Vulnerability and Plant-Delivery
An Interview with High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair
NELL BECK // APRIL 12, 2019
The third season of HBO’s High Maintenance, an anthology show centered around a Brooklyn weed dealer and his assorted clients, premiered on January 17, offering viewers a few more snapshots of The Guy’s antics, and getting a little more personal with it’s protagonist than in seasons past. Co-creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld first started filming the show as a Vimeo web series in 2012 (at the time, the two were married, but have since divorced.) Over the years, the show has gained impressive notoriety for exploring, through the lives of all sorts of Brooklynites, the everyday things that are central to being human.
Sinclair grew up in New York and graduated from Oberlin in 2006 after studying dance and theater. He recently took time out of a presumably busy schedule to participate in an interview with The Grape through a voice memo.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did your time at Oberlin direct you towards what you do now?
My time at Oberlin taught me how to just roll up my sleeves and make something. There was never really a question of whether you were allowed to be creative at Oberlin; they really wanted you to do it. That’s a pretty stock answer, don’t you think?
What was Oberlin like for you?
Oberlin was a safe place where I could experiment with interacting with people who weren’t from the same town as I was, and that was really the first time I ever lived amongst people for, like, many years that grew up in completely different environments than I did. So, I really learned how to be with a bunch of different people. I learned information, too, but mostly it was a social education.
How do you come up with such a variety of characters for “High Maintenance”? How do you, as a writer and director, get an audience to empathize with and relate to so many different types of people?
I’ve said this in a couple of interviews, but emotionally I kind of collaborate with Katja and the writers, and we start with emotions that feel real to us, and then we build a character around those emotions, or those vibes. Vibes are another source of inspiration. Not necessarily the person, but this thing that everybody knows about subconsciously that puts out this vibe [...] Then we make a moodboard of that vibe, and make a collage of costumes and production design and everyone comes together and tries to make real life happen by concentrating on the details that we have collaged together. I don’t think I really answered your question, but to be fair it was a broad question. Make sure to write that in your article. Period.
Do you draw from your personal life a lot when writing these stories?
Yes, I do draw from my personal life. That’s just very exciting to me because I’m exploring vulnerability. Men have a real hard time being vulnerable, and I’m so very lucky that I have a project that is a safe space to be vulnerable in, even though it goes out to the masses. Because, while I do put other people’s skin over my emotions, it does feel like, for the most part, I’m not causing more suffering for people. And that’s what the purpose of everything is, right? To do life with creating as little suffering as possible.
How do you balance being open about some things in your work, while keeping other things to yourself?
I just figure there’s nothing to be ashamed about. I guess that’s what I’m really working on most, is how to be vulnerable and not feel shame, because, yes, I can keep stuff to myself, intimate things that I share with other people, and sometimes I take a little too much. So, I can’t really answer the question of how I balance it because I’m still working on it. But when I find out, I’ll let you know.
How did you prepare to play the role of a weed dealer?
I worked at a plant shop where I sold, you know, non-narcotic plants. I didn’t sell them, they sold them; I was the delivery guy. This other guy broke his- he actually hurt himself with a vase that broke in his hand, and he couldn’t drive anymore, so I drove the truck, and I was doing all the deliveries. Little did I know that would set me up for the rest of my life. And, while I was working at that plant shop I also happened be the most satisfied I have ever been at a job- I mean, besides High Maintenance, of course. But, yeah, I was just very genial and gregarious, and loved to talk to everybody I delivered plants to. So I guess that’s how it all started.”
What is it like playing The Guy, who is so central to the plot but so elusive as a character (in that the audience still knows very little about him)?
“It’s like being myself, but I get to show the best sides of myself. What I want people to understand is that between episodes he has all sorts of shit going on, contours, shadow sides, darkness. I want The Guy to be Buddha as much as everybody, but the truth is, he’s just a guy. You know, it’s nice to just show your best side, but in order to accept someone wholly, you have to reveal all of what is vulnerable-making for you. So it’s bit-by-bit that we get to know him, and I think that’s a way to get you to watch longer, hopefully.”
What changes are you making with the new season? Do you feel like you took more risks with this season than you might have taken previously?
“I think that the risks that I’m taking this season [are] letting more people have creative ownership over the show, and spreading the wealth. We made a great effort in the writing room to not just stay in a room and talk about things that just happened to us, but to go out into the world and be very observant and kind of take little bits and pieces from the real world, and not just what we saw on social media and other ways people experience the world now. For me, directorially, I took risks because I, you know, felt like because Katja and I were no longer a directing duo, that this might be my chance to show what kind of ingredients I bring to High Maintenance as an individual. But ultimately, like 25% into the season what I realized is that we should continue to make this show as we always have been, which is together. So, while it does say, ‘Directed by Ben,’ ‘Directed by Katja,’ ‘Directed by’ our guest directors, it’s a team effort, and the community really rallies around the show. It’s been going on a long time, and we’re all very lucky to make it. Thanks for doing what you do at The Grape. Lata’.