Despite the fact that character actors tend to be more interesting than the leads, you’re likelier to know their faces than their names. Jack Plotnick has 125 actor credits on IMDB, including TV roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Seinfeld. He played Edmund Kay in Gods and Monsters (1998). But his name is hardly a household word—which is a sad commentary on modern-day households.
Plotnick’s genius may be best appreciated in his starring role as Evie Harris, a drag character he created, in Girls Will Be Girls (2012), or in his short videos on YouTube, and, what concerns us here, the movie Space Station 76 which he directed and cowrote.
Space Station 76 (link to official trailer) is like a Star Trek episode where Mr. Chekov is played by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Or an Edward Albee play with sets designed by Roger Dean (who painted the covers of Yes albums). It’s a mordant comedy that takes place on a space station where the futuristic decor and gadgets are state of the art—for the 1970’s.
96 There are a number of levels and metaphors in Space Station 76. The meteors that hurtle past the station, in a group but never touching, are called out explicitly as emblems of alienation. In another interview you mentioned that the station itself was a symbol of growing up in the suburbs—which for you was Worthington, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. You mentioned “the isolation, the claustrophobia, the sense of missing out.” Could you tell me more about that and how it translated into the film?
JP I was doing light theater in Los Angeles, and I put together a comedy show set in the 80’s, which explored what my teenage years were like. We had such a good time doing that, that I thought of doing a show about being a pre-teen, in the seventies. [Plotnick was born in 1968, so in the 1970’s he was ages two to twelve.] I don’t know how the thought came to me, but it just hit me, what if it were set in the future as we imagined it in the seventies. As a kid I was obsessed with that concept of what the future would look like.
My parents were not happy, and I could see that. Their experience was emblematic for a lot of people of their generation who came of age in the fifties, who thought, this is how my life is supposed to go, I’m supposed to get married, move to the suburbs, and have kids. Then I’ll be happy. Often it doesn’t work out that way—it certainly didn’t for my parents. The movie deals a lot with the inability to connect. For me the space station idea felt like suburbia; this small community in the coldness of space, and these unhappy people pretending this is where they want to be. But nobody feeling fulfilled. There’s a K. D. Lang song, “Constant Craving,” and that sums it up for everyone on the ship.
The character that mirrored my experience would be Sunshine, Ted and Misty’s daughter, the latch-key kid who’s left to raise herself. The mom pops a video into the TV, and that’s her teacher and guardian for the day. The feeling that the children aren’t given any answers. There’s a moment when Sunshine finds a pornographic magazine in her dad’s dresser drawer, and no one’s there to give it context, she’s there to deal with it all on her own.
96 That’s a very poignant moment in the film. I wonder whether part of what’s in play here was the sense of being excluded. I was twelve in 1970, and I remember feeling that the Age of Aquarius was playing out on TV and in the pages of Life magazine, and I was missing out on it because I was, after all, only twelve. Did that outsider feeling figure in your experience?
JP No, but I think it did in my parents’. In the seventies the discotheques were filled with people having fun, but in the suburbs that all seemed so distant. You were supposed to be experiencing great sexual liberation, but it wasn’t happening.
For me, I wasn’t aware of myself as missing out. Mainly, as a kid, I was thrilled with the concept of the great future we would have. I used to draw pictures of a space motor-home. I was really buying into this idea of Tomorrowland, and I wanted to live on a moon colony. And when my parents took me to the Contemporary Hotel, it affected me very powerfully; this seventies look of what the future would be, really excited me. And then, of course, that future didn’t happen. I was really into disco rollerskating, anything that had that futuristic feel—meanwhile my parents were very unhappy, I couldn’t miss noticing that as a kid. I think I was empathically picking up these very adult feelings of sadness at that same time, that I didn’t know what to do with.
96 This is fascinating. I completely failed to grasp the essence of the film. I was identifying with the adult characters, but the narration is really Misty’s child’s eye point of view. The seventies futurism in the movie expresses the enchantment of childhood, and it’s tinged with the sadness of your parents’ disappointments. That’s why the film, which I expected to be cooly ironic, is really so touching. Space Station 76 isn’t just a parody of the genre, like Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs.
JP It’s no Spaceballs, and it was never trying to be a send-up of 70’s SciFi, even if there were a few winks. And I was inspired as much by Ordinary People and The Shining and Let the Right One In as by Logan’s Run. The Shining and Let the Right One In for the look of the movie, and people’s inability to connect, but Ordinary People for a way of narrating my parent’s sadness.
96 The SF elements are meaningfully integrated with the plot; the alienation of virtual communication, the problems of cryogenic suspension for people and pets, the responses of a digital therapist. SF clearly meant a lot to you growing up, you play with the tropes as only an insider could. Were Star Trek and Star Wars important points of reference?
JP Star Trek was the beginning, but The Empire Strikes Back I saw in the theaters fourteen of fifteen times. I memorized the script. It was a really big deal in my life. There’s a look to the seventies futurism of that period that just thrills me. Leading up to the making of the movie 76, I was almost like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, you know how he just keeps building that mountain out of mashed potatoes? There was something inside me, I had to re-create. If I saw a building that had that futuristic spaceship look, I would have to take photos of it. I was collecting images, I was subconsciously trying to bring that world I was so in love with as a kid to life and actually experience it. Certainly being on the sets of 76 was a thrill. I was heartbroken when they had to come down.
96 I suppose it’s worth noting the vast science fiction potential of the flyover states. In movies, whenever the aliens land, it’s always in some desolate place. Not just in films, but in popular belief; Roswell, Area 51. It might seem unfriendly to call Ohio desolate, but all the same I have to ask, was there any extraterrestrial activity there?
JP Not at all.
96 That must have been disappointing.
JP I didn’t see a UFO until I moved to Los Angeles—an object which was remarkable and which I couldn’t identity. I’m not sure I could call it alien.
96 There’s an interesting continuity between 76 and Girls Will Be Girls. In the former, you provide the feminine voice of the ship’s computer, and of course in the latter you play the female character Evie Harris. In 76 the space station is steadily menaced by passing meteors, in Girls an asteroid aimed at earth is a symbol of Evie’s out of control life. Is this continuity accidental?
JP It’s possible subconsciously. My friend Richard Day wrote and directed Girls Will Be Girls which came out in 2003. Space Station 76 was released in 2014. Space Station came about through improv games we did at my house. I recorded these improvs, typed them out, and created a play that we did live on stage. When I adapted it as a film, I was thinking about the themes I wanted to explore and make richer, to give the movie purpose, which was different from what it was in the play. The asteroid that almost hit the space station was something I added, and it may have something to do with the one in Girls Will Be Girls, but I was never aware of it until literally this moment.
96 Symbols recur in our art as in our dreams. But let’s talk about Evie, who I understand is going to recur in a sequel to Girls Will Be Girls. I really do admire her. Are you familiar with the puppet character , Punch?
JP (laughing) Yes!
96 Evie’s a bit like him, she’s a monster of Id impulses. What makes such characters so endearing, despite their awfulness, is their optimism. They always believe their schemes are going to work, and they never accept, or even admit, defeat. Nothing dents their confidence. I was a little disappointed to see that Evie actually felt sorry at the end. One never wants to see Punch elude the devil by experiencing wholesome repentance, Punch has to beat Satan by being even worse than Satan is!
JP I think that Richard wanted to find a balance in that final scene, to give the audience the feeling that she’d experienced some kind of growth, but you can sense she hasn’t really learned anything. The way she finally shows Varla some respect, it’s so false. She really doesn’t understand what empathy is, she’s just trying to mirror it. And then she goes and screws the guy who’s moving the couch.
Are you thinking of the scene on the asteroid that’s headed of earth, and she learns to say “I’m sorry?” If she does have a moment of growth, it’s gone immediately.
96 I’m reassured to hear that. [This video will give an introduction to the character of Evie.]
JP The sequel is finally very close to being finished, I’ve seen a lot of it and it’s marvelous.
96 What are you working on now?
JP I’m having a great time making my comedy videos. It’s great to be able to express exactly what I want, my sense of humor, all on my own, relatively easily. That’s on my YouTube channel. [Link to Jack’s Youtube Channel.]I was very happily surprised at the positive reactions to a series I did where I put myself into episodes from Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. [Link to “Disney Made a Plaza Restaurant.”] That got a lot of response. That was one happy surprise that came during the pandemic.
We did my musical Disaster! on Broadway in New York City; we’re trying to get up another, Off-Broadway production of it. We feel it’s the perfect show for this moment in time.
96 I’ll be lining up for tickets to see it. And when is the sequel to Girls Will Be Girls coming out?
JP The summer of 2022, maybe?
96 I loved the hijacked Walt Disney sequences. But my favorite among your appropriations was the Mary Poppins scene in “Remember Movies.” [Link to this video.] She’s singing A Spoonful of Sugar and you morph-merge with her in what seems like a demonic possession.
JP I made that when the pandemic had just hit, and we all felt like we were going insane, and I just wanted to escape into films, so I stuck myself into a number of films. I liked the Mary Poppins one, but I’m surprised you mention it. It didn’t get a lot of interest, but I loved it, so I’m glad that it tickled you.
96 It wasn’t just hilarious, it was as unforgettable as a bad hallucination.
JP (laughing) I love it that my video’s rank with bad hallucinations. That’s about right.
96 Some of the most wonderful effects in your videos are the simplest. As when you wrap a white terrycloth robe around yourself to make a wimple in Ladywell Convents at Coddling, a chrysalis for the Monarch Butterfly, and both a dress and a hunchback in The Steak. When did you discover the dramatic and origami potential of white terrycloth?
JP I was on location for a TV show where I had a recurring role, I didn’t want to stop making my videos, but all I had was this white terrycloth robe. There’s something so joyful about deciding you’re going to make something and then just making it out of whatever’s around. I think that’s an important energy to put out into the universe. Maybe it inspires people to not wait until conditions are perfect before making their dreams come true—but just play.
96 Let’s talk about improvisation. I think one of the reasons improv is so effective is that it comes as a surprise to the actor as well as the audience. You can’t beat that for freshness. One of the most interesting things I learned about the making of 76 was that it evolved out of directed improvs with a small group of co-creators. I think that’s what made the film so compelling. The film had a clear and effective narrative structure, but the payoff came again and again as the characters unfolded themselves. It was like Chekhov in his short stories, or a Christopher Guest film. Is it a method you would like to use again?
JP Oh, absolutely. All my homemade videos are improvs which I edit down. And I couldn’t agree with you more, you can’t fake spontaneity. There’s something magical about getting out of the way of a scene, and receiving it in the moment, from something that’s bigger than you. Maybe it’s the magic of the scene itself. I like to think that maybe we’re just vessels for a scene that already exists, which we discover in performance. You work to get your ego or your anxieties out of the way, and just let things come out of you. If they’re not as brilliant as what you could come up with by a lot of hard thinking, they have the delight of the spontaneous.
96 What the military men call “the element of surprise.” I agree with you entirely. The Marx Brothers were always at their best when they went off script, which apparently they did most of the time.
I was delighted to learn you are a Carol Burnett fan. She’s a real comic genius and a great actress. Did you find any inspiration in Saturday Night Live, which had its golden age in the late seventies?
JP No. Perhaps as a young gay boy, none of the Saturday Night Live cast really resonated with me. Carol Burnett and Bugs Bunny taught me a lot about comedy as a kid, and Laverne and Shirley. What I most recall about Saturday Night Live was how difficult the time slot was, because I was really very young, and it was on at 11:00, and the news before it was so boring I would usually just fall asleep. But I remember being excited about Weekend Update. I re-created Weekend Update in sketches in fifth grade. I somehow convinced my teachers to stop class so I could do a Worthington, Ohio, version of Weekend Update. I loved the SNL performers, but they weren’t close to my heart the way Carol Burnett was.
96 I’m very glad you mention Bugs Bunny. For my generation, Warner Brothers cartoons provided our earliest exposure to comedy, to classical music, and through Bugs, to gender dysphoria. I still quote lines from Hair Raising Hair, where a very fey Bugs gives the orange monster Gossamer a manicure.
My final question relates to your online book of advice for actors, and your self-help videos. Their radical optimism and the determination to be happy seems to me very like the philosophy of Hasidism, a Jewish religious movement from the 18th century, which is still influential today.
JP I was raised by a woman who was addicted to negative thinking, and I was too, when I was young, and I did a deep dive to learn how to get control of my thoughts. I studied a lot of different authors, in particular I loved Mary Williamson. I got together a hodgepodge of New Age and self-help to get over my own negativity. Some people who read my book ask if I’m an addict, because they find ideas there shared by AA. I think there’s only one truth, and that is love. A lot of different religions try to verbalize it. I’m not surprised the book ended up sounding familiar to people whose traditions deal with basing life on love instead of fear.
I like your phrase “radical optimism.” That brings me back to Space Station. I think that’s the comic element in what you described as a “mordant comedy.” The ability to find what’s joyful, or at least funny, in all that Tsuris.