Jay Duplass Doesn’t Want to Be a Coen Brother Anymore

Jay Duplass is a busy man. When I visited him recently at the comfortable but unostentatious home in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock where he lives with his wife, Jen Tracy-Duplass, a social worker, and their two children, it was during a rare lull between projects. Duplass, who was wearing Vans and a shawl-collared 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 movies such as “The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus,” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” as well as the HBO series “Togetherness.” In the past few years, he has also been increasingly recognized for his late-blooming acting career, which began in earnest in 2014, when the showrunner Joey Soloway handpicked him to play the tortured fuckboy Josh Pfefferman on the Amazon series “Transparent.”

A few years ago, the brothers Duplass decided to branch out and work on separate projects. They still run a production company together, continuing to release, at a quick clip, documentary projects—“Wild Wild Country,” “Sasquatch,” “The Lady and the Dale”—as well as scripted fare, from the HBO series “Somebody Somewhere” to small-budget movies like “7 Days,” which recently won an Independent Spirit Award. In their production work, the Duplass brothers operate a commercially viable endeavor that still seeks to retain the indie impetus which has guided their work from the start, when they were living in Austin during the nineteen-nineties. (They are both U.T. grads.) “ ‘Togetherness’ was a standard studio-TV-budget show. There was nothing forcibly discount about it,” Duplass said. “But we do believe in a model of making things as cheaply as possible.” To that end, the brothers often ask for a lower-than-usual budget from studios and streaming platforms. “Our movies are made so efficiently that we often do return back end not just to us—but we also have a system where, normally, every single person who works on a film has a piece of back end,” he said.

In the past couple of years, Duplass has focussed on acting, with roles verging from the comedic (a self-involved, guru-ish theatre director on HBO Max’s “Search Party”) to the sympathetic (a cancelled, self-doubting professor on Netflix’s “The Chair”). On August 1st, he will play his most dramatic role yet: an American-in-London hedge-fund manager with murky intentions, on the second season of the HBO show “Industry.” Between shooting “The Chair” in Pittsburgh and “Industry” in Wales, he also managed to direct several episodes for the first season of “Somebody Somewhere” in Illinois. (He is currently shooting the show’s second season.) But, more than anything, Duplass is excited to write and direct his own material. “Over the last several years, with uncoupling from my brother, with becoming an actor . . . I guess I was, like, coming to terms with, ‘Oh, I do really want to direct, I really want to tell original stories,’ ” he told me. “Now I’m like, ‘O.K., what would I actually like to do as me, as an older man, as an original filmmaker?’ ” Our conversation, which took place over the course of several hours, has been edited and condensed.

I mentioned to a friend that I was interviewing you, and she was, like, “What are you going to talk about? Every second he has a project.”

I’m kind of, like, director first, actor second, writer third, producer distant fourth. That’s the least of what I do. Even from the beginning, with me and Mark, Mark was always going on to locations and making deals for a hundred dollars to shoot in their parking lot, talking to agents and talking to press and stuff like that . . . I was always more internal. He’s the more type-A, outward-facing personality. I’m the more nerdy perfectionist, directorially detail-oriented person. I’m the person who’s, like, talking to the actors and the crew and needling the script endlessly the night before we’re going to shoot. I just sent a movie script to somebody that I wrote with a friend of mine. I really want to come back to direct movies. The last one I directed was “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” in 2011. And I directed it in 2010, so it’s been twelve years since I directed a movie. And, because of the pandemic and this accidental acting career I fell into, I haven’t directed and written an original piece of art that I’ve come up with since “Togetherness.”

So many things have happened since “Togetherness.” I became an actor, my brother and I consciously uncoupled as a writer-and-director team. And that has taken a while, not only to process that and move through it but also for me to figure out, well, who am I as a writer-director without my brother? My whole dream from the very beginning was, I just wanna be the Coen brothers. Ever since I saw “Raising Arizona”—it was the first awareness that I had as a writer-director. I was fourteen, maybe. Then I saw pictures of them, and they weirdly looked like me and Mark. One of them is, like, pointy and nosy and black curly hair, and the other one has a blond fro. When I first saw a picture of them, it was like white lightning shooting through my body. Like, Oh, my God!

Yeah, it’s like seeing a picture of Steely Dan or something in, like, 1978, for the first time.

It’s funny that you say that, because Steely Dan is the band that influenced us the most. A similar pairing of two guys 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 that they did. I thought they were so funny and so poignant, and they made the most anticipated movies of the year. They were everything to me, and the fact that they were two brothers who looked like us, who seemed inseparable, and also Mark and I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans. We had no connection to the industry, and so it always just felt—we felt like immigrants to the landscape of movies. No point of entry whatsoever. It was gonna take everything we had. We came from immigrants in New Orleans, not our parents but our grandparents; they lived in row houses next to each other. We’re, like, French and Italian and Jewish and German.

So you have some Jewish roots. Interesting.

I do.

Because you play Jews, on “Transparent” most famously.

And everybody thinks I’m Jewish. I did my 23andMe, and it was, like, minimum fifteen-per-cent Ashkenazi Jewish.

I like those odds.

We know for a fact that our great-grandmother, Irene Stein, whose nickname was “the prune”—she lived to ninety-six and was smoking in the hospital at the very end—we know for a fact that she was a hundred-per-cent Jewish. But there’s more on my dad’s other side, too. It’s interesting to me, because now I’m, like, “Would it be O.K. for me to play Josh Pfefferman now, in today’s climate?”

I think, speaking as a Jew, I don’t really mind if the show is good.

Dude, I feel that way, too. If you do a good job . . . I mean, look. It’s different, too, because Joey Soloway anointed me, in a way, so it’s really like their—it has more to do with their choice, I guess. People ask me to play Jews all the time, all the fucking time. And I tell people all the fucking time, “Hey, I’m not culturally Jewish.” Except for the fact that I was raised Catholic, which is incredibly similar to Judaism. [Laughs.]

Catholics are the Jews of Christianity.

Totally. It’s rooted in guilt and anxiety and food.

O.K., circling back, so you wrote a screenplay—

With a friend. A Jewish friend. [Laughs.] The idea of it was, I think over the last several years, with uncoupling from my brother, with becoming an actor, with coming to terms with the fact that we’re not gonna be the Coen brothers, I guess I was, like, coming to terms with, Oh, I do really want to direct, I really want to tell original stories. We started in this very small way, where Mark and I were making fun of how desperate and pathetic we are onscreen, and now I’m, like, “O.K., what would I actually like to do as me, as an older man, as an original filmmaker—what would I like to do?” And it took a long fucking time to figure some of that out. And it’s taken a few screenplays—

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