'Togetherness' Star Mark Duplass: "Film Is Not in a Very Happy Space Right Now"

Togetherness BTS - H 2015
Prashant Gupta

Togetherness BTS - H 2015

The filmmaker-actor adds 'TV Showrunner' to his crowded resume and opens up about why he — and not his brother — ended up starring on their series and how much of the show is drawn from real life.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

How much have you and your brother, Jay, drawn on your own experiences in writing Togetherness?

We definitely have friends who are either married and so in the shit with children that they were starting to lose each other, or who hadn't gotten any traction yet and were paranoid that they weren't going to find somebody and were just like, "Oh my God, I've got all this magic inside me, and I'm just going to die before I have a chance to get it out." Even though they were really sad, adult themes, we always found ourselves laughing about them and sharing them together. And something about that shared experience made it feel really special to us. And we wanted to put that on the screen.

You began speaking with HBO executives about doing a series way back in 2005. Why now?

We started talking about this story of these two couples, and very quickly it just felt like it wasn't a movie -- it felt like it could go on and on. That also happened to coincide with the golden age of television and the death of the middle class of independent film. It's hard to make movies in that $5 million-to-$7 million range where we made Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Film is not in a very happy space right now. HBO is an incredibly happy space and is supportive of us doing exactly what we want.

How did you end up doing the acting and Jay mostly has been behind the camera?

It was purely a function of us having no connections and no one wanting to work with us. (Laughs.) Because Jay is older, he's the one who learned how to use the camera. He was 8 and I was 5, and I was just stupid, so all I could do was get in front of the camera. And as it evolved, we started to realize that it's actually really valuable for me to be in the scenes because I'm the co-writer and co-director, and I can help maneuver things around with improvisation.

You also star on FX's The League. How has your relationship with acting changed or evolved?

I love the process of acting. I love acting in other people's things because it's so creative and fun, and I don't have the responsibility of steering the ship, which is rewarding but exhausting. Jay and I do everything because we're trying to maintain the way it felt when we were making independent movies with our friends.

Is it difficult to find actors who are open to improvisation?

Most people love it and are excited by it. There are a few people who believe that a script should be cherished -- and those people will have a terrible time on our set because we're constantly trashing our scripts and looking for surprises. My general feeling is, anyone who wants to do it and is excited about it and is a good actor, they'll be great at it. The people who are not interested in living in that darkness and weird exploration space, they will be miserable.

What about you makes improvisation your preferred method?

It's a more vital process for me. The energy of discovering it in the moment and getting excited, getting disappointed and freaking out because it's not happening and then, "Oh my God, we got it!" That keeps us alive and excited on a 13-hour day more than painstakingly moving through shots 1A through 6F. The difference is, it's a process of discovery versus a process of execution.

After years working in film and now in television, what does awards recognition mean to you?

I would love to be above it all and say: "It's just a small group of people, and it's arbitrary. I don't need validation from the outside; I'm proud of my show." And all those things are true in my brain -- or at least one portion of my brain. But my id and this little reptilian dude inside me is like: "Pick me; love me; give me accolades and awards. Shower me with praise!" So for sure, I will be checking the Emmy nominations in the morning and really hoping that we're in there.