Girls’ Ebon Moss-Bachrach on Desi’s Drug Addiction and ‘Suspect Folksiness’

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On Sunday night, Girls dropped a bombshell. Well, a mason jar full of OxyContin, to be precise. On the second episode of the final season, Marnie discovers that her husband, Desi, who “looks like the Pacific Northwest knit-a-man,” has had a pill addiction the entire time she’s known him. The revelation was a surprise to Ebon Moss-Bachrach, the actor who plays Desi, too, but something he thinks is in line with the character. For Moss-Bachrach, playing Desi for four seasons has meant channeling a kind of “questionable earthiness.” Speaking with Vulture, Moss-Bachrach talked about how he originally helped conceive the character, finding comedy in drug addiction, and how people tell him they hate his character at the greengrocer.

I saw that you went to Columbia University. Did you do the Varsity Show?
I did. I did the 102nd Annual Varsity Show my freshman year. So I just did it once. I can remember 102nd because I was, like, cleaning and I saw an old T-shirt. I will not tell you if I threw it out or if I kept it. But I was reminded that it was the 102nd.

Is there a Columbia alumni networking group?
Chelsea Peretti and I were in a comedy improv group together. She was a year younger than me, and when we were auditioning I was like, “Pfft. We’ve got to take that girl. That girl’s good.” She was just very physical and really dirty, and just her own brand of crazy that she’s gone on to share with a lot of people. So that’s my one sort of thing that I hold onto in dark mornings.

The Girls writers say that you were really the driving force behind creating Desi.
I mean, no. That’s not true. They wrote the guy. I knew Lena [Dunham] a little bit, and I’d spent some time with Jenni [Konner]. I think, perhaps, I’m in touch with a sort of questionable earthiness.

That’s a good phrase.
Like a suspect folksiness or something like that. Like a $500 RRL Native American belt or something. That kind of thing. Not that that’s me as a person, but I’m sensitive to it living at this time. And I think it’s sort of a funny thing. So I’d maybe been talking about that with them. I’d made some joke about starting a cocaine-delivery service with shade-grown cocaine, where you had a picture of the farmer who grew the cocaine on the little baggies or something.

Farm-to-nose.
Yeah, exactly. So then they made him kind of folksy. But then he kept coming back. I wrote some song lyrics and some song titles and things, but I’m not going to take credit and/or blame for Desi.

In the second episode this season, Marnie finds out that your character has an OxyContin addiction. Could you talk a little bit about shooting that scene? It’s both very serious and very funny.
It’s hard because I want to be respectful of people. This is like a scourge of the country, obviously. But at the same time, we’re not doing an after-school special. This is not on “a very special Girls.” This is a comedy. So I’m trying to reconcile those two things, and they’re not mutually exclusive. They can be reconciled. But it is challenging, coupled with the fact that I had no idea that I’d been on Oxy in the previous two seasons. That wasn’t a seed that was planted years ago.

So did you find out with the script?
Yeah, I found out with the script. And then did some research and did as much as I could. Adding into the mix what this particular drug is, it’s pretty dopey and a downer, and that’s much less funny in general than something speedy. You can get a lot more comedy out of that direction. I hope it’s funny.

I mean, a lot of acting is about need. What do you need in a moment, what do you need out of life, you know what I mean? Not to get too boring and masturbatory but being addicted to something, like, you really need it. So it gives you something to play.

So it’s getting you to a place of deep, visceral, physical …
Yeah, if the need’s really big enough, then it can hold all sorts of fairly dramatic or big behavior.

How did that inform your decisions as an actor?
Well, all that stuff was scripted. She throws it on the ground, she stamps on the pills, she cracks them up, he starts to snort what’s left, punching through the glass. I didn’t just improvise punching through that glass. That’s a whole big safety meeting. And that was inspired by some horror movies Lena had been watching. She wanted to make a genre episode that was scripted. In later episodes there’s more stuff that I created that’s coming out of similar places, probably in line with what they had written for episode two. It’s a nice present for an actor to have this whole huge range of wildness.

Is it challenging to play a character who is unlikable at his core? You know a lot of actors will say, “Well, I don’t think of the person as unlikable.”
Right, that’s sort of the standard. And that’s true. But also, at the same time, you’re not immune to being in line at the greengrocers and it’s like, “Oh, I recognize you. I fucking hate you.”

Has that happened?
Yeah, it happens all the time. [Laughs.]

So obviously I’m not in some kind of bubble of self-deception where Desi is some universally loved character. I get it. And I also understand the nature of the show. Like, people hate everybody on the show. I mean, everyone can relate to somebody that they hate more. It’s a brutal show that way. I mean, that’s your guy. You always want to fight for your guy. But part of your brain says, Okay, how can we push this, and how can we make this really nasty and fun?

Do you lean into the shittiness?
Yeah, you know, I once made a horror movie. And I don’t really like horror movies and gore, but I just remember being like, “Okay, well, I’ll just do this because I need some money” or something, but then I got really into it. And I started waking up every morning, showing up to set, and being like, “Okay, how can we make this really fucked-up? I see you wrote that the baby inside her kills her, but how really …” And sometimes it’ll be a similar thing with this. Like, “Okay, wow, that’s horrible. But what would be even more horrible?”

What do you think of how the show treats narcissism?
Listen, the show was originally about girls in their 20s in New York City. I don’t know how you make that show and not really have it be to a large extent about narcissism. This is a city of narcissists. But narcissists who are all stacked up and living all next to each other. So it’s like a community of narcissists, which is inherently a really fascinating tension. It seems like a smart thing to make a show about to me.

Desi and Marnie’s relationship is often this fight between two narcissists who both want the other to be more supportive than they’re willing to be.
Yeah, I mean that’s a very old relationship, going back to Cleopatra, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, or any of the couples that they ever played. It’s got staying power. It’s funny and interesting, and endless energy can be created. The amount of, like, little shocks that can come off of “I love you,” “I hate you,” “Fuck you,” “No, let’s fuck,” or, you know, “You don’t support me.” It’s virtually inexhaustible.

What draws him to Marnie? What is it about her that makes her the one that he actually gets married to?
I think he thinks she’s brilliant. And deeply sensitive. I mean, he loves her. So it’s hard to say what that is exactly, but I do feel like he understands her in a way nobody else does and really gets her music and her point of view artistically, and thinks that she’s a great artist and a great woman and strong. He loves her and loves making love with her. And she’s a muse to him. I think sometimes with relationships that have to do with art, you can project a lot of things onto people, and you can have can have a muse that you do genuinely love, but maybe in a limited way. Sometimes confronting the reality of who the woman was versus his idea of this muse was a frustrating difference between those two things. And vice versa, with her for him. A couple of people have asked me, “Does he genuinely love her?” And I think he definitely, genuinely does. I mean, he obviously doesn’t behave in a loving way most of the time.

Does the addiction story make you reinterpret his behavior and how you played him the past couple of seasons?
Yeah. I don’t go back and watch old episodes or anything, but when I think about it, it’s sort of an interesting new ingredient in the mix. It’s like, oh, wow.

Do you think it makes sense for his character?
Yeah, it makes total sense for his character. But, at the same time, I’m cautious about saying that. I think you could take anybody out there and fold in an addiction to OxyContin and be like, “Okay, that would make sense.” I don’t think there’s necessarily more susceptible personality types or not. But I can definitely see it with him. Desi’s a big baby. So that addict kind of selfishness that can come out is definitely right in the sweet spot.

He doesn’t like pain.
Yeah, he wants to be in the sunshine all the time.

To me, he’s the manic pixie dream boy gone toxic.
You know when you ask somebody, “Hey, man, how are you doing?” and they say, “You know, I’m really great. I’m really, really great.” I mean, like, wow. Okay, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way once. I mean, I’ve definitely hung out with people like that and was interested in wanting to sort of see what that feels like … Lonely. [Laughs.]

Girls’ Ebon Moss-Bachrach on Desi’s Drug Addiction