Charting the trajectory of Jay Duplass's career is a fool's errand. For the past 20 years, Jay and his brother, Mark, have done pretty much everything: directing, writing, producing, acting, kickstarting, show-running. If there's a position to be had in Hollywood, Jay Duplass has probably had it.
Lately, his career has been marked by his work on Jill Soloway's Amazon family dramedy Transparent, the fourth season of which premiered last week. Since premiering in 2014, the Emmy-winning show has come to represent a landmark for the transgender community—a piece of art that represents their experience in ways most mainstream programming, up to this point, has not.
Duplass's life has been inarguably altered by Soloway, and he sees himself—and his work—more clearly these days. There's a mission statement, a purpose for creating outside of maintaining employed, and we talked about what that has come to represent for him.
VICE: You said in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter that Soloway once said the purpose of creating Transparent was to "make the world a safer place for her own transgender parent." Do you think she's done that?
Jay Duplass: The typical fan experience can be fraught with peril. My brother was on The League for seven years, and he'd get dudes at the airport flicking him in the nuts and trying to one-up him with put-downs. The fan experience for being on Transparent is people hugging you and saying things like, "My family is together again now because of you." The show has made it so like anyone in the country can know, understand, and love Maura.
It seems like the approach to the art you want to make has been radically changed by working with Jill.
More from a social activism point of view, and it dovetailed really well for my brother and I. When I got on Transparent, Mark and I were starting to feel like we were going to be OK in Hollywood. We came from a place where we didn't know a single person in the industry. Our beginnings was a three-hour movie we shot on our parents' home video camera that got into Sundance. For almost ten years, we still felt like we were building sure footing for our career. I mean, I still can't believe I have a stable career in Hollywood.
Because I grew up in a suburb of New Orleans watching HBO and not even understanding where the movies came from. My dad's a lawyer. We come from a small-world immigrant mentality. I went to Catholic school my whole life, and the two electives were Greek or Latin. Art wasn't something you did. The only model for a successful artist in New Orleans was to be a 55-year-old black man playing in the Neville Brothers Band. We tried to be 55-year-old black men—we were in white boy funk bands in high school. We desperately wanted to be part of the New Orleans music scene, and we failed at that. We were two dorky white kids.
You're a good actor, but becoming a 55-year-old black man would be hard for you to pull off.
[Laughs] That was our motto, though, you know? Those were the coolest guys in the
world. We were obsessed. All we wanted to do was listen to music and watch movies. We were rebelling constantly against our strict education. I was studying psychology at the University of Texas in 1991 when Richard Linklater premiered his homemade movie Slacker in a fuckin' movie theater in Austin, and it was playing there for a year. Mark and I would see him on the street walking around in jeans and a T-shirt—we were eating crackers and shit at the student union because we were broke, and we were like, "That dude made a movie. We could make a movie."
Do you think you're an obsessive?
Yes, for sure. Mark and I talk about it a lot—he's very much the gas, and I'm the brakes. He's
looking out for new things a lot, and I'm playing with one piece of art, going nuts on it trying to make it perfect and losing myself in it. Even if something's good, if it's not as good as I thought it could get, it's very hard for me to enjoy it and appreciate it.
As you get older, has it gotten harder to appreciate things?
I don't like a lot of things. It's not something that I'm proud of. I have friends who are like, "You know, I really like this about the movie, and I really appreciate that," and I'm like, "Yeah, but the movie didn't fucking work. Fuck that movie." I don't like a lot of stuff, but when stuff gets over my bar, I'll get really obsessive about it. I'll watch a movie three or four times, and I make everyone around me watch it. It must be so annoying for Mark, because when I see something that I think is incredible, I push him so hard to watch it because I want to talk to him about it so bad.
It sounds like you're being hard on yourself for being selective.
I think what you're detecting is that I wish I could enjoy more things in life and be a little bit less black and white—at least, that's what I discuss with my therapist. I think a drive toward perfection is unrealistic, and it's not an enjoyable process for the person who's doing it. I think it does make better art, but it doesn't necessarily make for a better life.
Do you think comfort is in your cards?
Probably not, because of my personality—you know? We're going to shoot season five of
Transparent this year, and I'm freaking out because maybe there's just two more years left, you know? It's motivating me to find other things to do. I don't know. I'm not comfortable, period.
Now that you're at a secure place in your career, do you have any advice for a young person coming out of the gate?
Just make the stuff, man. There's so much thinking and emulating and trying to worry about people watching. We live in a phenomenal age where you can make gorgeous stuff for free on the weekends with your friends if somebody you know has a 5G. Festival programmers will tell you that there's not that many great films out there, even with all this technology. The challenge is to make something great and new, and if you can do that, you will get viewers and money. It might not look like what you think you want it to look like, but it'll grow. If you're doing what you love doing and you do it, regardless of money, that's when the money comes.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy, a weekly podcast of conversations with filmmakers, writers, musicians, journalists, and, once, his mother. His work has appeared in NPR, Vanity Fair, and Playboy. He lives in Los Angeles.