Many people recognize Mark and Jay Duplass from their acting roles — Mark from The League and many other roles, Jay from Transparent and both from The Mindy Project. But the Duplasses have been writing, producing and directing independent films for over a decade, usually featuring some form of disaffected young adult, usually in a real-talk style that’s been dubbed “mumblecore.”
Now the guys behind movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Safety Not Guaranteed and Cyrus, take on middle age with their HBO series Togetherness. In the series, the first season of which wraps up on March 8, married-with-children couple Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey) try to figure out where their carefree youth and fun marriage went, while dealing with the spiraling single lives of Brett’s best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), both of whom have moved into their house.
Playboy spoke to the Duplasses about making middle age into a show, what the second season will explore, what it’s like for a writer and director to just act, and the infamous scene where audiences catch a glimpse of Mark in full-frontal mode. Then Jay sticks around to answer our Lucky 7.
It feels like you wrote the season of Togetherness with an eye towards both it being the only season and the possibility of getting a second. Is that kind of the balance you guys needed to do?
Jay Duplass: I’m glad you feel that way because we specifically talked about it and we’re just like what are we going to do? Are we going to try to half-and-half it so that if we get canceled it at least wraps up? We kind of felt like we were leaving it propulsive towards a second season. We felt like we were betting it all on hoping we get picked up and we were going to be totally heartbroken if we didn’t.
Did you always have TV in mind for this or was it more of a case of that’s just kind of the way it landed?
Jay: It did just start as an idea per usual between me and Mark just talking about things that are interesting to us. In this particular case, stuff that was going on in our lives and everyone around us. I think it really just kind of came down to the fact that our whole group pushing 40 was either the “you have kids and you’re trapped” realm or you don’t have a family, you might not have professional traction yet and you’re desperate and terrified that you’re going to die with your magic inside of you. There seems to be this sort of critical mass of desperation going on, which is what Mark and I are really into and think is both heartwarming and really funny. The more that we talked about the ideas they just kept coming in and we said this is something that is perfectly, epically small. It seemed like it could go on forever. That’s when we started to realize this is probably a TV show, serial TV show.
What’s Steve Zissis’s role in this? What part did he bring to this creatively?
Mark Duplass: We’ve been in love with Steve for way too long in a very unhealthy way. You know, we’ve been using him in our movies in different roles throughout the years, and it felt like the world needs to know what Steve Zissis is and what his power is. So, early on, Jay and I always talk about what are roles we can create for our friends that we love. We started building this platform for Steve and then when it came to HBO we kind of ended up altering it into this equal four-hander, which became really interesting. That, I think, is when the show found its legs.
Is that the direction you were thinking of when you talked to HBO?
Mark: Yeah. The whole concept of the show and what was exciting to us — we’re constantly striving to find ways to be closer with the people we love. Our friends, our parents, our children, our spouses. Then once you start to achieve that all you can think is how do I get the fuck out of here and get my personal space back? That sort of dichotomy is sweet and kind of sad and really funny to us. So, that was really the core of it. At the same time, we wanted to challenge ourselves to create four pretty unique individuals that audiences would…you know, it’s funny. We watch people watch the show and some people come to us and say, “I love how you created four but really Michelle’s [Melanie Lynskey] the lead.” Then the next person is like, “I love how you created all four but really Alex is the lead.” Well, that’s just who you kind of tend to be attracted to. That’s fun for us.
Most of the films you guys have done have been more about somewhat younger characters. Was there just a push on your guys’ part to kind of move into that area where you’re exploring early middle age?
Mark: It wasn’t a push or anything conscientious. Honestly, to us it feels like our movies probably are stride for stride with where we are in life. But yeah, I mean with this particular show it’s just every single thing that is in the show comes from the soup of our lives. You know, other that Steve Zissis’ character, Alex, which is pretty autobiographical. There’s hardly an event that happens in the show that hasn’t happened to somebody that we know.
Maybe not something like the kick the can game but something similar?
Jay: Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t say that definitely a kick the can game has happened but on the Eastside of LA there’s just like… I mean kickball is a big thing that we were playing in our late 20s and now that we have children we have sort of evolved to a place where number one, nobody’s got the energy to play kickball. Number two, if you do play kickball you’re risking pulling a hamstring or something like that, which when you have two little kids, that will knock you on your ass. That kind of humor we think is funny and the fact that when these guys do play kick the can they’re kind of taking a risk on some level.
[This is when Mark hops off the call.]
When you guys act, you and Mark in Mindy Project, how do you take your writer/director hat off and just leave your acting hat on or do you not do that?
Jay: It’s actually pleasurable to do that because… most of my director friends feel the same way but when you’re writing and especially when you’re directing it is unbelievably stressful. You would never use the word fun to describe directing. You might use the word fulfilling. But you’re kind of holding an entire universe in your arms, and you are bombarded 14 hours a day by questions and by problems. It’s a very weird and unique position to be in.
Mark and I grew up as musicians and it’s similar to that in a lot of ways. It’s like you go out, they call action, you try and do the most inspired thing that you can do. You try and connect and be very in the moment but it’s weirdly opposite of directing in the sense that your job as an actor is really to kind of turn your brain off and become this singular thing and one person. I feel like as a director in a weird way you’re almost playing God. You’re kind of being the God mind of the show and you’re acting as if you’re an audience of hundreds of thousands of people who are watching it and sort of being that voice. To me and I think to Mark too, it’s just two very different jobs and it’s kind of a pleasure to let go.
When you’re on a show like Transparent that’s getting all this sort of praise and Golden Globe Awards and all that kind of stuff, do you sit there and kind of wish you were more involved with it creatively?
Jay: I will say that if I didn’t have Togetherness I might be wildly jealous of Transparent because it is a magical show. Luckily for me, in a weird way I’m up to my eyeballs in wonderful television shows set on the Eastside of LA, which is a very, very lucky thing. I don’t know. We shoot Togetherness and then I shoot Transparent. I’m so tired of, like I was saying before, holding the whole world together that I’m just ready to sort of dive into Jill Soloway’s arms and let her tell me what to do and just become this messy person that my character is on Transparent, hang out with all those wonderful family members. It’s kind of like a guilty pleasure.
My brother has this great metaphor about creating a show versus acting in a show. Creating a show is like being the mother of children and birthing them and raising them to fruition and adulthood and being an actor on a show is like being a drunk uncle at Christmas who shows up with a bag of Oreos and is worshipped and praised by all the children. Then he gets to leave at midnight. That pretty much sums it up.
Does it surprise you when people know the two of you just from your TV roles?
Jay: I think it’s weird. I think the interesting way that it manifests itself is when Mark and I are hanging out or we’re in an airport or wherever. You can kind of tell people’s perspective by how they come up to you and what the experience is like. You know, if we’re in an airport and someone runs up to Mark and jumps in his face and screams, “The League!” it’s like a very different experience than when we’re at a coffee shop on the Eastside of LA and somebody comes up to me very sheepishly and they’re like, “I just want to thank you so much for what you guys are doing in Transparent. You’re at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and my friend was ready to cash it in last week and when he saw your show and now he feels like there’s a reason to go on.”
There’s the scene in one of the episodes where we see all of Mark, at least briefly. How did he get ready? How nerve-racking was that?
Jay: We talked about it a little bit. In general, I would say we talked about the nudity in the show as revealing things that are true to life. You know, if you’re in the room that’s maybe what you would see. You know, we didn’t want to focus overly on the nudity and we didn’t want to shy away from it. Sometimes it’s just glimpses and glances and particularly you don’t really see his penis or testicles. When he’s kneeling on the bed completely naked for a five-minute scene but you see everything else including butt crack and everything. You know, that’s kind of our MO is like this is a show about real life and real relationships and what it’s like to go through that stuff.
There are scenes with Tina [Amanda Peet] where Amanda decides that because that’s her character and she’s going to use her boobs to get what she wants — and if that’s the case they’re going to be shown. You know, with other sex scenes, for instance the one with Mark and Melanie, there’s a lot of skin but there’s not a lot of specific nudity, per se. But we definitely didn’t want to have the kind of scenes where you’re pulling the covers up to your neck in order to do it. We just feel like it’s important that it’s the way that it is in life.
We knew that we wanted the end of the season to kind of end with a big bang. We were really excited about that scene and thought it was absolutely appropriate and funny and realistic in the right way. By the time it was time to shoot it I don’t think he had any hesitation whatsoever. I mean once we got in the room and balls were everywhere it was like, “Oh my God, there’s a lot of balls going on here.” We did our best with editing and camera work. We didn’t want to overwhelm the viewer with it but in the room that day it was all balls all day.
What do you want to explore in season two?
Jay: It’s hard to talk about it. I mean the only thing that I will say is that I think what we find interesting about this show is that midlife is often considered a time in life where everything just is on lockdown and not a lot changes. But for our characters and what we’ve noticed now that we’re entering this phase of our own lives is that a lot’s happened. When you have a couple that is not sure how to go about keeping their marriage going, the changes can be enormous. When you have other people like Gina and Alex, Gina in particular, we look at her and she’s a character who has enormous potential for greatness and equally enormous potential for absolute train wreck tragedy. That’s something that we just go deeper and deeper with. That’s what we’re working on with season two. And [Steve’s character] experiences some very different stuff in season two.
Do you guys feel that trapped by having kids in sense or because you have the creative outlet of writing and being able to get that, does that help out?
Jay: Yeah. We have a sense of wanting to be really close with our families and sometimes you go too deep and you’re like “get me out of here.” I’ve changed so many diapers today I don’t even know where to turn. Finding that balance is really difficult. In particular when you’re trying to be a good family man or a good mom or whatever it may be and you’re trying to keep your own personal dreams alive, that’s a recipe for disaster. You feel like you’re about to drown at every second.
What was your first exposure to Playboy magazine?
Jay: The Dalton Bookstore in Lakeside Mall in New Orleans, Louisiana. The rack that it was on was hidden from the cashiers and we would sneak a peek.
What’s the first song you knew the words to?
Jay: Neil Diamond’s “America.” That says everything pretty much. A five-year-old kid singing Neil Diamond.
What movie scared you as a kid?
What was your first car?
Jay: Used Honda Prelude.
Do you have a pop culture blind spot?
Jay: What does that mean?
Meaning like something that everybody…like you’ve never seen this or you’ve never heard of this, like something in pop culture?
Jay: Oh, God. Yeah, all of pop culture. It’s funny because people think that Mark and I are like web savvy and pop culture savvy but we’re not. I mean we watch movies and we watch HBO and we take care of our kids, but we don’t know anything about pop culture. I couldn’t sing you a single word from even a Beyonce song. I couldn’t even name you a Beyonce song.
What was your favorite mistake?
Jay: Favorite mistake. Being dumb enough to keep making movies when they were horrible because it eventually led to where I am now.
Finally, what would your last meal be if you were on Death Row?
Jay: My mom’s lasagna.