Jay Duplass doesn’t mind playing Jenny Slate's boyfriend, especially when he’s doing so in a film like Landline, the latest from Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre. The movie, out now, follows two sisters (Slate and Abby Quinn) who discover their dad is having an affair, and while Duplass’ Ben could've been little more than a prop who helps Slate’s Dana find herself like so many “girlfriend” characters have done for years, that's not the case at all. And when we speak on the phone, Duplass gives two reasons for why that is: Robespierre and her co-writer Elisabeth Holm.
“They’re doing for men what men have never done for women in the past,” Duplass explains. “They’re showing people that all the characters can be full, three-dimensional and well-rounded.”
As a director, writer, producer, and actors, Duplass has made that his mission, as well. Along with his younger brother Mark, Duplass has spent over a decade working to create films and TV shows, like the 2005 indie film The Puffy Chair and the new HBO horror anthology Room 104, that show complicated, compelling characters. The brothers have been celebrated for their ability to create on-screen men who aren't afraid to be one with their emotions (“Early on somebody mentioned to us, like, you guys kind of have a more feminine approach to how you make art,” Duplass recalls), something the actor says is true to his own life.
“I’ve always been that person in my family where everybody is like, ‘Can you please stop having all the feelings? You’re making us uncomfortable,’” Duplass explains. “And now I feel like what was once sort of a liability in my personality, like how emotional and raw I tend to have been in my life, is now something that I’m being rewarded for and paid for.”
Duplass has been a long-time triple-threat behind the scenes, but it might come as a surprise to learn he’s actually pretty new to this whole acting thing. (He’s only been doing it full-time for three years.) In his time on-screen so far, he’s worked mostly with female directors and female casts, most notably Jill Soloway’s Transparent. On the Amazon series, Duplass plays Josh, “the roving male id,” as Soloway has described, but the actor prefers to say that Josh is a “sort of playboy, douchey unreliable” character.
It's been Duplass' experience on the Amazon series, which follows a transgender woman and her family's lives, that's gotten him to check his privilege in Hollywood. In June, he wrote an essay for The Hollywood Reporter that talked about how the romantic storyline in Season 3 between Josh and Shea, a transgender woman played by Trace Lysette, encouraged him to "help give voice to marginalized people" in TV and film. “We just believe it's our responsibility,” Duplass wrote, referring to the brothers' views on representation. “Especially being straight white cisgender males who are now experiencing some success, to stand up and advocate for all voices.”
And it's not just been talk: the brothers made the 2015 indie Tangerine, which featured two transgender women of color, and and are producing the upcoming movie, Duck Butter, about a same-sex female couple. Duplass tells me that when choosing projects, he now asks himself what the political message is.
“If the piece of art is racist or misogynist or celebrating anything negative in anyway it’s really hard for me to even get past reading it,” he says. “For me it’s just I’m woke now and it is what is.”
On the surface, Landline might not seem like a political piece of work, but how the movie treats Ben, who questions if he can go back to loving Slate’s Dana after an affair, is revelatory. This chance to play a male character who is unapologetically in touch with his emotional side felt right to Duplass, he says, especially in a movie made by women.
“To me it’s just important that directors are just open to all possibilities,” Duplass says. “And I would probably just say women are more open in this world as it currently exists and more supportive in general.” Hard to argue with that, especially when we have characters like Landline's Ben and Transparent's Josh as proof.