Mark Duplass likes to work – and the more job titles, the better. In 2012 alone, he appeared in four movies, doubled as a producer on one of them (“Safety Not Guaranteed”), did his usual 13 episodes as Pete on FX’s “The League,” and wrote and directed “The Do-Deca Pentathlon,” his latest filmmaking collaboration with brother Jay Duplass. (Their previous films include “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” and “Cyrus,” among others.) And tonight at 9:30, the brothers Duplass make their latest on-camera appearance on FOX’s “The Mindy Project” as Brendan and Duncan, a pair of midwives who are competing with Mindy’s obstetrics practice.
I spoke with the brothers back in December (shortly before the release of “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which Mark is part of a massive TV Character Actors On Parade supporting ensemble) about how they hooked up with Mindy Kaling, what it’s like to play brothers on screen, and whether Mark prefers one of his many showbiz identities to the others.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you wind up with this job on “The Mindy Project”?
Mark Duplass: We called Mindy to a meeting a while ago to talk to her just because we loved her and her spirit and sensibility and all of that, and talked about making a movie together at some point, and had a little love fest. And then a few months later, I got an email from Mindy saying, “Hey, do you want to come and play a Type-A midwife on the show?” Which I thought was a very cool character. She said it would be a brother practice, which I thought would be cool, and we started talking about who could play the brother, and she was like, ‘What about Jay?’ I got extremely excited about that idea, because Jay and I have not played brothers together and honestly have never played onscreen together before, so that was really exciting. And it all came together very quickly, and I think we were going to shoot maybe a couple of episodes, and we all had such a good time that they came to us and said, ‘Do you want to do a bunch with us?’
You’ve done enough projects together; how is this the first time you’ve been on screen together as brothers like this?
Jay Duplass: I have been trying to get on screen, but I am trapped behind a camera. The best I can do is stick my toes out and point the camera down at the toes.
But has acting been something you’ve wanted to do?
Jay: Mark and I both studied acting together back in Austin when we were coming up. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and always loved. It’s not an agenda I ever felt like I needed to push. That being said, it’s really fun, and I’m comfortable doing it. Obviously, being able to act with Mark in the first larger thing that I’ve ever done was pretty comforting and made it a lot easier for me. I love it, I think it’s fun and would definitely do it again.
I did a radio appearance with Steve Rannazzisi a few weeks ago, and he said you guys film “The League” for three months and then have the rest of the year to do your many other projects. You two have a million different things in the pipeline at once. I’m wondering, Mark: do you consider any one thing to be your primary job? Is it the filmmaking, and everything else is subsidizing that? Or do you just want to do as many kinds of things as you can?
Mark: For me and for Jay, I think we’re just looking for the most inspired project we can find at the moment. Sometimes, that’s a little documentary for Jay. Sometimes, that’s a tiny little movie to act in for me. And sometimes, it’s us directing a studio movie. In terms of the priority, it all begins and ends with me and Jay as writer-directors. I think that is the most paramount portion of our careers. It’s hard to find interesting, inspiring projects, it’s hard to stay inspired, and we like to be as flexible as we can to finding where that pops up.
Obviously, you’re having fun on “The League,” but have there ever been times where you’ve taken a job only to subsidize the things you’re more passionate about? Or have you been lucky enough that you haven’t had to do that yet?
Mark: We haven’t had to do that yet, thank God. I think we were offered opportunities, particularly early on. We got some really good advice from filmmakers who were more experienced and older than us: ‘Don’t do stuff just for the money, because it will probably be bad and you will probably take the fall for it.’ That being said, there are things we do that do give us more money. Thank God for “The League,” because it does provide a nice paycheck. And thank God for movies like “Cyrus” and “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” where we actually got paid to make movies. We’re very fortunate that we’re at that phase in our lives where we’re getting paid to do the things we like to do.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is about to come out. The hype is really strong. Do you feel like this is going to be the most high-profile thing you’ve been involved in so far, Mark?
Mark: I don’t know. I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to go see it on Monday night at the premiere, and can talk in a more educated way about it after I’ve seen it. It’s always hard to say what is going to be high profile or not. One thing I can say about that movie is that, as different as it is in content from what Jay and I have been doing, it’s very similar in shooting process and style. It’s three roving cameras, and it’s made a lot with the documentary ethic that we also employ in our own films. It just so happens you’re just dealing less with passive aggressive interpersonal dynamics and more with large, smart CIA headquarter printouts and overhead and such.
It’s starting to win a bunch of critics awards, it’s probably going to get a lot of Oscar nominations. In terms of what it means for your career and your ability to keep doing the passion projects you do, what kind of impact do you think that could have?
Mark: Completely indiscernible. And I’m not just saying that. Jay and I once made a three dollar short film in our living room, and it’s the worst sounding and worst looking thing you can ever imagine. And that thing did more for our career than anything has ever done. That is the movie that got us into Sundance and got us agents and people still quote this little tiny three dollar short film from 2003 back to us on the street. You never really know what’s going to make things stick. Jay and I were executive producers on a little movie called “Safety Not Guaranteed” that we thought would maybe play Sundance and do okay. And it turned out to be a phenomenon. I did a huge movie with Lawrence Kasdan (“Darling Companion”), enormous cast, that didn’t do as much as some of the smaller movies did. It’s really hard to discern. The key is to keep your expectations in check and let the chips fall out.
I really liked “Safety.” Would you have taken that role if you were not a producer on it? Is that something where you would have been comfortable just being a hired hand?
Mark: Probably, because I really liked the filmmakers. That said, and I don’t want to toot our own horn here, but that movie was sitting around for two years before Jay and I got our hands on it and said, “This is a small cast. Let’s just get a very small amount of money and go make it, as opposed to waiting for the millions of dollars.” I’m not sure that movie would have gotten made if Jay and I hadn’t taken it and forced the filmmakers to make it for peanuts.
Jay, since Mark is the guy with more on-camera experience at this point, when you were doing the first “The Mindy Project” episode, were you looking to him at all, or were you thinking, “I know what I’m doing; I don’t need him for that”?
Jay: I definitely felt comfortable, and I think a big part of that is just due to Mindy herself and the kind of environment she creates. And honestly she’s a great writer, so you kind of just know what to do with your character when the situation is engineered really well. I certainly was very comfortable to be interacting primarily with Mark, and the fact we were playing brothers; that’s something we know a lot about. I think the other thing that was just kind of nice, I guess, is that Mark and I have been living on film sets for the last 15 years of our lives. At first, it was like, ‘Why am I even in this?’ But after a while, I realized I’m actually really comfortable on a film set. I don’t get nervous. It feels like home. It was a surprisingly comfortable experience overall.
Has it generated any kind of itch you feel the need to scratch by doing more acting?
Jay: (laughs) I’ll tell you this: One of the amazing things about acting is it’s such a different experience from directing, especially the way that Mark and I direct. We show up on set and create a documentary-style experience. So our brain hurt so bad the entire day just trying to figure out what’s happening, how can we alter it, can we shift it? When you’re acting, it’s an absolutely different mindset. You actually start from a single point and just live in a microcosm. For me, it was surprising how fun it was. I really can’t stress more just how different and how fun the experience was. Mark has told me about this over the years: when he gets to act, he gets to really let go. You really get to turn your sort of intellectual brain off and just create something purely from the heart. You can’t necessarily control it, control the tone and all the things we would normally contral as directors, but it’s fun, man. It’s really fun. And I would absolutely do it again.
Mark: Plus, you get to throw shit at PAs and demand your coffee is a certain temperature.
Jay: We can still do that as directors. But when you’re an actor, you actually have the energy to pick up the cup of coffee and throw it. When you’re a director, you don’t have the strength.
Mark, to pick up on what Jay said, given the number of things you’ve done in front of the camera, is it always easy for you to just turn off the directorial side of your brain so you’re not thinking about how you would shoot it? Obviously, you’re not going to be telling Kathryn Bigelow or Lawrence Kasdan what to do, but in your own mental process, are you able to say, ‘I’m just an actor. I’m not worrying about the tone of this or how it’s being set up’?
Mark: I can do that, and the reason is I’m actually not a control freak in that way. Part of what I’m doing when I’m acting is trying to learn from other people and blend into their process and their set so I can, quite frankly, steal shit from them and use it in me and Jay’s movies. There are some times when the filmmaker in me is useful. Like the movies I make with Lynn Shelton, like ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ and ‘Humpday,’ because they’re entirely improvised, sometimes the narrative requires some reconstruction in the process, and I have such a good friendship with Lynn, and neither of us are threatened by each other – that’s where the filmmaker side of me is useful and does come out. But I am more than happy to shut that down and just go into pretty face mode. That’s fun for me.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org