How Transparent Brought Jay Duplass Out of His Cave

The multi-talented filmmaker and writer discusses life in front of the camera

    Jay Duplass doesn’t socialize much. That’s not to say he’s the least bit reticent — he and his younger brother Mark just don’t have time for fun. With each passing week, it seems like the wildly prolific duo is attached to some new film, television show, or book of essays. “We’re at that spot where we’ve worked so hard for so long, and everything’s coming together in this moment, so we’re just trying to make the best of it and focus up,” Duplass says. “Basically we just do parenting and work.”

    Despite keeping relentlessly busy, the elder Duplass hasn’t spent much time in front of the camera. That shifted last year when he took on the role of Josh Pfefferman in Amazon’s spellbinding original series Transparent. The second season, which debuted in its entirety today, continues to focus on Josh’s “moppa,” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), but casts a wider scope beyond her feminine revolution. As the season premiere set at Sarah’s (Amy Landecker) calamitous wedding indicated, the kids aren’t alright, and Josh’s stunted emotional growth makes him no exception.

    Beyond Transparent, the work won’t be stalling anytime soon for Duplass, with a pair of HBO premieres slated for February — the animated series Animals, which the brothers produced, and the return of Togetherness — a forthcoming book of essays, and a four-movie deal with Netflix. For all of these projects, the Duplass brothers intend to stick with their reliably efficient, no-bullshit method of crafting human stories on their own terms, regardless of who the studio partner may be. According to Duplass, their shoestring approach has adapted well with the larger shift to VOD and other niche markets. “The big surprise is that the making of things in that small and efficient way has dovetailed very well with the sort of, I don’t want to say collapse of the film industry, but the contraction of the film industry … we’ve gotten kind of lucky in that way.”


    Back in August, you said something at TCA about Josh going to a “very dark place” in the second season of Transparent. Yet based on the premiere, it seems like he’s trying harder to neutralize tensions in the family, even if the results are kind of a disaster. Would you say his intentions are in a better place this season?

    Yeah, I think Josh is gaining a tiny bit of awareness and trying to grow up and learn how to be a grown man. And there’s a lot of comedy in it, because he does not have the skills. The one man that he had to look up to turned out to be a woman after all, so he’s trying to overcome having been raised basically in a household with four wildly charismatic and strong women.

    It seems all the tougher because at least in the premiere and near the end of last season, Rabbi Raquel [Kathryn Hahn] was so skeptical of Josh, because she’d been wronged so much in the past.


    She’s also skeptical, rightly so, because of Josh’s patterns of behavior. She sees a lot of hope in him and a lot of possibility — it’s just covered up in a lot of messy behavior. And, you know, he’s not a baby, he’s a grown-up. So I think that poses an interesting question: How much can a person change, even if they want to?

    Transparent was your first long-term acting project where you didn’t have an explicit role in storytelling or directing. What was it like to be on the other side and removed from being the driving creative force?

    It’s freeing, I would say. The main thing, first of all — Jill [Soloway, showrunner] is an incredible filmmaker, creator, director. She’s the kind of person that you can just kind of let yourself go with. Mark and I grew up playing music and performing — that’s something I hadn’t really realized had been gone from my life for 20 years. But just the opportunity to be one person and go nuts with it and not worry about the big picture was like the best feeling in the world and still continues to be.


    One of the really personal and interesting things for me has been that my whole life, I’ve been that person in my family where everybody’s like, “Hey, can you tone down the feelings a little bit, because you’re feeling everything a lot, and it’s kind of making us uncomfortable.” In a weird way, now it’s comfortable for me to go through all this emotional turmoil — I guess it’s something I feel on a regular basis. It’s like a weird turn of events where, when people switch careers later in life, it’s usually actors moving to write and direct because they want more control. But I’m actually quite the opposite — I don’t want all this control anymore. Especially in the case of Togetherness, where I’m writing and directing and producing everything with Mark, you’re having to hold the whole universe. And it’s really nice to just kind of let that go.

    After filming two seasons of Transparent, has that affected your approach at all? Have you gotten any major takeaways for when you go to work on Togetherness after that?

    For the first two years, not too much, because Mark and I have been doing our thing for so long in what we call “caveman style.” He and I come up with an idea, we come out of the cave, we make it, and then we come back into the cave. You know, just very DIY. But I will say that moving forward with season 3, we have especially been watching Jill and learning a little about the creativity of the showrunner. Mark and I are credited as showrunners on HBO, but we’re just making a giant movie every year is how we look at it. In a lot of ways, we’ve been avoiding the idea of being a showrunner and bringing in other people as talent to write and direct, because we just want to do things the way that we always do it, and we didn’t want to become managers of people. But I think the main thing I’ve been learning from Jill is that being a showrunner can be a very creative position.