Hard-Working Auteur

Mark Duplass, Filmmaker and Star of ‘Safety Not Guaranteed,’ Ready for His Close-Up

Marlow Stern talks with the man who has co-directed two films this year and stars in the acclaimed ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ and ‘Your Sister’s Sister.’

Michael Buckner / Getty Images

With the rise of Lena Dunham, creator and star of the acclaimed HBO series, Girls, and Greta Gerwig’s leap to leading-lady status in the romantic comedy, Lola Versus, one thing is clear: Mumblecore has gone mainstream.

“I don’t know that it’s a cultural wave,” says one of the genre’s forefathers, Mark Duplass. “And to all the haters of Girls, all I have to say is, fuck off. Every piece of art has its flaws, but it’s a really inspired show made by a young girl who’s putting herself on the line and exploring a lot of things that are very worthwhile.”

Mumblecore is, for the uninitiated, a blanket term used to describe a genre of DIY films that surfaced in the early 2000s emphasizing micro-budgets, heavy improvisation, and rapid-fire, naturalistic dialogue. The movement gained traction with 2005’sThe Puffy Chair. The film, co-directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, was a critical darling at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival despite being made for just $15,000. In 2010, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, shot on a budget of $50,000, would cause a similar stir. These intimate, emotionally-nuanced films, dubbed “the new talkies,” stand in stark contrast to the Hollywood zeitgeist—one hell-bent on transforming everything from amusement-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) to board games (Battleship) into studio tentpoles.

“I’m totally open to making a movie called Battleship that is about all the guys onboard having passive-aggressive problems with each other and hurting their feelings while they’re on the ship,” jokes Duplass in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Maybe we’ll do that—redefine the blockbuster and make it less about explosions and more about emotional outbursts.”

Duplass isn’t your conventional Hollywood leading man. He fits more in the mold of the schlub leading men being churned out by the Judd Apatow movie factory: slightly overweight, easygoing, and terribly witty. And, while Dunham and Gerwig have received near-relentless media exposure, Duplass has, up to this point, flown relatively under the radar—this despite being one of the hardest-working men in Hollywood.

He’s starring in a pair of critically-acclaimed films: the time-travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, in theaters now, and Your Sister’s Sister, opening Friday. Earlier this year, he co-directed—along with his brother—the dramedy Jeff Who Lives At Home, starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms, and the duo’s next effort, The Do-Deca Pentathlon, will hit theaters in July. Duplass was recently cast in the biggest role of his career, receiving an unspecified part in Kathryn Bigelow’s highly anticipated—and top-secret—film Zero Dark Thirty, about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and is also one of the leads in the upcoming sci-fi film, Convention, opposite Jennifer Aniston. Oh, and he’s also one of the stars of the Fantasy Football-centric F/X series The League, which is now entering its fourth season.

“We shoot an episode every three days, and we just haul ass,” he says. “So I work three-to-four days a week on The League, but I also get down time in the trailer and I get to write my movies and do my other stuff.” He adds, “I will say I’m a total workaholic and a maniac, but I do that within the hours of 9 to 5.”

Duplass, 35, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He and his brother, Jay, who is four years his senior, got their start making home movies as young children, although these weren’t exactly—by his own admission—the types of movies that showed the duo’s future filmmaking talent.

“They were really terrible,” he says with a laugh. “We made a version of The Blob with our blue beanbag throwing it down the stairs and out windows, and we made a movie about a karate master who gets burglarized, kicked out of his house, and then breaks back into his house to try and retrieve it, 7-year-old karate master that I was.”

The young Duplass brothers’ film taste was, according to Mark, “curated” by movies that aired on HBO in the early- to mid-eighties, since the channel showed adult movies all day long. They marveled at films like Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Midnight Express, Annie Hall, and Ordinary People.

“We were watching these really sophisticated adult dramas and it got us very into human behavior and interpersonal dynamics,” he says. “To a large degree, I think what we’re making now are comedic versions of those really personal films from the ’70s and ’80s.”

After the brothers directed a trio of short films, their debut feature, 2005’s The Puffy Chair, premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Since it was made on a budget of just $15,000, the critically-hailed success story became the stuff of Sundance lore, a la Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000), Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (budget: $7,000), and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (budget: $27,000). While the film only made a little under $200,000 when it was released theatrically, it got the duo noticed by Hollywood studios, resulting in their 2010 film, Cyrus—a comedy-drama about a coddled child, played by Jonah Hill.

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“It was in many ways a coming-out party for us, but it also taught us that you didn’t need a huge budget to make a piece of art that connected with people, and we’ve tried to maintain that ethic still,” says Duplass.

It’s only in the last few years, however, that Duplass has really embraced acting. His breakthrough performance, it seems, was in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, which was one of the best films of 2009. Duplass played one of a pair of heterosexual life-long friends—opposite Joshua Leonard—who find themselves stuck in a “mutual dare” to film a porno together. What follows is a bizarre and hilarious game of macho one-upmanship that does a brilliant job dissecting male masculinity, with a hilarious Duplass as master of ceremonies.

He’s currently starring in the quirky comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed, about a checkout clerk (Duplass) who places a personals ad in a local paper asking for someone to go back in time with him. Three magazine reporters, played by Aubrey Plaza, Jake M. Johnson, and Karan Soni, go to investigate the personals ad for a story.

“In the way that I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I thought it had this bizarre sci-fi element but was still rooted in a very emotional story,” Duplass says.

The film was sent to Duplass about a year and a half ago, since director Colin Trevorrow was having trouble getting the film financed. Along with his older brother, Duplass stepped in to help produce the film, and also found himself drawn to the role of Kenneth Calloway, bizarre checkout clerk. Described by Duplass as “an emotionally-broken version of Marty McFly,” Calloway is a relic of the past, sporting a plethora of embarrassing ’80s fashions, including bandanas, Cosby sweaters, and jean jackets.

“I’m a huge fan of the Canadian tuxedo, I don’t know what it is,” he says with a chuckle. “It makes me feel like in some alternate universe, I’m Bruce Springsteen and it’s Asbury Park, 1981, and the whole crowd loves me.”

Shot in just 24 days, Safety Not Guaranteed has emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed indies of the year, with an 89percent Fresh approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Duplass also is one of the stars of Your Sister’s Sister, an entirely improvised film reuniting him with his Humpday director, Lynn Shelton. The movie, shot in 11 days, finds the actor in the middle of a complicated love triangle with a pair of opposite sisters, played by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. At time of writing, it has a 95 percent Fresh approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best-reviewed films of the year.

In addition to his twin directorial efforts this year, as well as his two leading-man roles, Duplass popped up in the ensemble dramedy, Darling Companion, earlier this year, opposite Diane Keaton, and has a supporting role in the family drama, People Like Us, starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, opening June 29. The Duplass brothers currently are working on a number of studio scripts, including one for Mule, a project to be directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips. According to Duplass, the screenwriting work allows the brothers to pour money back into their first love: indie films.

If his schedule isn't crazy enough, Duplass is also married to his The League co-star, Katie Aselton, and recently welcomed his second daughter. “I don’t believe that I am making the kinds of movies that should make $150 million at the box office,” he says. “My goal is to keep making great movies and make sure I make them modestly, so they don’t lose money. I’ve never made a movie that hasn’t posted a profit, and that allows me to keep making movies.” He pauses. “And if one of them breaks out, fuckin’ A!”