Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass work much the same way they did when they first started using their dad’s camcorder to make little movies at home. Their screen product is the definition of hand-held -- quick, efficient, economical – with lots of directed improvisation by the actors.
The result is usually human-scale and intimate, an observation Steve Zissis said he’s heard from “Togetherness” fans.
A New Orleans native like the Duplass brothers, Zissis plays scuffling actor Alex Pappas in the HBO dramedy, which returns for its second season at 9:30 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 21).
Since season one aired last year, and as the episodes continued to circulate ever since via long-tail digital distribution, Zissis has enjoyed fielding fan reaction to the intimate show and his thoroughly human-scale character.
“This was very obvious to me after it was told to me, but one of the things fans are responding to is that the show is about relationships that are love-based,” Zissis said. “It’s really obvious on one hand, but profound when set against the backdrop of the other types of shows that are on TV. Something about a show where characters love each other stands out.”
The character Zissis plays in “Togetherness” is in some ways Zissis, in many ways not.
“When I’m in a scene improvising, I’m pulling from all of my life stories and relationships and experience in the moment,” he said. “A lot of times I am volunteering things that are applicable to Alex through my actual personal life.
“In this case, Alex is close to me. He’s a struggling Greek-American actor, and that’s what I’ve been for most of my life.
“There are definitely major differences, let me be clear. It is acting.”
Since “Togetherness” first came together as a series of improvisational experiments between Zissis and Jay Duplass, Zissis has experienced professional and personal growth that mirrors Alex’s journey. His work in “Togetherness” has been widely praised by critics. (He “has one of the most endlessly fascinating faces on television,” wrote Variety’s Maureen Ryan in her season-two premiere review.) He’s engaged to be married to screenwriter Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks”), and the couple is collaborating on writing projects.
Alex has brought Zissis good things, if not yet a slew of leading-man roles.
“What the show has afforded me is the ability to be a little picky,” Zissis said. “Which sounds weird, but it’s afforded me the power to say no when a project just isn’t right or isn’t interesting to me or is something I’ve already done.
“I have nothing against being the overweight loveable loser, but I don’t necessarily want to keep playing that guy.”
He’s not playing that guy in “Togetherness” anymore, as Alex has shaped up physically and professionally (partly with an assist from Tina). The character’s growth continues in season two, as many late-coming viewers are just getting to know the old Alex.
“A lot of men are identifying with the character, fellow lovable losers out there,” Zissis said. “But then there was a lot of response from women as well, who found Alex Pappas really endearing in spite of the fact that he is a bit of a loveable loser and that he’s not a Disney prince. He’s not conventionally handsome, etc., but a lot of people are really rooting for him.”