He hides his despair behind a slew of well-phrased heckles, but this season of You’re the Worst has been hard on Jimmy Shive-Overly, the British novelist who forms one half of the show’s central couple. Early in the season, Jimmy lost his father, a distant, antagonistic figure against whom he had rebelled his whole life, and in the wake of that loss he’s fumbling to make sense of who he really is as a person. (You know, the standard stuff of half-hour comedy.) As the season heads to a close, Vulture caught up with Chris Geere to talk about Jimmy’s narcissism, his writing, and what it was like to shoot an episode in a series of long takes, in the style of Birdman.
When did you learn Jimmy’s father’s death would be so central to the plot this year?
We always have a get-together meal in our first week where it’s basically an excuse to catch up and get drunk. Usually, Stephen is either halfway through or has just finished the writing process, so he’s all clued up and he knows exactly what’s going to happen and we have no idea. A couple of wines in, we’re like, “Tell us what happens.” I don’t usually want to know what happens, but every year I ask him to give me a word that sums up the whole season. I can’t remember the first season actually, I was too nervous. Second season he said “sacrifice.” The third season he said “family.” Well, obviously, this might upset Jimmy because we haven’t really focused on anyone else’s family enough yet. I said, “Okay. Who dies?” And he said, “You have a death in the family.” And I was like, well, we focused on the father from the year before, so it’s him, because of the impact that his father had on him so strongly and yet so negatively. There was room for an exploration of that.
The episode where everyone goes to a wedding is nearly a single take. Was it a challenge to shoot that way?
Challenge? Building a bench is a challenge. Doing a one shot of an entire episode of TV is a fucking miracle. I could not believe we actually did it. One camera, and one take, and that was it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I remember the majority of my scenes, of which I had about three or four in the whole thing, were halfway through the end of each massive take. It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had as an actor. You’ve got the things like, I need make sure I’m true to the story and that kind of thing, but everyone else who was in the scene before did such a good job, you don’t want to be the one who screws up their line. We were just hoping that we got it right. And you know what? We got through the entire thing for the first five takes, which was amazing.
It’s like doing a stage play, but with the camera moving around.
When you do a stage play, you have four weeks of rehearsal. We had four hours. We went into the director’s meeting the day before and we all sat around the table and we read it to each other and then they said, “You’re always bang on your lines, but you’ve really gotta be on it this time, because we have to get it in one take. If anyone screws up for whatever reason, we have to start again.”
In that episode, Jimmy and Gretchen are figuring out whether they really love each other. How does that relate to his struggles with his father’s death?
I think he’s focusing an awful lot on the negatives and blaming his father rather than blaming himself, which is frustrating. Because when I read it, I’m like, “No, c’mon, you need to question yourself a little more!’ He will get there. I won’t spoil it for you. It just takes him an awful long time. As with all narcissists in the world, of which Jimmy is one, he will point blame in any direction but his own before he starts to question himself. That’s what this season has been about.
And so he projects onto Gretchen?
For him to think that she is the reason that he’s messed up is highly frustrating, because she’s actually the reason why he’s becoming great. He’s becoming a much greater human being because of her, yet she’s the one that he pushes away.
Do you think Jimmy is a good writer?
I think he could probably be intelligent. He’s incredibly articulate and he has a bombastic approach towards subject matter. But I don’t think he could hold his own out of his comfort zone. I think he has a specific writing tone that is a reflection of his personality, i.e., it’s narcissistic. He won’t take onboard anyone else’s emotion. My personal opinion of the quality of a good writer is to be knowledgeable on specific subjects, but also open to suggestions and influences from anywhere else. And he’s just not. So, I think he’s a master of his own devices and pathetic at others. But if erotic novels don’t work out for him, then what’s he going to do? You know? I’m interested to see what happens next year. Will he still be a writer? It’d be quite a comedy twist if he takes on a different profession altogether.
The show moves between comedy and drama so often. How do you manage the tone as you’re shooting each scene?
I think by trying both and trusting that between Steven and the editors, they’ll get it. We never go into a scene making a solid decision that it will be one tone because once the story is put together, the jigsaw puzzle that it is, you want to have the option of a lighter or darker take. So we explore playing the comedy or the drama for different situations and I think it’s good to do that. None of us go in going, “I’m going to be hilarious,” or “I’m going to cry in this scene.” We just say, “Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if …” When we watch it for the first time, it’s exciting for us as well because we don’t really know what take they’ve chosen.
Have there been any scenes that you tried out as comedy that ended up landing darker, or the other way around?
More often than not, there’s a whole bunch of comedy gold that I’ve whacked out in a scene that hasn’t been used. [Laughs.] It makes me go, “Oh, Steven. You’re so clever,” because he would sacrifice dramatic beats and comedy beats for the sake of the story. A lot of people wouldn’t do that.
You guys also get to do a lot of physical comedy, especially with Jimmy. Even the sex scenes have elements of slapstick in them.
Are you calling my sex scenes physical comedy? You should tell my wife that. She thinks the same thing. But it’s brilliant. I get to use physical comedy. I get to do broad comedy. I get to do fearless drama and poignant. The tones are all over the place. That’s what I think makes the show as endearing as it is because we have the opportunity to go there.
Jimmy also gets to tell jokes and know that he’s funny within the realm of the show, which is rare for characters on TV.
That’s part of being of being a narcissist, really, as well. That you can enjoy your own conversation. Enjoy your own witty repartee. I think it’s quite annoying.
By now you guys have a pretty devoted fan base.
It’s brilliant. The Worsties, as we call them.
Do the Worsties ever approach you on the street? Have you had run-ins with people who expect you to be like Jimmy?
Yes, I think that they hope that I was a little bit more like Jimmy. Sadly, a disappointment. But most people want to stop and have a conversation with you about where [the show’s] going rather than fan-girling or anything like that, which is … I’m just really proud. I love being able to talk about the show. Believe me, I’ve worked on jobs where I haven’t wanted to talk about it because I haven’t been necessarily proud or have enjoyed that experience, but when it comes to You’re the Worst, it’s like talking about your kid.
This interview has been edited and condensed.