Jay Duplass on ‘Transparent’ Without Jeffrey Tambor and His Most Devastating Role Yet
The writer-director on his first leading role in ‘Outside In’ and the ‘traumatic’ aftermath of Jeffrey Tambor’s exit from ‘Transparent’ following sexual misconduct accusations.
Jay Duplass was “very reluctant” to start acting.
His younger brother Mark Duplass was always the actor in the family, dating back to The Puffy Chair, the breakthrough indie hit they wrote and directed together in 2005. But that all changed when he met Jill Soloway at a party close to a decade later.
Soloway had been looking to cast the role of Josh Pfefferman in their Amazon series Transparent when they met Duplass and decided, “It’s you,” Duplass tells me. “And I was confused. I was like, I’m not an actor, I’m making my own show, I don’t think so.” But Soloway insisted.
We’re sitting in the attic of the small Victorian house that serves as the Duplass brothers’ production company offices in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. In black jeans and a grey wool blazer with round tortoise shell glasses and a perfectly tousled mop of salt-and-pepper hair, he looks both older and wiser then the often aimless character he’s played on Transparent for four seasons.
Duplass’ first screen test with co-stars Amy Landecker and Gaby Hoffman — “who are not only my sisters on a TV show but my sisters in real life now” — was “kind of magic,” he says.
“It came to me easier than writing and directing ever did,” Duplass says of his first real acting experience, “which is odd because I’m kind of quiet and shy.” In high school, he says he was annoyed by theater kids who would break into song spontaneously. “I was like, fuck those people, you know what I mean?”
“I thought acting was showboating,” he adds. “I think it’s hard for quieter, more introverted people to get into acting.” But Soloway’s decision to cast him “really changed my life,” he says. “I feel like it’s more of what I’m meant to do than even writing and directing.”
Duplass lives with his wife and two kids just a few minutes’ drive away in Eagle Rock, the L.A. neighborhood “where hipsters go to die/have children,” as he puts it. It’s the same area he and his brother Mark Duplass set and shot their series Togetherness, which aired on HBO for two seasons before being canceled prematurely in 2016.
Now, the fate of Transparent is suddenly uncertain after its lead actor Jeffrey Tambor was fired by Amazon following accusations of sexual misconduct from two of his co-workers on the series, including the actress Trace Lysette, who played a love interest of Duplass’ character. Tambor, who plays the show’s titular “trans parent” Maura Pfefferman, maintains his innocence, saying in a statement that he is “profoundly disappointed in Amazon's handling of these false accusations against me.”
“We all want it to continue,” Duplass says of Transparent. “I think right now where Jill [Soloway] is at is just trying to figure out what that looks like. It’s interesting. To some people, it seems impossible without Maura. But I don’t know.”
He points to the most recent season of the show, in which Hoffman’s character Ali played a more central role. “Her story — or their story now — is more emergent and was taking over that season as it was,” Duplass explains. That fourth season saw Ali struggling with gender identity in new ways that mirror the evolution Soloway has been experiencing over the past few years.
“For me, Maura is about Jill’s parent, who transitioned from being a man to being a woman,” Duplass says. “But Jill, themself, has been going through this transition where Jill is moving to a place that I think is more representative of where non-gender conformity is going, which is not a binary state — ‘I was a man, now I’m a woman.’ Gaby’s character Ali is now embodying that more immediate, more imminent journey. So, from a creative standpoint, I don’t think any of us feel like it’s a dead end without Maura.”
“The whole experience is painful and really hard to process,” Duplass says. But the “huge confidence” he has in Soloway’s “ability to make timely art that enlightens us to what’s coming” gives him faith that the show can move forward without Tambor.
“Jill’s been under so much pressure, not knowing whether Jeffrey’s going to be in the show or not, regime changes at Amazon, whether they need to end the show or re-open it, trying to do justice to the legacy of their family, and at the same time just emotionally processing the implosion of our family of the people who make Transparent,” he adds. “So it’s been an incredibly traumatic time.”
As Soloway tries to figure out how the show will move forward, Duplass is busier than ever.
Last month, Netflix announced a major deal with the Duplass brothers, obtaining the rights to stream their next four films exclusively. The first of the four is an untitled project starring Ray Romano, whom Duplass calls “one of the best actors around” and undeniably the “best thing” on HBO’s failed drama Vinyl. When he saw that performance, he thought to himself, “That guy’s a movie star.”
On top of that, Duplass is bouncing back and forth between writing the anthology series Room 104 for HBO, producing the insane sex-cult docuseries Wild Wild Country for Netflix and starring in films like writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Outside In, which will be released in select theaters on March 30th.
Duplass first met Shelton around the time Mark co-starred in her 2009 film Humpday, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. But they had never worked together until she asked if he would be interested in playing a man who has just been released from prison and relentlessly pursues a romantic relationship with his much older high school teacher.
“I was 100 percent in, just off of that 30-second pitch,” Duplass says. Shelton had written a first draft of the script, but he says he was “so obsessed” with the idea that he offered to pen the next draft himself and ended up with a co-writing credit on the film.
Outside In is Duplass’ first lead role in a movie. Opposite him is none other than Edie Falco, who leaves the iconic characters she played on The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie behind to embody a small-town high school teacher named Carol who sees helping people like Duplass’ character Chris as a way out of her monotonous life and troubled marriage.
For the part of Carol, who spent 20 years trying to get Chris out of prison for a somewhat mysterious crime that was not entirely his fault, Shelton had a specific actress in mind whom she had worked with before. But after Duplass met Falco on the indie film Landline, he knew she would be perfect for the role.
“While I was on that set, I kind of fell in love with Edie Falco all over again,” he says. “She’s just like the coolest lady in the world and very indie-friendly. And by that I mean low maintenance, man, she’s just cool to hang out.” The way she sat on the curb outside between takes instead of retreating to her trailer impressed him.
“I was like, this is a real person,” he says. “And I remember thinking to myself, oh man, this actress that we had lined up is really great, but I kind of wish we had Edie.” When the other actress ended up dropping out of the project, he called Shelton immediately and said, “It has to be Edie.”
For the Outside In shoot, there were no trailers so Falco and the rest of the cast spent their downtime at a VFW in rural Washington. “She was just like hanging out at a table, knitting, and enjoying being part of the heave-ho that is making an independent film,” Duplass says.
Duplass says it was a “blessing in disguise” that he was so busy writing and producing the film that he didn’t have time to think about what it would be like acting opposite Falco until they were on set together. “But there were a couple of moments where we’d finish a scene and it would be like, ‘Holy shit, that’s Edie Falco. What is she doing here in our tiny little movie?’” he remembers thinking.
Unable to draw on his own experience to play a man who has just spent two decades in prison, Duplass watched documentaries about ex-cons who had been “over-sentenced,” which is the case with his character, and tried to understand what it was like for men who went into prison before the technology boom.
Duplass ended up finding one former prisoner in particular who had been locked up for over a decade and based his character in part on him. “He had gone in before smartphones and the internet had been a popular thing and had come out after,” he says. In the film, we see Chris struggle to do basic things the rest of the people in his life take for granted, like send and receive text messages.
“Never before in history has there been such a vast and dramatic change in the way human beings relate to each other,” Duplass says. “Clearly, the world isn’t set up to rehabilitate prisoners or to re-accept them into society. And the technology boom doubles down on that.” To emphasize just how stuck in adolescence Chris is, we see him riding around town in the same too-small BMX bike he had as a teenager.
Duplass also relished the chance to play a “non-privileged person.” Even if Chris is still a straight white guy, he’s from the type of lower-income Washington state county that went to Donald Trump in 2016. “We were shooting in a very economically depressed town in rural Washington, a primarily white town,” he says, “with a lot of people wandering around kind of trying to figure out what the fuck to do.”
“People there in that town seemed to be working a little bit harder every year and getting a little bit less,” he says. “And they’re frustrated. And it helped me understand what that must feel like.”
“It was very eye-opening for me as a privileged, white Democrat,” he says. They shot the movie in the fall of 2016, and they were on location for Trump’s election night victory. “There was a lot of celebrating when he won,” Duplass adds. “It was tough to see that celebration and heartbreaking to think he probably wasn’t going to help them, and he certainly hasn’t.”
Duplass already has a few more acting roles in the can that are set to be released later this year, including a sci-fi thriller that made its debut at SXSW and a sex comedy called Duck Butter co-written by Search Party’s Alia Shawkat. But he can trace it all back to Transparent, the role that he says not only “really changed” his life, but has had a huge cultural impact in terms of understanding and acceptance of the transgender community.
“We have people coming up to us on a regular basis saying, ‘I’m alive because of your show,’” Duplass reveals. “Or, ‘Our family was totally torn apart and now we’re watching your show together and laughing our asses off.’” That extends to friends of Duplass’ parents in New Orleans whom he says watch the show and now understand that trans people are “just like us.”
“I think it really was an opportunity for America to love a trans person,” he says. “Not to, like, be a trans person, but love a trans person, giggle with a trans person and forget that the person was trans.”
“Transparent, I’ve been told, is the second-largest employer of trans and gender non-conforming people after the U.S. military,” Duplass says. “So for that to go away would be a huge blow.”