TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Zach Galifianakis, stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets." He co-created the show with Louis C.K., who's also one of the executive producers. Galifianakis co-starred in "The Hangover" movies. In "Birdman," he played the producer and right-hand man of Michael Keaton's character. Galifianakis created the web series "Between Two Ferns," a satirical interview show on the Funny Or Die website, in which he plays the disaffected host who asks inappropriate questions to his celebrity guests. The guests are real celebrities who appear as themselves. His most famous guest was President Obama. We'll talk about that later.
In Galifianakis's new series, "Baskets," he plays Chip Baskets whose dream is to be an artistic, poetic clown. In the opening episode, he's studying in Paris at a French clown academy, but he doesn't speak French and has no idea what is being said, so he's learning nothing. That's typical of how his life is going. He returns home to Bakersfield, Calif., with his new wife, a French woman who's made it clear she doesn't love him or even like him. The only reason she has married him is to get a green card. She refuses to live with him. He's staying at a cheap, rundown motel, and he can't even afford that. In this scene from episode one, he interviews for a job as a rodeo clown at a small time local rodeo.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
ERNEST ADAMS: (As Eddie) It says here that you studied clowning at de Clown Francais - Academie de Clown Francais (ph).
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) That's correct, at the Academie de Clown Francais.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) Baskets - oh, my God. That - what a name for a clown.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) No, that's my real name. That's my...
ADAMS: (As Eddie) No, you're Baskets the Clown now, pally (ph).
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I have another clown name, and I'd prefer to go by that if you don't mind.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK, well, what's your clown name?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) My clown name is Renoir.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) What?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Renoir.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) Can't have no clown here named Renoir. You're Baskets - Baskets the Clown. You know how many of you clowns end up in a basket? That's the most perfect clown name I ever heard.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Great.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) You're hired.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I am?
ADAMS: (As Eddie) Sure. Don't take nothing to get hired around here other than walk in that door right there and tell me you're damn fool enough to want the job.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Thank you very much.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) I don't pay enough. They all quit. You'll quit, too.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I'll take it.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK. Care for a cup of coffee before you leave?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) No, I'm OK, thank you.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK, well get on out there. Headbutt me some bulls.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I'm sorry, say that again.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) Headbutt me some bulls, that's what keeps them stands filled in the rafters, yeah (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) That's - Zach Galifianakis, welcome to FRESH AIR. I always thought there was something really sad about clowns. I never really liked clowns as a kid. I thought I was supposed to, but I didn't. And I thought there's something really off-putting about clown suits, so I'd like to know what your position is (laughter) about clowns.
GALIFIANAKIS: I'm not really creeped out by clowns. I remember seeing "Short Cuts" - there was a Robert Altman movie and there was a female clown in that. And it was just kind of a matter of fact, you know, she was a clown that just went and performed at kids birthday parties. Kind of a regular, you know, existence - and that to me is more interesting is - it's just, you know, people that actually have to do it, not the weird extremes clowns can be or how they are portrayed.
I think it's kind of more interesting to see the boring clown sometimes. And to see him with his makeup on and shopping for cheese is kind of the clown world that we wanted to paint. This guy is a clown accidentally. When he's trying to be a clown at the rodeo, he's not very good. But when he's out in the real world, he falls down a lot or things happen to him, but he's not trying to be a clown. And that's kind of the thing that's - the dark cloud that's over him all the time is he can't be a clown when the lights are on him. He can only accidentally be a clown, and that was kind of an interesting thing to me, too.
GROSS: Your character's mother is played by comic Louie Anderson. He's great in this, and, you know, it's a really unusual casting choice. Louie Anderson is a very large male who's playing your mother.
GROSS: And, you know, he's wearing, like, a house dress, but he's not - he's not, you know, going out of his way to look, quote, "female." Do you know what I mean? He has, you know, what we think of as a woman's hairdo, but he's not changing his voice. I don't know if he's changing his manner much, and somehow it really works. And, like, why did you think of casting him?
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, it kind of went down like this. Louis C.K. and I were at my house and we were chatting about an actress. And I originally had tried to get an actress named Brenda Blethynight (ph) - I think that's how you pronounce her name - who is an English actress, and she was not available. And Louis and I are chatting and I say to Louis, it's a voice that I keep hearing in my head, and I imitated the voice and he said, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice? And I said, yes. And he said (laughter) well, should we call him? And I said, yes. And within five minutes, he was cast in the show.
And it was one of those things that you kind of get a gut feeling inside of you and you just kind of run with it. And we got really lucky because we didn't even know it, but Louie Anderson had been channeling his mom in his standup act for a few years. So he came with this whole character already formed. We didn't have to do anything. The first day of the shoot, though, he had a lot of makeup on, and I just remember saying to the makeup people, he doesn't need any. We don't want to make it cartoonish. This is an homage. It's not a, you know, we're not drag queening him up. And Louie just is very subtle, and, you know, he's heartbreaking in the show. We're lucky to have him.
GROSS: The way Louie Anderson plays him, he's always conveying a combination of sympathy and complaint at the same time. So why don't we hear Louie Anderson in the role? So this is a scene from "Baskets." And your character, Chip Baskets the Clown, can't pay the rent at the cheap motel he's been living in. And he and his insurance agent and kind of maybe friend Martha come to visit his mother, Christine Baskets, who's played by Louie Anderson. And they're all sitting in front of the TV together. The mother has been watching one of the Home Shopping Networks, and you've really come there to try to hit her up for some money.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
LOUIE ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I'll tell you one thing. I'm not paying any money to those foreigners who run that fleabag motel.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Mom, I'll pay you back, OK?
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I guess you can move in here, until you get on your feet. I can...
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I appreciate the invitation, Mom, but I'm a grown man.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What about you and Martha starting that greeting card company? Have you seen the cost of greeting cards? I paid $5 for a get well card.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Mom, I have a job. I'm a clown. I just don't have the money.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) You know, Chip, jobs are supposed to pay the bills. That's why they are called jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You use this on a bagel. How's that for cutting a bagel thin? Pretty good.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What about Arby's? Everyone's happy at Arby's. Plus - bonus - curly fries.
MARTHA KELLY: (As Martha) That's a - that is a good bonus.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Do you love them?
KELLY: (As Martha) I do love them.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What do you dip yours in?
KELLY: (As Martha) Ketchup, sometimes with blue cheese dressing.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, a mixer.
KELLY: (As Martha) Yeah.
ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Wow, she's a wild one, Chip. What's the seasoning on there? I'm thinking paprika.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so that's Louie Anderson as the mother in "Baskets." We also heard Zach Galifianakis playing Chip the Clown and Martha Kelly playing his friend Martha. You heard a voice in your head. Louis C.K., your executive producer for this, said, oh, that sounds like Louie Anderson. How about - why don't we just call him? There must have been another voice in your head saying, what if he's not good in the role? I mean, did you actually audition him? I mean...
GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah. I mean, no, we did not audition him. And that is one of those things where I probably should have. Looking back, I mean, I'm glad we didn't need to obviously, but it was a roll of the dice. And you go with your gut sometimes, and that gut sometimes is wrong, but Louie's acted before. He's been in things and I've seen him in things. But the director, Jonathan Krisel, has a way of using performers in a way that I've never seen any other director do. And I have a lot of confidence in Jonathan with that stuff. He does it from a very interesting angle where he wants to see the bumps and bruises in your performance. You know, there's not a lot of fast-talking, you know, snappy people in our show. That's - a lot of TV is that. So with casting Louie, it was just enough of a kind of an inspired choice that we want with the gamble of it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Zach Galifianakis, who's a comic and actor. Now he has his own FX TV series called "Baskets." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Zach Galifianakis. His movies include "The Hangover" and "Birdman." And now he has his own TV series on FX. It's called "Baskets," and he plays a pretentious, but untalented, bitter and angry rodeo clown. So you play two parts, actually, in "Baskets." You play Baskets the Clown and his twin brother, who is similar to a character you've done in your comedy performances. I want you to describe the character of the brother.
GALIFIANAKIS: The character of Dale Baskets, Chip's twin brother, is a kind of a very verbose, loud, for some reason he has a southern accent, character that I have actually been doing for a few years in my standup act, and then I've played this character before in a movie. And when we started writing the show, the director said, you know, maybe we should have you play your twin brother. And I was not really interested in it, but he talked me into it. And I'm glad that we did it because Chip is very quiet. I wanted to play him quiet. And Dale is very obnoxiously loud. And it's just fun to have that device of having a twin brother who is kind of your opposite but looks just like you. And then it also let us have the idea that our mother is so disappointed in her natural-born twins that she adopts younger twins to make up for us. It was, you know, a layer that was interesting to us, so that's why we kind of put this character in there.
GROSS: We should mention that the twin brother is the dean of Basket's career college. This is like a little storefront college. You want to describe the college?
GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah, it is. It's a - that's a good way of putting it. It's a storefront. You know when your Uncle John is sitting around saying that he'd like to start a university, well that's basically what Dale does. He just starts a university to teach people, you know, how to make a quiche and also, you know, boat battery repair. He is kind of a know-it-all, and he opens up a school so he can teach everybody what he knows.
GROSS: Yeah, including sports management, cell phone repair - (laughter) as if they could repaired - ice cream truck repair, plumbing, learning to personalize your license plate. It's this mix of like absurd and real things. Let's hear a scene with you as your character's twin brother. Your character Chip Baskets, the rodeo clown, is broke. He needs money. I won't go into why he needs it. And he figures, well, let me try my brother. So he and his insurance adjuster, Martha, show up at the storefront college to ask the brother for money.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) If it ain't my evil twin brother, Chip. How you doin', Chip?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Hey, Dale.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Did you like my commercial? Who's this?
KELLY: (As Martha) Hi, I'm Martha.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Martha, hey, Dale Baskets. Nice to meet you. Martha, Martha, Martha. There we go. Got it memorized.
KELLY: (As Martha) Oh.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Yeah, if you just say the name three times - Marcia, Marcia, Marcia - got it memorized. Dale, Dale, Dale. I'm kidding. I already know my name, of course. What do you need?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I need - I need to...
KELLY: (As Martha) He needs to borrow...
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I need to borrow some money, please.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Oh, what a surprise. I'm being sarcastic. He's always looking for money. That's a cute top. Are you a real lesbian?
KELLY: (As Martha) No. Thank you, though.
GROSS: We heard Zach Galifianakis in two roles - as the clown and as the clown's twin brother. How did you first create that character? Because I've heard you do that character before in your stage performances.
GALIFIANAKIS: I started doing that guy in high school. He was just this guy that I created called the effeminate racist. And I thought it would be funny if somebody that was maybe effeminate would be discriminatory against another group - him being discriminated against himself. It was a complicated character. But the African-American kids in my high school knew about this character. It was kind of a secret character that I would do. And it was a way of making fun of rednecks in our high school. And they would bump me in the hallway. And this character would come out. And they would laugh very hard at this character knowing that it was tongue-in-cheek. I remember Antoine, my friend, would bump me in the hallway, and I would tell him that, you know, in that effeminate voice that I was told never to talk to black people in high school. And he knew it was just so absurd that it was not coming from me. It was just making fun of that kind of thought. And I kept doing it. It didn't become a big thing in high school. It was just kind of just among a few friends. And I would do it at home to, you know, my family and stuff. And then a few years later I kind of used him for other things.
GROSS: This was in North Carolina where you grew up?
GALIFIANAKIS: Yes, yes.
GROSS: I read a New York Times Magazine profile of you in which you told the reporter that your older brother - and I'm quoting here - "was torturous but in a funny way. He used to say to me, I'm giving you a gag order, and then stuff his dirty underpants into my mouth. He used to drag me stark naked across the lawn then hold me up by my ankles for the passing cars to see." That sounds so horrible and so not funny. What was your reaction as a kid to that?
GALIFIANAKIS: (Laughter) I know. I know. And I don't mean to laugh. But my brothers - and my poor brother. And he - you know, when you kind of give these interviews, you try to think of things that are interesting to the reader. And my brother was like that to me. But he feels so bad about it now. And I hate that I've even said it in the interviews. My brother designed me, I like to say. But he's so remorseful about it now that it's - I feel bad to even talk about it. However, yeah, he used to do that. And I think that formed a weird sense of humor in me - trying to figure out how to make these weird situations comical when they're not supposed to be.
GROSS: You were in "Birdman," which was such a wonderful film. And I want to play a scene from it. But just to recap, it starred Michael Keaton as an actor who's starting a kind of "Batman" franchise. And that franchise was called "Birdman." But several sequels later, he is washed up, trying to make a comeback on Broadway directing and starring in a drama. But the rehearsals for the show are going terribly. One of the stars was injured in an accident, and they need a big name to sell tickets. You play his - I don't know - lawyer who also kind of functions as his publicist and producer. And so you're trying to figure out how to replace this actor. And you've been trying to reassure the Michael Keaton character that you've got it covered, that you're taking care of it. But you need Keaton's help. Keaton has to, like, cooperate and move forward with finding someone.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")
MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) That's great.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Yeah, it is fantastic, except one thing.
KEATON: (As Riggan) What?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) We don't have an actor. And if we cancel the first preview, the press is going to smell blood. And we can't afford to lose any more money at all.
KEATON: (As Riggan) OK, what do you think I should do?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Well, we hired an understudy. Let's use the understudy.
KEATON: (As Riggan) No.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Riggan, listen to me. Please, for the love of God, listen. Our perfect dream actor is not going to knock on that door and go, hey fellas, when do I start? You don't...
NAOMI WATTS: (As Lesley) Can I talk to you for a second?
KEATON: (As Riggan) Yeah, what's up?
WATTS: (As Lesley) Did you find another actor?
KEATON: (As Riggan) No.
WATTS: (As Lesley) OK, well, Mike's available.
KEATON: (As Riggan) He is?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?
KEATON: (As Riggan) I thought he was doing the thing?
WATTS: (As Lesley) He was. He quit or got fired.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?
KEATON: (As Riggan) Which is it? Quit or fired?
WATTS: (As Lesley) Well, with Mike it's usually both.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?
WATTS: (As Lesley) Shiner.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Yes.
KEATON: (As Riggan) Jake...
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Oh my gosh. How do you know Mike Shiner?
WATTS: (As Lesley) We share a vagina.
KEATON: (As Riggan) You think he'd want to do it?
WATTS: (As Lesley) Mm-hmm.
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) How do you know?
WATTS: (As Lesley) Because he told me he wanted to do it.
GROSS: OK. That was Naomi Watts as an actress in the play that the Michael Keaton character is directing. So one of the things that made "Birdman" special is the really long tracking shots in which all the action had to be precisely choreographed because it was like, you know - what was the longest take? It was like several minutes, right?
GROSS: And there's always, like, characters walking in and out of the frame. Do you have anything you can describe for us about working in that kind of context where a take had to work for a really long time and everything had to be so precisely choreographed so it was in the frame at exactly the right time?
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, you know, it's like a baton being handed off to you when it's your turn, you know, and you don't want to drop it because then everybody else has lost the race, if you want put it that way. So the stakes were high. And I kind of felt out of place because, again, my confidence level is not huge and I'm more of a standup comic and I'm with these serious actors. But I noticed that Naomi Watts didn't have any confidence either, and that made me feel really good (laughter) because, you know, she was very vulnerable when she was working, I found. And that made me feel really good. So it was a group thing. You know, everybody was there to help each other. And it was very choreographed. I mean, you don't get a lot of rehearsal time sometimes in acting. But we rehearsed this a lot. And there was two weeks of rehearsal. They'd measured off the theater in New York, the St. James - and we rehearsed it in Los Angeles - so that the measuring of the hallways were precise. So the camera guys would come and we would do this little dance for two weeks. So when we got to New York, we knew exactly what we were doing. So it was pretty choreographed. And it needed to be because there was a lot of tricky things to figure out in those shots. The crew to me is - those guys are the real stars of those scenes. You don't get to see them obviously, but the work they did is just tremendous.
GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis. After a short break, we'll talk about interviewing President Obama on his satirical web series "Between Two Ferns." And we'll hear from Mark and Jay Duplass. They co-created the HBO series "Togetherness," which starts its second season a week from Sunday. The show stars Mark. Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor and comic Zach Galifianakis. He co-starred and - he co-created and stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets." He co-starred in "The Hangover" movies and "Birdman."
So there's one more clip I want to play of your work, and this was from when you got to interview President Obama on your Funny Or Die - Funny Or Die's a comedy website with a whole lot of comic material on it. And you have a web series on there called "Between Two Ferns" in which you play a very inept talk show host who's always asking just, like, inappropriate, offensive questions to his guests and putting them on the spot in really disturbing ways. So Obama was on your show, and obviously the point of him being there was trying to convince young people that they needed to register for Obamacare. My favorite part of the interview is how the segue is made between this really painful, uncomfortable interview that your character, the interviewer, is having with the president of the United States, the segue from that into the president talking about the importance of registering for the health care insurance. So why don't we hear that section of Zach Galifianakis's interview with President Obama?
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "BETWEEN THE FERNS")
GALIFIANAKIS: Were you planning on building a presidential library in Hawaii or your home country of Kenya? Because - I mean, both places seem like they would be...
BARACK OBAMA: Zach, that's a ridiculous question.
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, you know, I mean, not to bring up the birth certificate thing, which you really never did really produce...
OBAMA: Where's your birth certificate? Why don't you show it to us right now?
GALIFIANAKIS: I don't want to show anybody my birth certificate 'cause it's embarrassing.
OBAMA: What's embarrassing about?
GALIFIANAKIS: My weight on it. It says that I was born 7 pounds, 800 ounces. You know what I would do if I were president, Mr. President? I would make same-sex divorce illegal then see how bad they want it.
OBAMA: I think that's why you're not president, and that's a good thing.
GALIFIANAKIS: You said if you had a son you would not let him play football. What makes you think that he would want to play football? What if he was a nerd like you?
OBAMA: Do you think a woman like Michelle would marry a nerd? Why don't you ask her whether she thinks I'm a nerd?
GALIFIANAKIS: Could I?
OBAMA: No, I'm not going to let her near you.
GALIFIANAKIS: So do you go to any websites that are dot-coms or dot-nets or do you mainly just stick with the dot-govs?
OBAMA: No, actually, we go to dot-govs. Have you heard of healthcare.gov?
GALIFIANAKIS: Here we go. OK, let's get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be with you here today if I didn't have something to plug. Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?
GALIFIANAKIS: Oh, yeah, I heard about that. That's the thing that doesn't work. Why would you get the guy that created the Zune to create make your website?
OBAMA: Healthcare.gov works great now. And millions of Americans have already gotten health insurance plans. And what we want is for people to know that you can get affordable health care. And most young Americans, right now, they're not covered. And the truth is that they can get coverage all for what it costs you to pay your cellphone bill.
GALIFIANAKIS: Is this what they mean by drones?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's Zach Galifianakis and President Obama recorded in 2014. So how much of that was written in advance? How much did the president know about the questions you were going to ask him? Did he have, like, answers prepared in advance?
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, when I got there, I asked Cody, his speechwriter, basically what you just asked me. Does he know about (laughter) the show? Has he seen the questions? And then there was one particular question that I kind of needed to know - has he seen this question specifically?
GROSS: So you submitted questions to them?
GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. I mean, we - you know, I mean, it's the president of the United States. We knew that they had something that they wanted to get out to the public and, you know, they wanted to vet it, but they said no to nothing. They were all gung ho for everything. So there was really no, you can't say that. There is none of that from them. But I did - when I got to the White House, I did ask Cody and I pointed to a question that was on a sheet of paper. And I said, yes, but has he seen this question, which was the question, what's it like to be the last black president, which was kind of a darker question. And Cody just looked at me and he goes, I think so, which means, in my mind, of course, he didn't see it (laughter).
So I wasn't 100 percent sure of what he had seen or not seen or how familiar he was, which I think is probably why I was a bit nervous when I went in to actually - because you want to be respectful, obviously. Everybody knows it's kind of a put-on, but still you want to be respectful. So we were told that he, you know, approved of everything, so we just ran with it. And he - we didn't have him for long at all. We just kind of stuck with it, what was written, and that was - I don't know - 16 minutes with him maybe.
GROSS: I'm trying to remember what his answer was to your question, how does it feel to be the last black president?
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, in the edit, I'm not sure what he - what it was, but he hit me in real life in the face. Now, I'm just kidding, Terry.
GALIFIANAKIS: No, I think it was what's it like to be the last time to talk to a president or something like that, yeah.
GROSS: That's right. That is what he said, what's it like for this to be the last time you'll ever talk to a president? Yeah, right, right. He should go into comedy when he leaves the White House.
GALIFIANAKIS: You know, I've said this before, and I don't mean this as an offense. It's just kind of the way it is. D.C. - political people are often not funny. They think they are, but they just aren't (laughter). I've spent enough time in Washington, D.C., and hear those corny jokes that you hear, that, you know, that machine tell sometimes.
President Obama is not like that, and I think that's one of the problems that he has with jealousy, meaning I think people are just jealous of that coolness that he has. But yeah, he is - he has very good timing, really, really good, straight man.
GROSS: Zach, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
GALIFIANAKIS: Terry, I like chatting with you. It's like chatting with an old friend I only talk to once every seven years.
GROSS: Zach Galifianakis co-created and stars in the FX comedy series "Baskets," which is shown Thursday nights.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The HBO series "Togetherness" starts its second season Sunday, Feb. 21. Our guests, Jay and Mark Duplass, co-created the series. They also write and direct it. And Mark is one of the stars. The Duplass brothers started making films together when they were kids in the '80s using their dad's VHS camera. They have become known for their low-fi filmmaking style and have written and directed five feature films, including "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" and "Cyrus." Both brothers also act. Mark was a series regular on the FX comedy "The League" and starred in the films "Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister" and "The One I Love." Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as Josh Pfefferman. Their series "Togetherness" is about four people in their late-30s living in Los Angeles. The characters cope with children, marriage, their work lives and a general sense of feeling lost.
The Duplass brothers spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a theme from the show. The main couple in the series has just left a marriage counseling session. And the wife has decided they should do something fun - spend the day at the park with adult friends, no kids. The husband, played by Mark Duplass, agrees to do it, but it's the last thing he wants to do. He's sitting alone in his car, outside the park, when his sister-in-law, played by Amanda Peet, comes to the car to fetch him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOGETHERNESS")
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Yes, I'm coming. I'll be there in a second.
AMANDA PEET: (As Tina Morris) Let's go.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Wait, hold on. I'm not ready yet. I'm taking - I just need like a second.
PEET: (As Tina Morris) Don't do this.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Don't do what? What are you...
PEET: (As Tina Morris): This whole mood-killer thing. She is so [expletive] psyched. And she really needs this day. And she really needs to party and have fun.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) I...
PEET: (As Tina Morris) And if you're going to be like this, it's going to ruin it for her.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) OK. I am trying to get myself ready for that, but it's a little hard for me, OK. Do you understand that?
PEET: (As Tina Morris) Yeah, I mean, I do. But just fake it. I mean, do you see this smile?
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Yeah.
PEET: (As Tina Morris) I'm dead inside.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Jay and Mark Duplass, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARK DUPLASS: Hi.
JAY DUPLASS: Thanks for having us.
BALDONADO: Why did you choose to make a TV show about these four characters living in Los Angeles all in different stages of life but all kind of lost and searching for something?
JAY DUPLASS: We hadn't made a really deeply personal television show or movie in awhile. Our first feature we made was called "The Puffy Chair," and it was sort of about what our life really felt like in our '20s when we were all kind of dating people for a year or two. And when we came to make "Togetherness," we thought, you know, we're hearing lots of conversations about people who are either in their late-'30s and married and they are just an inch from drowning in the sea of their children and their jobs and make everything work or they haven't found that person yet or haven't even found that traction in their work life.
BALDONADO: So one of the things you explore is a marriage. And Michelle and Brett, two of the main characters, they are married with two children. One of them is just kind of out of the infant stage. Why was that something that interest you in particular?
JAY DUPLASS: Mark and I both have kids the same age that are now roughly 7 and 3. And at that time we were entering that phase. And there's something very, very specific about when your last baby starts sleeping through the night where you come out of this fugue state of parenting. And in our case and in the case of the family on "Togetherness," it was a seven-year process. And you feel like, oh my god, that was wonderful. We've come out of it. But now it's been seven years. I don't really know who I am. And you're looking at your spouse and you're like, I don't know who you are. I don't know really what I like anymore because all of my needs have been subjugated for the good of these babies and our family unit. And you kind of have to re-figure everything out.
BALDONADO: Now, there's a part of an episode that I want to ask you about. It involves, Mark, your character Brett. It's a common scenario that any parent might have experienced where everybody's in a rush to get out of the house. You know, your character's yelling at your daughter to get ready. She doesn't want to put her shoes on. You're trying to drive her to school. When you go to the back of the car, she doesn't have her shoes on. And let's take a listen to that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOGETHERNESS")
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) All right, let's - why are you not wearing your shoes?
ABBY RYDER FORTSON: (As Sophie Pierson) I hate my shoes.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) You picked these shoes out. No, hey. We do not say hate, OK? And no kicking. No, OK.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) I know. I know, Frankie. I'm sorry. We're going to school and I need to get your socks on.
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) I don't want to go to school.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Stop. Do not kick me because I - ow.
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) All right. OK, Frankie, OK.
(CAR DOOR SHUTTING)
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) Why are you so upset right now?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) I don't want to go to school.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) You don't?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) No, I already told you that.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) OK. Why don't you want to go to school?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) Because I want to stay with you and Frankie.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) You do?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) Yes.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) What would you like to do instead?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) I want to go to the beach.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) You want to skip school and go to the beach?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) Yeah.
MARK DUPLASS: (As Brett Pierson) What makes you think that I would let you skip school and go to the beach?
ABBY: (As Sophie Pierson) I don't know.
BALDONADO: Now, I think that's a common scenario for anyone with small kids when you sort of have the presence of mind you know not to kind of escalate it and, like, yell and yank your kid out of the car to keep going on with the day. But at that moment, the father is able to sort of take a pause and talk to the daughter. Can you talk about writing this scene or moments like this that you based this scene on?
JAY DUPLASS: Yeah, I mean, this is where the show gets really personal for us. And these are the kind of things that we talk about with our friends who are parents. And - we're just idiots. We get caught up in our own rules. And we think like, oh, I have to teach her this lesson that she has to get her shoes on when what does this really matter? But you end up digging your heels in, and you end up yelling, and you feel like a terrible parent. And it's just awful. We hate that stuff. And yet we can't stop ourselves from doing it. So in that scene in particular, you know, it was a little bit of probably wish fulfillment on our part that like we could catch ourselves before we go to DEFCON 4 and be that really great, understanding parents.
BALDONADO: Mark, you have said - well, you have both said that you were super close growing up and you continue to be. But growing up, you guys shared a room and even shared a bed? What was your relationship like when you were kids?
JAY DUPLASS: Single bed.
BALDONADO: Single bed.
MARK DUPLASS: Yeah, we - I was extremely dependent on Jay. He was my spiritual leader. He was my god. He was just - he was everything to me. And he was sweet enough to let me play with him 'cause, you know, what brother who has a four-years-his-younger little brother wants to hang out with him? So I was really lucky to have that. And, yeah, we would spend the night in the same bed together. I was scared of the dark. Jay would hang out with me. We would talk about how when we grew up we were going to, like, get a house together and, like, kind of thought that our wives would just, like, move into the house with us, which is emotionally still kind of how it is to a certain degree. And then something really interesting happened which was when I was like 14 and Jay was 18, he went to college and had a really hard year and felt very disconnected from home. And then the tables kind of shifted a little bit where I was able for the first time to be strong for Jay and exhibit some level of leadership by just being young and naive enough to just say, it's going to be OK, you're awesome, it's going to be OK. And then we built, during those years, a truly impenetrable bond.
BALDONADO: What kind of movies and TV did you like when you were kids?
JAY DUPLASS: We were in a very specific situation where cable came to our neighborhood in like 1982. And so at that time HBO was uncuriated (ph), so all these movies were coming down the pipeline. And we were watching - like our friends were really into "Star Wars" and "Empire Strikes Back," but - I don't know - we just didn't go to movies that much. And so we were just watching whatever showed up on HBO. And at that time you'd come home from school and, like, "Ordinary People" would be on or "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Sophie's Choice" or like not just a hard-hitting dramas but even, like, adult sex comedies like "Manhattan" and "Hannah And Her Sisters" and all this great adult fare. And our parents did not limit us at all. And Mark and I just, like, went deep on it. We were just obsessed with these movies and honestly weren't that into "Star Wars." It seemed a little silly to us even at the time.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Mark and Jay Duplass. Their HBO series "Togetherness" starts its second season a week from Sunday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Mark and Jay Duplass. They co-created the HBO series "Togetherness," which starts its second season a week from Sunday. Mark stars in the series. Jay's co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent."
BALDONADO: Now, Jay, when you and Mark started making movies together, Jay, you are often the director and Mark was often the actor. And, Mark, you've also acted in many movies and TV shows. I think that, Jay, people were surprised and very pleased when you became one of the co-stars on the Amazon series "Transparent," which...
JAY DUPLASS: I was surprised.
BALDONADO: (Laughter) Which released its second season recently. Can you talk about how you became involved in the show? I kind of always assumed that you were reluctant to be an actor.
JAY DUPLASS: I wasn't necessarily reluctant to be an actor. It just never occurred to me, honestly. It was more a case of I was our primary camera operator on everything that we've made except for "Togetherness." And so I basically met Jill Soloway at a party for directors where directors sometimes get together because we don't - we don't work together on set. It's a way to talk about our process and maybe try and figure out which actors are nice and which actors are mean. And so she was telling me that she had this TV show ready to go and she had the whole family, but she couldn't find the son. It was really troubling her. She needed a mid-30s wildly insecure-slash-charismatic Jewish guy. And I was like, oh, man, those are all Mark's and my friends.
We know all the actors in town who fit that bill, and I went through a laundry list of guys and she had considered them all. And then she stopped me after about a half an hour of talking and she said, it's you. She's like, I think you're him. And I would like you to come in and read. And I was reluctant because Mark and I were just starting our show, "Togetherness," and I was nervous. It was the biggest thing that we'd ever undertaken. Also I was like, I'm not really an actor. She said why do you come in tomorrow morning and read with Gaby Hoffman and Amy Landecker, and I did. We improvised the barbecue dinner scene that's in the pilot of the show. And sometimes and - when you're on set, like, magic happens and lightning strikes and it did happen that day (laughter). And I felt like I was Gaby and Amy's brother, and we looked alike and we talked alike and we were not afraid to mess with each other and feel that that love underneath it all was still going to be there.
It was a very strange and magical experience, which I've come to understand is part of what happens when you work with Jill Soloway. But even when I agreed to do it, you know, most pilots don't go to show. It felt like a small web show, honestly, that was being made like an independent film on the east side of LA. I had no idea that it would become, you know, the phenomenon that it's become, much less a piece of art at the forefront of a civil rights movement.
BALDONADO: There are so many great things about "Transparent," but one thing I think it gets really right is something you were just talking about - the relationship between the siblings. I think it gets the way that siblings know each other, know each other's secrets, which can mean, like, you know, siblings can be really supportive of each other. But it also means that they know what might hurt the most.
JAY DUPLASS: Yeah.
BALDONADO: And they can be - you know, how to be the most brutal. And also siblings, no matter how old they are, can sometimes revert to old patterns, act like they did when they were kids when they're hanging out with each other. And I want to play a scene from the first season. Josh, your character, has just found out that your parent, who's known as Mort, identifies as a woman named Maura. And Josh is still in shock about the whole situation. The three siblings are in the backyard of their family home, hanging out on playground equipment, and your sisters are played Gaby Hoffman and Amy Landecker. OK, let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) I think Dad's losing his mind. I went online and looked up his symptoms. The first sign of dementia is a changing personality.
AMY LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Oh, my God.
GABY HOFFMAN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Dementia.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) Like, he has to be the center of attention, you know? Like at Zacky's (ph) third birthday when he showed up in the beekeeper costume.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) That was hysterical.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) No, it wasn't. It was inappropriate. You guys think it's real.
HOFFMAN: (As Ali Pfefferman) It's definitely real.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) OK, so what does this mean? Everything Dad has said and done before this moment is a sham? Like, he was just acting the whole time?
HOFFMAN: (As Ali Pfefferman) No, it just means we all have to start over, which is why I am going back to school. Syd told me about a program at SMC that sounds perfect for me.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) Here we go.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Ali's got an interest.
HOFFMAN: (As Ali Pfefferman) Here we go where?
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) Oh, yeah, she's going to sign up.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Yeah, I mean, Dad's going to pay the registration fee.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) Oh, yeah, she's going to need a new wardrobe.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Dad's going to get her some school shoes.
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) School shoes.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Daddy's got to buy some clothes. Remember when Dad got her the loom?
JAY DUPLASS: (As Josh Pfefferman) Loom.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman, laughter) Loom - the loom, loom, loom.
BALDONADO: That's a scene from the first season of "Transparent." I'm not sure if you agree with my assessment of how the show treats siblings, but was that something that interested you in the series?
JAY DUPLASS: Yeah. I think that was a huge part of it and probably also part of my conversation with Jill - before she said it's you - was we talked about Mark's and my relationship because Jill has an older sister. And they came up in their own little magical world, and it just so happens that, you know, Mark and I are kind of like twins. And Gaby is incredibly tight with her sister, who's significantly older than her, but it was kind of like a mother-sister figure with her. And Amy also has a sister that she was incredibly close with. So that was something that I think was critical to the process is that we all understood that we had to be brutally honest with each other.
And I think - I do agree with your assessment and I would probably just add one thing to it. One thing that you do with your siblings when you love them more than life itself is your cruelty can often come from trying to force them to be who they truly are. Sometimes that's nefarious because you may be mistaken about who they are, but you also want them to be the best version of themselves. And so particularly for Josh, a lot of his difficulty and confusion in life comes from the fact that, you know, he did come up in a household full of incredibly strong women. And I think it was hard for him to find his identity, but also it's probably why he has so much trouble dating is that he holds everyone to the candle of his sisters, who he worships.
BALDONADO: Oh, that's - I really like what you just said there about siblings. I think that's so spot on about sort of wanting more for them than sometimes they see for themselves.
JAY DUPLASS: Yeah, I think your siblings are kind of like the holders of the candle for your ultimate potential.
BALDONADO: You do such a good job with Josh. Do people often confuse you, Jay, with Josh and think that you might be very similar to him?
JAY DUPLASS: I think it's weird sometimes - yes, when people see me in public because, you know, I'm - I've been with my wife for 15 years and we have two kids and I'm a family guy and I'm quiet and reserved, you know? So I am playing a character who is very, very different from me. More than anything, what's interesting about playing Josh is because the Pfeffermans feel so real and are so specific to the east side of LA, which is where I live, that a lot of times I have people - they'll just start talking to me like they know me. And then they start to realize within a minute that they don't know me and that I'm inside their TV because the show is so fluid. I mean, I've even had people ask if I'm really Gaby's brother, which is insane. It's like, don't you know how TV works (laughter)? But people just are really taken by the show and really believe and feel this family.
BALDONADO: Jay and Mark Duplass, thank you so much.
MARK DUPLASS: Thank you.
JAY DUPLASS: Thank you, appreciate it.
GROSS: Mark and Jay Duplass spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. The Duplass brothers created the HBO series "Togetherness." Season two begins a week from Sunday. Mark stars in the series. Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." The Duplass brothers are also the executive producers of the new HBO animated series "Animals."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.