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Patrick Wilson on Girls, Awkward Breakups, and Naked Ping-Pong

Patrick Wilson. Photo: Getty Images

When we heard that Patrick Wilson was going to guest-star on Girls, we figured he’d play Hannah’s handsome, wealthy lover — because look at him. What we couldn’t have predicted was basically anything else about his episode — because it turned out to be totally nuts. Wilson is the only actor to share the screen with Lena Dunham, save for the brief opening scene with Alex Karpovsky’s Ray. And his character, whose only knowledge of Hannah is that she gets a thrill out of garbage, goes on to have sex with her on a countertop, on a Ping-Pong table, and on a regular old bed. (All of this happens in an awesome brownstone that belongs to Billy Morrissette, the actor who played Elijah’s boyfriend George.) Add to the story some groveling as foreplay and a needy Hannah meltdown that’s unbearable to watch, and it’s officially the weirdest, most intriguing Girls episode ever. Wilson — who’s married with two kids, sorry — called Vulture after a jog through L.A. to talk about awkward breakups, awkward nudity, and awkward begging.

How did the part come about?
I knew the casting director, and we were talking about something else and she was just like, “Oooh, would you ever want to do an episode of Girls?” And I was like, “Yeah, my wife loves that show, sure.” And then maybe about a month later, they called.

Had you never seen the show yourself?           
Honestly, I’d seen Tiny Furniture, Lena’s film, and I really dug that. And I guess I watched the first couple episodes of Girls. But me not watching the rest of it is not a comment on the show. I just don’t watch a lot of TV.

What was your reaction when you first read the script?
I was a little trepidatious about some of the stuff. But you gotta dive in. Lena certainly does every week, so I figured it would just be, if nothing else, a fun experience. And it was an opportunity to do basically a short film in five days. It’s a stand-alone episode, which is a testament to HBO’s belief in Lena that she can say, “You know what? I’m going to do an episode where it’s basically me and one other dude.”

What was your first meeting with Lena like? I imagine people were watching for your chemistry.
It was at a read-through. And she’s just like you would think: charming and funny. She just kept saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re here, this is crazy; I’m so thankful that you’re doing this show.” She kept thanking me.

Did she have a crush on you or something?
I don’t think so. You know what’s funny? I think the perception of me, if people have only seen either Little Children or Angels in America or something, I think they just think I’m going to be this brooding Method actor when I walk in the room. They’re not really used to a lighter side. So she was very respectful and very sweet, but soon we were making stupid jokes.

You mentioned you were nervous when you read the script. Was there a scene in particular that worried you?
You know, you don’t do this show and say, Wow, I’m real scared about that scene. No, if you’re gonna do this show, you just gotta do it. You gotta go full throttle. And I really like anything that makes me look kind of stupid.

In which case, let’s talk about when Hannah made Joshua beg her to stay. What was that like to shoot? I’m imagining this blooper reel of you begging in a million different ways.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. It felt as awkward as it looks. I think we’ve all had those moments, with the awkwardness of someone wanting to leave or actually leaving, or where it’s like, Who wants to stay? It reminded me of my twenties. It’s just awkward and weird.

That comes up again at the end of the episode, when Hannah is crying in the robe: What’s going through Joshua’s head? Does he feel bad for her? Does he actually want her to stay?
At times you feel like, Wow, Josh really cares about her and wants to figure this out. And other times it’s like he’s just trying to get out. He’s like, What did I get myself into? It’s the awkwardness of a real human emotion in real relationships. If you look back on the breakups that you’ve had, whether it’s a long relationship or a one-night stand, it’s always awkward. It’s never poetic and beautiful at the end. Something always happens or you say one stupid thing or you can’t help but staring at their hair out of place. Just something ridiculous. It’s always ugly and awkward, and that’s what I loved about that scene.

Do you think it was realistic that he’d let her stay? I was expecting him to be like, “You should probably go.”
Yeah, but you know what? That’s not how it usually happens. I remember me, as a guy that’s generally known as “You’re a nice guy,” there were tons of relationships that I should have ended where instead I said, “Do you want to stay? You can stay if you want.” Nobody ever goes, “You need to go.” That rarely happens. It’s always ugly, and somebody stays a little too long.

Shouldn’t people just say what they mean?
Should they? I’m sure a psychiatrist would say that. But I think that’s also part of growing up. I say “growing up,” and here he was a grown man doing the same thing. It’s just an insecurity, you know? Nobody ever wants to really make someone feel bad.

I appreciated your commitment to naked Ping-Pong, you bouncing around in your boxers. Were you guys really playing? Like, keeping score?
I’m not going to lie: Lena’s not good at Ping-Pong. She’s good at a lot of things, but not Ping-Pong. It’s part of the charm, as we say. But, no, I don’t think there was a lot of score-keeping. There could have been. She may think she won.

Lena is naked a lot on the show, and she seems pretty comfortable with it. But when she brings another actor into the fold, does she do anything to warm them up?
She and I talked about that a little, and just because she does it a lot in the show — look, it’s not up to me how she feels about it, but as a fellow actor and as a person in the room with her, it’s always uncomfortable, whether you do it once, twice, or every episode. She’s not just like, Here we go, everybody just drop your clothes! I think she sort of likes to challenge herself, obviously. But I don’t know if it gets any easier for her, to be honest with you. I’ve done a lot of those scenes, and they’re always awkward, and it’s not real comfortable.

Does the show make you glad you have sons?
[Laughs.] I’m sure they’ll present their own problems. But my wife is one of three girls, so I feel like I’ve gotten stories of what it was like growing up with women.

What is your takeaway about twentysomething women from the show?
[Laughs more.] I laugh because I still have a place in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], where we always know we could get breakfast at ten o’clock because the hipsters won’t be up until twelve. It’s like, God, these people are so lazy. And then I think, I’m that guy. The old man. But, yeah, my sister-in-law is almost 27 and lives in Greenpoint and is living that life, so I’m careful not to speak too much on the twenties generation.

They have it tough.
They have it tough. Come on. What do they have tough?

A lot! Like men who won’t just tell them to leave when they’re ready for them to go.
Well, that was the same for me, too. But maybe if you’re looking at it from an economic point of view, okay, maybe then it’s tough.

Patrick Wilson on Last Night’s Girls