Katja Blichfeld On Realizing Potential, Vulnerability, And Houseplants

‘High Maintenance’ is airing now on HBO

I arrived at Katja Blichfeld's apartment building (it takes up an entire Brooklyn block, and used to be a candy factory) a little bit flustered. I wasn't late, but I'd been having an intense back-and-forth text conversation with someone and was just feeling a little bit... off. It was nothing too dramatic, just the kind of slightly heightened version of a mundane occurrence that can define a person's, if not day, then at least hour, or moment. It was the kind of thing that I could easily imagine being dramatized in an episode of High Maintenance, the HBO show that started as a web series and was co-created by Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair.

Since it first started to amass a devoted following, long before making the leap to HBO, High Maintenance, which follows around the Guy (played by Sinclair), a weed delivery... guy, as he makes his rounds, has been known for being a definitively New York show. This is not merely because it takes place on both the streets of New York City and also inside those streets, in the apartments and in the lives of the people who dwell within them. Rather, High Maintenance perfectly captures the disorganized energy of this city better than any other show on air now. And what is that energy? It's frenetic at times, it can feel like too much; but it's, also, imbued with a loneliness, a pathos. We are all of us in this together, and we are all of us all alone. Watching the show can feel like one of my favorite New York activities: looking in people's windows. There's an obvious distance, but sometimes, you'll see something familiar, and you'll feel attached, you'll feel connected. High Maintenance captures those connections, that energy, but it also does one other important thing: It shows the way in which this energy is transferable. It shows the ways in which we're all part of this big organism—and not just New Yorkers but all Americans, all people.

This energy transfer was present when I was buzzed into Blichfeld's building. A man was leaving as I was entering, and he was juggling a huge stack of books in his arms, and looking as harried as I felt. I couldn't help but think of it as a scene from a High Maintenance episode; the camera which had been following me would leave to track him instead. I told Blichfeld about this when I entered her beautiful light-filled loft apartment: "You've affected my brain!"

She laughed and said, "Sorry!" But I told her, "It's a beautiful virus." Because, of course, it is. It is a beautiful thing in a time of fragmentation and division to feel these connections. And this new season of High Maintenance does a particularly beautiful job at showcasing those connections, even after a sharp divide has occurred. This is particularly notable in the episode airing tonight, "Scromple," in which the Guy spends an extended period of time with his ex, who is now in a relationship with a woman. 

Blichfeld and Sinclair went through their own division between Season 1 and 2. They had been married, and now they're apart. Blichfeld is in a relationship with a woman, and spoke about it in a beautiful piece in Vogue, "How Coming Out Made Me Whole." This doesn't mean that their relationship is in any way playing out on screen (in fact, the groundwork for Guy's story line this season was laid out at the end of last season, prior to Blichfeld and Sinclair's separation), however, it does mean that it's a perfect time to talk with Blichfeld about her thoughts on living truthfully and being deliberate in how we live our lives.

In both the interview, below, and video, below, I talk with Blichfeld about her new reality, what it means to find potential in other people, and about the glorious houseplants that populate her gorgeous loft space.

You had a really successful career as a casting director working on 30 Rock. Was writing always something that was in the back of your mind?

It's funny because I have always wanted to write, but it's something I sort of forgot along the way, I think, between being a teenager and going into the workforce. I don't know if it was just because I didn't believe in myself as a writer or what it was, but I recently found all these papers and drawings and assorted things from my childhood, among them many writings, like attempts at stories that I didn't finish, and some that I did when I was really small. I also found all these career worksheets from when I was a kid where I'm literally filling in a blank: "I wanna be a writer" or "I wanna be a journalist or "I wanna be a writer." 

I don't know where along the way I forgot it, but I did, and then, something happened in my late 20s, I started thinking—this was after I had been doing casting for a while—it would be cool to be a documentary maker. I think that sort of led me to realize, I'm just sort of interested in people, and you can't always get a real-life subject to say and do the perfect thing to further a narrative, so maybe I should just write the narrative. I think, when I had been in casting for a while, I realized that I had access to so many amazing actors and performers and assorted weirdos and I thought, Why not? Let me give it a try. Web series were sort of a new thing at the time. It felt like a low stakes way to try it out, and so I did, and here I am.

I read something that was described really wonderfully in Emily Gould's profile of you—about how casting people is about realizing potential, which I thought was such a fascinating way to look at it. But I wonder if, by seeing the potential in other people, it was something that you were maybe denying doing for yourself for a while.

Definitely, I have always been better in seeing potential in other people than myself. I think it's only really more recently, after a lot of therapy and self-help books and introspection, that I've started to be able to pull up that potential in myself. I do still think though that I've been able to test my limits and pursue things that I had no prior knowledge of or training for and sort of jump in. Because I had a hunch that I might be good at it. So I guess, I've done it for myself, but have focused more of my efforts on pulling out the potential in other people. 

I was always the kid who was pulling together a talent show, for example. I have so many memories of going around the classroom and being like, "You'll do this song, you and you should do this little scene together, and you'll be my co-host." Even making little movies with my friends on their camcorders in the '80s, I was assigning people roles then, too. It's sort of my go-to, thinking—about what people would be good at doing and then trying to get them into position to do that thing.

There’s this kind of controlling aspect of it where you both get to help others but, also, be in charge. I was wondering how that works when, as a writer, you’ve always at least been working with one other partner. And then more recently, for Season 2, you have a writer’s room. How has it been working collaboratively?

I love collaborating. I love it more and more as time goes on. I just, you know, after doing this last season, having a writer's room and seeing just how much richer the stories can be when they are more voices contributing their life experience or their flights of fancy, it really makes everything much more richer and more interesting and funnier and all the things. Collaboration has been great, and I definitely want to have other permutations. I was collaborating with Ben for so many years, and he and I are so different in what we bring to the table, and that was one dynamic, and it worked great. And then we added more people to the equation, I saw what that looked like, and it just gives me that much more excitement to sort of seek out other collaborators.

Something that I think is a really common feeling for a lot of people, especially in creative industries but I think in any professional industries, is they feel like they need to be really young when they start off. If they're not in a certain place in their career trajectory by the time they're 25, then it's just a lost cause. But, I think, that you have a really different path. I wanted to know if you have anything to say to that?I have a lot to say about that. I definitely didn't take the tried-and-true path that I've seen some of my peers take. And I definitely came to showbiz kind of late, I guess, compared to some other people that have done what I do. I had already had a whole host of strange, odd jobs and enrolled and dropped out of many community colleges and had all kinds of weird living arrangements. I think that was all super-beneficial to me going into casting, where I started. I think because I had had the work experience, I just had a maturity that I probably wouldn't have had if I had done like a casting internship while I was in school, or right out of school. When I did a casting internship, I had already worked real jobs, I had been in the workforce. And I knew what that looked like.

So I had developed a work ethic, and I guess I had a little bit of maturity, so that the natural skill set that I had, I was able to fully use that, and the casting director that hired me to be their intern saw that. That I was ready. She just sort of let me go and have a lot of opportunities that I don't know that other people at that level would have had. She sort of immediately saw, Oh, this woman, she knows talent, she knows actor names, she has a good sense of where to put people, where people belong. And I think the combination of that, plus the fact that I had the maturity, allowed me to step into this world really quickly and ascend, I think, with pretty rapid speed. And I do think that was a direct result of me having real-world experience and some perspective that I don't know if I would have had if I had come to it straight out of school without that workplace experience. 

I hadn't been to a film school or a performing arts school or even art school. I wasn't spending all this time with people who also had those ambitions or goals. It was just a very motley crew of people I was spending time with between those years of high school and being 25 and coming into casting. I can't believe that that didn't affect my perspective or the way that I just view people. It certainly informed the curiosity I have about people, too. Having that exposure to a varied group of people and not just that homogeneous group of wannabe actors or wannabe filmmakers.

I think it's so good not to be in just one, insular world, even if that world is amazing.It is, and I think it's easy to get stuck on, Well, this is the way things are done. Or thinking maybe you're not doing it right, or that there's a certain timeline that one maybe feels that they have to adhere to. Because I was ignorant of some of that, some of that pressure was removed, and it allowed me to just follow my heart and do what felt interesting to me and what felt true to me instead of, like, looking to my friends or peers to see how they were doing it and feeling like I had to catch up somehow.

You've been doing some press for the last few years pertaining to High Maintenance, but a lot of your career has been behind the camera. And that's taken a dramatic change in the last couple of months with the launch of this new season, as well as your essay in Vogue about your experience coming out, and the dissolution of your marriage. How did it feel going from the behind-the-scenes to being front and center?It's totally a mixed bag of emotions to make that jump. It's very vulnerable-making, but I think that I'm at a point in my life now where I'm really welcoming of vulnerability. It's a quality I like in other people a lot, and so I think there's something to also demanding that of myself because I hadn't been. So, I think, I had some sort of switch go off in my head over the last year where I realized that that's something that I'm always demanding of the people that are in my life and people that I'm close with but maybe I'm not doing as much of in my persona. 

So, it's felt very freeing. It's like when you don't have anything to hide anymore, or when I'm not hiding then it doesn't feel like I can... it feels like, in some weird way, I'm in more control. It's not like someone can reveal something about me if I've already revealed it. So I find a lot of power in being vulnerable at the moment. I guess I feel a little bit more seen, which I do have mixed feelings about. It's obviously a bit nerve-racking at times, but I think I've been putting myself out there more and divulging a lot more about my personal life in the process, and the response that I've been getting, just in terms of total strangers who are DMing me on social media to say, "Thank you for being visible, thank you for saying these things, thank you for articulating these sentiments. It's done a lot for me, I have a similar story to you..." Or they don't even have a similar story, there's just something about wanting to live truthfully that has, like, resonated with some people and they've found that useful. What more could I hope for? That's something that I love to see from other people, and I gain so much inspiration and support from others who are putting themselves out there in that way, so that part has been really cool. 

I think it's a really powerful example of how one person's specific story can universally touch people. And it is, this sounds corny, a wonderful example of, like, living your truth and how that's easier said and put on a t-shirt than done. But when you recognize it being done, when someone does articulate it, it's incredibly powerful.After the 2016 presidential election happened, I just felt a sense of urgency, like I felt it really brought into sharp relief the importance of living truthfully and how we just really—not to get all New Age-y— only can count on this moment we have right now. The past is gone, you don't know what's going to happen in the next moments or if you have a tomorrow, and there was something that happened inside of me after that election where I was just like, "What am I waiting for? I just need to hone in on the life that I want and live it because I have the privilege and luxury of being able to do so." It felt almost disgraceful to not do so because I could. I live in a free country for now, and I live in a place that's embracing of all kinds of lifestyles and orientations and interests and presentations and everything. So it started to feel, like, just a dishonor to myself, and it felt very important to live truthfully. 

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your life as a plant parent. Have you always had a lot of plants?Yeah, off and on. I've moved a lot in my life, and so I've had to pare it down at times and give plants away. Then there's been periods of time in my life that were not so healthy, where the plants definitely reflected whatever was going on in my life. This is probably a testament to where I'm at right now, which is just to say feeling very good, feeling healthy and vibrant, and I also have so much light. I feel like it would be a shame to not use that and have plants that would thrive instead of just die so here I am.

Do you name them?I'm not that crazy. That's not crazy, but I'm not that obsessed with my plants. I just try to keep them alive and so far so good. 

High Maintenance airs on HBO on Fridays at 11pm.