For ‘The Morning Show,’ Mark Duplass just acts like he’s a producer
Writer-director-actor-producer Mark Duplass dropped just about all those hyphens for a few weeks last year and now has an Emmy nomination as reward for his acting-only contributions to “The Morning Show.”
The #MeToo-themed series, featuring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, casts Duplass as put-upon TV producer Charlie “Chip” Black, who’s tasked with maintaining order amid a network infotainment operation roiled by sexual assault allegations.
Duplass understood firsthand his character’s pressure-cooker environment.
“In playing Chip, I definitely drew on some of my own experience as an independent film producer, where you’re trying to keep a nearly impossible ship afloat,” says Duplass, speaking from the Los Angeles home he shares with actress wife Katie Aselton and their two daughters.
“Chip’s constantly stressed, but he has to eat that stress and put on this exterior that makes everybody feel like everything’s OK. That’s what I call extreme Dad Energy, and it’s something I’ve embodied my whole life, as a father and as a producer.”
Duplass modeled his approach after John Cazale, the esteemed character actor who died at age 42 after appearing in “The Godfather,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” “I’ve always worshiped what John Cazale did as a supporting actor,” Duplass says.
“Everybody said he was such a good listener. Just by being there, he made you better in the scene. If I did my job right on ‘The Morning Show,’ I was able to support Jen and Billy, who took such a big swing with his fast-talking character Cory.”
Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison is a spy in the house of capitalism, and it may be the most fascinating part of “The Morning Show.”
Even while he embraced his limited actor-for-hire responsibilities on “The Morning Show,” Duplass continued to wear his writer-director-producer hat. His HBO anthology series “Room 104,” co-created with brother Jay, filmed at the same time on the Sony lot in Culver City about 400 yards from the “Morning Show” set.
Running back and forth between sound stages, Duplass directed a “Room 104" episode featuring himself as hair-past-his-shoulders, beer-swigging rock musician Graham Husker. “We gave Graham dirty fingernails and everything,” Duplass says with a laugh. “I loved it, not because I’m a maniac who loves the thrill of the stress but because I tend to be at my best when I’m feeding all these different parts of myself simultaneously.”
Duplass has acted in nearly 40 projects since launching his career in 2005 with the micro-budgeted film “Puffy Chair.” Still, he admits feeling slightly star-struck opposite Witherspoon, who plays the contentious Bradley Jackson, newly added as co-host to the morning news program.
“I watched Reese Witherspoon in ‘Man on the Moon’ when I was 15, and I’ve seen her in everything since,” Duplass says. “I was kind of nervous in our first scene together when she comes into my office, pitches some ideas for the show, then yells at me.
“By our third take, Reese was coming up with fun little stuff like, ‘Charlie Chip Black whatever the f— your name is’ and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m acting here with Reese Witherspoon, who I’ve been watching for 25 years and I think we’re good together?’ That was a call-home-to-Mom moment for sure.”
But it’s Duplass’ chemistry with Aniston, who plays veteran co-host Alex Levy, that animates one of “Morning Show’s” most poignant relationships.
“Chip usually doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him but Alex is his Achilles’ heel,” Duplass says. “He harbors romantic feelings for her, and it winds up crushing him. I love that storyline and loved acting with Jen. You’d think someone with her level of movie star celebrity would be a closed and calculating person because everybody in the world wants something from her. But in fact, she’s open and childlike in all the right ways. As a scene partner, all false humility aside, Jen loved being with me, and I loved being with her.”
In the season finale, Chip punches Carell’s predatory Mitch Kessler in the face, confesses his true feelings for Alex, via voicemail, and confronts his own role in creating a toxic workplace culture.
“At the beginning of his journey, Chip assumes that if he’s generally respectful to the women on set and not sleeping with any of them himself, then he’s on the right side of the story,” Duplass says. “But then he realizes that by not actively calling out the wrongdoing, he has failed as a male ally to women.
“I think we’re at a place in society right now, whether it’s the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter, where benign passivity is not enough. And that’s why Chip’s so angry at himself. He’s culpable too.”
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