Mark Duplass Talks 'The Morning Show,' Making a Movie in Quarantine and 'Room 104' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Mark Duplass is never not multitasking. At the moment, he's on the phone promoting the new season of his HBO series, Room 104, while on vacation with his family in Palm Springs. "I am weirdly walking around in 100-degree heat like an idiot trying to get my steps in," he chuckles. "I'm always trying to double up on the tasks."
The fourth and final season of Room 104, which Duplass co-created with brother Jay and which he sometimes directs, will see him triple up: Each installment of the anthology series tells a new story set in the same hotel room, and in the premiere, he plays an elusive musician who may or may not be a murderer. That's just the beginning of what the show has in store for its swan song: 12 genre-bending, tonally unique episodes featuring anthropomorphic hamsters and musical numbers and -- sure, why not? -- a dinosaur.
In conversation with ET, Duplass spoke about how Room 104 previews his commitment to promoting a diverse array of voices, when he might return to the set of The Morning Show and what season 2 could look like, as well as revealing how he's stayed busy riding out the pandemic: He helmed his own made-in-quarantine movie.
"I am very fortunate to be in a place where I can work out of my home and be with my family and we can afford to stay safe," Duplass says. "I'm extremely grateful for that, and on most days, I'm able to turn that into happiness, and then every now and then allowing myself a bit of privileged fussiness, per my therapist's orders."
You're acting on Room 104 for the first time. What was it about this character in this story that made you want to jump in front of the camera?
Mark Duplass: I think we have been saving me as an actor in reserve, just in case someone ever dropped out the day before -- so I never actively cast myself in anything -- and once we got the sense this was going to be the final season, I felt that we can safely put me in something and not feel like we're giving up our pinch hitter.
On a more deeply creative level, I used to be a musician and a touring singer-songwriter in my late teens and early 20s, and I know that world. I'm almost obsessed with the way that fanboys sort of take so much joy out of the pain of these artists -- not only the deep pain to create this music, but in particular, disappearing artists, like Searching for Sugar Man, or people who not only just go off the grid but maybe even disappeared or have died. I find it to be so icky and sycophantic and vampiric and just gross. And I always thought, "What would it be like if they ever got face to face with that actual pain?" So I decided to create a character like Graham Husker, who is a rock star legend who happens to look like your sad uncle in a bad golf shirt and cargo shorts, to give it that Room 104 flavor.
Having you as a pinch hitter is not a bad deal, but you've always gotten the best players for this. Who are you most excited to feature in this batch of episodes? Or whose performance do you think will be particularly surprising for people?
Look, I love all my children the same. I cannot pick any favorites. That being said, one thing that this show does when it's at its best is it brings out new sides of performers that you already love or it gives a leading role to that character actor you haven't seen truly be in the driver's seat. For me, the subtlety and the raw emotion that Dave Bautista brought to the "Avalanche" episode is a real revelation. And he's such a beautiful person, so spending that time with him was just wonderful. I want to do everything with him from now on.
On a similar note, I think that the depth of what Jillian Bell brought to the "Star Time" episode, that's a different thing for her. I thought it was really beautiful. And then my two musical dudes, Desean Terry and Kevin McKidd, I knew that they could both sing, but when you're trying to make a... I don't know how the hell to describe that episode. [Laughs] It's truly tonally bizarre and strange, and what they were able to pull off in terms of grounding it, making it funny, making it strange, I was blown away by that.
Was there any "one who got away" on this, anyone you'd wanted to get in the Room but weren't able to, for whatever reason?
So many people, honestly. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with people through the years about, "Come into Room 104 and let's do something together." One of my favorites that did work was when Mahershala Ali told me he was a fan and he would set aside two days, and I said, "Well, let me write you something." He was like, "What do you mean?" I said, "What's the character you would like to play? I'll write it for you." And he said, "I think being, like, a pool hustler in the '80s would be cool." I sent him a script three days later and there we were.
That's when it works at its best, but there were so many that just for timing purposes didn't work out. Olivia Wilde and I are old friends, and I remember she was getting ready to direct her first movie, and I thought, "Why don't you come make your mistakes in the Room first?" Turns out, she didn't have any mistakes to make. [Laughs] She made one of our great teen comedy adventures of all time. So, I was wrong on that one. But honestly, I wish I had 10 more seasons to do it, because I have a lot of stories left and I wish we could keep going.
This show is particularly well suited to give those opportunities to new voices both in front of and behind the camera, across lines of race and gender and sexuality. And you've been a champion of amplifying voices for years now -- I'm thinking of this, I'm thinking of Tangerine -- but in this moment of reflection and reckoning, what has that process been like, of looking back at the journey of where you started and where you have to go?
We could talk for five hours about that, but it is something that we are discussing a lot at the company right now. If I'm being honest with myself, I think we've done some really good things. And I think you are right, that we have supported up-and-coming voices. In particular on Room 104, we've done a good job of giving underrepresented voices -- for whatever reason -- their chance in front of and behind the camera. But the long and the short of it is, I don't think we've done nearly enough. And listen, I'm not Bad Robot. I don't have that kind of power. But I do have something, and I do have a place like HBO that trusted me enough to do Room 104 and let me do my thing, as long as I kept it to a cheap enough price that made it worthwhile for them.
So, I am trying to identify all of the things that we can do with our relative position of power that happens to tell great stories and support the kinds of people who need that support. And while I don't have the answers, I think some of the solutions are inside of the DNA of what we've already done with Room 104. I would love to take credit and say that I designed Room 104 that way, but I didn't. I started off making Room 104 as a place for me to do my own weird ideas, and then I realized after a season, well, s**t, this is going to get boring and repetitive if I don't bring other people in. In doing so, I really found this model for not authoring everything, but collaborating with others and being somewhat of an uncle to them and offering whatever platform, experience and support I can so that they can tell their story in a safe environment in 25 minutes and then show that to the world and let them go f**king kill it. I love that, and I want to do as much of that as I can.
You are someone I would describe as "prolifically productive." Have you found that's still been the case during quarantine?
Yes, it has. We make a lot of different kinds of things and we're making a lot of documentaries right now, and a lot of those can be edited at home. Our office is shut down, but I sent the computers home with all of our documentary projects, and we're networking from home and still watching cuts and moving those forward. We haven't even announced this yet, but we have made a secret movie already during the pandemic that we haven't told anybody about.
We're doing lots of things that we can do, which has been part and parcel of who we've been all along. Like, swing the sword in your hand. Don't dream about what you can do once you get the access, do with what you got. And we're trying to do that, but at the same time, at this moment in time, also trying to be aware of the fact that, don't just make something just to make something. Make it count. People got enough movies and TV shows in their queue. So, go ahead and keep making, but make sure it's got a place.
I wanted to get your take on these made-in-pandemic films, because when the Sam Levinson project was announced, my first thought was, "This feels like something the Duplasses would do."
We haven't announced anything yet, but you'll probably hear something soon. We're definitely on that train.
What was the experience like making something while in quarantine?
We've made a couple of things, to be honest with you. And to me, it's not that different with what we've always done. The ethic of what we have done -- starting from when my brother and I made our first short that got into Sundance in our kitchen with my parents' video camera for $3 -- is, "How do you work within limits?" That is the essence of what Room 104 is. How many stories can you tell within 350 square feet and four walls? I just happen to be a person who functions really well in that environment. I actually get creatively paralyzed by the infinite sea of possibility and opportunity.
If Netflix came to me and was like, "Here's a hundred million dollars and four huge movie stars," I think that would scare the living s**t out of me, because you have to deliver something that satisfies so many different quadrants of people and -- not in a bad way -- you have to kind of dilute what you're doing in order to make it work. By being singular and by not having to give something to people that is going to satisfy everyone, that is what makes creative freedom happen. And that's where I'm at my best.
Having gone through that experience, having to be more cognizant of safety, of how you work with actors, of how everything is done, do you think the pandemic will change how you set out to make whatever it is you're making moving forward?
Yeah, it will and it should. I think a lot of people are talking right now about, "How can we be safe doing this?" And just speaking candidly, I think that the studios are more worried about their own liability and getting insurance and getting sued than they are about what I would call the spiritual liability of just f**king being safe and being a human being who doesn't want people to get sick. And I'm seeing them start to rush back into production, and I don't think it's a good idea. So, when I'm talking about projects that can be made now, I'm talking essentially about contactless productions. What are creative things you can do inside of quarantine that don't involve putting people together in any danger? I think there are creative things that you can do, and that's the sphere I'm working in right now.
Whenever you do go back, will it be to season 2 of The Morning Show?
I don't know what it means for them to go back to that show. Just from my admittedly uneducated viewpoint, the concept of getting that huge cast on a set inside where germs and everything can be spread a-very plentifully, to me that means it's going to be a while before we come back with any level of safety. They haven't said when we're going back. I think it's going to be a while. So I'm not waiting on that to be my next creative venture. I'm going to make room for it whenever it comes, because I love it and I want to support it, but I'm not banking on it being anytime soon, and I'm going to start running with my own safe, little contactless productions. 'Cause there's plenty we can do, guys. I mean, the whole world of narrative audio podcasting is wide open. You don't have to touch or be near anybody to make the greatest narrative audio podcast show there is. And I'm challenging a lot of people to work in that sphere.
Ahead of season 1, the writers scrapped everything they'd worked on to start over and reflect the #MeToo movement. Now that they have time to reassess what's been written for season 2, do you know if they are revising those scripts to mirror where we are with coronavirus, with the Black Lives Matter protests, with everything else that is happening in the world right now?
I don't know, but I do know that Kerry Ehrin and our entire writing staff are rewriting. And I know that they do believe in trying to find the best way to reflect where we are now in this new version of what season 2 will be. I literally don't know any more than that, and I don't pressure them to tell me, because I know what it's like when people are coming at me being like, "What is it? What's going to happen?" I know you want to keep that close to the chest until you get that right.
So, I'm letting them have their time and space without bugging them. But I am just as curious as you are as to what that's going to be. Chip is a cis, white male in a position of power who loses his power at the end of season 1, and for me, that is an interesting story. If you're going to tell a story with a white dude, that's what I'm interested in seeing.
Room 104's final season premieres July 24 at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.