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How the struggles of Steve Zissis turned into HBO's hit 'Togetherness'

Steve Zissis stars as Alex in
Steve Zissis stars as Alex in "Togetherness," which he co-created with Mark and Jay Duplass. The show draws heavily on Zissis's struggles to make it in Hollywood.
John P. Johnson/HBO

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Things don't always work out as you expect.

That's particularly true for actor Steve Zissis, a self-described "early peaker" who took years to break into the acting business. His biggest role — as balding, struggling, middle-aged actor Alex on "Togetherness" — draws on the experience of one guy: Steve Zissis.

When Zissis joined us on The Frame, he talked about the ways his life has provided material for "Togetherness," his long friendship with the Duplass brothers and how he went from igniting cheese at The Grove to co-creating a hit HBO show.

Interview Highlights:

I want to talk a bit about what your character, Alex, has gone through from season one to season two. Oddly enough, Alex is really the guy who's gotten his stuff together. Suddenly he's really figured out while everybody else is falling apart. How did your character change over the course of this show, and what interests you about that change?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted Alex to go on a physical and psychological transformation over the course of the first two seasons. So we definitely had that mapped out. Starting at the beginning of the second season, you sort of see Alex reaching the heights that he wanted to reach. Whether or not he's happy when he's gotten what he thought he wanted is another question. [laughs]

In general, there are elements of discovery as we go, but in terms of Alex's transformation, that was by design. We knew that we wanted to do it, and that's a good thing, because there were logistical things I needed to do, too. [laughs] I needed to drop over 30 pounds of weight, so we had to put things in place to assist me in my physical transformation.

But that's been a part of the show — your relationship to your own body, what that means to you as an actor, and that's something you've talked about in the past in term of what's happened to you as an actor before this show aired.

Absolutely. In the first season, Alex found himself being pigeonholed by his physical appearance, in terms of acting. But it's interesting that in the second season, he gets pigeonholed in a different, unexpected way. And even though he's reached his goal, he's dealing with relative dissatisfaction based on this new plateau he's achieved.

How much of all of that is something that you and Mark and Jay Duplass talk about from your own experience? How much does your own experience inform or inspire what you're writing about?

We are largely drawing upon our own stories, our own lives and the lives of our friends, families, and friends of friends. Yesterday, an international journalist asked us a similar question, and then I realized: Don't become friends with us if you don't want to see your life fictionalized on our show at some point. [laughs] Once you're in the vortex of friendship with us, we will use your life.

We interviewed Mark Duplass, with whom you created, wrote, and star in "Togetherness," when season one debuted. And here's what he had to say about the show, and specifically about you.

Duplass: Steve was a golden god. He was the guy who hit puberty at 11, he was the president of the student council at 15. He is the most autobiographical character we've ever written, and he knows this. We honestly built the show for Steve, because we wanted the world to see how talented he was. Literally, we all thought Steve was going to be the President, or [the next] Tom Hanks, or both. And that didn't happen for him. It kills us, and it killed him, and so we just said, "All right, we'll just make the show that shows it happening."

That's a little bit funny, but it's a little bit serious too.

Yeah, well, Mark, Jay and I all went to the same high school, and that's a true story. Mark was a year below me and he looked up to me back then — he saw me act in these plays, and I was president of the student council.

So I was an early peaker, and then I went through a depressive part of my life and had some struggles personally. Things don't always happen as you'd expect them to happen, but there's always a second act. And that's part of what this show's about.

Even with all those setbacks, were you always committed to acting? Or did you reach a point where you said, "Why am I doing this?"

I was deceiving myself for a lot of my life about acting. Acting is something I've done since I was in high school, but I never had a model in my life, whether it was a mentor or a parent, where I could realize that acting could actually be a career.

I'm Greek-American and I come from an immigrant-type background, and Greek-American parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer. [laughs] Because that's how you make money and it's very respectable. So I never had a model for being an artist and making money from that.

But I always did plays, and when I went to NYU, and I didn't go to Tisch, the theater school, because I was like, Well, acting's not realistic, you can't make a career out of it. So I just studied general studies and humanities at NYU, but I was doing plays while I was there. So I was sort of cheating. [laughs] I just didn't have the self-awareness to make this a career.

If I remember correctly, you were still waiting tables while the show was going into production, correct?

Yep. I was lighting cheese on fire at a Greek restaurant in the Grove. [laughs] Yeah, I was the cliche, I was the struggling actor in L.A. waiting tables. That was it.

So what's happened since, now that the show's succeeding? Are you still igniting cheese?

I'm not igniting cheese any more. I would just say that the main difference is that I've had the luxury to be a full-time artist now. Before, I had to juggle survival, paying bills and trying to be an artist. Now my focus is more peaceful. I'm more relaxed and all of my time is dedicated to being an artist. And that's like a thousand-pound weight being lifted from me.

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