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After decades of making films about people in search of, finding and then re-examining their identities and place in the world, Jay Duplass is doing some reevaluation of his own. Fifty percent of a filmmaking duo with his brother Mark, Jay was the half that stayed largely behind the camera, writing and directing films – The Puffy Chair, Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home – that made them indie stars and eventually, benevolent overlord-enablers of many of the young filmmakers they’ve inspired. Now, Duplass finds himself a bona-fide Critics’ Choice-ified actor, courtesy of the persistent Jill Soloway.
Duplass is the kind of guy who’s always ready to help out a fellow creator, so when Soloway was having trouble casting the role of Transparent’s man-child Josh Pfefferman, he was happy to suggest a number of names for the part. Instead, Soloway became convinced Jay Duplass was the name she wanted. And these days, no smart person in the business holds out on Jill Soloway for long. In its review of “Amazon’s first great series,” Slate wrote, “Perfectly played by Duplass, Josh has any number of wonderful qualities: He’s funny, he’s dirty, he’s sweet, he has a sort of adorable, bumbling, apologetic Hugh Grant by way of shaggy hipster Los Angeles vibe, and, most of all, he’s interested in interesting women—whom he essentially collects, not through any deliberate maliciousness, but out of a kind of perpetual need.”
If Duplass had his doubts in the beginning, it was nevertheless his nature to be open to the idea. “I just firmly believe that when you’re making a piece of art, embracing the unknown is the biggest part of it…and being an actor is weirdly natural for me to live in that space.”
If you choose a career in independent film, you’re pretty much guaranteed permanent residence in that space. In 2003, that meant being a 30-year-old University of Texas film MFA living on $17,000 a year while peers seemed to be passing him by. “I had gone to a Catholic prep school where everyone was rich and having kids by the time they were 30. But [Mark and I] never got jobs,” he said in a recent interview. “We decided to just keep moving our art forward, because we believed from the beginning, and I still believe, that you don’t get to be a director by rising up through the PA ranks. You get to be an assistant director by rising through the PA ranks.”
That year, desperate after a series of early failures to define themselves as filmmakers, Jay and Mark made their three-dollar, hail-Mary short This Is John, submitted it to Sundance, and suddenly found themselves indie film darlings, a title that comes with buzz, if not a lot of cash. The upside? “When you don’t have any money and no one believes in you, and you have nothing, you just do it all,” Duplass told a group of film students this year. That established the scrappy, distinctive aesthetic that became a Duplass Brothers trademark. It also created a loose, collaborative and improvisational on-set environment that became a recruiting vehicle for A-list actors looking for an artistic experience they rarely found on big Hollywood movies. Which in turn recruited big Hollywood interest in Jay and Mark Duplass. So once people do believe in you and you have money, what do you do?
Pretty much what you’ve always done: tell stories that reflect your endless fascination with humans and the confused, funny, mundane, lonely and profound moments that comprise our everyday lives. Duplass’ genius as a writer and director is helping us recognize and appreciate them as such. “[Mark and I] are able to laugh at ourselves in our most desperate moments. We weren’t necessarily able to do it in public, but as it turns out, we were able to do it on film and it turned out that’s what people want us to do.” People, HBO, Netflix, et cetera.
Those human stories – particularly of familial bonds in all their destructive and redemptive glory– are ones he’s now telling as an actor, not just in Transparent, but also to widely praised films like Landline, Outside In, Beatriz at Dinner, and Manson Family Vacation, which he both executive produced and starred in. Duplass plays one of two brothers on a dubious road trip, and was widely praised for his chemistry with co-star Linas Phillips. One would hope so. If he can’t play the role of a brother, you’d have to wonder what he’s been doing for the past four decades of his life and career. “Before shooting, we talked a lot about the complexity of being brothers, and how they push your buttons, yet also know you better than your wife does. It can piss me off, but at the same time, you know how to make your brother laugh more than anyone.”
So now what? The Emmy-magnet Transparent coincided with writing and directing the HBO series Togetherness, as well as a string of exec-produced projects including The Overnight, 6 Years and 2015’s acclaimed Tangerine. He and Mark have a four-picture deal with Netflix, a partnership with creative agency Donut, and their HBO series Room 104 premieres in late July. The stress of an absurd schedule doesn’t seem to be his biggest dilemma; on the contrary, it seems to be creative fuel. The dilemma, as its always been for Duplass, remains an existential one. During the last season of Transparent, he mused to IndieWire “I still am reckoning with acting 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?” To which we say, since when is this Sophie’s Choice? As a compulsive and gifted storyteller, it’s his privilege to do both. And in our humble, Duplass-fan opinion, a creative obligation.