Contrary to his current ubiquity, Mark Duplass is not an overnight sensation. Before spending the first chunk of 2012 touring the biggest film festivals (namely, Sundance and SXSW) and appearing on red carpets across North America, Duplass was a simply a niche director/screenwriter/actor whose fans either knew him from his lo-fi indie films, such as The Puffy Chair and Humpday, or as Pete in FX's fantasy football-centric sitcom The League.
Now, the on-the-rise actor is attached to star in one of this year's most talked-about films, Kathryn Bigelow's yet-to-be-titled flick on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and he's currently taking press calls for four new films: Darling Companion, Safety Not Guaranteed (which opened last weekend), The Do-Deca Pentathalon, and, most recently, Your Sister's Sister, which opens tomorrow in limited release.
In the Lynn Shelton-directed Your Sister's Sister, Duplass plays Jack, a disenchanted man, grieving over the loss of his brother, who retreats to his best friend's (Emily Blunt) beach house to find solace from his problems, only to discover that her half-sister (Rosemarie Dewitt) is already there with the same idea. What follows is a series of unwanted intimate encounters that tests the already complicated relationship between the trio.
Complex spoke to the evidently restless, multi-hyphenated Duplass about why he stays perpetually busy, how he tapped into his relationship with filmmaking partner and brother Jay Duplass for Your Sister's Sister, and his goal of increasing his leverage as an actor.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
So I can imagine you’ve been a little bit busy with two movies coming out back to back.
It’s been a little nuts, but not too bad.
It seems like you’re kind of used to this hectic schedule.
Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a lot of movies coming out right now. It’s sort of an odd ball of stuff I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. I think it looks like I am a total work maniac, which is about 75% true. I am definitely a maniac, but I’m not as crazy as this summer might suggest.
So let’s talk about Your Sister’s Sister. I read that you came up with the idea. What exactly inspired you?
It was part of a document that my brother and I keep as filmmakers and there's probably a hundred movie ideas on there that we think maybe we'll make someday. This was just one of those. We just kind of assumed that we wouldn't make it together because a dead brother in it is not a movie two brothers want to make. We wouldn't be able to find the humor in that, basically.
So, I had such a good time making Humpday with Lynn and I was in a place where I was being offered some movies to act in that I didn't really love and Lynn had one of her movies fall out on her. So there was that little gap in our schedule and I called her up and I said, "Hey, here's a movie idea I have, do you want to make this?" She said, "Yes," and we were shooting a couple months later.
Did you always intend to play the lead?
Yeah. I liked this idea of doing something like a Shakespearean bed-switching comedy, in its form. In order to avoid the movie turning into a 90-minute version of a Three's Company episode, we wanted to root it in something more emotional for the characters. I liked this idea that hijinx would be ensuing but it's all anchored by the death of someone's sibling. Hopefully, you get this sort of sad version of a comedy. That could be an interesting blend.
The characters are, essentially, really tragic figures. How did you connect to your character, specifically?
I’m very, very close with my brother. The idea that I wouldn't have him in my life is a big thing. Everything I did in the movie was tinged with this general idea of losing someone that's one of the most important people in the world to you. When you’re playing a character like that, your highs are only so high and your lows are only so low and that’s affects that way you look at everything. So that was a good base to approach the character with.
I heard that you guys improvised a lot in the movie, but it wasn't your first time doing that. How, at all, was this a different experience from your past?
Well, the whole movie is improvised to a certain extent in that you're only working from a treatment. This was an attempt to take a movie a step further. When we made Humpday, it was just getting our friends together and hoping it was good. This time, by including people like Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt, we tried to attract a larger audience to the film with that and also we tried to make a film that had also visual poetry to it that wasn't just close-ups of faces.
We set it in this gorgeous island in the northwest and our cinematographer, Ben Kasulke, did a really good job of mining that bucolic beauty out there. It was a nice hybrid of what was done before and also trying to expand the film into something a little bit bigger.
A lot of the humor in this movie comes from that element of sibling rivalry. Could you relate to that all? I know you’re really close with your brother Jay.
I think that this concept of being remote with people you are very close with—there will be complex relationships, certainly. That's why me and Jay continue to return to them. It's ripe so much potential.
And we all know with family members, on an average Thanksgiving, somebody's crying at 2 o'clock, laughing his ass of at 3 p.m., having a major reconciliation at 4 o'clock despite the fact that he's never going to speak to that person again by 6 p.m. and by nightfall, everybody is drunk and singing weird nursery rhymes from their youth. So, it’s that mixture of anything goes and that wealth of emotions that exist between family members that just seems kind of relentless to me.
Have you ever been in a romantic situation as complicated as the one that plays out in the film?
Hell no! [Laughs.] It was fun to play it. I think the fun of Your Sister's Sister is that the form of the film is in many ways a soap opera. I know that sounds terrible, but the plot points are big and a lot of crazy shit happens. But we wanted to kind of wanted to approach it in another way. We asked, “OK, what if we approach a soap opera in a completely naturalistic way?” I think the movie is very interesting because of that because big things are happening in terms of what these family members do to each other, but hopefully it's delivered in a way that feels kind of normal.
You’re also credited with starting this mumblecore aesthetic. What do you think about that? Do you feel like that pigeonholes you in any way?
It certainly doesn't pigeonhole me in terms of what I want to make. I think that this is not like a Dogme movement. We didn't come up with that name, somebody in the press did. That's fine. They can say what they want to say.
The only problem I have with mumblecore is that I feel like a lot of the movies we're making now are not mumblecore-style films. I'd just really hate to think that someone might stay home and not go see Your Sister's Sister because they'll say, "What's mumblecore? I don't know what that is. It sounds pretentious so I'm not gonna go." That would bum me out because this is a movie for everybody. We didn't make a mumblecore movie for a small section of people.
What attracts you to making these naturalistic films that are rooted in and driven by relationships?
I am a big documentary fan, but I'm also a big fan of classic Hollywood cinema with big intense plotting. I like that combination. Just because a movie is naturalistic doesn't mean there's no story going on. They're not just people walking down the street and talking.
So I like this combination of big, heavily plotted stories but giving them somewhat of a documentary aesthetic. You feel like the characters are your next door neighbors, you know? There's really no reason why, just that I fuckin' love it. It’s just my taste level and I feel its what I’m good at. So, I'm going to stay in that zone until I feel like I can be good at doing something else.
We talked about this earlier, but what you’re kind of infamous for now is how much you’re working non-stop. What drives you? What is ultimately the end goal?
I think that would be like a two- to three-year therapy session with you and me if you really want to get into that. [Laughs.] The long and the short of it for me is that I don’t really know why I am compelled to take a lot of stuff on at a time. I know that I love it. I am a very tenacious person. When I see something I love I go, I go crazy for it.
To a certain degree, I feel like I'm in my prime right now, in terms of my ability to make stuff. I haven't hit it big. I'm not all rich and comfortable and I haven't lost my edge, but I'm also not so broke that I can't function in the world and make stuff. I'm in that sweet spot and I want to make as much good stuff as I can. Sometimes you just become either irrelevant or inspired, and I am inspired right now and I want to keep moving.
Are there any guys’ careers you’d like to emulate?
There’s definitely something about John Cassavetes and John Sayles that I really love in terms of their approach, which is that they had a mainstream element and an independent element. Cassavetes would act in Hollywood movies, make some money and then go blow it on one of his weird little movies that he directs with his friends and family.
Similarly with John Sayles, he would write these big Hollywood films as a script doctor and then he would go and make his weird art. I really like to have one foot in the door and one foot out and that’s kind of what I'm going for.
Growing up with Jay, did you guys always have the same vision of working in Hollywood and making movies together?
I have a certain currency as an actor and I’d like to increase that as much as possible because that would place a nice amount of control in my hands.
No, we never dreamed that we would ever have a chance to do that. We were just two kids farting around with the camera. So, we really didn’t understand what that meant. There's nobody in the industry in the suburb we grew up.
It wasn't until we started getting movies into Sundance that we started to understand that we might actually be able to make a living doing this. It still seems pretty surreal, I must say.
Did you ever have a backup plan?
Yeah, we worked as editors for a long time to sustain ourselves. We would edit commercials and promos and shit like that. We knew we would be able to make money doing stuff like that but we know ourselves well enough that we knew we wouldn’t be happy doing that. So we went pretty headlong into it.
I read an interview in which you talk about how actors are currency. Do you ever aspire to be that kind of actor?
Yes! I really do. I have a certain currency as an actor and I’d like to increase that as much as possible because that would place a nice amount of control in my hands. It’s a big part of the master game plan. You're right on it. [Laughs.]
You also have the new Katherine Bigelow film, about soldiers hunting down Osama bin Laden, coming up. That seems like a pretty good way to get some leverage.
Like a pretty good step into the currency. I hope you’re right.
Given you take on basically every job in the film industry, do kids ever ask you for any advice? And if so, what do you tell them?
They do. I talk to film schools and stuff like that. My general advice is to make a lot stuff and make it cheaply. I have a belief that most filmmakers have ten bad movies before they make a good one. I just found that when kids make one bad movie, they get upset. They either quit or they spend their entire time trying to social network their movie into the ethos. My advice is that nobody should be seeing those movies. Bury those movies. Then when you make a good one, you won't have to do any work because you'll send it into a film festival and they will program it.
There are no good movies out there. Everybody feels that way. So it really is just spending your time on weekends filming five-minute short films with your friends for two bucks a piece until you have something that you feel like you have found your voice. Take that and expand on it.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)