Being talented and ambitious with very little sense of one’s personal limitations has its drawbacks. Mark Duplass learned this the hard way in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where he spent half a week pulling all-nighters while promoting three movies at once. He’d produced all of them, starred in two, and written one. “It was wild, because I’m not, like, a 25-year-old single filmmaker. I have a kid and I’m in two marriages, one with my brother and one with my wife,” says Duplass, 35, referring to his most frequent collaborators, his actress-director spouse, Katie Aselton, 33, and his writer-director-producer sibling, Jay, 38. Dealing with so much work and family, he says, “was really exhausting.” But, he adds, “These are ridiculously high-class problems.”
First on his Sundance plate was a screening and party for the mostly improvised comedy Your Sister’s Sister, his second collaboration with his Humpday director Lynn Shelton, a Toronto International Film Festival hit that IFC bought last fall. Duplass plays a guy grieving over the death of his brother who shares a disastrously drunken evening with the sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) of his best friend (Emily Blunt). The next day he did interviews and attended a dinner, then went to the midnight premiere of Black Rock, a survivalist thriller he wrote and produced that Aselton directed and stars in, along with Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell. He spent all night negotiating Black Rock’s sale and then did a full day of press for Safety Not Guaranteed, a romantic comedy with Aubrey Plaza that he and Jay produced in which Mark plays an eccentric looking for a companion for time travel. Then he had to help sell that one. He hardly slept for four days. “We’re all worried about him,” says Jay. “If he stops moving, he’ll die.”
As if to prove the point, by the time Duplass and I talk at 9 a.m. on Presidents’ Day, he’s already been up and working on scripts since 4:45. He’s also tended to his 4-year-old daughter, Ora, and taken a moment to watch the sun rise.
Duplass has been a film-festival success for years, thanks to charming micro-budget comedies almost no one saw, featuring, say, two straight buddies trying to shoot a gay porno together (that would be Humpday), or a villain who terrorizes people with a paper bag over his head (Baghead). This year he just seems to be toiling more, in higher-profile projects. In March, not only are he and Jay promoting Jeff Who Lives at Home, a deadbeat odyssey they wrote and directed, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon, but they’re also going to South by Southwest with The Do-Deca Pentathlon, a comedy they filmed years ago and only recently found time to finish about two out-of-shape brothers competing in their own private 25-event Olympics. In April, he’s in Darling Companion, starring Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline. And this fall, he’ll appear in his fourth season of FX’s fantasy-football sitcom The League. (Aselton is also a series regular, but she plays someone else’s wife.) All told, his IMDb page lists eight upcoming features, one documentary, and two short films.
Perhaps because he’s so type A, Duplass likes to make movies about characters who are anything but. The Duplass brothers’ biggest hit so far (meaning it made $7.4 million) was 2010’s Cyrus, starring Jonah Hill as a 21-year-old who lives at home with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and sabotages her new relationship (with John C. Reilly). Jeff is about another man-child (Segel), on a quest for the meaning of life while trying—and failing—to get to Home Depot. The film’s slacker-hero is a loving tribute to the people the Duplasses grew up around as Catholic schoolboys in New Orleans and encountered while at film school in Austin. “There’s a Zip Code in Austin, 78704, that is not just a Zip Code; it’s a state of mind,” says Mark. “A lot of people like Jeff live there. Sort of neo-philosophers in cargo shorts and Tevas, making $7,000 a year. You can call them losers, but to me, Jeff is such a dreamer. He has a deep belief that there’s a great destiny out there for him, and he’d rather have nothing than mediocrity. I think he has a shit-ton of integrity. I would love to be more like Jeff.”
He can’t be more like Jeff, though, he admits: “Jay and I have spent too much time in therapy and living privileged lives to be that un-self-aware.” Plus, he adds, “If I’m sitting on a couch for more than half an hour, I feel guilty, so I get up and go write or produce a movie or whatever.”