Jay Duplass is having a moment.
The longtime filmmaker made his major acting debut this summer in "Transparent," the much-buzzed about Amazon original series depicting a trans woman (Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor) beginning her late-in-life transition. Duplass plays one of Maura's three adult children, Josh, an emotionally stunted music producer trying to piece together his own identity. Now, on Sunday, Duplass' new drama “Togetherness” -- made with younger brother and creative partner Mark Duplass -- premieres on HBO.
But while his television pursuits may be fresh, Duplass, along with his brother, has been inside the entertainment industry for years. The brothers first garnered a following in the indie film community with hit Sundance features “The Puffy Chair,” and “Baghead," which put their true-to-life, emotionally grounded aesthetic onto the map. They then transitioned to mainstream success with the studio-releases “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives At Home.”
As the two rose through the ranks of Hollywood, their traditional labor breakdown often put Mark acting onscreen, while Jay worked behind the camera. That division, coupled with Mark branching out to play roles in projects outside the family -- such as in projects like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” Melissa McCarthy's "Tammy" and the FX series “The League” -- gave audiences more familiarity with the younger Duplass brother. He quickly gained a reputation as one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, working at a rate he himself characterized as compulsive. Jay, meanwhile, was portrayed as the more careful, balanced sibling, off editing an indie film somewhere in the wings.
“Jay would rather make one movie every two years that we direct together and then garden and run and get centered,” Mark joked to Grantland in 2012. “ And I just feel desperately compelled to work. Down to the core of my being. I have no idea why.”
But now, for the first time, that dynamic has shifted. While the two brothers were editing “Togetherness,” Jay was doing double duty on the set of “Transparent."
“We switched roles a bit this summer,” Jay told HuffPost Entertainment in a recent interview. “He sort of became the dude on lockdown, and I became the one having an affair with my other show. I kind of came to an appreciation of how challenging his life is by jumping around for different things.”
In advance of Sunday’s “Togetherness” debut, HuffPost Entertainment got on the phone with the writer/actor/director to talk about his perspective on the Duplass brothers’ origin story, his newfound passion for acting at 40 and what to expect on the upcoming HBO show.
Short Film Roots: "This is John," and "Scrapple"
Mark has said before that there was an early period where you both were editors trying to make the day job work. Then your dad helped you out financially and you were able to really focus on making things. Do your first short films come out of that period?
Yeah. We both went to college at the University of Texas. I arrived there when Richard Linklater’s "Slacker" was in the midnight theater, in the early '90s. That’s when we first started coming to the awareness that human beings made movies -- that they weren’t just like piped in over cable from some mysterious place. We graduated from college and we were just sort of hanging out in Austin, making stuff and editing for other people. Just trying to find, I guess, our voice. For a long time we were hooked on trying to be the Coen brothers and failing at it miserably.
"For a long time we were hooked on trying to be the Coen brothers and failing at it miserably."
Was the appeal that you were also brothers?
That was probably a small part of it. More, we were weirdly obsessed with their stuff, which is funny now because our stuff couldn’t be more opposite. They’re like the most heady, on the rails, controlled filmmakers; Mark and I, we do write scripts but we’re waiting for lightning to strike on set, for surprises to happen. And we shoot in a documentary style. It’s funny how diametrically opposed we ended up.
Your first film that started getting buzz was “This is John,” a short that went to Sundance. Was that the first time you felt like you were finding that voice?
Yeah, that was really the first movie ever. It was just a weird accident, where I was pushing 30 and on the verge of a nervous breakdown because I hadn’t made anything great yet. Mark was just like: “We’re gonna make a movie today. Come up with an idea.” Basically I came up with a thing that had happened to me the day before. I tried to perfect the personal greeting of my answering machine and had a breakdown. I couldn’t get it right and I was like “Oh fuck, if I can’t do this, I don’t know how I’m going to make it as a filmmaker.” We did it in one take and we edited it down to seven minutes. It truly cost $3. We shot it with our parents’ video camera and it did more for our careers than the previous 10 years of just kind of meandering about.
Did you make your follow-up short “Scrapple” with the intention of going back to Sundance?
Yeah, that was the very specific goal. After we made “This is John,” we wrote a couple of feature screenplays. We got an agent [at Sundance], and he told us to do that. But the agency at the time wasn’t doing anything to move it forward. That’s when we were first starting to realize: Oh yeah, agents don’t really do stuff for you when you’ve just made a $3 short film. So we were like, "Okay let’s make another film and go back to Sundance!"
So we made this time a film that happens in a kitchen and a living room, added one person and made it for $50! So it was very incremental steps. At that point, literally people who worked [at Sundance] were like, "Guys, are you gonna make a feature or not? You’re ready." It was really cool. I always tell young filmmakers: Don’t go make a feature. Make a short. When you’re ready to make a feature, people will tell you. Your friends will tell you, your fans will tell you, festivals will tell you. Listen to your audience.
First Feature: "The Puffy Chair"
A lot of people see "The Puffy Chair" as a spin on the classic road trip genre. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
No, it was really just, we were terrified to make a feature, because we had made some movies in our early 20s that were terrible, and we don’t show them to anyone. We had come to this place where we were like, "Okay, we know how to make short films. The whole world has told us that we’re good at that." Because we were winning awards at festivals for a $3 movie. So we were like, a road trip is a great way to integrate spine to build a relationship movie. And just more immediately, a road trip film is like a spine to hang, like, 13 great short films on. We felt very confident doing that.
Do you still approach feature writing like creating a spine for shorts?
No, now I would say we’re actively going in a different direction in terms of plotting. Because I think we realized at the time we released "Puffy Chair" that the minor plotting things that we were doing -- like tracking certain elements that we would set up and then revisit and pay off later -- were extremely powerful. I think it’s what sort of differentiated us. Everyone was saying we were mumblecore filmmakers at the time, which doesn’t really mean anything. Mark and I have always just been trying to make something that didn’t suck. We’ve never been trying to be part of a movement. But I think "Puffy Chair," the meager plot that it had was still three times more plot than all the other movies that were coming out at the time. We know for a fact that’s why Hollywood came calling immediately.
Development Inertia: "Baghead," "Do-deca-Pentathlon," "Cyrus," and "Jeff Who Lives At Home"
So Hollywood came right after "Puffy Chair" did Sundance?
Yeah, definitely. That’s when we started doing our general meetings. Everyone wanted to meet with us. They were like, "Oh my god, these little dudes made this movie for $15,000. What if we gave them $15 million? The movie would be a thousand times better!" Which wasn’t true. But like, we didn’t do anything to dispel that. We were like, "Sure, we’d love to have some money to make a movie." We’d been struggling for so long.
From those meetings come your bigger Studio features, "Cyrus," (2010) and "Jeff, Who Lives At Home." (2011) Where does "Baghead," which came out in 2008, fit into the timeline?
We started sort of dating Hollywood right after we made "Puffy Chair," and we started developing "Cyrus" pretty soon. But that development process was long-winded. It was new to us, it was challenging. It just seemed to go on forever. So we decided to continue to make movies. We were lucky because we knew how to make movies for a few thousand dollars. So we just went back to Austin and made "Baghead."
"I’ve been holding up universes for a long time, and it’s fucking exhausting".
Did you find there were things you had to sacrifice during the long development process for your bigger budget features?
No, we never sacrificed anything. We just had to work extra hard to explain everything, and to fight for things. And we did. It’s not like development was all bad -- there are good ideas that come up. A lot of it just had to do with justifying. It makes the process so much more long-winded. It just grinds you down is really what it comes down to. Mark and I are super picky about what we want to do. By the time we’ve vetted and processed a script, we’re kind of done. And it's not about ego, it’s really about the little amount of energy that we have, and also our process. We’re kind of like cavemen who are trying to feel things out in the dark and there’s a little bit of mystery to the process that we feel is important. When you have to justify it to all these executives, it really changes the nature of the process.
We never felt like we compromised anything -- we made the exact movie we wanted to. But we just got beat up during the process. Not that the executives were beating us up -- just the process beat us back a lot. Before we started making "Cyrus," we only made a $15,000 movie that looked really rough. I think the studio was trying to be super careful we didn’t make a $7 million movie that looked like a piece of shit.
"Cyrus" was the only development process that we had because "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" was sort of like championed by Jason Reitman. He kind of just set it up at Paramount. We didn’t change a thing about the script, we went right into production. We've only done that [development process] once and we’re not gonna do that again.
Hollywood Relief: "Kevin"
You then move on to make the solo-project documentary "Kevin," which tells the story of a prominent '90s musician in Austin who suddenly disappeared from the scene. Did your exhausting development experience make you consciously want to do a project that was so "un-Hollywood?"
Yeah, definitely. Mark and I have been obsessed with [Kevin Gant] since I was like 18 and Mark was like 15. That was more like a life experience that also happened to be a film. It was something that was totally uncontrolled. I was the entire crew -- I didn’t even have a sound guy. It was just me alone with him the whole time. It was very personal. Really a way for me to spend a lot of time with this guy I loved and admired for so long and try to give something back to him because I guess he’d inspired me so much. The movie was more about complete freedom and lack of control. It was just chaos shooting that. We didn’t know what was happening. I was just following him.
Your experience doing the film kind of mirrors what Kevin says about his own career in the movie. I'm thinking of the moment when you ask him why he's getting back into music after so many years if not to "make it," and he says, "life." Is that kind of what this project was for you, too?
Yeah, that was exactly what the project was for me. When he said that -- in that moment I knew that I had a film. That we had something to say and we had found the thing we were saying together.
The TV Chapter: "The Mindy Project,” “Transparent" and "Togetherness"
You've recently been transitioning to more onscreen work. I love your arc on "The Mindy Project," in which you and Mark play a brothers' midwife duo that competes for clients with Mindy's OBGYN practice.
I ended up having so much fun on that show it was just natural and kind of easy to do it. I had never really acted that much before that. I’ve always been the camera operator on our movies so it’s never even really been an option to get in front of the camera because I've been literally stuck behind it. I’ve definitely had friends like Mindy [Kaling] and Jill Soloway all through the years like meet me and say, like, wow you probably should act. I don’t know -- I was always just busy writing and directing and shooting.
What do you think it is about you that makes people say that?
I don't know what it is. I can tell you something that has occurred to me since. My whole life, I’ve been the one in my family that’s always too emotional and too sensitive. That’s like my role in my family. Now that I’m acting, I’ve realized that I don’t have a lot of barriers. Certain actors have a hard time with anger, or with joy or with whatever, and, I don’t know, I don’t seem to have those barriers. So now I feel like weirdly exonerated because, like, yeah, I have thin skin and I am very emotional and I feel everything more than other people do. And now I’m getting paid for that shit! It’s always right there on the surface for me. It’s weird. It’s interesting to be 40 and to be discovering something that feels very natural, like something totally new. Because acting is so different from writing and directing.
"Josh has had more sex in one season of 'Transparent' than I’ve had in my entire life."
It sounds like maybe for you that difference has to do with being in control versus not?
Yeah, that's a big part of it. I think part of acting is allowing yourself to lose control and also to just surrender to the moment. When you’re writing and directing you’re like holding a whole universe in your arms and in your brain. When you’re acting, your job is to do the opposite -- to be extremely microcosmic and extremely focused on just what you want and what you need and how you’re gonna get it. It's therapeutic for me in a lot of ways just to focus on one thing because I’ve been holding up universes for a long time, and it’s fucking exhausting.
The lore is that you ended up in "Transparent" because you ran into [creator] Jill Soloway at a party.
It truly was a party. We east side of L.A. directors have little get-togethers and we talk about actors. We talk about everything because directors don’t get together a lot. One of the things that was happening was that Jill was about to make this show. She had this amazing cast and she was dying because she couldn’t find the brother. It was absolutely the last role -- like the last straw -- and she was kind of freaking out.
I was just sitting with her, and she was like: I need like a wildly charismatic-slash-insecure, brilliant-stunted mid-30’s Jewish guy. And I was like, "Dude, I know all those guys! They’re all my friends. Those are all the actors in town that I know." So I was just going through all my favorite guys and she was like, "No, thought of them, thought of them, not right, not right, not right." So we just left it alone. Then we were talking for like 30 more minutes and she just stopped and said: “It’s you. You are him. You’re gonna play him.” I was like ... Jill! I’m about to make an HBO series. I am not an actor. I am not Jewish -- I’m like 1/8th Jewish, I'm not really Jewish -- you know, I don’t really think so. And she's like, no. And in Jill's sort of good witchcraft way, she was like you’re coming in to my reading room tomorrow and you’re gonna read with me. I went in there and I did these roles with Jill. She played the sisters, and it turns out that the way she and I work is incredibly similar. I started running with the role.
The other thing is I’m really different from Josh. Josh has had more sex in one season of "Transparent" than I’ve had in my entire life. I’ve always been sort of like the female role in my relationships. I'm, like, super careful sensitive and Josh is the opposite. I mean, Josh is very sensitive, actually. I think that somehow has something to do with why people are interested in him. I’m a super softy that’s doing a lot of bad behavior onscreen.
Yeah, Josh is totally sensitive. He’s like the resident asshole of the family, but you can tell he's also delicate.
Yeah. It's funny -- somebody figured out toward the end of the season, after like my eighth crying scene -- they were like, “I think Josh cries more than anyone else in the show.” And I was like, “Yeah, it feels like it, man.” I’m like a whole lot of tears at this point.
Could you tell while you were working on the show that it was going to be something so special?
I knew it was gonna be special from the first reading that I did with Jill the morning after she said “It’s you.” That energy was present, that feeling was there. Then I read with Gaby [Hoffmann] and we did some stuff in front of Amazon with Amy [Landecker] and we were just like, “Oh my god. This is crazy. This is totally crazy.” Honestly, I think it does all stem from Jill. She kind of creates this nest, this like family nest.
Have you been trying to take any of that experience to “Togetherness?”
Well, it’s interesting because “Togetherness” was in motion years before “Transparent.” We shot the pilot of “Togetherness” in the spring of 2013, and we shot the whole first season of ‘Togetherness” before we even shot “Transparent.” It’s weird because the way that I’m talking about Jill is kind of how everybody’s been talking about me and Mark. Like, they feel safe and comfortable and it feels like family and it feels like you’re not only allowed to fall on your face, you’re encouraged to. In a weird way, I saw from the other side why people have been so excited to be on [our] sets. It’s wild to me because those are the only two sets I’ve gone deep on, and they’re very similar. Just creating a family and trying to make something beautiful, and allowing failure to be a part of that equation.
Now that you’ve been doing more acting, are you going to write yourself a part in “Togetherness?”
If a part came up for me, I might do it. It’s been interesting because I’ve been getting a lot of acting offers and the show’s only been out for a couple of months. That’s been new and exciting and weird just because I’m so busy -- it’s very hard to fit them in because creating my own TV show is pretty much a full time job all year around. But right before [this interview], I was meeting with a director about potentially doing a movie as an actor. So I do love it. I think I will be very picky about acting because I know damn well that I am spoiled. My first big job is on this phenomenal television show with like these phenomenal human beings and people I love and at the center of a civil rights movement. I’m not taking it for granted.
It’s pretty amazing to have your first acting job to be on one of the best TV shows in history.
Yeah! I mean, to that point, it’s interesting because my wife and I, when it released, sat down to watch it. And it was scary for us because Josh has a lot of sex in episode 1, in the whole season. Episode 1 and every episode he’s having some kind of sex. For me and my wife, that’s not something she signed up for. She didn’t walk into our marriage knowing that I was gonna be an actor, or particularly an actor on a show with the most intense sexual situations ever. So we were both nervous. Like, Is this gonna make a mess that we’re gonna have to like work on really hard? And as we started watching, as the episodes rolled through, it was amazing how all of those concerns went right out the window because we both realized we were watching the show we had been waiting for like 10 years. We were both like, “This is my favorite show.” This is like possibly the best show just as viewers. We were just in tears and laughing like everyone else who watches it and it just didn’t seem to matter after that.
"When your boyfriend is gonna leave you, it’s probably not like this big impressive argument down by the river. It’s probably like he doesn’t make me breakfast Monday morning and you know that it’s the beginning of the end."
What made you and Mark want to make the transition to television?
We had this idea, and the more we started to talk about it, the more we realized that it just seemed to go on and on. I don’t know what it was, but we got through like a feature’s worth of material and it just seemed like the beginning. That story, being in your late 30s and living on the fringes of LA, trying to be a part of it, trying not to be a part of it, trying to take care of your kids, trying to take care of yourself. How trying to balance the reality of your own dreams and your family seemed to be like you’re like a millimeter away from drowning at any given point in time. How hard that seemed to be. The other couple is in their late 30s and they aren’t married and they don’t have kids and they’re not finding their person and they’re freaking out even more. Not only was everyone in our world going through one of those two scenarios, but like, that’s all we talk about when we go out to dinner or now, when we have playdates. Just the horrendous impossible shit that we’re going through every day to just try to, like, enjoy our lives and achieve what we want to achieve. It just seemed tragically funny in the way that we love and to just be an instant amount of material. So we pitched it to HBO and they were like, yeah, absolutely, that’s a show.
Have you found there are differences you didn’t anticipate switching from feature writing to episodic narratives?
I think the biggest difference is that narrative feature work is like a closed universe. That’s how we’ve been talking about it. You start setting up all your stuff in the first 20 minutes of a feature, and you’re already thinking about how you’re gonna be setting all those things off 90 minutes later. Whereas TV is an open universe -- where you do have to set up and pay off things from episode to episode -- but in terms of characters, in terms of development, in terms of emotional closure, you don’t really go for closure. You go for opening. It took us a while to get to that and HBO actually helped us with that a lot. That was the only quote on quote development we went through and it was very welcome, because they deal with a lot of feature people who make that transition and that’s probably the main issue that they go through. We’re always trying to close storylines and it’s like nope, don’t close them, just continue to open them. It’s been pretty wild because given Mark’s and my vérité aesthetic, it's actually way more realistic and way more like life. To complicate emotions and to complicate relationships and to continue to do that -- that’s how life actually works.
It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think there’s something beyond just the fact that we all have home theaters why TV shows are really grabbing everyone’s attention. I think there’s something more innately human about the way that they move and change and function. They’re a lot more like real life. They feel like our lives more than movies do and I think that’s a big part of viewership right now.
It seems like there’s something even to the effect of just spending more hours with the characters makes it feel like you know them better.
And you do know them better! And like, what Mark and I are doing, we’re trying to do subtle, subtle, subtle, stuff. That communicates. It feels big. When your boyfriend is gonna leave you, it’s probably not like this big impressive argument down by the river. It’s probably like he doesn’t make me breakfast Monday morning and you know that it’s the beginning of the end. And what we love about TV is that you can get to know your characters so intimately that you will perceive that now as a viewer. We can get to the tiniest subtlest levels of tragedy, which is how it happens to us in real life.
"Togetherness" debuts Sunday, Jan. 11 at 9:30pm on HBO. This interview has been edited and condensed.