Jay Duplass grew up in New Orleans playing a very defined role: Director.
While Jay said his younger brother Mark was his collaborator as they “made things,” including magic shows and movies, Mark was always the subject, in front of the camera. Jay was behind the camera. His job was to make all their crazy ideas work, he said: “Mark would throw us off a cliff and I would make sure we had a parachute and food.”
So it came as something of a surprise when showrunner Jill Soloway decided that Jay was perfect casting as Josh Pfefferman in her new Amazon series, “Transparent.”
He wasn’t sure, having just played a small roles in a Joe Swanberg movie and “The Mindy Project” and taken one intensive Sandy Meisner class in Austin, Texas. “It was basically like learning how to be totally vulnerable and divulge all of our hangups and let it rip,” he said. “I took it as a director because I was tired of being scared of actors, and I noticed that like all actors and directors were scared of each other. And I didn’t want that, I wanted to feel them, and understand them, and know how to talk to them and support them. And I feel like that is the biggest difference in my breakthrough as a director, is being able to really love actors and support them. Since then though, I’ve definitely relied on that experience as an actor, just letting things happen to me, and allowing anything and being open to anything.”
He was surprised he had so much fun playing midwife brothers with Mark on “The Mindy Project,” which started when they approached Mindy Kaling to work with them. “You’re comfortable in your own skin on set,” Kaling told him. After logging a few episodes, he said, “‘Goddamn it Mark, why didn’t you tell me that acting was this fun and this easy?’ For him and me it was fun to have fun on set together… I feel like more actors want to direct so they can control things more. I’ve realized I’m not really a control freak. Directing is not the best thing for me personally. It’s not stressful for me to be out of control.”
And after hanging at a party for directors, Soloway insisted he was perfect casting for 35-year-old super-charismatic Los Angeles Jewish sibling Josh Pfefferman on “Transparent.” “I’m not your guy,” he said. But she made him come in and read. And the three siblings riffed. “I think I’ve seen enough,” Soloway said. She was not to be denied.
“Yeah, so I kinda got Mark and our producer Stephanie Langhoff’s blessing to try this out,” he said. “But at the time I still just thought, ‘I’m gonna do a pilot for a web show —who knows what’s gonna happen?’ Amazon was not proven yet. Nobody knew what was gonna happen.”
That was long before everyone heaped praise and awards on the series that helped to define the new Amazon.
And so Duplass found himself acting on a TV series at the exact same time that he was launching “Togetherness,” his own HBO half-hour comedy series with Mark that he was writing, directing and executive producing.
One thing the prolific Duplass brothers know how to do is juggle. They’re accustomed to keeping multiple film and TV projects at various stages of production in the air at once (“Cyrus,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Animals,” “Tangerine,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”). And so they did.
Jay was surprised at how easy acting came to him. “It felt magical when we were shooting the show,” he said. “But you have a different experience when you’re an actor. You’re just going along and it feels great and I was really relating to all the people in it, and then six months later we won a Golden Globe. And I still am reckoning with it and having a weird experience in midlife where I’m kind of changing careers and wondering if maybe this is not only what I like more, but am better at?”
What really surprised the neophyte actor with no publicist (he has one now) was a recent Critic’s Choice Supporting Actor nomination for “Transparent,” which means that Emmy voters might actually pay him heed, as they did last season with Bradley Whitford.
Now, he realizes how hard directing is. “In my mind, I’m just in Jill’s show, helping her make this beautiful piece of art,” he said. “Just in this very, sort of internal caveman way that Mark and I have described that we’ve made a lot of our stuff. We’re not that conscious about it at all. We just get excited about things and we make things. But it did wake me up a little bit, and I also have just been enjoying just how fun it is to act and what it does for me personally. It’s good for me, it gets me in the world. Your job as an actor is to be emotionally present, connect with other human beings, to do physical tasks throughout the day, or in the case of ‘Transparent,’ have a ton of sex.”
While he’s clearly not hung up about sex, those scenes are “not the easiest thing for me,” he admitted. “The hardest part about the show is the sex stuff. It’s actually moved far away from that—it was a big part of season 1— and now we’re going so emotionally and spiritually deep into the characters, it’s way less about sex at this point.”
In the season 2 finale, there’s a scene with the three Pfefferman siblings, all single at that moment, sitting on the bottom of the pool having a tea party, sipping their cups, pinkies flying. It captures the feeling of siblings who still connect to their youth together.
“Jill mentioned it and we all three said, ‘Oh my God, that is perfect. It is absolutely perfect,'” Duplass said. “It was one of the few things that wasn’t improvised. My feelings about Amy [Landecker] and Gaby [Hoffmann]: I love them so much and we have connected so much as human beings, and we all have siblings that are very close to us, so we understand that.
“And one of the things that Jill and I talked about a lot is this sibling partnership throughout life, which is more common than I thought it was, now that I’m actively talking about it. The fact that Mark and I are more like fraternal twins, we’re very very different but we have evolved as one unit in a lot of ways, and how beautiful that is, and also how incredibly challenging that is for your own identity and who you are.”
Did joining Mark’s profession allow Jay to separate from his brother a bit? “Yeah, it’s like a weird, positive conscious uncoupling.”
For a long time, he has played the older brother role. “That’s something that Jill has with her sibling Faith who writes on the show. This idea that like… am I ever going to find a ‘soul mate’ when my sibling is my soulmate? Mark and I, when we were 30, we had —in our real lives— a conscious uncoupling when we were realizing that all the women we were dating prior to that point would get into a relationship with us and after a year they would just be like, ‘Screw you guys. You guys are at, like a 10 with each other and we’re like peaking at a five.’ It felt limited, and we felt it too.”
And so when Mark and Jay each got together with the women who would eventually become their wives, “We almost consciously decided, ‘OK, we need to not be totally obsessed with each other and treating each other like a life partner.’ And that’s something that actually we explore in Season 3 of ‘Transparent’ with Gaby’s character and Josh. It’s been hinted that they have this spiritual connection, that they form their own partnership to get through the difficulty of their childhood. So we flirt with the Grey Gardens potential of Gaby and Josh in Season 3. These are things that I’ve thought about and been through with Mark, that Jill has tapped into and knows how to bring to the surface.”
How did he learn to be a good actor? “The biggest acting lesson I ever learned was from Susan Sarandon when she showed up on our set for ‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home’ and she was nervous. She was like a teenager, with all of the emotions ready to go, and vulnerable and excited. At that point, I learned that your job as an actor is more just being totally vulnerable and available to anything that might happen to you. And in a weird way I guess that’s how I’ve always felt in my life. I feel like the way that I am is actually the way that actors are supposed to be.”
What about his behind-the-scenes roles? “When I write and direct, which I am proud of and have worked very hard to get good at,” he said, “I really have to work hard to get to that place where I’m like holding the whole universe in my arms and telling everybody what to do,” he said. “It’s somewhat acting like you absolutely know the right thing at all times, which is not the case at all. I just firmly believe that when you’re making a piece of art, embracing the unknown is the biggest part of it. And I feel like I live in the unknown, and being an actor is weirdly natural for me to live in that space.”
As for the balance between television and movies, Duplass “is mostly just going with the flow,” he said. “I initially got really excited by the open universe of TV and this idea that stories just continue to evolve and open on long form serial TV, like ‘Togetherness’ and ‘Transparent.’ I love that, but as a creator and a writer/director, Mark and I set up ‘Togetherness’ where we wrote and directed everything. It’s so much work. I look back on it and realize now, we were writing and directing only eight half-hour episodes, but that’s Mark and me writing and directing two and a half movies a year, that we took as seriously as movies. So it’s such a tall order.”
On “Togetherness,” the Duplass brothers gave viewers a rare degree of of intimacy and honesty —sometimes uncomfortably so—about what goes on behind closed doors in relationships. “Our goal was to have a camera or microphone inside of your bedroom,” said Duplass. “That was the idea. Even down to the way that we talked about nudity. I don’t know if we ever had any nudity involved in a scene that was supposed to be sexy. You know, like the nudity was sometimes during sex scenes, but those sex scenes were like power struggles.
“And the nudity was what we often call incidental nudity or domestic nudity. We were interested in just what that looks like, when you’re living with somebody for ten years. You know it’s just not lit up and meant to entice. It’s a part of the whole way that people relate to each other.”
This kind of “real” sex and intimacy can be off-putting, Duplass admitted: “People get squeamish about it. It’s not the easiest show to watch. My friends and peers watched ‘Transparent’ and ‘Togetherness’ equally and they would say about ‘Togetherness,’ that they had to gear up for it. And when they would watch it with their husband or their partner…People would talk about the dangers of watching it with your family, yeah.”
So it was not a good day when HBO did not renew “Togetherness” for a third season. (Mark has been lobbying for Emmy consideration even so.)
“It was definitely hard and shocking,” said Jay. “I think ratings were a part of it. And they were very frank about it: ‘There’s a lot of changes going on at HBO right now.’ And we now know a big part of those changes [long-time chief Michael Lombardo is out, replaced by comedy executive Casey Bloys].
“HBO has always been the leader of the free TV world,” he said. “And now Amazon and Netflix and FX and maybe even Hulu are clearly challenging the system, so I think they’re just re-figuring everything out. One of the bummers about it is the feeling that maybe it’s not enough just to have a great show. The interesting thing about ‘Togetherness’ is that there is no platform for it at all. It is a show about people in relationships. That’s it. It’s a low concept in a way, it’s almost ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ but like ‘art version,’ the Sundance version. I tweeted this morning, ‘Are there more TV shows than people now?'” He laughed.
Meanwhile, HBO is encouraging the Duplasses to come up with something new. “Mark and I have never been short on ideas, so we’re definitely brewing up something else we could do.”
On the other hand, “Transparent” hit the zeitgeist at just the right time. It boasted that splash factor, being at the forefront of a civil rights movement.
With “Togetherness” off the platter, the Duplasses do have room to do other things. The movie business is tricky to navigate these days, even on the Duplass indie model. “In terms of movies, it is weird to see the system change,” said Duplass. “Mark and I are finding our little corner of the sandbox as usual, and we have our deal with Netflix now where they’re basically supporting us making the really small films that we want to make. We made that deal about a year and a quarter ago at Sundance. And we’ve since sold a lot of our little movies to Netflix and made similar deals, but what we have produced for Netflix to release is yet to come out. But in the next six months, those four films should all be released.”
If they did TV again, Duplass has learned from Soloway, and would rather adopt more of a showrunner role rather than “’We’re two brothers who try to do everything with their hands,’ you know?”
With the predominantly female writers’ room on “Transparent,” Duplass was able to weigh in on his character. “I talk to them constantly about what my instincts are and what I think Josh would do, and it’s just a giant free-form conversation,” he said. “It’s the best creative process in the world. It really is just a magical unfolding. And we are trying to listen to the Pfeffermans telling us what they want us to do. They’re the leaders.”
At the beginning of Season 3, Soloway asked the actors to tell them what they want to do and what they want to see, said Duplass, “so they can kind of pitch the general arcs of our stories. I spent two days thinking about it, full time. And I wrote them a giant treatise on Josh and what I would like to see him do and what I think he would do and did it with ‘Use it all, don’t any of it. I don’t care, I’m honored to be on the show and I trust your instincts 100 percent.’”
And Jay is now getting more acting gigs like ’90s New York comedy “Landline,” in which he stars opposite Jenny Slate for her “Obvious Child” writer-director Gillian Robespierre. “It feels so natural,” he said. “So that’s been amazing. I’m just going to to go with my instincts.”
So far, that’s served him well.