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Truly Intelligent Romance: A Few Words with Mark Duplass

Since the turn of the decade few people have been as prolific as Mark Duplass. Over the past four years the New Orleans born and raised indie mogul has starred in 11 films, served as a screenwriter on five features (three of which he co-directed with his brother Jay), produced 13 projects (with seven more to be released by the end of 2015), been hired as a recurring cast member on FX’s "The League" and "The Mindy Project," and most recently created an original series for HBO entitled “Togetherness.” It’s safe to say that Duplass could never be accused of being an unambitious laggard. But even amid his hectic life, Mark took time to talk to RogerEbert.com about his role in “The One I Love” (out in theaters/VOD now), sex scenes, film reviewing in high school, and why becoming a movie star is not something he’s particularly interested in.

Dating back to "This Is John" and "The Puffy Chair," you've always had a penchant for drawing from your reality. How much of "The One I Love" is lifting from your relational experience? You've been married now for nearly a decade, right? 

MARK DUPLASS: Yeah, I would say this couple is very different from my wife and me. One thing that has been fascinating to me about all the relationships I've had, even the failed ones, is when you get in that rut and you get in that place where you feel like you're not sure whether you should just lower your expectations a little bit, keep going to therapy, keep working, and just make it work. Or if you should say, "You know what, we shouldn't have to work this hard. It's just time we break up." And that's a fascinating conundrum that I feel like I find a lot of my friends are in and I've found myself in during relationships over the years. So we kind of wanted to start Ethan and Sophie off there. It was a real connection point for all of us involved in the film. Although we're all at wildly disparate places in our relationships, we have all sort of had that experience before.

Has couples therapy ever worked before? 

I haven't done couples therapy, but I think that it definitely works. I know a lot of people who have done it and it can work for sure. It can also be terrible because it can make you just focus on the problems and you start going down a wormhole. It's certainly can be amazing but it's also fraught with peril. 

To shift gears, looking at your career I found that you've played similar characters in many excellent films. In a way, this seems like a departure for you. Are you actively looking for roles in which you're doing some different?

I don't think too much about whether I'm playing a similar or different character necessarily. You know the stories that I play in tend to be more important to me in terms of the decisions I'm making and what I want to do. Also, the people that I'm working with are very important to me. I feel like if I have anything really unique to offer as an actor it's less about what I'm specifically doing in the movie and more about what I draw out of people. I'm good at reading people. I'm good at throwing surprises at people in scenes. Because I'm also a director and a writer and producer, I kind of know how to get great performances out of people that I'm in scenes with. I love the actor John Cazale and I remembering seeing a doc on him and how it said, "Actors love working with him because he will make them better." That's something I kind of aspire to. 

That shows in a lot of your films. It seems people are generally better around you, feeding off your energy. On an unrelated note, you have a theory on sex scenes in movies, yes?

Yeah, I think that most actors are full of shit when they say that, "Oh, it's just like a fight scene. There's nothing sexual at all about it." They say that because it would be inappropriate to say anything else. But I do think the truth is that we are animals, and certain times it does happen that people are—for better or for worse—attracted to someone when you're kissing them. It just happens because there are three parts to our brain and not all of them are extremely intellectual. So I find that funny and I think it's something people don't really like talking about because it seems unprofessional or inappropriate. When the camera is not on most people will tell you that there's at least been one time where they were like, "Oh shit, that one kind of got to me."

I don't see why it's inappropriate to express attraction. It's only natural.

It is what it is. When you're playing brother and sister, the whole goal of yourself as an actor is to feel exactly what you're supposed to feel in that brother and sister way. The only thing that's different is the sex scene, but obviously there can be some impropriety with that. 

The other day you tweeted a photo of a movie review you wrote back in high school of "Before Sunrise." Was there a point in your life where you considered film criticism?

(Laughs) No, I didn't necessarily think I was going to be a critic. I was real cocky in high school and I was a big indie-cinephile and so I was like, "I'm going to take the job as the film reviewer for my high school paper and I'm going to show everybody at school a bunch of cool indie movies." 

Your lede is something like "This is intellectual perfection and the first intellectual romantic film."

The review is a little overwrought with some questionable adjective and grammatic use. But I think my intentions were good. I remember reviewing "My Own Private Idaho" in 8th grade and everybody being like, "You can't review this. That's a weird R-rated movie with a ton of homosexual content. This is a Catholic school newspaper."

I think when you're promoting Linklater you can't go wrong.

Absolutely man. He is my hero. I used to see that dude do Q&A sessions for "Slacker" when I was visiting my brother in college and I was 14 years old. He would get up there in jeans and a t-shirt, and I would be like, "Wait a minute. He's not wearing like a beret and smoking, how is he a filmmaker?" He's just some dude, and he was the guy that made me feel like I could be a filmmaker. A normal person could have something to stay.

Can you imagine working with him? Do you have that bucket list of filmmakers?

Yeah, he would be huge for me to work with as an actor. We've become friendly as I've gotten older and made movies that have more recognition. There are a lot of directors that I really love right now. I like when Bennett Miller is doing inside of the mainstream. I feel like he is one of the few filmmakers that are making bigger movies, but he still is keeping his vision intact. I would follow Kathryn Bigelow off the end of the earth if she asked me to. I just like people who have maintained what they're good at even when they enter the studio system.

I'm interested, as prolific as you've been—writing, acting, directing, producing—what do you want to do next?

It's a valid question because I'm much further along in my career, not only at this age than I thought I would be, but this is further than I would ever get period. Setting goals for myself is a little strange at this point. 

You've just done so much ...

I've kind of done it all. Yeah, it's like what else is there? If it were the early '70s, I would be trying to win an Academy Award. But that system is so fucking crazy right now, I can't even imagine what that requires. So I'm not worried about that. I'm loving exploring television. My brother and I made a show for HBO and that form, creatively for me, is great because I'm new to it and I have a lot to learn. I think we made a great first season of TV, but I also think I can make a better second season. I'm just getting better at the form. That's a way to keep myself vital. I like working with young filmmakers because they bring me new things and bring me enthusiasm. Working with Charlie [McDowell] was like working with a version of my brother and me when we were making "The Puffy Chair." I look for that vitality in my collaborators. I don't want to be that filmmaker who had 10 great years and then just made a bunch of crap because they got out of touch and rich. 

Fame and fortune is something you're wary of, and something you made note of in that conversation with Mike Ryan where you talked about those brief two weeks when "Tammy" blew up. 

It's pretty interesting. I don't know if you've ever watched an interview with Francis Ford Coppola? But you look at the way he talks about himself and how he knows he's not capable of making a unique film anymore, and it tortures him. And I'm just like, "How do I keep myself from doing that?" In terms of the "Tammy" thing that was freaky for me just losing my anonymity for a couple of weeks. That was scary, and that makes me feel like being a movie star is probably not something I'm going to actively seek out. But I am part of the conversation and I'm on all the casts’ lists. I like my corner of the sandbox right now, where I am.

It's a double-edge sword because I would love for you to make a movie as brilliant as "The Godfather," but I would also hate to see you feel awful about yourself. 

(Laughs) I mean look, our system is different right now. It's very, very difficult to make huge budget movie truly as an auteur. There are a handful of guys out there that are doing it, and I'm proud of them, but I think the beatings they take are pretty rough. I don't aspire to make a 50 million dollar epic that also maintains its artistic integrity. I look at that as when you're using all that money it's a commodity, and there's an inherent compromise in that. So why not make something that is viewed as a commodity and do it on your own terms? That's just the way I've always thought. 

Do you think other directors would benefit from using your "instinct oriented" approach to filmmaking?

I don't know ... it's hard to say. I feel like you could look at my career and see it as a model to making movies. But, you know, and this is all false humility aside, I don't think that everybody can do what Jay and I do and the way that we produce these smaller movies in particular. And I don't know why that is. A lot of its about curating the right group of people and having the relationships and goodwill that we've built through the years. I'm very fortunate that I'm at a place in my career where people still want to lift me up, and they're not looking to chop my legs off yet. You know what I mean? And as someone who has been in the industry for 10 years, I'm still really blessed to be viewed as an underdog in that way and everybody still wants to help me out. 

It would be nice if your legs stayed fully intact. 

Yeah, you know, what's going to happen is one of my movies is going to breakout somehow and make 80 million dollars, and then everybody is going to attack me. 

And then that's it. Your anonymity will be gone and I won't know who you are anymore and you'll go through some existential crisis. 

But that's the rhythm. People have a huge breakout and then they get a lot of money and then they make a bomb, then they get depressed and become alcoholics, then they get sober, divorced, and then make a new movie. But I don't need that all that shit. I like my corner of the sandbox. I'm good. 

I feel you could probably bypass divorce and alcoholism and be okay. 

(Laughs) Exactly.

What was it like throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game? 

It was so amazing. I got a jersey with my name on the back of it. I got a ball signed. I got a little Cubs hat with an ice cream sundae in it that I'm cleaning and giving to my daughters so they can eat ice cream out of it. I grew up watching WGN and Harry Carey and fucking Ryne Sandberg and I'm a huge Greg Maddux fan. It was kind of epic for me. 

Did that opportunity arise because of "The League" being set in Chicago?

I have no idea how this shit happens. I certainly don't think the Chicago Cubs are major fans of sensitive indie dramadies such as "The One I Love."

I've heard they really like "The Puffy Chair."

Yeah, exactly. I have a sense it came from "The League," but who knows?

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