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High Maintenance’s Assholes Max and Heléne on Toxic Relationships, RuPaul, and the Syndrome of Gay Laughter

Spoilers ahead for the premiere episode of HBO’s High Maintenance.

Max Jenkins and Hélene Yorke first met on the High Maintenance episode “Olivia” as the cruel and catty friends saved as “Assholes” in The Guy’s phone. Three years later, the beloved web series has grown up into an HBO show, and so have their namesake characters. But not well. The premiere episode sees Max and Heléne spiral deeper into codependence and misanthropy, with Max trying — and ultimately, failing — to get out of the relationship. Vulture spoke with the two actors, who became friends IRL after meeting during the web series, about their friendship, working with gay porn star Colby Keller and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, and the syndrome of “gay laughter.”

What was it like to revisit these characters after so many years?
Hélene Yorke: We’re jumping into characters but it really does feel like jumping back into yourself because even though we aren’t these people, we had the massive fortune of being written for and collaborating with Katja and Ben on this. So it felt like slipping into the best-fitting pair of pants ever because they were perfectly tailored to you.

Max Jenkins: Could not have said it better, exactly.

What did the casting and collaboration look like?
MJ: Well I think why anyone has a positive response to the characters in High Maintenance is because Ben and Katja write for their friends. I saw Ben say in some interview recently: And then we ran out of friends! We were on the friends end so we were fortunate enough to benefit from that.

HY: It was interesting because Katja cast both Max and I in episodes of 30 Rock separate from one another, and we hadn’t met one another until we showed up to shoot “Olivia.” We showed up on set and Max was in an interview on an HBO teaser, and we embraced, we kissed, and that was the end of it. Then we spent the day together being these dickheads. So, you know, I think she had this instinct that we would work well together. They had an idea for what they wanted in this prototype of these two people you see on the L train all the time that are wearing very ironic clothing and talking about themselves and art. A big jumping-off point was people that say, Oh my god, yeah, literally! Or whatever.

How did you see your characters’ relationship evolve since the first iteration?
HY: It’s been almost four years since we did it the first time, and you get the sense that these characters have been through that amount of time together as well. You get the sense that that episode was [them] three years ago and this episode is them three years into that same toxic relationship, and where they are now, who they are, and who they are to one another. And their relationship has developed and become what it becomes.

MJ: Well, something brilliant about the structure of High Maintenance is it allows you to see the cycle of some New Yorkers’ lives, and zoom out and see the absurdity of the hamster wheel. I thought this episode was this moment where my character almost breaks out of the cycle of our friendship.

HY: But can’t quite escape the toxicity.

MJ: Some things about the way that a lot of the episodes are framed is you can see these montages of people in their hamster wheel.

HY: Yeah, and like, why’re these people friends, what is it that they give to one another, how do they survive in this New York ecosystem? And how do they need each other in a fucked-up dependent way?

MJ: Yeah, and as a gay man, I worship and want to be certain women in my life and see them as manifestations of my spirit or what I want to be. And so the danger of this is when the two egos involved are just eating each other and [there’s] this claustrophobic mindfuck.

Do you feel like the relationship was always toxic or do you think it became that way over these few years?
HY: Do you ever have those [relationships] where you meet in the beginning, you’re like, oh my god, this person gets me and we’re vibing so much and we totally get each other’s humor? And then it starts to disintegrate and you realize that this person is actually dragging you as you grow and change and as you learn, you’re like, hang on a second, this isn’t good for me anymore. So it’s probably been toxic, they’ve always liked each other for maybe the wrong reasons, they’ve always been attached to one another in their own selfish dah dah dah, but it’s sloped into darkness. Whereas before, they probably enjoyed being quippy, but then they started to depend on that quippy negativity and now they need it and it feeds them.

MJ: When Ben and Katja were writing this episode, we talked briefly about the phenomenon of gay nervous laughter. It’s part of my experience of being a gay man in the midst of searching for validation. And in terms of my character in the show, I think Heléne’s character feeds that gay laughter because he wants to be validated by her and then he meets someone who calms that gay laughter. I call it gay laughter just because it’s my experience in life. But he meets someone who calms the gay laughter and allows him to live without it momentarily. I call it gay but I think it’s really just the human experience of searching for validation in your career and in your personal relationships. And filling that lonely silence of wondering if anyone sees me or likes me.

It is a very human experience but it’s also, I think, specific to being a gay man and doing a certain performance that is validated by straight women.
HY: Yeah, like a “dance, monkey, dance” type of thing that you find yourself becoming victim to.

MJ: Yeah, Heléne, you might not remember this but one of the first times we hung out, I was just so excited to be with you and I was experiencing that gay nervous laughter which is, yes, coupled with that performance of being the fag to her hag. Heléne stopped me in my tracks and was like, “Hey, uh, you don’t have to be my fag, just so you know.” She kind of called me out on it. She allowed me to put my performance to rest, at least for the time being, because she saw that I was being a yes-man and she didn’t want me to do that with her. She wanted me to be honest.

What do you hope people get from the episode?
MJ: My understanding of people’s reaction to the original episode “Olivia” is that there’s intense loathing for characters, and my hope would be that this episode blows that open and shows that they’re just trying to get by in New York and they’re real people because, me and Heléne were, you know, just being ourselves pretty much. I mean, we don’t think of them as caricatures. Or at least I don’t.

HY: I’ll never break your leg, baby. Won’t scream at you, laugh at you for being on meth.

I think they’re written in our voice in the sense that, it’s like anything. If you hold a mirror up to any aspect of society and you can see what’s funny about it, you can see what’s ironic about it, and both Max and I have been victims of these kinds of people in the past. Of course there are aspects of characters that live inside of all of us. Just speaking for Max and not for myself, I’ve never met a more generous, kind, honest, open person in my life, I can’t speak to anybody with a greater character. But what’s fun is to take your own observations of the world and turn them into something fictionalized that also feels truthful.

MJ: We started with the characters as archetypes of the New York asshole, and I hope that we breathed more life into them. Certainly just the fact that we never ended up naming our characters anything other than our own names means a lot. It makes it harder for me to create a delineation. There were some costume things that were really different for me, but not really. I was really feeling it, and also I’ve never gotten a better role or better writing to play, so for that reason alone, it was essential that I bring all of myself to it.

What do you think happens to your characters next?
HY: You sort of imagine that it can’t be for forever, right, so maybe she’s the one that, in a true act of tragedy, is like, I don’t need you anymore and has an easy time leaving. Whereas his exit was harder. I just imagine she’s the one that ends up like, Fuck this. I’m going to go get my own apartment, and then that’s the end of it.

MJ: From what I understand about addicts and what I looked up about meth before we shot the episode, it seems like something that’s always with you. And so I would love a same time next year type of situation where we could check in with these characters and see the ways in which they try to pull each other below the surface and are like continually clawing for air.

Max, I wanted to ask you specifically what it was like working with Colby Keller, because, a lot of gay men know who he is. [Colby Keller is a porn star.]
MJ: We had a huddle and we were shooting another scene before Colby had come onboard, and they told me who he was, and I didn’t actually know who he was yet. But then I Googled him and immediately recognized his face.

HY: Such a dreamboat. I’ve got a crush on him

MJ: Recognized his face and other parts, um. Uh, he was amazing. He was so dead serious about being on set and it was really charming. I mean he’s a pro. He was kind of showing us all the ropes. He was telling me about how to have sex on camera. He was saying that I should envision a delicious dinner that I had had. He was saying, just pretend you’re eating something delicious. And that’s what you see on camera.

What were you thinking about eating?
MJ: I was thinking about just, like, a really satisfying Thai dish.

I also love that Bob the Drag Queen [the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season eight] was also in that episode. It all felt very New York.
HY: Isn’t he awesome in it too? I mean, he was incredible. He’s so good and heartbreaking, it’s beautiful.

MJ: He galvanized the whole set for the most liked person there.

HY: Didn’t he win, did he win RuPaul?

He did win.
HY: He won but when we were shooting it wasn’t clear whether or not he had won yet. Didn’t we not know yet? It was like he couldn’t reveal anything, they have to be so cagey and not tell you.

MJ: [Ben and Katja] were sure. They knew he was going to win. They had all put their bets on him.

HY:  Oh my god, I’m, like, obsessed with that. And they were like, no we need to get Bob the Drag Queen, he’s definitely winning. They love RuPaul’s Drag Race. Did you know that about Katja and Ben?

MJ: It’s a huge inspiration for them.

Oh, it is?
HY: Yes. They love, they like had lunch with RuPaul at the Ivy in Los Angeles. And RuPaul, I believe, is a fan of the show. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, I love her.

MJ: Oh my god. No you didn’t, she tweeted about it. RuPaul is one the most important figures of our generation.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

High Maintenance’s Max & Heléne on Toxic Friends