TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Jay and Mark Duplass. They're screenwriters, directors, producers, actors and brothers. Their new memoir, "Like Brothers," is about making movies and about the rewards and traps of their close relationship as brothers and artistic collaborators. They first became known for making movies fast and really cheap. Those early movies like "The Puffy Chair," which starred Mark, and "Baghead," were often described as mumblecore.
The Duplass brothers went on to make "Cyrus" and "Jeff, Who Lives At Home." They created, wrote and directed the HBO series "Togetherness," which Mark co-starred in. They produced the film "Tangerine" and the documentary TV series "Wild Wild Country." They've also done separate projects. Mark co-starred in the TV series "The League" and the films "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Your Sister's Sister." Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as Josh Pfefferman, and stars with Edie Falco in the movie "Outside In," which was released in March.
Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is a lot about being brothers and both the beauty and the complications of being close and of working together. As children, you used to often sleep in the same bed together. You started making movies together as kids. Jay, you went to the University of Texas - Austin. You're the older brother. And soon after you got to the university, you had something of an emotional breakdown. What happened?
JAY DUPLASS: Well, I did not realize the incredibly insular family, almost immigrantlike environment that New Orleans was and probably still is - all of my family grew up within the same 2 square miles of each other. And it's a very small, unique place to grow up, where things are done in a very singular way. And a lot of the way that they're done is, you know, families band together in order to survive.
So when I got to Austin, I didn't know anyone. It was a brand-new place, an entirely different culture. And my whole first year of college was totally depressed. You know, I had had a girlfriend that I was with for two years before I went to this college and just assumed that it was going to work out, but it didn't work out. And all of my friends went to Louisiana State University, so I found myself as the only person - in my group of friends, at least - who was sort of an outsider and sort of totally alone and trying to navigate a totally new world and culture.
GROSS: And Mark, you started going to visit Jay on a regular basis. You were, like, 14 when you started doing it. So what made you think that that's what you needed to do?
MARK DUPLASS: Jay was my god and my hero, and he was the awesome older brother who never shunned me and always included me. And when I saw him go to UT and I saw him sort of hit the deck emotionally, as it were, it was shocking to me because he was our leader, really, exclusively at that point. So I was a very unemotionally aware 14-year-old who just saw his hero on the ground and wanted to be with him.
So what I started doing is, whenever I could, taking these cheap Southwest flights out to visit and hang out. And something happened, I think, which was - I was Jay's touchstone to back home, so he really lit up when he saw me. And I, of course, lit up when I saw him because he was my hero. And our relationship fundamentally changed at that point. And I think we became equals, where I was bringing as much to the relationship as Jay was at that point, and I was bolstering him.
GROSS: Mark, it must have exposed you to things you otherwise wouldn't have exposed you, to be 14 years old in Austin, hanging with college kids.
M. DUPLASS: It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. But it was also terrible because I would come back home to New Orleans, and as great as New Orleans was, I was just depressed because as soon as I started going to visit Jay, I was there spiritually and emotionally, and I just wanted to be with him. And sometimes I would spend entire summers up there while I was still in high school. And while it shot me forward in a great way, it definitely wasn't good for my life back home in New Orleans. And I spent a couple of years there just kind of thinking, I got to get out of here and get to Austin.
GROSS: Jay, what was it like for you to be in college hanging out with your 14-year-old brother?
J. DUPLASS: (Laughter) It sounds funny now.
M. DUPLASS: It was pretty cool, man. Let me tell you what.
J. DUPLASS: You know, I was so unaware and so just surviving the experience. I know it sounds crazy to say, but it never occurred to me that it was weird that I was hanging out with my 14-year-old brother. I don't know. We were just sort of riding bikes around town, going to music shows, you know, playing music together, making little movies together, just making stuff in a very purely experiential way. And Mark was, like, very advanced for his age, but I was really kind of immature and - I don't know. I just didn't really analyze it that much.
M. DUPLASS: I think you're right about the - like, you were 18, I was 14, but we were both spiritually 16.
J. DUPLASS: Sixteen.
M. DUPLASS: ...Roughly.
J. DUPLASS: Yeah. Yeah.
M. DUPLASS: And we were able to meet in the middle there, which was, like - I loved that I was, like, playing up with the college kids and feeling cool.
GROSS: So the first movie you made together outside of, like, the kid movies you were making, like a remake of "The Blob" in your living room, remake of "The Invisible Man" in your home - so the first movie that you tried to make as a real movie was called "Vince Del Rio." First of all, how old were you then?
M. DUPLASS: I think we were 27 and 23 when we started that.
J. DUPLASS: Something like that, yeah.
M. DUPLASS: Yeah, right around there.
GROSS: OK, I have not seen this, but you describe it - because it was never released (laughter).
J. DUPLASS: No one has seen it.
GROSS: No one has seen it.
J. DUPLASS: It's in the - yeah, it's being distributed in the basement of our mother's house.
GROSS: So in your book, you describe it as being about a cross-country runner named Vince, who was going to be played by Mark, from the Texas border town of Del Rio, and the runner cheats in Olympic trials qualifying races and lands a spot in the Olympic trials. It's inspired by "Rocky" as being about a man who gets a fluke shot at redemption and greatness. You know that...
M. DUPLASS: Coming from you it sounds pretty...
J. DUPLASS: It sounds pretty good, Terry (laughter).
M. DUPLASS: It sounds actually not bad, yeah (laughter).
GROSS: ...But you - (laughter) you say you could tell the film - like, you thought the film was going fine when you were shooting it. And then you started looking at the scenes, and you thought, this is really terrible; we cannot save it. How did you know it was terrible? Like, what about the film struck you as being unredeemable?
M. DUPLASS: You know, I think you have to realize, at that point, we were very experienced in the delicate art of making terrible movies and music. We, for 10 years, had been struggling to try to make things and hadn't really made anything good. And the key mistake we made with "Vince Del Rio" was, I think, listening to what we learned in film school, which was if you do it quote, unquote, "right," where you hire the most experienced crew members and you stay on schedule and you stay on budget, then you can make a good movie. And I think that our sort of rigid Catholic upbringing also trapped us a little bit under thinking, if we just keep checking these boxes, then it will ultimately add up to a good movie.
What we were denying at the time was that little, tiny voice inside of us that was saying, is this really good? We kept thinking, we're on schedule; we're on budget; we got all the smart people around us; it should be good. And when we had that first rough-cut screening, we watched people watch the movie. And we were at least emotionally aware enough at that time to realize that we could spend a year and a half, two years trying to fix this movie, but ultimately, it was flawed at its core because it was a derivative film that we wanted to make. It was the kind of movie that we liked, but not the kind of movie we were uniquely qualified to make, and we didn't understand the difference at that time.
GROSS: So what kind of movie do you now think you were uniquely qualified to make?
J. DUPLASS: Well, it took us a while to get to that place. We had to make a couple of other bad, derivative movies where we were trying to be the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino or whoever we were obsessed with at that moment. But it wasn't until we were 29 and 25 that we accidentally happened into what it is that we now feel we uniquely have to offer. And it basically happened in a day where I was pushing 30 and feeling like my time was up - you know, feeling like I've tortured myself enough, I've tortured my family enough trying to do this impossible artist thing. All the guys that we went to high school with, you know, went to college and are making good money and buying houses and having families, and we're just getting left in the dust, you know?
And on that day, Mark, who's always been sort of, like, the unbridled confidence in our relationship, said, OK, look, we're going to - we're making a movie today. And the thinking at the time was, well, we don't have a 16 mm camera. We don't have lights. We don't have people because it was still at that point in time, and, you know, digital technology hadn't quite evolved. And he said, look, we're just going to use mom and dad's video camera; I'm going to go to the store and buy a tape. I mean, you know, see if you can come up with something while I'm gone.
M. DUPLASS: I think it was different than that. I said, you figure out what the story's going to be.
M. DUPLASS: I'll be right back.
J. DUPLASS: Yeah.
M. DUPLASS: I think I was little harsher.
J. DUPLASS: And there was something incredible about that time limit of knowing that my little brother was going to be back from the store in 10 minutes, feeling like this might be our last chance - you know, like this was kind of like our last-ditch effort. And I think we had exhausted all of the possibilities of being derivative. We were sick of it, disgusted with ourselves. And the story that came to me was not some brilliant invention. It was just something that had happened to me the week before where I was trying to perfect the personal greeting of my answering machine, pretty much failed in several attempts, and had a nervous breakdown while I was doing it. It wasn't funny to me at the time, but it was something that occurred to me that was significant and that could be shot in our apartment with me being the entire crew and Mark being the only actor.
And we shot this movie in one take in about 20 minutes, and we edited it down to about seven minutes. And I won't say that we knew that we had it, but I will say that when we were done shooting it, we knew that something had happened that had never happened before, which was we captured lightning or some life - some real life, some real moment. And, you know, Mark was laughing and crying during the takes, and I was laughing and crying behind the camera while it was happening. And Mark wasn't that far behind me in the level of desperation that he was achieving in his life.
M. DUPLASS: It was that feeling, I think I remember distinctly, of this movie feels like us...
J. DUPLASS: Yeah.
M. DUPLASS: ...Like the way that we talk at 2 in the morning when we're sharing our most intimate details, and we're giggling, and we're kind of...
J. DUPLASS: Cringing.
M. DUPLASS: ...Cringing and comforting each other. And it felt so specifically from us that no one else could have made it. And so, yeah. I mean, even though the movie was made for $3 and sounded and looked terrible - it literally had a dead pixel in the center of it - that was our first movie that got into Sundance.
GROSS: Well, if anyone wants to see that, it is on the Internet (laughter). And therefore, we can play a short clip from this very short movie. So this is an excerpt of Mark Duplass in "This Is John."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS JOHN")
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Hello. You've reached John Ashford (ph) at 512-443-9321. I'm sorry I've missed your call. Please leave me your name and number, and I will return your call as soon as possible.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Hey, it's John. I'm sorry I missed your call, but I will return your call as soon as possible.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Call, call, call. Hey, it's John. Sorry I missed your call. Just leave me your number. I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Hi, it's John Ashford. Hello.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Hi, this is John.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford, crying) (Unintelligible).
GROSS: And here's how he sounds at the end on the final message that he records on the answering machine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS JOHN")
M. DUPLASS: (As John Ashford) Hi, this is John. Well, this is my last chance, so I can't stop now. I can't seem to get this to work for me, and I really don't know why. But this is my last try so, I guess this is going to be what you're hearing. I don't really - yeah, I don't care what you think because I'm not afraid anymore, you know? I had a long day, and I'm not home right now. If you leave me your name and number, I will call you back. Thank you, and have a great [expletive] day.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
GROSS: We'll talk more about that early short film by the Duplass brothers after we take a short break. Jay and Mark Duplass have a new memoir called "Like Brothers." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jay and Mark Duplass, who are producers, directors, screenwriters and actors as well as brothers. Their new memoir is called "Like Brothers." When we left off, we heard their first successful short film, called "This Is John."
So that short, "This Is John," got you into Sundance. And that led to, like, meetings with producers and deals that you could've had. And that's when you started to get really excited and really kind of sour (laughter) about the world of movie deals. Give us an example of the kind of deal that you were offered in your early years as filmmakers that made you skeptical of working with production companies.
J. DUPLASS: Well, the first thing that happened to us after this short film is that we started having tons and tons of general meetings. And those, in and of themselves, are extremely time-consuming and confusing, where you're meeting and greeting people. But some of the deals that we were getting offered were things like this. A producer would say, look, we have this movie that has this very downtrodden comedy star attached to it.
J. DUPLASS: And we have this money attached to it. And we know that the movie is broken, and what we would like for you to do is to rewrite the script, and if you rewrite it, you can direct the movie. And Mark and I were so thrilled because we were just surviving on $16,000 a year and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at this point - you know? - and we were just dying to get paid to do what we love to do.
M. DUPLASS: And it felt like the dream because they would say...
J. DUPLASS: Yeah.
M. DUPLASS: ...It's funny, but we need you to bring some of that special relationship...
J. DUPLASS: Yes.
M. DUPLASS: ...And groundedness (ph), that magic to it. And so we thought this is amazing.
J. DUPLASS: Yeah, we could do this.
M. DUPLASS: So we would look at the script, and we would spend a week or two ferreting out all those unnaturally ridiculous set pieces where someone falls off a third-floor window and racks their genitals on a dump truck. OK. We can get rid of that.
J. DUPLASS: But they need a joke here, so we'll do a smart version. But, I mean, we did more than just ferret out the problems. Like, what we were doing is we would go away for a week and literally restructure the entire movie to make it a thoughtful, relationship comedy...
M. DUPLASS: Yeah.
J. DUPLASS: ...Of our ilk.
M. DUPLASS: And then we would walk in and pitch it to them, and they would say, this is so exciting. We got a greenlit movie here. We're ready to go. Let us get right back to you. And then they would want to throw out 90 percent of our changes, and then we realized, oh, they just have a window of availability with said downtrodden comedic star, and they just want to get anybody they can get to make it so it will make some money. And that became very apparent to us quickly.
And so what happened was we started thinking, wait a minute. I thought Sundance was the thing that gets you to where we are now so that you can then make money and make your movies. And we started having to rethink the whole system and started thinking, God, is there a way for us to go back to make the smaller movies that we used to make and maybe make money on those? And it was kind the - a death of a dream in some way but ultimately a good thing.
GROSS: And then you made "Puffy Chair" and "Baghead," which gave you the name mumblecore, a name I bet you didn't like.
J. DUPLASS: We didn't care what the name was because The New York Times was writing articles about us as if we had joined in some movement that was decided upon. You know, I think the previous film movement was Dogma and, you know, there was, like, people signed up for it and there was a set of rules, you know?
GROSS: Oh, yeah, there was - exactly, exactly. There was, like, an ideology, yeah.
J. DUPLASS: It was such a big deal. It was an ideology, exactly. And I think the press mistakenly thought that all of these, quote, unquote, "mumblecore" filmmakers were banded together in a similar ideology. But the truth is is that we were all just using the same digital camera and helping each other make our movies because we were broke and we were the only idiots willing to do it. But it helped for us to be, I guess, grandfathers of a movement that we didn't create because it put the eyes of the world on us in that moment.
GROSS: My guests are filmmakers and actors Jay and Mark Duplass. Their new memoir about their relationship as brothers and artistic collaborators is called "Like Brothers." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a book by Zora Neale Hurston that's just been published for the first time. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSELL MALONE'S "SWEET GEORGIA PEACH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jay and Mark Duplass, who are producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and brothers. They made the films "The Puffy Chair," "Cyrus" and "Jeff Who Lives At Home" and the HBO series "Togetherness," which Mark starred in. Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent" as Josh Pfefferman. Their new book about their relationship as brothers and artistic collaborators is called "Like Brothers."
So in writing about your relationship as brothers, you say you're both very intense. Mark, it sounds like you're very obsessive and, Jay, that you're prone to depression. Though, it sounds like, Mark, maybe you're also prone to depression.
M. DUPLASS: Yeah, depending on the day, each of those.
GROSS: And, Jay, maybe you're also pretty obsessive - yeah.
J. DUPLASS: Yeah. I think Mark's more outwardly obsessive, and he derives a lot of joy and excitement by looking out into the world and feeling about where we're going to go and what we're going to do and the different kinds of projects that we could tackle. And I think...
M. DUPLASS: That's temporary joy. Let's just be clear.
J. DUPLASS: Temporary, yeah, absolutely, yeah. And I think I'm more micro obsessive, but I would probably say, or Mark would say, that I am just as obsessive just in a way that's not as perceptible to other people. But yeah, I'm the person that will go super, super, super deep on a singular piece of art, probably to my own detriment.
GROSS: OK. Speaking of to your own detriment, Mark, I want you to give an example of this. When you were thinking your career was going to be in music, you would, like, practice obsessively and got tendinitis. It sounds like you got tendinitis in your fingers, in your hands, in your arms. Like, your whole upper body was shot. And I just consider that as proof that you could do something, like, just sitting in a chair or standing up - you don't have to be climbing Mount Everest - to totally hurt your body (laughter). And so after throwing yourself so completely into what you hoped would be your creative career and then realizing that you were blowing out your body by doing it, what did you learn from that about, like, pacing yourself or, like, hitting a wall and the point at which being driven might backfire?
M. DUPLASS: I didn't learn anything from it...
M. DUPLASS: ...At the time, to be perfectly honest with you. What I did was I hit a wall in the music industry. I kept my foot on the gas, and I started just slowly screeching that engine around the wall until I took a left turn directly into the film career with Jay. I was in my mid- to late-20s. I was intensely driven, and my emotional awareness was low, so I didn't really catch the drift. And I still have issues with that.
You know, Jay and I talk a lot about the engine speed that's required to climb the mountain of coming from nowhere and trying to get somewhere is quite difficult to turn off and coast into neutral once you have, quote, unquote, "gotten there." And I really do believe we have gotten there and then some. I never thought we would get even close to this far as we have. Yet that desperation - I don't know if it's innate or if it's just rhythms that I can't turn off - I have quite a hard time slowing it down. And I think that our making "Togetherness" together, where we - I starred in it; Jay and I wrote every episode, directed every episode, produced every episode, really just threw our whole lives into it - I think that was the epitome of our unhealthy drive and desperation and, really, the pinnacle of us realizing, if we continue to do it this way, we're not going to last. We were not...
GROSS: And let me back up and say that "Togetherness" was an HBO series that was about - Mark, you start as, like, a person who's married and is having marital difficulties. You have - was it two children?
M. DUPLASS: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And then your best friend comes to town, and he's an aspiring actor who isn't having success early on. So anyways, why was this series, which was on for two seasons on HBO - why was this series, like, an example for you of a problem?
J. DUPLASS: Well, I think, you know, it was beautiful at first in the sense that it was our first foray into television. And because we didn't come from television - you know, we didn't have, like, a full writer's room; we didn't have several other directors - we felt inherently that it would be too much of a learning curve for us to become showrunners all of a sudden. And what we felt like we could do and what we had been able to do prior to that point is just figure it out together. And we did that. And we wrote and directed and produced, and Mark starred in every single episode. But over time, it started to really wear on us. And that's where our friendship and our brotherhood really started to suffer.
GROSS: It was canceled. I think you had already started working on the third season when you got the call from HBO saying it was canceled. Were you relieved?
J. DUPLASS: Yeah.
M. DUPLASS: Yeah.
J. DUPLASS: (Laughter).
M. DUPLASS: We didn't want to admit it, but I think that, you know, this idea that we could've had six seasons of that show - we realized we never would've been able to turn that down because the job was too good on paper. We got to express ourselves exactly how we wanted to. We had full creative control. HBO was just wonderful through the whole process. And I think we immediately realized that not only were we physically and emotionally exhausting ourselves from the pure workload - push that aside - this was a real turning point in our relationship because, at this point, we had young kids ourselves, and we were married, and we were trying to figure out, how are we supposed to be with each other? Because when we were 14 and 18, and it was just the two of us and we had a whole mountain to climb, we could be fully co-dependent, and there were very few downsides to that. We were once each other's everything and didn't need anything from anybody else, including our parents or our college girlfriends, who just found us really strange (laughter). And so as grown-ups, this marriage that we had was - it was not working.
J. DUPLASS: Yeah. I mean, very specifically, it's, like, you get to the end of a 12-hour shoot day, and you've been sitting next to each other fighting through so many challenges and making 250 decisions a day, the last thing that you're going to do is go hang out after and talk about your feelings.
M. DUPLASS: Yeah.
J. DUPLASS: You speed home to your family. You jam in your family time. And, you know, so what we had a profundity of before, which was personal space and personal time and time together to process all of these things that were happening to us - we didn't have any time for that. And just out of context, it's interesting because, you know, people look at the show as only eight half-hour episodes per year. But from our perspective, writing, producing, directing every single one of them, we were essentially making 2 1/2 movies a year, just us.
GROSS: That's really a lot (laughter). I get that. I'll tell you what. Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are filmmakers and actors Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. They have a new book together called "Like Brothers." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are filmmakers and actors Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass. They first became known for their self-produced, super-low-budget movies like "The Puffy Chair" and "Baghead." They went on to make "Cyrus" and "Jeff, Who Lives At Home." They created, wrote and directed the HBO series "Togetherness," which Mark starred in. He was also in the series "The League" and the films "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Your Sister's Sister." Jay co-stars in "Transparent" as Josh. Their new book together is called "Like Brothers."
I want to read something that you write in the book, which is, sometimes Mark's brain is moving so quickly and with such fervor that Jay has no space for his ideas to collaborate with Mark's. Jay's ideas come more slowly, in a more dreamlike, fugue state. Jay, I want you to talk about what it's like in those kinds of situations when you're collaborating together and Mark's brain is, like, coming up with ideas at a rapid pace, and you're thinking things through on your own pace, which is a different pace altogether. What's that like for you?
J. DUPLASS: Well, we've done a lot of therapy (laughter). And...
GROSS: Together or separately or both?
J. DUPLASS: Separately, you know, and we just - the way that Mark and I relate to each other and process with each other is very therapeutic. And I think we both have this inherent understanding and appreciation that Mark's unbridled confidence and high-volume approach to making art is incredibly healthy when it's balanced with my deep dive - going as deep as we possibly can to make sure that the piece of art is resonating on very deep, you know, subliminal waves. And I think this relates directly to "Togetherness" because I think what happens is, when we get in situations where we're up against a deadline or being incredibly overworked, usually, what happens is is that Mark's approach takes the forefront because he moves so swiftly, and it's hard for me to let go of going as deep as I want to go.
So I think when you ask, like, the question - what is it like for me? - it feels like, all of a sudden, maybe I'm not relevant anymore in this situation. And I know Mark feels that way at certain times, too. But I think that's one of the toughest parts of it when you're working and collaborating in a partnership, is, although you do have someone that you love that's there with you, when you feel like you are not as important to the process in this moment, it feels like death because you're there in the 14th hour, and you've been doing it for 14 hours a day for years and years and years, and you're like, what am I doing here? And the truth of the matter is - is that in a very high-pressure environment like making a $22 million television show in Hollywood - those environments are not very friendly or open to managing those kinds of critical things. But that's why people go crazy. That's why filmmakers go nuts.
M. DUPLASS: And that's why people, you know, lose each other and their relationships, and we refused to do that.
GROSS: Jay, did it make it harder for you feeling like your ideas weren't, like, mattering as much because it was also Mark who was in front of the camera on "Togetherness?" I mean, now you're in front of the camera on "Transparent," and a lot of people know who you are because that show is so popular, and you do such a good job portraying your character, Josh. But before then, was there, like, this feeling that not only was maybe Mark getting his ideas out quicker and therefore landing more of them, but also, people would associate the show with him because he's the face or the movie with him because he's the actor you see on screen?
J. DUPLASS: That stuff never bothered me too much because I never dreamed that I would be an actor. I'm the quieter, shyer one. And, I mean, honestly, like, when our dad got the video camera in 1983, I was the only one old enough to figure out how to use it, and so Mark had to act, and I had to shoot. And we had been operating under that principle...
M. DUPLASS: For 35 years.
J. DUPLASS: ...For probably 35 years. You know, it was just like, this works; I know how to do this. When we say we're going to make a movie, it means Jay picks up the camera, and then Mark does the thing. And I think I've honestly been operating under that principle for that long. For me to show up in a television show, much less a television show as widely received as "Transparent" was, was shocking, a big surprise, and also really exciting to realize that I could be myself, I didn't have to become anybody else to become an actor, and weirdly, was surprised at how much I loved it.
GROSS: I have another question for you, Jay, about "Transparent." Apparently, Jill Soloway, the creator and showrunner of "Transparent," said that the series is going to end with the next season, Season 5. And I'm sure one of the issues is that Jeffrey Tambor was accused by one or two people on the set of sexual harassment. So I think he's not supposed to be returning to this series. Is there anything you can say about that? I realized there might be nothing you can say, but if you can say something, I'd be interested in hearing it, as I know our listeners would.
J. DUPLASS: Sure. You know, what's happening with "Transparent" has been incredibly challenging. We are a family of people making art together and trying to make the world a safer place. That was Jill's mission from day one - is to make the world a safer place for their parent. That really has been what we've been riding on, in terms of creating that show and getting it out into the world. So to have it, you know, sort of implode, on some level, from the inside out has been very traumatic.
I think the trickiest part of all of this lies on Jill's shoulders, which is how to recreate the show or finish the show without their lead character, how to make Amazon happy, how to fulfill the legacy of Jill's family and how to make Jill happy. And my job is simply to try to support everyone, to hear everyone, to try to understand what everyone has gone through. That is the "Transparent" way - is a nonbinary approach to everything in life and an empathetic approach. So that's what we are all really doing as a family and trying to keep the show alive and trying to support Jill so that Jill can deliver a poignant and fitting ending to an incredibly big challenge.
GROSS: Is there a time when you're scheduled to start shooting again, or is that still up in the air?
J. DUPLASS: It's still up in the air. Jill has been given - very graciously from Amazon - free rein to refigure out what they need to do to make the show great.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I wish you good luck with that.
J. DUPLASS: Thank you.
GROSS: Is it liberating for both of you when you're the actor and not the director, writer, producer? You don't have the whole thing on your shoulders. You just have to embody the character.
M. DUPLASS: Yeah. For me, personally - this is Mark - I always enjoy just being an actor on set. And most of it comes down to the fact that I'm going to learn something. I'm going to make some new friends. There, traditionally, is this feeling of I'm having an affair on my creative partnership with Jay. I get to tell all the jokes that Jay and I tell to each other to new ears, and I look really cool doing it. I don't have to share the space with Jay, and it's very nice, you know? And I was the first one to do that. And I watched Jay do it with "Transparent." And something really odd happened to me, which is I got jealous. And then right away, it's like - but I love you. And I want you to have that, and I'm so glad you're finding that. But hold on, don't go too far...
M. DUPLASS: ...'Cause don't forget me. And it's very tricky. In the end, I know it's healthy in my head, but there's this primal thing in me. And I know I'm a nostalgic person, too. But I have dreams about floating around our pool in our backyard when we were 13 and 17, listening to Steely Dan and going on a three-mile run at 1 in the morning and telling each other everything and not sharing it with anyone. And I have a hard time letting go of that. And that's been a lot of what our journey is now, while - at the same time - being slightly hypocritical 'cause I love going and acting in other things (laughter) and experiencing my own freedom.
GROSS: Well, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, thank you both so much for talking with us. And I wish you good luck in all the future twists and turns (laughter) of your so interesting career and relationship with each other. Thank you.
J. DUPLASS: Thank you so much.
M. DUPLASS: Thank you.
J. DUPLASS: It's an honor to talk to you.
GROSS: Jay and Mark Duplass have a new memoir called "Like Brothers." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a book by Zora Neale Hurston just published for the first time, based on her interviews in 1927 with an 86-year-old man who told her about being taken captive and coming to America on a slave ship. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Before Zora Neale Hurston wrote "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and the other books that would make her reputation, she was studying anthropology. In 1927, Hurston's deep interest in black history and culture let her into what became one of the most remarkable conversations of her life. The book that resulted from that conversation has just been published for the first time. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has the review of "Barracoon."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: (Reading) I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave.
That was one of the first questions that Zora Neale Hurston asked 86-year-old Cudjo Lewis when she traveled from New York to Mobile, Ala., to interview him in the summer of 1927. Back then, Hurston was studying anthropology at Columbia University and doing fieldwork, collecting black folklore and historical data. Cudjo Lewis was already known to those who cared about black history. He was the last known living person who could recount firsthand the experience of having been taken captive in Africa and transported on a slave ship to the United States. Cudjo spent years in slavery and, after the Civil War, helped found a settlement called Africatown near Mobile. That's where Hurston interviewed him over a three-month period, coaxing Cudjo into talking about the past with gifts of peaches, ham and watermelon.
The short, book-length manuscript Hurston produced in 1931 was called "Barracoon," named after those structures, like holding pens or stockades, where captured Africans were confined before being loaded onto ships. Hurston's manuscript has a complicated backstory, but the gist is that the book generated little interest back then from publishers. Only Viking Press was willing to publish it with the stipulation that Hurston change Cudjo's voice, transforming his dialect speech into the King's English. Hurston refused, and "Barracoon" languished, known only to scholars until now.
For skeptics who believe that all the archives have long been plundered and all the literary treasures of the past have already been published, "Barracoon" will be a conversion experience. It's a monumental work not merely because it describes aspects of the slave trade that largely went unrecorded, but also because it vividly dramatizes two extraordinary voices in conversation. There's Cudjo haltingly retrieving his painful memories, and there's Hurston listening, nudging and sometimes making impassioned commentary on what she's hearing.
Both Cudjo and Hurston often make their points poetically. For instance, in her introduction, Hurston points out what's missing in other books written about the slave trade. (Reading) All these words from the seller, she says, but not one word from the sold - the kings and captains whose words moved ships, but not one word from the cargo.
In "Barracoon," Hurston is determined to give the last living representative of that black cargo his say. The first thing Hurston seems to have learned about Cudjo was that in Africa, his name was Kossula, which is what she calls him. The second thing she learned was that digression was an essential part of his storytelling style, which sometimes made her impatient, but Hurston's frustration falls away when Cudjo starts telling her about the events leading to his capture in 1859. Cudjo was 19, and a neighboring tribe, led by female warriors, massacres most of his neighbors and family and takes him and other young people captive. The memories are bloody and grisly. Hurston ends her account of that conversation by commenting, (reading) Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke. His agony was so acute that he became inarticulate. He never noticed my preparation to leave him.
In her moving forward to "Barracoon," Alice Walker says that Cudjo's stories of the atrocities that African peoples inflicted on each other wounded Hurston, but nevertheless, she kept returning to Cudjo's porch, asking him about the middle passage, his enslavement in Alabama and the later struggles he and his wife faced as displaced free people, trying to eke out a living for their six children. By the time Hurston met Cudjo, his wife and all of his children had died. Once again, he was the last survivor, and he was terribly lonely. He told Hurston, (reading) when the earth eats, it don't give back.
True enough. But in writing "Barracoon," Hurston found a way to ensure that the earth didn't swallow Cudjo Lewis' precious words.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Barracoon" by Zora Neale Hurston.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll discuss Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who is currently the subject of 11 investigations. My guest will be New York Times reporter Eric Lipton, who's read thousands of documents about Pruitt and the EPA released through the Freedom of Information Act. Lipton first covered Pruitt when he was Oklahoma attorney general and sued the EPA many times. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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