Steve Zissis is a co-creator on “Togetherness”; a fact that may get overlooked a bit too often, considering it’s one of the reasons the struggling actor is now on people’s radars both in and outside the industry. Zissis, who went to the same high school as fellow co-creators Jay and Mark Duplass, stars as Alex, an actor who’s reached the end of his rope and decides to move home at the end of Season 1. Then his big break saves him, in more ways than one, and to start the new season he’s an in-demand character actor looking to move up in the business he almost left.
Something similar could be said about Zissis himself, who burst onto the scene in Season 1 with so much talent that many wondered how he’d remained under the radar so long. The sad truth is not all actors get their big breaks, but it’s the ones who put in the work who have the best shot. Indiewire spoke with Zissis about the journey “Togetherness” has taken from a one-man-show conceived by he and Jay Duplass to the HBO comedy it is today. Moreover, the actor also touches on what makes creative partnerships work, what his advice is for actors in Alex’s position and exactly where that “Dune” puppet show came from (he may have had something to do with that). A lightly edited transcript is below.
I wanted to start off with one of the more popular talking points in regard to you and your character for Season 1: how your character actually paralleled your own career, how Alex and you and had a similar story. With Alex getting more work and getting noticed in Season 2, does that kind of mimic how your career has changed since Season 1 aired?
[laughs] Um, interesting question! Well, I think the main difference is that from Season 1 to Season 2, the type of work that Alex is doing is different than the type of work that has come my way. [laughs] It seems that Alex has gotten pigeon-holed into a certain type of role, which is really comical, as you know if you’ve seen Season 2. So I think that’s the main difference, is the type of work that Alex and I get.
Have you seen an expansion of sorts, though, since you’ve gotten the exposure on HBO? Has this been a bit of a break for you?
Oh, absolutely. You know, since Season 1 aired, the sort of critical and fan response has been incredible and this is the most exposure I’ve had as an actor certainly for my whole career. […] I think even though we may not have predicted it, I think Alex represented such an archetype — that sort of loveable loser archetype, if you will. I guess like a Bill Murray-type archetype. I think he was really relatable, and I think that’s partly why there was such a great fan response to Alex’s character. And look, on a basic level, I mean, who doesn’t understand the guy who’s trying to get a girl? [laughs] So you have that going on, and then you also have the underdog story of this lovable loser archetype that’s trying to lose weight and trying to improve himself and going through this physical and emotional transformation. I mean, it’s really endearing and I think that’s a lot of what fans were responding to.
Kind of going along with that, I felt like Alex, as a character, had so much to say specific to actors who are struggling in Los Angeles. Or not even struggling — just trying to make a living, working actors. Did you think of that kind of a story as representative of a larger group of something, maybe outside of the archetype that you mentioned, but speaking to specific people?
I mean, certainly I knew that anyone who’s waited tables in LA or New York wanting to be an actor will be able to relate to him. But your question is actually making me think that it applies to anyone that has a dream, that’s working a survival job and struggling. So in that sense, it strikes maybe a chord with even more people.
Since he is such a layered character, since he does have so much going on, what are the biggest challenges for you in portraying Alex?
Well, if I’m honest, it’s all very in flow with me, with Alex. There’s a sense of ease in portraying him, no matter what the given circumstances are. But I will say, since I’ve never been on a TV show before — I mean, TV is something new for me, Mark, and Jay — but there is something that happened that was interesting. Going from Season 1 to Season 2, when you go into Season 2 as an actor, you’re aware of the fans liked and what the critics liked about Season 1. So, there’s a little bit of a surreal sort of meta thing that happened to you as an actor because all of a sudden, you’re aware of what the greatest hits are. To use an analogy, like if you’re a band, everyone likes an album and they all like these certain songs. Then you’re getting ready to put up album No. 2, so you want to keep it fresh for yourself as an artist, as an actor, but you also have to be aware of the fact that when you go play live to the crowd, they’re gonna wanna hear the greatest hits, too! [laughs] So there was a little bit of me needing to balance sort of the strengths that we established in Season 1 and also keeping it fresh for myself as an artist in Season 2. That’s something that I was experiencing for the first time.
Could you give a little bit an example of what Alex’s greatest hits were that you knew, coming into Season 2?
Or something that stayed in your mind as you were with him in those moments?
Yeah, I mean, shucks. Let me see. I think definitely in how he related to Tina and sort of the dynamic that he had with Tina, in terms of how he made her laugh, or how he maybe subtly flirted with her, I think these were things that brought a lot of joy to our fans. These were things that were fun. So I guess in Season 2, as a performer, if I needed to hit those notes, I just wanted to do them in new ways that were interesting to me. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but that’s sort of an example that I guess I could give.
No, that’s actually a great example–
Well, there’s also the aspect too, of… Maybe this will answer it more fully. Alex undergoes a physical and emotional transformation from Season 1 to Season 2. So in Season 2, he actually is a changed person to a certain extent. He is different. So I needed to, as an actor, I needed to honor the changes that happened to him over the course of his time and to be truthful to that. So if Alex was doing something that was a little unlikable, for example in Season 2, I needed to have the courage to show those colors, even though they could be contrasting to the Alex that we know in Season 1.
In regard to what Alex is going through in the new season — pointing to a couple of scenes that I really, really enjoyed, like when Alex is doing a scene in his TV show or in his movie and he’s called upon to be great in those scenes and you have to feel that as a viewer. Was that a tricky thing for you to do? Obviously you’re going to do fine, being great as an actor — but you’re still in the moment as Alex and you have to make Alex into a great actor… I don’t know if that’s clear, but there’s something about that layering that seems complicated to me.
[laughs] Man, you hit the nail on the head that it’s very meta. It is very meta. [laughs] You know, you have Steve the actor, playing Alex the actor, and Alex the actor acting in a horrible version of [what’s] basically a cheap “True Blood.” There’s a lot going on. But basically, in those scenes my job is to absolutely commit. Definitely in the first episode of Season 2, in the scene that I’m doing, it is utterly ridiculous. It’s just absurd and really low-budget, too, but the only thing that I could do is absolutely commit 100 percent to the given circumstances of the TV show within the TV show. That’s how I decided to do it.
There’s a lot of stuff to dig into in Season 2, and one of the things that really stood out to me, especially after reading a little tidbit from your IMDB profile, which I hope is true: I wanna talk to you about the “Dune” Puppet Show idea that comes up and plays such a huge role in Season 2. You’ve had some experience in that, right? In staged puppetry?
[laughs] Yeah, for sure. The puppet aspect from that plotline was from my life. I directed the play “Amadeus” with puppets way back in the day for theater. I also studied puppetry at the Eugene and Neil Center with a lot of the “Sesame Street” people, so I do have a little bit of a history with puppetry. I was even working on some puppet animated projects with one of my best friends down in Louisiana a couple summers ago. Again, this is an example of how we draw upon our lives to get material. So we took the puppetry from my life, and then the “Dune” aspect was just sort of like, we know Brett and Alex are pretty much dorks when it comes to listening to Rush and prog-rock. And you know, Brett’s pretty much a dork to begin with.
So we thought to ourselves, If Rush is prog-rock, what would be the equivalent in sort of sci-fi literature? And “Dune” just made us laugh. And the combination of doing “Dune” in a puppet show is just, it doesn’t get dorkier than that.
Could you talk a little bit about what your role is as the co-creator? I noticed that it was Mark and Jay who have the writing credits on the episodes, but are you in there talking to them at the beginning of the season and coming up with the arcs and working on the overall story? What’s your role in that regard, in setting up the new season?
The show was created by me, Mark and Jay. Initially, and you may already know this story, but I’ll just tell it to you again, in case you don’t. The initial pilot that Jay and I made was called “Alexander the Great,” and it centered around the Alex character with a couple differences. Alex was sort of struggling with mental illness and was a struggling actor in Los Angeles. So that’s what Jay and I brought to HBO to begin with, and then from there, HBO wisely said, “Look, we think this is great. We wanna work with you, but we think it’ll give your show more legs and more staying power if you can somehow center around four characters rather than just one.”
And, you know, at first, Jay and I were freaking out because we’d spent so long perfecting this pilot. But to make a long story short, Jay and I went around the world with it for several months, and then refined it and then rebroke it and turned it into what became the pilot for “Togetherness.” And this isn’t always the case with executive’s notes, but HBO was right. By us centering it around four characters rather than just one, it made the universe bigger. It turned out to make a better show as well. So you won’t always hear creatives saying this, but in this case, HBO was right.
But in terms of my involvement in the show, in terms of writing, we have a writers’ room. And basically our writers’ room is Jay, Mark, me, Jay Deuby, our editor, and we have two higher-up veteran female TV writers. Because we think it’s important to have strong female voices in the room and also they are craftier than we are when it comes to TV writing — because TV writing is new for me, Mark, and Jay pretty much. We’re not as seasoned as they are, so it’s a nice balance in the writers’ room.
I read that you went to high school with the Duplass brothers, but you didn’t really become close with them until you started working together on a couple projects. One of the things that has always been interesting to me is that collaborative process and how you kind of choose who to work with and how you establish that bond and knowledge of, “This is somebody I can really trust.” After all this time, you guys met up again, but what was the key for how things worked out between you three?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it, I would say is serendipity, to be honest. We all went to the same high school. We were in different grades, however, so we weren’t that close in high school. But we were all on each other’s radar. So when Mark and Jay were making one of their first attempts to make a feature film, Jay had seen me in a play that I did in Austin, Texas […] with someone else that Jay knew from Jesuit. And Jay was living in Austin at the time and he saw me act, so then I was on Jay’s radar. So when Jay and Mark were in New Orleans shooting a film called “The Astronaut” — which never got completed — they had me audition for their movie. And I auditioned, and I passed the test, [laughs] and I acted in “The Astronaut,” which was an early Duplass failure that is hidden somewhere on a hard drive in Austin, Texas right now.
But then the rest was history, I mean, it just so happened that we were all sort of on each other’s radar, and we just sort of gelled. We had a symbiotic relationship. And interestingly, you know, the way that Mark and Jay were making films is they wanted actors to improvise. That had been something that I had been doing sort of informally for most of my life. So my sort of joy and my sort of strengths at improvising happened to fit perfectly in their world.
But in terms of your readership, in terms of working with people, another important thing is that you know, Jay and Mark, they have a strict “no asshole” policy, too, and they’ll tell you that. So when they choose people to work with, they make sure that they’re people that they can get along with. And that’s so important for a TV show because a TV show, you’re gonna be living with these people largely for however long the season goes on. So, you wanna pick nice people to create art with, so you’re submitting your lives for potentially seven years [laughs] or however long the show runs. So there’s that aspect, too, with choosing people to work with.
Do you have any sort of advice that you could pass along, in addition to that, for any actors out there just trying to make it work right now, in kind of an extension to what we just talked about?
I would say start acting in plays as soon as you feel like you are an actor, because again, I was 17 years old and Mark saw me act and was blown away. And then I was 20 years old or something, and Jay saw me act in a play. It wasn’t even Jay and Mark’s medium, they were into film, but I was on their radar because they saw me act in plays and that was a big part of how I started to act in film for them. Networking, of course, is great, but the best way to network is to do work. So I would say if you’re young, if you’re a teenager, act in plays, as many plays as you can. It’s an amazing way to build your craft and an amazing way to build your presence.
And obviously, if you have opportunities to act in film and tv, do that as well. But the final piece of advice, and you already hit on it, is create your own work. [laughs] I mean, you’re seeing it more and more. I mean, I did it with Jay with “Togetherness,” and you even see it with Aziz Ansari. Aziz Ansari was on “Parks and Recreation” for I don’t know, what, seven years? And he was a really popular stand-up comedian. He even says that his Netflix show wouldn’t have gotten made unless he created it himself. No one was probably willing to put someone like Aziz as the lead in a show until he actually created it himself.
If you think about it, too, that’s sort of what Billy Bob Thornton did in the ’90s when he did “Sling Blade.” Billy Bob was so talented, but he was smart enough to realize that no one was gonna give him the breakout chance, so he created “Sling Blade” and that’s the movie that broke him and launched him. That’s just another example, I would say.