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You’ve Got a Friend in Mark Duplass

The affable star of ‘Language Lessons’ talks about his love of meeting new people, fighting the temptation to be a white savior and why he’s not worried if he and his wife have a codependent relationship

Mark Duplass seems like the kind of guy who makes friends easily. As soon as we get on our Zoom chat together, he’s immediately ingratiating, commenting on the posters of Short Cuts and Safe I have behind me on the wall of my office. He enthusiastically tells a story about taking his buddies at the time in Austin to see Safe — and how much they didn’t like that Todd Haynes film starring Julianne Moore as a 1980s housewife who seems to be allergic to the world. “I made a lot of enemies [that night],” he says, bonding with me over how much we both love that film. We’re only a minute into the conversation, and already I like this dude.

This is not surprising. Most every published interview about Duplass — either solo or with his older brother Jay — talks about how nice he (and they) are. Niceness can be a double-edged sword, though, and it’s examined thoughtfully in Language Lessons, the new film he’s made with Natalie Morales. This touching indie is very much a two-person show — she directed, they co-wrote, co-starred and co-executive produced — and it’s that rare love story that’s not about romantic love. Rather, it follows the budding friendship between Adam (Duplass), a gay man living in Oakland, and Cariño (Morales), who gives him Spanish lessons online, their interactions all taking place over Zoom. At first, Adam is resistant — his Spanish is really rusty, and he didn’t want lessons as a gift from his husband — but they start to form a kinship. And then something terrible happens — Adam’s partner dies suddenly — which shifts the two characters’ dynamic. It’s a movie about class and privilege and grief, but it’s also about the very act of being a friend — something that’s so important and, yet, so rarely portrayed on screen.

Interpersonal relationships have always been central to Duplass’ work. With his brother Jay, they helped spearhead an independent film movement in the 2000s, referred to as mumblecore, that featured low budgets and intimate stories. But the Duplass brothers’ films always stood out: Starting with 2005’s The Puffy Chair, which was a hit at that year’s Sundance, they have explored the delicacy of connecting with another person, whether it’s a girlfriend, a buddy or a family member. 

This was the age of the raucous bromances, but The Puffy Chair (as well as subsequent charmers such as Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the underrated The Do-Deca-Pentathlon) paid special attention to the vulnerable conversations that real people have all the time. There was nothing outrageous or titillating — these were just stories about folks trying to understand one another. The arthouse had rarely seen so many loving, complicated portraits of sensitive men — their movies chronicled nice guys, which didn’t mean those characters were wimps, losers or punching bags.

The Duplass brothers continue to work on projects together, but they’ve also branched out to do their own things. Mark has proved himself to be an excellent actor, whether it’s taking the lead in the small, beautiful indie Humpday or gaining kudos on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show. Often, he plays ordinary men, but there’s a core of genuineness in his empathetic portrayals that makes these roles feel authentic. If you didn’t know better, you’d almost swear he was simply playing himself.

In our interview, Duplass, who turns 45 in December, talked about what drew him to make Language Lessons — among other things, he had taken online Spanish lessons during the pandemic and was struck by how deep his conversations with his teacher got. “I love the feeling of meeting new people and falling in love,” he tells me, which he means in a strictly platonic way — he and his wife, fellow actor and filmmaker Katie Aselton, have been married 15 years and are the proud parents of two daughters. But the more we talked, the more I understood: For Mark Duplass, interactions with other people aren’t just about being social — he seems to be energized by getting to know someone, finding common ground and bonding over similar life experiences. He listens as much as he talks.

Happily, there was a lot for us to discuss. He opened up about the anxiety that comes with trying to make a new friend, as well as the nervous breakdown that inspired him to finally go into therapy. (He’s also got some advice about how to find a good therapist.) We chatted about the pleasure he gets out of being a husband and a father. (Okay, maybe he and Aselton have a codependent relationship — Duplass doesn’t much care.) But we talked as well about how Language Lessons was his way of working through certain issues, like the pitfalls of being “the nice guy” and the cringiness of well-off liberals trying to be white saviors. 

When I was watching Language Lessons, I thought, “They’ve made a love story about being friends about actually meeting somebody and becoming friends.” 

That’s really what’s at the core of it. The actual starting-off point for my movies is often not thematic or large — it’s often very sort of surface-level — and the starting-off point [with Language Lessons] was that I was in the pandemic. I was feeling a little creatively frustrated, and I was taking online Spanish classes with an institute in Guatemala to brush up on my Spanish — because, you know, we’re all doing stupid hobbies. That was my bread-making, basically. And I noticed that the conversation was interesting, because we both hated small talk, so the conversation started going deep very quickly. And I was like, “Oh, this is funny: The 2D video chat, which is supposed to inhibit intimacy, is actually facilitating it. When does that ever happen?”

So that was sort of the idea, but very quickly the emotional core of the movie [became], “Can we use, essentially, the form of a falling-in-love story and do it platonically?” And, honestly, the reason that it took that form is something I’ve discovered about myself recently through therapy, which is that I love the feeling of meeting new people and falling in love. It’s something that’s just a beautiful feeling, and as a happily married man, romance is settled, and that’s not going to happen for me anymore. So what I find myself doing, in either making films or in new friends, is seeking out that wonderful feeling of getting to know someone and pouring yourself into them — and those wonderful stumbling blocks of, “Oh my god, did I go too far too quickly? Did I share too much?” 

That really is my way of experiencing those euphoric highs of what happens in romantic love, because that’s not available to me anymore. And Natalie, she has a bunch of deep, complicated platonic friendships in her life, and if you ask her, she’d be the first one to tell you that her platonic relationships are just as complicated — if not more so — than her familial relationships or her romantic relationships. So we really shared a take [that] platonic love is enough to make a movie about.

Because your character Adam is gay, I wondered if the decision was made so that audiences wouldn’t think, “Maybe they’re going to get together romantically.” You and Natalie have such great chemistry that viewers would understandably make that assumption. 

Yeah, the choice to make Adam gay was to remove the classic “Will they or won’t they?” question from the story so that the audience could focus on other things. And Natalie and I were friends before this, and we knew we would have that good chemistry thing. You know, Natalie is known in this industry as a person [who] can make chemistry with a tree — I mean, she’s just incredible. And that’s sort of a little bit of what I’m known for [too], so we knew when we got together we would have that — and that would be maybe where people’s eyes went. So [making Adam gay] was definitely a way to block that from people’s attention spans.

Duplass in Language Lessons with Natalie Morales

There’s a scene where her character Cariño says to your character, “I didn’t know there were any nice guys left.” The idea of the nice guy has so many connotations: When you’re young, it might be an insult because it means you’re not tough or macho enough. It can also be a compliment: You and your brother Jay are always described as being nice guys. But, in recent years, the “nice guy” has been seen as a disguise that bad guys use to hide their darker motives. It seems like, in Language Lessons, her observation is meant to be a comment on the whole notion of the “nice guy.” Or am I reading too much into that?

No, you’re not reading too much into that. What we liked about Adam’s generosity — his deep love for Cariño, his willingness to go the extra mile to support her, to be there for her — is that it’s not clean, in our opinion. There are a bunch of dings on there. One is, this is clearly a person who has lost his only person that he could depend on emotionally, so he’s clinging to somebody — there is definitely a selfishness involved in this. He lost his emotional codependent cane, and he’s looking for another cane to lean on. So there’s that, and she’s ready to call him on that. 

Secondarily — and it’s a lighter element in the film — but there’s an element that deals with the class difference between the two of them. Adam is living in this big, expensive house, and every scene in the film he’s in a different gorgeous, opulent room; and every scene in the film, she’s in the same small room that she probably lives in and works in. And he’s making assumptions about her because of that, and so that leads to the nice-guy trope — it has a little bit of a white-savior thing to it. He doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, but he makes some preconceptions about her, based upon her lifestyle, that he gets to get upended. 

So we wanted to play with it — not so much that Adam is hiding behind a nice-guy veneer and then you find out he’s a bad guy, but that you can be pure in your intentions, genuinely nice, and also maybe a little bit off and a little bit hurtful with those things. “I’m trying to replace my emotionally codependent person with you” — that can be a little offensive. Also, “I judged you based upon your background and your socioeconomic status,” and so here comes the white-savior thing. 

I, as a wealthy white male, have honestly been guilty of [that]. You know, I’m living in the pandemic and thinking, “What can I do with my wealth to help in this time of suffering?” I found myself well-intentioned and, honestly, stepped in shit a couple of times. So that was something we wanted to explore through Adam.

As someone who would like to think of himself as a nice guy, I see how that thinking can be a trap. It’s that idea of “Well, I can’t do anything harmful because I’m a nice guy.” It’s almost a Get out of Jail Free card: You feel like you have good intentions, and so therefore you can’t possibly hurt someone.

Yeah, I think that that same person can be not as receptive to criticism because they feel like they have come from a good place, so they don’t deserve to be criticized because they are “a nice guy.” And that’s just not fair to be in a relationship with someone and not allow them to offer you criticism, because nobody is above that. [Laughs]

Adam talks about the fact that he wasn’t always rich — he came from modest means. I was curious — not that it’s necessarily something you were working through, but was that a way of acknowledging that, in terms of your own life, you’re successful but didn’t come from wealth yourself?

I think that Adam is probably coming from lower-class, where Jay and I were much more middle-class, so the disparity isn’t quite the same. But I was working through a bunch of things with Adam — even though, as a closeted gay male, he’s different from me in his lifestyle choices and how he chose to live, and when he chose to come out, all those things. 

But there were a couple things I was playing with and curious to experiment with, personally, through Adam. One is that I know myself well enough to know that when I meet someone and I like them and I get excited about what that connection can be, I can come on too strong — I can kind of scare them away. I just assume that they know my intentions are good and pure, but [my friendliness] can be a little disarming and a little threatening — and, honestly, a little strange to people. So I wanted to be able to play that out through Adam and Cariño, and that was fun for me to experiment in a safe way in a narrative. 

And I think, secondarily, what you’re pointing out in Adam — that he came from a place of pain, this person who was closeted and didn’t have wealth growing up and eventually found the person he loved and was able to achieve comfort and wealth through that — that was me expressing my journey through my 20s. I was such an intense workaholic, and I was so desperate to become successful — I was just miserable, just grinding myself to the bone. I wasn’t in my body and not understanding who I was in the same way that Adam was denying his own sexuality, just kind of putting his head down and grinding it through. That was sort of a metaphor for what I had dealt with until I basically was able to go to therapy and deal with my inherent depression and anxiety — I met my wife, had a family and was able to become a solvent human being. That journey that Adam went on sort of mirrors my own journey, but just different story points, really.

In other interviews, you’ve talked about having a nervous breakdown in your late 20s and going into therapy. In that moment, did you know it was a nervous breakdown? What did it feel like? 

It was so terrifying. I really thought my life, as I knew it, was over. I thought I would never be able to get my vitality back — I would never be not anxious, not depressed. I was just physically and emotionally on the floor, and I was looking forward to my future and thinking, “God, I thought I was going to be able to be a great father and a great husband to Katie, and I have my movie” — Puffy Chair had just premiered, and I was on the trajectory — and I felt like all of that was just being crushed. 

I can look back now to know that it was a perfect storm of me being someone who is a workaholic, and who generally has a pretty strong fortitude for stress — whereas the average person who deals with anxiety and depression, they would have gotten taken down a lot sooner than I would. I just shouldered a lot more of it — until it literally knocked me straight onto my ass. [Laughs]

So part of the reason I like to talk about this now is to try to just bring a little awareness to people who hopefully can catch it a little sooner than I did — so they don’t have to hit the deck like I did. [Laughs] Maybe they can just go down to one knee and see a therapist and then get back up. [Laughs] I was really on the ground there for a while. But I can look back on it now and say it is the best thing that ever happened to me. It slowed me down — it probably stopped me from having a heart attack at 35 — and it was a great warning sign I can look back on and say, “Oh, I get why you were working so desperately hard — you were just depressed and empty and trying to fill the god-shaped hole.”

I grew up in the South, I went to an all-male Jesuit high school, and as much as I’m a progressive Southern California dude, there was still that stigma of “Am I going to be weak if I have to go to a therapist and take medication to get on my feet? Is that gonna rub out my creative energy if I have to take medication?” And I’m just here to say that that’s all a bunch of bullshit. I’ve been medicated for 16 years now — I’ve found the right spot and I go to therapy at least every three weeks, and it has made me infinitely more productive and creative because I don’t crash anymore. I don’t spend all that wasted brain energy worrying about dumb shit. It’s made me the best version of myself.

When you started therapy, how hard was that?

It was really hard. I knew I needed it, and I was evolved enough to know — I shouldn’t say “evolved enough,” I was incapacitated enough — to know that I needed something. [Laughs] I had no choice, so that was easy. The hard part, that no one advised me on, is finding a good therapist is like dating. I thought you just go to therapy, and you’re like, “Oh, great, this’ll be my therapist.” It took me five therapists to find the right person for me, and that was disheartening, so I do try to tell people, “Just know that just because your first one, two, even three therapists aren’t working or helpful for you doesn’t mean that therapy isn’t good for you.” Just like when you date three people and they don’t work, that doesn’t mean that romance isn’t good for you. [Laughs] It just means you haven’t found the right fit. Then I eventually found the right person who was smarter than me and had my number and gave me all the kind of little holes I was filling. It was magic, but it took a while, for sure.

There is that thing, though, when people start therapy where those around them think, “Oh god, now he’s just talking in therapy-speak.”

Yeah, it’s kind of like you get that hobby and you start talking about it 150 percent as much as you should, and everybody starts, like, “All right, I really don’t want to talk about pickleball this much.” [Laughs] Like, “I’m sorry, I appreciate that you love pickleball and your pickleball friends, but it’s too much pickleball.” Luckily I was surrounded by people who were so happy that I was just starting to function again and do well that they were willing to put up with that and engage in it. But there’s definitely that moment where you go a little too far with it, because you’re excited about it. And then you have to learn where you put it, basically.

Thinking back to The Puffy Chair, or Paddleton or Humpday, I’ve always been impressed by just how vulnerable and sensitive the characters you write and the characters you play are. You and Jay have created this idea of a certain type of sensitive masculinity that really wasn’t around before that. Not that you guys invented it, but it’s one of the trademarks of your work. Were you aware of that? Did you feel that even when you were starting out?

No, I wasn’t aware of it. I would like to take pride that I was aware and concocted it, but it’s true that I wasn’t. Early on as an artist, I was just going with what I knew worked for me, and it was much more of an id process and much less of an intellectual process. 

At that time, I knew any time I tried to make art from an intellectual or thematic process, I made bad art, so I just started going from my gut and my spirit. And what you’re sensing is that my gut and my spirit at that time — and Jay’s gut and spirit at that time — was representative of the deep soul connection between Jay and myself. Jay and I were in a marriage since we were little kids, and the way that Jay and I related to each other was like an old married couple who had been through everything, who somehow knew how to validate each other’s feelings. We somehow knew that we shouldn’t raise our voices in a fight because what we’re protecting here in terms of our long-term relationship is so important — we can’t let it get ahead of us, and we need to measure our voices, and we need to listen to each other. 

We instinctively knew all that shit without therapy because our relationship was so valuable to us from a brotherly-love standpoint, from a best-friend standpoint and from a work-partner standpoint. We were each other’s everything. So what you’re seeing on film is an id-like reflection of what we were living in, which was two males relating to each other in this uber-sensitive way that we found funny and a little odd. We didn’t realize how distinct and different it was until we put it on screen and people started reflecting back to us how new it was to them. It was just who we were. 

I think we were just grateful that people responded to it and we continued it — and, now, we’ve done quite a bit of that. Now, we’re trying to find ways to do it beyond just the two brothers making [projects] — we’re trying to find ways to tell those stories by collaborating with other people and finding ways to voice it differently. But you’re not wrong in that it is at the core of a lot of what we do.

Around the time that your book came out, the two of you talked about being in a codependent relationship as brothers and having to break out of that — essentially, being ex-soulmates. How did you guys negotiate that?

They were deeply painful but beautiful conversations that were a long time coming. They started as early as The Puffy Chair, where we were “the Duplass brothers,” but we’d walk into a party and people would just start talking to me because I was the one on the screen. How does that make Jay feel? Then we started to slowly but surely realize, “Oh, we’re not in a marriage anymore because we’re actually married to other people. We can’t give each other all of our intimate secrets and give everything to each other. We have wives now, and children.” 

So this natural individuation was starting to happen slowly, but our rhythms were still stuck in the old mode of “No, we’re the Duplass brothers.” And there was a dissonance and a disconnect there that was creating discomfort for us — and neither of us really wanted to face it. So we had to just start hitting it head-on, and it was really, really hard. 

I have to give it to Jay — I mean, I really do believe he was a little more downstream and a little more ahead of it than I was. I think he was forced to be, because there were times when, before he was an actor, my face was so out front that he was kind of getting the shit end of the stick on some of his own individuation. He was having a need for that earlier than I did, so he led the charge in this, and he was so loving and gentle with me, as he always is. But it was hard for me and I felt, “Oh my god, is this the end of an era? What does this mean for us?” But life has this funny way of bringing you things when the timing is right — or at least I like to look at it that way, I don’t try to make it that way.

The sort of dissolution of the solitary voice of the Duplass brothers has come at a time when we’ve really felt like, as a company, we need to maybe not just make art of these two brothers and the kinds of art we’ve been making together in that one voice. Maybe we split off a little bit underneath our company banner and I go make a movie with Natalie Morales and offer her the chance to direct her first feature and bring her voice forward. I collaborate with her, I get to learn something new about filmmaking through her. Jay gets to go off and do The Chair with Sandra Oh, and in these ways we get to individuate but also do things under our banner together — be each other’s supporters and fans, but not be breathing each other’s breath constantly. 

I think we’re going to be in a sign/cosign wave from here, where we’re just going to be flowing in and out of each other, and we’re trying not to control it too much. But, you know, it’s not that easy. Some days we wake up and we think, “God, I really miss when it was 1984 and I was eight and Jay was 12, and we would pick up that camera and it was just the two of us.” But I also know we’ll find our way back to that, too.

You said earlier about the mistakes that you’ve made you said you’ve stepped in shit a couple times. I wanted to actually commend you because I feel like you handled the Ben Shapiro thing really well. You’re in the public eye, so when anything like that happens, Twitter spends days dunking on you, and you apologize and move on. But I was curious: What did that period feel like for you? How did you get through that?

Well, I mean, the truth is, it’s not the first time I’ve dealt with stuff like that. Duplass Brothers has been on this journey. We were once the little darlings who had a $3 movie at Sundance, and I got really used to and accustomed to everybody loving us, and lifting us up over their shoulders, and helping us out. And I got addicted to that energy of being the little guy with the shaggy hair and the hoodie who everybody loved. And slowly but surely over the course of the years, we turned into “the man” in the independent film industry. [Laughs] And people started coming after us to chop us down — not only creatively for our projects, but for some of the ways we handle things. 

What I try to do is I try to have a healthy balance of knowing that haters gonna hate, and you can’t really listen to that and make yourself miserable. But if I see things coming across my desk three or four times consistently, I can’t turn a blind eye to that — I need to be open to it. So that’s really my approach with those things, and when something big happens, like with that whole Ben Shapiro debacle, I’m lucky enough to have a family that I love and a great support system and people who can support me. I just try to make sure I know that I fucked up [but] my heart was in the right place, and I have to own this — it’s very important to own this. To sit and swim in that isn’t going to do anybody any good — I got to move on, and I got to make sure it doesn’t stop me from doing the things that I believe in and I continue to do. I can’t let it damage me that much.

Speaking of your support system, you’ve always talked about how amazing and supportive your parents were. You have two kids: Are you a similar dad to your own dad?

Yeah, I think it’s pretty similar. Obviously, the times are different and the place is different and the mores have changed. But when my dad and my mom raised me, it was with a healthy dose of “You’re amazing and you can do anything, and I believe in you.” And that’s a wonderful thing, but it can cause some problems when you’re in your 20s and you’re not doing all those things — you feel like you’re letting everyone down because they raised you to believe that. [Laughs]

But it’s my belief system that that’s a worthy risk you take with your children because it instills in them confidence. And so, I’m raising my children similarly. But I’m giving them a little bit more of a sense of the reality of the world than maybe my parents gave me — just so they can see and feel the bumps along the way. 

Is the bond your daughters have like yours and Jay’s?

It’s crazy, everyone who knew Jay and I when we were little look at my daughters now and they’re like, “It’s the same thing.” They are codependent, inextricably-linked close. They’re four years apart, just like we were. Always making little projects together. It makes you really believe that something’s going on with DNA or something. I did what I could to foster a connection between them, but I can’t take any credit for the level of closeness that they have. It really is an anomaly what Jay and I had, and I’ve never seen it before — I’ve only seen it in my two girls. And I’m not being hyperbolic just for an interview purpose — people who knew us and know them, they’re like, “It’s like a reincarnation of the two of you guys.”

Do you feel like you have to protect that bond between them? Or just let it play out for them however it’s gonna play out?

It’s a good question. When they were younger, we did try to do our best to foster [their bond] — we were worried that the age gap might not make them as close — so we, as parents, organized activities that they could each do together. But then it quickly became apparent that we didn’t have to do that. One of the best things our parents did for us was they just let us go — once they realized what Jay and I had together, they let us have our own little fiefdom. 

And so, we make sure we give them a lot of space to individuate and do their things. Over the pandemic we developed something that we called “hotel night.” [Laughs] On Friday nights, we wouldn’t see each other after Zoom school, and we would order our own food and they would order their own food, and they would go into their bedroom and we wouldn’t see them again until the next morning. And that really taught us they really need to have their own thing — we just let it roll.

You’ve always wanted to be a dad, always wanted to have a family. All these years later, is this what you pictured being a dad and a husband would be like?

I always had a hard time picturing it — I knew I wanted it, and it was such a deeply embedded value for me because I loved our family so much. I loved how comforting it was. And I think I was an anxious and depressed kid — I didn’t know it — and I look back and I realize how wonderful family, that bedrock, was that I could count on. Friday night, we’d go out to dinner at TGI Fridays at the mall, and then we’d go see a movie together. That was so deeply comforting to me, and I knew I wanted that. Selfishly, I wanted that. And it formed my whole life. 

I was a musician primarily before I was a filmmaker, and I remember being out on the road when I was 24, and everybody staying up until four in the morning, and all I could think of was “I just want to be in the grocery store with Katie, picking out our food, going home so we can cook a meal” — that’s just what I want. I’ve always just been a homebody like that. 

In terms of “Is it what I wanted it to be?” — I don’t want to sound like I’m being hyperbolic about it, but I didn’t think it would be this easy and enriching. And that’s just really being honest. My kids are 13 and nine right now, and the tales you hear from people are like, “Oh my god, 13-year-old girl — what’s that gonna be like?” And I know the pandemic’s been so difficult on so many people — and I feel so privileged that we have had all of our life elements in place that it wasn’t so difficult for us — but it’s pretty great.

Because you have such a close relationship with Jay — because you talk about being codependent — has that been something you’ve been mindful of in your marriage: “I want this to be great, I want this to be special, but I don’t want it to be codependent”?

We talk about it. Katie and I are a little codependent — you can probably feel it from our social-media accounts. [Laughs] And we talk about it — we talk about the gradations of codependency. Maybe it’s a justification in our mind, but we really, really like having our lives inextricably linked. We like working together, we like sleeping on the pillow next to someone who really understands the nature of our trials and tribulations and all aspects of our lives. We don’t go out of town for six months for work, like a lot of people do in this industry, because we miss each other and we want to be around each other. We eat dinner pretty much every night together — unless one of us is shooting — and watch a couple episodes of Survivor together. [Laughs] That’s our thing. 

We occasionally ask our therapists and each other, “Are we a little too codependent?” And the answer is usually like, “Maybe, but I’m kind of okay with it.” We’re embroiled, and it feels good.