying us to write the second season, but we did not have a green light, if that makes sense.

So what was your reaction when they made the decision and said you guys are definitely coming back?

Steve Zissis: Elation; joy; tears; calling mom. That was pretty much of the order.

What does your mom think of the show so far?

Steve Zissis: She could be lying to me, but she loves it. She's thrilled. And I've been really happy with the feedback I've been getting on social media and just people coming up to me on the street in Los Angeles; and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. I'm really, really thrilled that the critic response has been so great too.

Only three episodes have aired so far, but are you getting recognized more for this than for other things you've done in the past?

Steve Zissis: I am. And the funny thing is that a lot of reviewers are saying – and I have no problem with it of course – “Oh, he's a discovery” or “He's a revelation.” And I'm like, “That's great. I'll take that.” But on the other hand I have been acting in smaller things for years now – it's just that no one has seen the smaller things. So I was in “Baghead” and “Do-Decca,” for example, and my reviews in those films were excellent but no one saw them. So it's just nice to be exposed to a wider audience.

Have you been hearing not just fan and critical feedback, but getting any professional feedback in terms of people who may not have once been interested in employing Steve Zissis now saying, “Get me Steve Zissis”?

Steve Zissis: J.J. Abrams is a fan of the show and he actually emailed Jay, Mark and I like three Sundays in a row raving about the show. So that's a perfect example. That was thrilling. When I got that email I was shitting myself, pardon my French. And I think casting directors are taking note as well. Certainly I think that professionals are paying attention.

So the visibility of this and the fact that everybody seems to like what you're doing, does that now elevate you out of that tweener trap where you're no longer being brought in specifically because of your shape?

Steve Zissis: I hope so. Only time will tell. Hopefully this will open some doors for me as an actor and I'll continue to get work and to do what I was born to do.

When the renewal was announced I heard a couple people express surprise, not because they didn't like the show, but because they wondered how in the world are Jay and Mark going to keep doing this many things all at the same time. As someone who's worked with them on these eight episodes and is now already at work in the second season, how are they multitasking?

Steve Zissis: Well, we worked with IBM and we created an artificial intelligence of Jay and Mark. No, I don't know, man. And Jay and Mark both are dads and husbands and they each have two children. I'll just say that they're incredibly disciplined and they are the hardest-working men in show business. That's all I can say. The past two months for them have just been staggering. They've signed a four-picture deal with Netflix at Sundance. They had so many films they were producing at Sundance. They have a show. Jay just got a Golden Globe essentially for “Transparent.” Mark is doing “The League.” I don't know, man. These are my friends, and I still don't know how they do it. They have some sort of a chromosome that I don't have.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com