After Starring In ‘The Morning Show,’ Writer-Director Mark Duplass Reassesses All Of His EndeavorsDeadline
When The Morning Show kicked off the release of original content featured on the Apple TV+ streaming platform, much conversation was about its detailed #MeToo breakdown of a sexual harassment incident, affecting everyone who worked on the fictional news program. Trying to rein everyone in, executive producer Chip Black, played by Mark Duplass, navigates big personalities and tense exchanges among the cast, giving him one of the most exciting roles of his career.
Deadline spoke to Duplass about the way in which working on this show allowed him to re-evaluate himself, both personally and creatively.
DEADLINE: With The Morning Show out for almost nine months, what is your impression of the series now that it has time to gestate, especially through the lens of all that’s been going on?
MARK DUPLASS: There was an initial phase when the show came out, and we talked about it a lot. There was very much focus on the #MeToo aspects of it and the timeliness of that. What is interesting right now is to look at it through the lens of everything else that has been happening, not only the pandemic, but also the Black Lives Matter movement. And it just makes me think about power, more than anything, and how do people handle power, and what does it mean to be on the right side of your power?
When I look at a character like Chip, I think that audiences perceive him, for better or for worse, as somewhat of the moral center of the show, because he’s the least bad of the six white males in power on that show. What I like about looking at a character like Chip is, I think he was able to rest on his laurels for a long time with the belief of, “You know what, I am a good boss, because I am not doing any of the things that Mitch Kessler [Steve Carell] is doing, and I am certainly not doing anything that the big bosses are doing.” It’s almost that thing of, as long as I am not being bad, I’m doing my job. And I think he thought for a while that that put him on the right side of history.
What he realizes through the course of this show is that just being a passively not bad person is not enough. You have to be aware of what is happening on your watch; you have to actively be sure that people are being taken care of; you have to be actively calling out bad behavior to make sure it doesn’t become intrinsic and sort of toxically infuse the entire atmosphere. So Chip, who thought, “Hey, you know what? I am a good guy,” he realizes that that is not enough.
I start to identify more with my own position at Duplass Brothers, at the head of a company who is trying to tell important stories that matter. But I have considered what I have been doing. Have I been doing enough to make sure that whatever relevant position of power I have is used in the right way, and have I been supporting up-and-coming filmmakers? Yes, I have been doing that. Have we historically told enough different kinds of stories with different voices? We did a pretty good job with Room 104. But I, Iike Chip, am kind of having a moment of like, “It’s not enough, we have got to do better.” So, that is kind of the lens that I am looking at the whole thing right now.
DEADLINE: Because Season 2 production stopped due to COVID-19, have the writers gone back to the drawing board to process Chip 2.0 to fit into our new world era?
DUPLASS: I definitely think so. Chip and I share something similar, in that there is an awakening for us of what do we do with our relative sense of power, and where do we get it right, and where do we get it wrong. What is lovely about Chip, having gotten fired at the end of the show is, what is he going to do now? He is now among the powerless, and I think that’s fascinating.
We shot about two episodes before we shut down from the pandemic, and I know that there are rewrites going on. They haven’t told me what they are, but I know that just as in the first season—we started production right as the #MeToo movement was coming to the forefront, and they rewrote scripts to reflect that—they are doing things to reflect the world right now.
Personally, I still have my relative position of power in the Indie world, I still have my deal at HBO, my deal at Netflix, and I can try to do things right. I know what the steps are, but I have to be thoughtful, be centered, and do it. Chip doesn’t even have his power anymore. What is he going to do? But he does have enough of a moral compass to feel like he should be doing something.
DEADLINE: Would it be right to say that of all the projects you’ve worked on, this show has the biggest budget?
DUPLASS: Yes. I was a little intimidated walking into this show. Though they never said it directly, we felt like we were Apple TV’s flagship. There was this feeling of, you are in this show with all these massive movie stars, with an expensive budget, and also the whole streaming service is just resting on the fact that the show works. So, there’s no pressure. [Laughs]
Honestly, the way that I have developed as an artist is with this core tenet of, “I am making this so cheaply that I can feel free to take a wild swing, and if we fail, we don’t have that far to fail, because we are so cheap.”
This show is different than that. You are building a little bit of an empire, and it’s a too-big-to-fail thing, right? So that did make me a little nervous. That said, being the 5th on the call sheet and not having the show rest on my shoulders gave me some comfort. So I am here to be a support player and do my best for this show and to really give Jen [Aniston] and Reese [Witherspoon] whatever they need in those scenes to make them great.
DEADLINE: It must be nice to not have all that pressure.
DUPLASS: Chip is a role I really relish. I love being in a scene with people and realizing our dialogue is starting to get stale. So on take four I will improvise something, and you see the shock happening on their face, and I’m like, “Oh that’s great, we are going to get that moment.” So those things really excite me.
I lean very much into the supporting role of it and found my comfort zone. But, can I be a naturalistic performer? Can I be always super prepared, first one on set, always on time and always supportive for my scene mates, to try and make them the best I can? That was always my pinpoint.
DEADLINE: The chemistry between Chip and Jennifer Aniston’s Alex is fun to watch. Was that instant when you started working together?
DUPLASS: Yeah. Jen and I just really like each other, so we knew right away that we would have either the chemistry or the believability that these two people have spent a lot of time together, and really have a deep love for each other. So that made it easier for us to be awful to each other on screen at times, particularly for her to do that for me, because we had a belief that at the core of everything, these two people love each other.
I kind of equate them in some ways to a couple who has been married for 30 or 40 years, where you trust so deeply that that person is going to be there for you, and loves you, that you are willing to expose your most disgusting self to them, and you know that they will still be there in the morning. And I think that’s part of the beauty of what they have.
The one thing that I really love about Chip and Alex is I think their codependency, because codependency, as we all know it, for those who have been to therapy, is a four letter word now, and it’s really something that we all strive to not be. But I think that there is also, to a certain degree, some comfort for people like that who live for their work, who in Alex’s case, don’t have the best marriage and in Chip’s case, doesn’t really have anything other than his sh**ty mustard sandwiches and his work. So to be able to have that element of really being able to depend on someone, leaning on them, I wouldn’t say it’s all a bad thing really.
DEADLINE: This show is run by women, both behind the scenes and in front. What was it like to be surrounded by all this amazing female energy?
DUPLASS: I really love female energy. I mean look, my entire company is basically run by women. Then I go home, and I’m surrounded by my wife and my two daughters. That element is not necessarily new to me, and it’s an element that I love. Most people who know me would tell you that I have an energy of the safe dad dork that women feel comfortable around. And so it works. [Laughs]
But what was interesting about this set was that I could identify right away the strong quadrant of leadership of Mimi Leder, our producing director, Kerry Ehrin, our showrunner, and Reese and Jen. They are such generous and mature and appreciative leaders, because they have grown up in an industry that did not allow for their leadership for a very, very long time.
You’ve got Mimi Leder, slogging away as one of the first female episodic TV directors in a truly misogynistic society. Then you’ve got Kerry Ehrin working her way up, writing all the best episodes, but never getting that creative credit for a very long time. And then you’ve got Reese and Jen as movie stars bringing in all the people to the seats, but not having their seat at the table for leadership and creative choices until they decided to become producers. It could have turned into what I call a “pound puppy syndrome,” of when you have not been treated with respect, once you have been given the opportunity to lead, you can choose to either s**t on people like you were s**t on, or do it right. And they do it so well and with such care and appreciation. It really is one of the healthiest environments I have felt. And you feel how deeply considerate their leadership is.
DEADLINE: What have you learned working with a showrunner like Kerry?
DUPLASS: Well, it’s two things. On the creative level I have learned a lot from Kerry because my approach to writing, and producing to a large degree, has been, “Let’s throw something together quickly, based on an outline, and hope the story is good, and we will find our words and performances on set.”
Working with Kerry, she is much more of a wordsmith and almost feels like a playwright in some ways, where she develops and works that script over and over and over again. Nobody is sending out more drafts for notes and getting feedback and checking her ego at the door to make the script better. When you really drill it like she has, there’s some pretty great stuff that can come out of that, and so that has been eye-opening for me.
Kerry and I have developed a nice kinship and we each have this grass-is-greener view of each other’s worlds. I am looking at her being like, “I wish I could make something huge like this,” and she is looking at me like, “All I want to do is just go make Room 104, where no one is telling me what to do, and it’s cheap, and no one cares.” So I think we appreciate where each other is coming from.
DEADLINE: Then you have the powerhouse director that is Mimi Leder. What have you learned from her?
DUPLASS: The first thing that was immediately evident to me was, I have been operating under this principle of, you can either focus on performance and story and close-ups on faces, or you can have gorgeous cinematography, but you don’t do both. In my past, I have just been like, forget the sliders and forget the dollys, and put the camera on their face. And Mimi is basically like, “You can do both.” And she’s right.
If the writing is really, really good, and she spends enough time with her cinematographer to set up a shot, and enough time with us to make sure we get the performance we need, you can have a raw, organic performance that still has very detailed marks to hit with the camera landing on the close-up. She kind of blew open that fallacy that I had been operating with for a while, in a good way. So I am hoping to take some of that in my own work.
DEADLINE: As an actor, was The Morning Show something you approached a little bit differently?
DUPLASS: Well, the major difference with this show is that the words are so much more carefully articulated from a script standpoint. When I’m usually hired, it’s like, “Oh, Mark is an actor, but he is also a writer/director, and he gets in the scenes and is nimble, and makes them work.” The words were just quite frankly better on this than most of the stuff that I do. [Laughs] And so the major difference for me here was like treating this more like a play, and learning that script and working inside the script, whereas previously if the script wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I just kind of shifted and made it work.
The other real challenge is that this thing is so cinematically interesting, and there are so many crazy rules, with this mark to hit, and then walk seven paces to turn in time. That was really fun for me, to map an equation; I hadn’t done that before. Kerry basically came to me and was just like, “Oh, you are really good at being able to count the steps, hit the mark. If you get there early, add a line because you need to stall.” So, she started writing more and more complex stuff with me to hit. I was her go-to guy.
DEADLINE: Do you still see yourself these days as a triple threat (writer, actor, director)?
DUPLASS: My acting life has been a real surprise for me. I didn’t think I would get this far, honestly, and be able to get these wonderful projects that I do. I am appreciative of it. I love acting in other people’s projects, particularly when they are nice, good people who respect me and what I do. I try to choose projects the best I can. For whatever reason, in the past six or seven years, I have moved away from directing. I think part of that is because, quite frankly, Jay [Duplass] and I were such a codependent unit for a while, telling a certain kind of story about guys or brothers or male intimacy. I kind of had a moment a few years ago, and it started with Room 104, where I said, “I think my job right now is not to tell my own story over and over again, but to support others in the telling of their stories.” So that has led to me doing more producing work, and more writing and co-writing with people, to be able to offer whatever skills and experience I have, so that they can do their thing.
And it keeps me from getting what I call the “yips” in this industry. Like, a lot of people make great art in their 20s and 30s, and then they just make bad, repetitive s**t for the next 30 or 40 years. This freshens me up, and I get somewhat of a new perspective, and they show me things that I hadn’t learned before, not only like from the types of stories that they are authorized to tell, but from a filmmaking and logistical standpoint, of learning new things every day.
By filling my life with people who are eager and excited, it keeps me young in a good way. So I think if I were to say what I identify more with right now, it really is as a producer.
DEADLINE: If you are looking for new voices to showcase, are you widening your reach by finding more stories from people of color and marginalized communities to tell?
DUPLASS: That’s a big, big question and we are considering all of this stuff at the company right now. I think that it’s such a good time to be thinking about, “If you are going to make a story, make it count.” And, “What does it mean to make it count?” There are a lot of things that we are doing at Duplass Brothers, putting together what is essentially going to be some sort of manifesto of what we are planning to do moving forward. Because what we have previously done in the company has said we want to sponsor and support as many up-and-coming voices as we can. And we have done a lot of that, but we have not frankly done enough for persons of color. And that’s been something that we have to work on. And so we also don’t want to make some quick knee-jerk response so that we are just making our roster look good in this time. This is about systemic change, and how to get this right, and what can our part be that is going to be meaningful?
My gut is telling me that basically doing what we have been doing on Room 104, by supporting up-and-coming voices, [has] given the opportunity to create any creative format they want on that show. I don’t have the answers right now, but I think the secrets are in the DNA of Room 104.
DEADLINE: I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you seem like a person who has managed to crack the balanced work/personal life code.
DUPLASS: Listen, achieving a balance like that is an ongoing process, and it’s never something that you get a hold on. I am just trying to get to a place with work, life, romance, parenting, exercise, meditation, where I describe it like, the waterline of the ocean is just below my lips. That’s where I am at my best, because I am still breathing. Occasionally you f**k up, you go too deep, the waves crash over your head and [you’ve] got to go back a little bit. That’s my life.
The truth for me is that I was very much a workaholic in my teens and my 20s. I have parents who looked me in the eye every day and said, “You are amazing, and you can do anything.” And that builds confidence, but it also builds a lot of pressure. And so I spent a lot of my early life just destroying myself to get to a place of success. I really felt like by choosing to be a filmmaker, one of the hardest areas to make a living, I should not go out drinking with my friends, I should not waste any time in college. I was just working, working, working constantly. So I was deeply out of balance. And then by the time I hit my late 20s, I was approaching nervous breakdown levels of anxiety and depression and stress and all of that. And then I went to therapy for the first time. I went to magic little pills that help you get centered.
Since I was about 28 or 30, when Katie [Aselton] and I got married and I had my first kid, I just kind of had a wakeup call of, “You know what? If I don’t make a specific choice here to balance out my life, I am going to end up really successful, and really sad. And it’s just not worth it.” Thankfully, I am close with my dad, who is pretty good, and he advises me a lot of that stuff, and he is kind of over my shoulder a lot of just being like, “Hey, just because this job is exciting to you doesn’t mean that you should take it because it’s going to throw your life out of balance.”
In the past, my journey has been one of, “I hope to God there will be a job someday.” And when you are going with that engine, it’s very hard to say no to things. I was, whatever you want to call it, lucky enough in my late 20s to have a light nervous breakdown that didn’t destroy me. Really since then it’s been about trying to find that balance. And weirdly, it’s made me such a better artist, because what I realize now is that what I have to offer moving forward is not about Mark Duplass and his sole vision as writer/director/actor/producer. I have done a lot of that. My job now is to partner with other people whose voices haven’t been heard and offer whatever skills I have to bolster them as a mentor, partner or producer, so they can tell their story. I get to be a part of that, and I get to learn from that and support, and that’s really the phase I am at right now. And it means I get to spend more time with that screaming kid down the hall you just heard. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: So Chip is kind of you, but before you went to therapy.
DUPLASS: I think that’s right. Chip is basically two or three years behind me. [Laughs]