Mark Duplass has taken what you might call a bass-ackward approach to becoming a movie star. He and his older brother, Jay, first made names for themselves as heartfelt — and wickedly funny — indie filmmakers with do-it-yourself, low-budget cult hits such as 2005’s The Puffy Chair and 2008’s Baghead. But just as they graduated to writing and directing bigger studio projects like last March’s Jason Segel–Ed Helms melancomedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Mark began demoting (or is it devoting?) himself to acting jobs on other people’s movies.
”It’s a weird career trajectory,” the 35-year-old Duplass acknowledges, downing a cup of coffee on a gloomy mid-June morning at the Dry Tour restaurant and wine bar just off the Venice Beach boardwalk. ”Most actors, they’re like, ‘I can’t wait to be f—ing done with this. I just want to direct.’ And I do talk to some actors who are like, ‘What are you doing? You have the great writing and directing career. You’re going in the wrong direction!”’ This year, he appears on screen in no fewer than five movies, two of them in theaters now: the comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, starring Duplass as a loner seeking a partner for time travel, and director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, in which he plays a man whose unrequited love for his friend (Emily Blunt) is threatened by a one-night stand he has with her half sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). Later this year, he’ll costar in The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow’s still-secret, still-untitled drama about the takedown of Osama bin Laden.
With such a heavy acting workload, you might think Duplass would dial back on the filmmaking — but again, that would be the normal way of doing things. He and Jay are busier than ever. In addition to Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which just debuted on DVD, the self-financed comedy The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, about warring brothers who compete in their own 25-event Olympics, rolls into theaters July 6.
The Duplass brothers, who grew up in a suburb of New Orleans with a lawyer father and homemaker mother, developed their interest in painful/funny storytelling early on from watching inappropriately grown-up movies on TV. ”We weren’t watching stormtroopers. We were watching hard-hitting divorce movies,” Duplass recalls. ”We’d wake up on Sunday at seven, watch some cartoons, flip over to HBO, and there was Kramer vs. Kramer. So we just watched it. And then it would go right into Sophie’s Choice and then right into Ordinary People and Midnight Express. We got very interested in those human, interpersonal dynamics from an early age.”
While the brothers have similar tastes, their directing team works because of a key difference. ”He’s kind of a maniac,” Jay Duplass, 39, says of his little brother. ”He’s hell-bent on making things. It’s his therapy. He likes to move really, really fast. I question things more. I’m obsessed with detail and quality. We kind of function in a way where he’s the gas and I’m the brakes. He’s moving things forward at a high pace, and I’m slowing things down and saying, ‘Wait, this isn’t great yet. The magical thing that we need isn’t here.”’
Mark Duplass also frequently collaborates with his actress-filmmaker wife, Katie Aselton. The couple met while working on short films in the early 2000s and costarred in The Puffy Chair as an unsure boyfriend and girlfriend — admitted variations on themselves at that point. Duplass and Aselton married in 2006 and currently costar on FX’s fantasy-football comedy series The League. When that show begins shooting its fourth season this summer, it will be his eighth major project of the year.
Aselton attributes her husband’s onscreen appeal to his unpolished charm. ”He’s really open and available and he doesn’t posture,” she says. ”He’s super-accessible. Everybody thinks they have a chance with him, whether it’s to be a buddy, or be a girlfriend or a wife.” She adds quickly, ”FYI, they don’t have a chance to be his girlfriend or wife.”
The couple, who already have a 4-year-old, recently welcomed their second daughter. (Count her as Duplass project No. 9 for 2012.) Duplass and Aselton also collaborated on this fall’s indie psychological thriller Black Rock, about three women who encounter a deadly group of men during an island camping trip. Aselton directed and stars in it, and Duplass wrote the screenplay from her idea. In fact, the script’s origin is emblematic of his demonic creative drive. After she proposed the concept during a Christmas trip to visit family in Maine, they took separate flights home. Duplass got stranded for a day due to a snow delay for a connecting flight, and arrived back in L.A. with a full screenplay. ”He makes good use of his time,” Aselton says. ”While I might sit and watch reruns of Sex and the City on my iPad in an airport, he’s writing a script.”
The Duplass brothers — whose 2010 indie Cyrus, starring Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly, and Jonah Hill, was an art-house hit that grossed $7.5 million — are also in demand as screenwriters, penning a remake of the 1978 Alan Alda–Ellen Burstyn adultery comedy Same Time, Next Year for producer Scott Rudin and adapting the sardonic drug-trafficking novel Mule for The Hangover director Todd Phillips.
Though they’re happy to accept studio writing assignments, the siblings often go off script with their own films, relying on lots of actor improvisation. ”There’s something to me more exciting about the electricity and the surprise,” Duplass says. ”That’s why I’m willing to accept a moment where the camera had to zoom in to catch the frame right and might shake around, and the sound might be a little off.”
Those rough edges have led to an unfortunate term for their style of intimate, fly-on-the-wall moviemaking: mumblecore. ”I full-on hate it,” Duplass says of the label, which has become a clumsy catchall for a wide variety of low-budget films from directors like Shelton (Humpday), Joe Swanberg (Alexander the Last), and Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture). ”I would hate for an audience member to hear that [a movie] is called ‘mumblecore’ and say to themselves, ‘What is that? That sounds pretentious and actually somewhat pejorative, and I’m gonna stay at home.’ That would really bum me out.”
Staying at home apparently isn’t in Duplass’ nature. It may seem strange for a filmmaker to take on so much acting work, but he says being a performer for hire is his ”anti-burnout medicine.” ”Writing and directing a movie is like being a parent. There’s nothing more rewarding to me than the movies that Jay and I make — as your children are. But they’re a lot of f—ing work, and sometimes you just feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,”’ he says. ”Acting in a movie’s like being a grandparent. I come in and we do a bunch of circus activities, and have some candy, and stay up late, and have fun — and then I go home and leave the children there.” It’s kind of a backward metaphor for a guy at the start of his career, but that’s Mark Duplass’ style.
The Year of Duplass
Jeff, Who Lives at Home Writer, Director (with brother Jay)
Opened March 16, now on DVD
A depressed loser (Jason Segel) and his uptight brother (Ed Helms) follow signs in search of a better destiny.
Darling Companion Actor
Opened April 20
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill), this story of a family looking for a lost dog features Duplass in a supporting role.
Your Sister’s Sister Actor, Exec Producer
Opened June 15
Reuniting with Humpday director Lynn Shelton, Duplass plays a man caught up in a sisterly love triangle.
Safety Not Guaranteed Actor, Exec Producer
Opening wide June 22
Duplass stars as a man seeking redemption through time travel in this debut by director Colin Trevorrow.
People Like Us Actor
Opens June 29
Duplass costars in director Alex Kurtzman’s film as the neighbor of a woman (Elizabeth Banks) who befriends a man (Chris Pine) she doesn’t know is her half brother.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon Writer, Director, Producer (with brother Jay)
Opens July 6 (on demand starting June 26)
Two forever-feuding brothers compete for dominance in 25 sporting events.
Black Rock Screenwriter, Exec Producer
Opens October TBD
The film, directed by and starring his wife, Katie Aselton, follows three women on a camping getaway who become prey for a group of dangerous men.
The League Actor
Returns October TBD
On FX’s semi-improvised comedy, Duplass stars as a divorced cubicle-dweller and three-time champ of a fantasy-football league.
Kathryn Bigelow’s as-yet-untitled bin Laden film Actor
Opens Dec. 19
Duplass has an unspecified role as part of the team who helped hunt down the world’s most wanted terrorist.