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Mark Duplass, that hard-working actor whose name you don't know

He's in several films, including the coming 'Safety Not Guaranteed,' and continues to make movies with 'mumblecore' brother Jay.

May 27, 2012|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Writer/actor Mark Duplass has roles in "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Your Sister's Sister."
Writer/actor Mark Duplass has roles in "Safety Not Guaranteed"… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Barefoot and bleary-eyed, Mark Duplass opened the door to his office, an apartment in Los Feliz. "I feel like I'm stoned," the 35-year-old actor said, apologizing for his appearance and trying to wipe the sleep out of his eyes.

He looked every bit the part of his familiar on-screen persona: the overgrown man-child. He plopped down on his couch and started cracking his big toe. Every few minutes, his gray cotton T-shirt rode up, revealing his pale stomach, and he casually pulled it down over his jeans again. Little wonder, it seemed, that he's the guy who gets cast as the schlub who isn't ready to propose to his girlfriend or the dude who thinks his wife won't mind if he films a gay porn video with his male best friend.

Except that Duplass didn't feel high because he had spent the night lighting up a bong in his mother's basement. His wife, actress Katie Aselton, had given birth to the couple's second daughter just two weeks prior. In between diaper duty, the writer-actor-producer-director had been trying to promote four movies now or soon to be in theaters —"Darling Companion,""Safety Not Guaranteed,""Your Sister's Sister"and"People Like Us"— in which he acted.

Duplass might just be the best-disguised Hollywood overachiever of the year. He also co-directed the March release "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"with his brother, Jay, and is preparing to bring out another sibling collaboration, "The Do-Deca-Pentathalon," in July. He produced and co-wrote another 2012 film, "Black Rock," with his wife. Oh, and he also has a role in the FX fantasy football sitcom "The League," set to launch its fourth season this fall.

So no, says his brother Jay: "Mark is absolutely not like many of the characters he plays. He's incredibly emotionally mature.... I mean, he's fairly young to be this successful with two young kids."

Personally and professionally, Duplass is clearly having a moment. After years of making and starring in movies that cost a few hundred thousand bucks, he is in demand both as filmmaker and actor — and says he finally has enough money to be picky about the projects he works on.

Deciding what to do with that moment, though, is the hard part. Duplass says that part of him wants to hone his acting craft — as he did while working alongside established veterans Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest in Lawrence Kasdan's family dramedy "Darling Companion." But he also has to pay his mortgage, which means taking on studio writing gigs with his brother — like adapting "Mule," Tony D'Souza's novel about a young couple smuggling marijuana, for "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips andWarner Bros.

"I'm not a struggling artist anymore," Duplass acknowledged. "I can take my money and pay for my own movies and other people's movies. But it's also, like, my closet is still full of hoodies. So I'm trying to figure out who I am, and what this is. It's an interesting moment."

Duplass and his brother — four years older — grew up in New Orleans, where they went to a Catholic high school that required them to cut their hair and shine their belt buckles. For fun, Mark and Jay would play with their parents' camcorder. Jay was older, stronger and knew how to operate the camera, so Mark jumped in front of the lens. But it wasn't until Mark headed to Austin to study at the University of Texas that he felt free to fully explore artistic endeavors, joining a band and starting to work on more serious film projects with Jay.

In the years after graduation, the brothers hung out in Austin, frustrated by the derivative film ideas they were coming up with. It wasn't until 2005 that they broke out with "The Puffy Chair," a $35,000 project that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and starred Mark as the aforementioned guy trying to decide whether he's ready to pop a ring on his girlfriend's finger.

That picture cemented the Duplasses as founding members of the independent filmmaking movement known as "mumblecore" — ultra-inexpensive, documentary-style movies packed with naturalistic dialogue. Even as they've transitioned to slightly bigger fare — such as 2010's "Cyrus," starring Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly and released by Fox Searchlight, or this year's "Jeff," featuring Jason Segel and released by Paramount Vantage — the brothers continue to use hand-held cameras and encourage improvisation.

As Hill put it: "Everything they do comes from feeling a certain way — it's not over-analytical. And with Mark, it's great because he's an actor, so he understands what would be annoying and what would be positive to hear as an actor within his direction."

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