Jay Duplass is a busy man. When I recently visited him at his comfortable but unremarkable home in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of east Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife Jen Tracy-Duplass, a social worker, and their two children, it was during a rare hiatus between projects . Duplass, who wore Vans and a shawl-neck cardigan (“my wife calls it my Mister Rogers sweater”), is forty-nine. He is best known for the work he has done in collaboration with his younger brother Mark – writing and directing films such as The Puffy Chair, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, as well as the HBO series “Commonality”. In recent years, he’s also been increasingly recognized for his late-blooming acting career, which began in earnest in 2014 when showrunner Joey Soloway handpicked him to play tormented fuckboy Josh Pfefferman on the Amazon series Transparent.
A few years ago, the Duplass brothers decided to branch out and work on separate projects. They still run a production company together and continue to release documentaries in the shortest possible time – “Wild Wild Country”, “Sasquatch”, “The Lady and the Dale” – as well as scripts from the HBO series “Somebody Somewhere” to films with small Budget like 7 Days, which recently won an Independent Spirit Award. In their production work, the Duplass brothers maintain a commercially viable endeavor that still seeks to maintain the indie spirit that has guided their work from the very beginning when they lived in Austin in the 1990s. (They’re both UT grads.) “Togetherness was a standard studio budget TV show. Nothing about it was necessarily discounted,” said Duplass. “But we believe in a model of doing things as cheaply as possible.” To that end, the brothers often ask for a lower-than-usual budget from studios and streaming platforms. “Our films are made so efficiently that we often not only give backend back to ourselves – but we also have a system where usually every single person working on a film has a piece of backend,” he said.
In recent years, Duplass has focused on acting, with roles ranging from the comedic (a self-absorbed, guru-esque theater director in HBO Max’s “Search Party”) to the likable (a canceled, self-doubting professor on Netflix’ ” The Chair”). On August 1, he will play his most dramatic role yet on the second season of the HBO show Industry: an American-in-London hedge fund manager with murky intentions. In addition to filming The Chair in Pittsburgh and Industry in Wales, he also directed several episodes of the first season of Somebody Somewhere in Illinois. (He’s currently filming the show’s second season.) But more than anything, Duplass is looking forward to writing and directing his own material. “In recent years, with the separation from my brother, with becoming an actor . . . I think I’ve come to terms with, ‘Oh, I really want to direct, I really want to tell original stories,'” he told me. “Now I’m like, ‘Okay, what would I actually like to do as me, as an older man, as an original filmmaker?’ ” Our conversation, which lasted several hours, was edited and condensed.
I mentioned to a friend that I would be interviewing you and she said, ‘What are you going to talk about? He has a project every second.”
I’m sort of a director first, actor second, writer third, producer fourth. That’s the least I do. Even from the beginning, with me and Mark, Mark was always going to locations and making deals for a hundred bucks to shoot in their parking lot, talking to agents and talking to the press and so on. . . I was always more inward. He’s more of a Type A, outgoing personality. I’m more of a nerdy, perfectionist, detail-oriented person. I’m the person who talks to the cast and crew the night before shooting and sews endlessly on the script. I just sent someone a script I wrote with a friend of mine. I really want to go back to direct films. The last thing I directed was Jeff Living At Home in 2011. And I directed it in 2010, so it’s been 12 years since I’ve directed a film. And because of the pandemic and this random acting career I’ve gotten into, I haven’t directed and written an original work of art that I dreamed up since Togetherness.
So much has happened since “Togetherness”. I became an actor, my brother and I deliberately separated as a team of writers and directors. And that took a while, not only to process and get through this, but to figure out, well, who am I as a writer and director without my brother? My whole dream from the start was just wanting to be the Coen brothers. Since watching Raising Arizona, it was the first awareness I had as a writer and director. I was maybe fourteen. Then I saw pictures of them and they strangely looked like me and Mark. One of them is pointy and curious and has black curly hair and the other has blonde hair. When I first saw a picture of them, it was like white lightning shot through my body. Like, oh my god!
Yeah, it’s like seeing a picture of Steely Dan or something from 1978 for the first time.
It’s funny you saying that because Steely Dan is the band that has influenced us the most. A similar pairing of two types whose partnership is greater than the sum of its parts. Which probably doesn’t bode well for my solo directing career. [Laughs.]
I wanted to be [the Coen brothers]. I just loved the work they did. I found them so funny and touching and they made the most anticipated films of the year. They were everything to me and the fact that they were two brothers who looked like us who seemed inseparable plus Mark and I growing up in suburban New Orleans. We had no connection to the industry, so it always felt easy – we felt like immigrants to the film landscape. No entry points. It would take everything we had. We came from immigrants in New Orleans, not our parents but our grandparents; They lived side by side in row houses. We are French and Italians and Jews and Germans.
So you have Jewish roots. Interesting.
Because you play Jews, best known on “Transparent”.
And everyone thinks I’m Jewish. I did my 23andMe and it was at least fifteen percent Ashkenazi Jewish.
I like these odds.
We know for sure that our great-grandmother Irene Stein, whose nickname was “the plum” – she lived to be ninety-six and ended up smoking in the hospital – we know for sure that she was a hundred years old. percent Jewish. But there is more on the other side of my father. It’s interesting to me because now I’m like, “Would it be okay for me to play Josh Pfefferman now, in this day and age?”
As a Jew, I don’t think I really care if the show is good.
Dude, I feel the same way. If you do a good job. . . I mean look. It’s also different because Joey Soloway kind of anointed me, so it’s really like hers – it has more to do with her choice I think. People ask me to play Jews all the time, all the damn time. And I tell people all the damn time, “Hey, I’m not culturally Jewish.” Except I was raised Catholic, which is incredibly similar to Judaism. [Laughs.]
Catholics are the Jews of Christianity.
Total. It’s rooted in guilt, fear, and food.
OK, to circle back, so you wrote a script –
With a friend. A Jewish friend. [Laughs.] The idea behind that I think over the past few years has been to break away from my brother, to be an actor, to come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to be the Coen brothers, I think I’ve been like, I have to deal with that come to terms, oh, I really want to direct, I really want to tell original stories. We started off very young when Mark and I would poke fun at how desperate and pathetic we are on screen and now I’m like, ‘okay, what would I actually like to do as me, as an older man, as more original Filmmaker – what would I like to do?” And it took a hell of a long time to figure out some of it. And it took a few scripts—