I met Mark Duplass in a suite in the Beverly Hilton on the day of Donald Trump’s tweets lashing out at trans members of the military. Mark wore a “Bad Hombre” shirt and a patient expression, one which will be familiar to anyone that’s seen him in any of his many, many projects. You could know him from his pioneering work in mumblecore cinema – The Puffy Chair – or as everyman Pete Eckhart on FX’s long-running The League. Or maybe you know him from his most recent work with HBO, the forgotten masterpiece Togetherness. Duplass has a quality about him – a certain blank-slateness – that enables him to play both broad comedy – The League – or grounded drama – Togetherness – without skipping a beat.
The unifying force behind Duplass’ projects is a strong interest in fraternal relationships. He’s long been creatively tied to brother Jay, who plays more of a behind-the-scenes role in both their film and TV projects. Duplass says that we have a long ways to go in representing homosocial relationships.
“I’m also just very interested in intimacy between males,” he says. “That’s something I love. People don’t seem to touch on it or get it right.”
So maybe it makes perfect sense that he’s playing a key role in Discovery’s first foray into scripted series, the true crime anthology Manhunt: Unabomber. He plays a brother in the series, specifically Ted Kaczynski’s brother David. Duplass’ David is a depature for the actor. When he’s gone serious, he’s either played aggressively normal men (Togetherness) or participants in surreal fantasy (the wildly underrated and strange The One I Love). Manhunt sees him playing a normal guy thrust into an abnormal situation, that his brother is one of the most famous domestic terrorists in history. Duplass, as always, excels.
Duplass’ other project, the HBO anthology series Room 104 might be the biggest departure from normal for his career to date. He and brother Jay tapped up-and-comers like Sarah Adina Smith, Megan Griffiths and Dayna Hanson to create an unsettling pastiche of minor American tragedy, all set in a single hotel room. The episodes include a child with a split personality terrorizing a babysitter, a man trying to talk his extremely technologically challenged mother through sending him a manuscript and one of the strangest cult ceremonies I’ve ever seen on-screen.
Duplass and I talked about how his brother is like the Unabomber, representation on TV, and whether or not it’s possible to make apolitical art.
So obviously your brother is not the Unabomber.
No, but there have been times where I felt like he might be. Emotionally and spiritually we have unabombed each other throughout the years.
Do you feel like the brother relationship is the most important dynamic you’ll explore in your career?
Not necessarily. It’s just something we’ve done a lot of, particularly in the past. I think there’s this comment that nobody makes a good piece of art under the age of 30 unless it’s at least semi-autobiographical. I think we leaned on that a lot early on, and I’m also just very interested in intimacy between males. That’s something I love. People don’t seem to touch on it or get it right.
Often people say, “Oh, it’s gay.”
It’s either gay or it’s funny because it looks like they’re gay, whereas my relationship with my male friends, my relationship with my brother is just like so incredibly different than how I see represented. Not as in, “I’m better.” It’s just different. So I think have leaned into that a lot in my career and particularly in my past. But it is a, in my experience, the sibling relationship is just this constantly evolving thing. Mine happens to be more complex because he’s one of my best friends, he’s my brother and he’s my business partner. Our parents live in L.A., so we’re like an old school New Orleans family in a lot ways. We show up to my mom’s house for dinner every Sunday. Our kids are close. We’re very embroiled. When I started thinking about doing this show, and the possibility that something cataclysmic or surprising could come up between us, when you feel like you know someone really well and then that happens, it really made me feel like I could be good in the show, that I could connect to it.
What was your sort of connection process with David Kaczynski? Is it as simple, as “What if my brother was the Unabomber?” or was there a more complex connection process?
Definitely more complex connection process. Certainly the baseline jumping off point is, “I’m so close with my brother, what would this be like?” There is a element of it that is that simple. But what’s interesting that happens just with me and Jay, we literally just delivered a 300 page book about our history and our collaboration together. While I was shooting the show, I was in the middle of writing a book with Jay all about the nature of this brotherhood, this collaboration, the wonderful and terrible nature of it at times for us. And what was interesting to me is you often define yourself – erroneously or not – by how you’re known by your sibling.
Without giving too much away, because this show does some cool stuff with it, David and Ted actually had a pretty close childhood. There’s a lot of Ted inside of David, and Dave Kaczynski felt like there was a time they were on the same path, and he clicked off of it just a little bit, but he could’ve easily become Ted, and Ted could’ve easily stayed with him. And so some of that guilt that he felt for not staying so tied is … I mean that’s a tremendous thing. Jay and I have conversations all the time about the wonderful nature of our alchemy and why it’s worth it to stay together, and the terrible nature of being defined as a brotherly unit and how we want to like punch each other in the face and break off and just be like, “I’m going to do my own thing, get the fuck away from me.”
Obviously you guys are two white guys that are brothers. There’s just no changing that. Something that Lena Dunham, for example, got criticized a lot for is: “Where’s the minority representation in Girls?” So what’s the sort of balance between you want to be representative but you also don’t want to be playing karaoke through a minority character’s mouth.
The only thing that I feel certain about is that one thing that’s been at the core of our storytelling philosophy is we love documentaries. We love that documentaries show everyday people becoming a big story. And so we’ve always liked the sort of lesser-known or underdog protagonist, whatever you want to call it. That dovetails very much organically with what we’re trying to do with representation and with Room 104. So I feel like if we don’t get too Pollyanna about it and don’t get too political and don’t do too much like, “We’re going to save the world through our storytelling,” but just follow the organic storyline which is just like, “I want to tell as many different stories with as many different kinds of lead characters as possible,” that leads me to the right place.
So speaking of political, you look at Game of Thrones or even Harry Potter, something that hasn’t existed for a decade, all these things are now being grafted onto our current political conversation. Do you think it’s possible to make truly apolitical art now? Or are you interested in making a truly apolitical art?
Not really. I mean I don’t know that I would want to do something that specifically avoids it. I don’t see the need to church-and-state that conversation. That being said, I don’t feel the need to go out and make an Ayn Rand-ian piece of art that says each of my characters is representative of a political ideology and watch it play out. I don’t want to go on that side. I’m going to probably continue to do what I do. Representation is important to me.
There’s this story, I don’t even know if this is true. there’s a story about Sam Waterston who did all those Price Waterhouse commercials. There’s a story that he gave every penny of that away, and he never said anything. I was always so impressed by the quiet integrity of that, and I look at that now and I’m like, “That’s wonderful.” But the time for that is actually over and I think you need to be a little louder. It can come across as gross and self-congratulatory but I’m actually trying to be a little louder, and like doing a lot of across-the-aisle bipartisan charitable giving campaigns. Modeling that for people who look at me and Jay like, “I want to be like them.” I’m actually kind of like, “Okay, maybe the power of my voice is not only inside of the story but saying like going on Twitter and running these campaigns.” So it comes on both sides for me basically.
Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays on Discovery starting August 1. Room 104 airs Fridays on HBO.