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Steve Zissis Discusses HBO’s Togetherness, the Evolution of His Character and More [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO
Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

“It was the gorilla dance that got me hooked,” I told actor Steve Zissis when we sat down to talk about HBO’s hit freshman comedy Togetherness. In the pilot episode, Steve’s character Alex witnesses a complete meltdown by Tina (Amanda Peet) at the hands of a sailor-turned-player (guest star Ken Marino). To save her from the moment’s humiliation, Alex gallops around like a gorilla and yanks a baffled Tina down the street. I happened to tune in right at that minute and couldn’t turn it off. I went back to watch the beginning of the pilot and had a new favorite comedy on Sunday nights.

When married couple Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) take in his evicted, long time best friend Alex and her off-kilter sister Tina, four adults find themselves under the same roof but at different crossroads. Togetherness captures life on different spectrums: what happens when a strong marriage loses its flame, what’s ahead when your career and life are non-starters, what is dating really like in your thirties (or forties)?  Created by Mark and Jay Duplass along with Steve Zissis and already picked up for a second season, Togetherness is a hilarious, awkward and comfortingly realistic look at what happens when life doesn’t go the way you imagine. And better yet, what you can do about it.

Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO
Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

I sat down for an exclusive interview with Steve Zissis, co-creator and star of Togetherness, for a chat about what we’ll see from Alex, what it is about the show that resonates with fans and how Dynasty played a role in the creation of the show.

TV GOODNESS: Talk about creating the show.

Steve Zissis: “Initially, Jay Duplass and I just wanted to create something. We started getting together in his back house and just doing stupid things like reenacting 1980’s soap opera scenes from Dynasty, wearing all black and all black Toms. [Laughs.] We filmed it although I think we attempted to bury the footage after. Eventually we created a pilot called Alexander the Great which centered around my character. HBO already had the Duplass brothers on their radar and wanted to work with them. So we went to HBO with Alexander the Great and HBO said ‘We love this but we think it’d be better if you centered around more characters instead of just one.’ So Jay, Mark [Duplass] and I went back to the drawing board a little bit and we re-adjusted the pilot to center around four people. My character remained intact from the initial pilot. So we came up with Togetherness. It was really perfect because HBO’s redirection of our pilot was brilliant and we ended up making something better. It gave our show more legs and helped us create something that could go on season after season.”

TV GOODNESS: When it was picked up, what was going on in your life?

Steve: “I was not acting full time. I was serving at a Greek restaurant. Those are my peeps there. I waited tables for over three years and I was waiting tables right up until we shot the pilot. My last day at work when I thought ‘I won’t have to wait tables for the foreseeable future’ it felt like a three ton weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The smile on my face was epic.”

TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked with the Duplass brothers on other projects.

Steve: “For a long time. Jay, Mark and I all went to the same high school in New Orleans. Jay was three years older and Mark was a year younger than me. We weren’t necessarily friends in high school but we knew of each other. It wasn’t until after college that Jay saw me in a play. He saw me act and that put me on his radar. When Mark and Jay were attempting to make one of their first feature films, which ended up being a disaster and never got made, they auditioned me to be in it. It was The Astronaut. I got it, I acted in it but it never got finished. But that’s how our relationship started.

But it wasn’t until 2003 in New York when I acted in The Intervention, a short film that Jay directed, that marked our first collaboration that actually got completed. That film won two awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. That was the official beginning.”

Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO
Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

TV GOODNESS: Tell me about Alex, your character on Togetherness.
Steve: “Alex Pappas is loosely based on my life. He’s a struggling Greek-American actor. [Laughs.] Right up until the show, I was that. In the show, we’re drawing upon our own lives but you never let the truth get in the way of a good story. We’re bending and shaping things to make it a good show. Alex is inspired from my real life.”

TV GOODNESS: What are we going to see from him this season? So far he’s been evicted, he’s deciding if he wants to stay in LA, he’s being kicked and shoved by Tina.

Steve: “You’re going to see a real interesting arc for Alex. You’re going to see a physical and psychological transformation and Tina is going to be an elemental part of that. I’ll leave it at that.

TV GOODNESS: Tina and Alex’s relationship so far seems to be antagonist. How would you classify them?

Steve: “Not to put myself down, but it’s a little like Beauty and Beast. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I would say there’s definitely chemistry there. What kind of chemistry, I don’t know. Maybe a volatile chemistry. They definitely affect each other. Even though their very unlikely friends, there’s a palpable chemistry there. There’s a connection right away, which I think viewers are already feeling. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO
Photo Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

TV GOODNESS: Do you have any favorite moments coming up?

Steve: “I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say there’s a massive cock block in the future. I’ll keep it there.”

TV GOODNESS: Any characters or relationships you’re a big fan of on the show?

Steve: “Since I co-created them, all of them. Alex and Brett are loosely based on mine and Jay’s relationship. So the bromantic aspect of that I definitely connect with and relate to. Mark and I are really great friends too, we come from the same ilk, so it’s very natural for Mark and I to tap into the bromantic aspect of our relationship.”

TV GOODNESS: What do you think it is about the show that people are responding to?

Steve: “As the show evolves, all the relationships are love based and I think that’s what gives it the relatability. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of awkward humor. There’s some cringe-worthy moments. But since the relationships are ultimately love-based, I think that’s what makes it relatable and hopefully relatable to a wide audience. We’re covering all the bases on this show: we’re covering marriage and people that are single.”

TV GOODNESS: Is Alex going to get a love interest?

Steve: “We’ll see. Something may happen.”

Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

TV GOODNESS: How has the audience reception been?

Steve: “It’s been fantastic. Social media has been blowing up. People are coming up to me in public. I’m hearing good things from people and it makes me feel great. All I want is people to watch. The reviews have been largely, incredibly positive. Some of which sound like my mom wrote them!”

TV GOODNESS: Anything else you’re working on now?

Steve: “There’s a movie I acted in recently that’s coming out next year that I’m excited about. Directed by Carson Mell, who wrote for Eastbound and Down and writes for Silicon Valley. Super talented guy. It’s a horror-comedy-relationship movie. I know there’s a lot of hyphens there. It’s called Another Evil and it’ll be out next year.

We’ve written half of season two and it’s going to be really great. It’s so good. I’m so excited about it. I’m part of the writer’s group that meet and we all brainstorm and work out outlines and revise. Then Mark and Jay do the actual writing of the episodes. HBO responded really well.”

TV GOODNESS: Any favorite TV or film things you’re super into right now?

Steve: “Anything that Marion Cotillard is in, I’m a fan. She is next level amazing. She’s beyond. I just saw her in Two Days, One Night. Her performance is just crazy. I just saw Foxcatcher. Steve Carrell creates this gross, creepy character and just completely transforms. It’s beautiful how they film the relationship between the two brothers. I could go on and on. The last thing I binge-watched was Jay’s show Transparent. It is phenomenal. So well done. Incredibly artistic and personal. You can just feel it. Jill Soloway has just got a magic touch. Jay is so good in it. I’m so happy for him. We’ve come a long way since reenacting Dynasty moments.”

Togetherness airs Sunday nights at 9:30/8:30c at HBO.

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