Barefoot and bleary-eyed, Mark Duplass opened the door to his office, an apartment in Los Feliz. "I feel like I'm stoned," the 35-year-old actor said, apologizing for his appearance and trying to wipe the sleep out of his eyes.
He looked every bit the part of his familiar on-screen persona: the overgrown man-child. He plopped down on his couch and started cracking his big toe. Every few minutes, his gray cotton T-shirt rode up, revealing his pale stomach, and he casually pulled it down over his jeans again. Little wonder, it seemed, that he's the guy who gets cast as the schlub who isn't ready to propose to his girlfriend or the dude who thinks his wife won't mind if he films a gay porn video with his male best friend.
Except that Duplass didn't feel high because he had spent the night lighting up a bong in his mother's basement. His wife, actress Katie Aselton, had given birth to the couple's second daughter just two weeks prior. In between diaper duty, the writer-actor-producer-director had been trying to promote four movies now or soon to be in theaters —"Darling Companion,""Safety Not Guaranteed,""Your Sister's Sister"and"People Like Us"— in which he acted.
Duplass might just be the best-disguised Hollywood overachiever of the year. He also co-directed the March release "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"with his brother, Jay, and is preparing to bring out another sibling collaboration, "The Do-Deca-Pentathalon," in July. He produced and co-wrote another 2012 film, "Black Rock," with his wife. Oh, and he also has a role in the FX fantasy football sitcom "The League," set to launch its fourth season this fall.
So no, says his brother Jay: "Mark is absolutely not like many of the characters he plays. He's incredibly emotionally mature.... I mean, he's fairly young to be this successful with two young kids."
Personally and professionally, Duplass is clearly having a moment. After years of making and starring in movies that cost a few hundred thousand bucks, he is in demand both as filmmaker and actor — and says he finally has enough money to be picky about the projects he works on.
Deciding what to do with that moment, though, is the hard part. Duplass says that part of him wants to hone his acting craft — as he did while working alongside established veterans Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest in Lawrence Kasdan's family dramedy "Darling Companion." But he also has to pay his mortgage, which means taking on studio writing gigs with his brother — like adapting "Mule," Tony D'Souza's novel about a young couple smuggling marijuana, for "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips andWarner Bros.
"I'm not a struggling artist anymore," Duplass acknowledged. "I can take my money and pay for my own movies and other people's movies. But it's also, like, my closet is still full of hoodies. So I'm trying to figure out who I am, and what this is. It's an interesting moment."
Duplass and his brother — four years older — grew up in New Orleans, where they went to a Catholic high school that required them to cut their hair and shine their belt buckles. For fun, Mark and Jay would play with their parents' camcorder. Jay was older, stronger and knew how to operate the camera, so Mark jumped in front of the lens. But it wasn't until Mark headed to Austin to study at the University of Texas that he felt free to fully explore artistic endeavors, joining a band and starting to work on more serious film projects with Jay.
In the years after graduation, the brothers hung out in Austin, frustrated by the derivative film ideas they were coming up with. It wasn't until 2005 that they broke out with "The Puffy Chair," a $35,000 project that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and starred Mark as the aforementioned guy trying to decide whether he's ready to pop a ring on his girlfriend's finger.
That picture cemented the Duplasses as founding members of the independent filmmaking movement known as "mumblecore" — ultra-inexpensive, documentary-style movies packed with naturalistic dialogue. Even as they've transitioned to slightly bigger fare — such as 2010's "Cyrus," starring Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly and released by Fox Searchlight, or this year's "Jeff," featuring Jason Segel and released by Paramount Vantage — the brothers continue to use hand-held cameras and encourage improvisation.
As Hill put it: "Everything they do comes from feeling a certain way — it's not over-analytical. And with Mark, it's great because he's an actor, so he understands what would be annoying and what would be positive to hear as an actor within his direction."
In January, Duplass was back in Park City, Utah, to promote three Sundance films: "Safety Not Guaranteed," in which he plays a man who believes in time travel; "Your Sister's Sister," about a guy who gets caught in a love triangle with siblings played by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt; and "Black Rock," a horror film about a haunted island, which he wrote and his wife directed.
It was dizzying to watch, said his "Safety Not Guaranteed" costar Aubrey Plaza, who jokingly referred to Duplass as "the mayor of Main Street."
"He's, like, the king of the indie Sundance world," said the actress, who plays the love interest of Duplass' character in the film. "Every interview we did together, I barely had to say anything. He just took the reins. He'd pop in for interviews and then run out for some short film that he drew out of cartoons and did the voice-over for, or whatever. He was doing everything all the time."
But the brothers' exalted status within the indie world comes with its pitfalls, Duplass acknowledged.
"I get offered pretty much every movie that's being made for under $100,000, because people believe I will get the movie into Sundance. I get about 50 of those a week," he said.
Though aspiring filmmakers are busy trying to piggyback off his success, Duplass himself often tries to pick the brains of his veteran cast mates — as on the set of "Darling Companion," in which he plays a younger member of a large family trying to find its missing dog.
"With Mark, he would ask me a question about some movie I did, and I'd be the old guy telling stories," said his costar, 65-year-old Oscar-nominee Jenkins. "He's a very curious guy. He wants to know how things were done, what was a certain actor like — he's trying to take everything in, and he used all of the old guys on set that way."
Soaking up the knowledge, Duplass says, is all a part of his hope that 2012 will be a year when people start to notice him more as an actor.
"Even if I'm the romantic lead in a movie, I'm not Josh Duhamel," he said, referring to the comely romantic comedy star. "I get offered small- to medium-sized roles in big movies or things that people have seen me do before — and that persona is hard to define, but I call them hero-adjacent protagonists. There's a sense of 'This guy feels a lot like me, but he's not a matinee idol.'"
Duplass says he admires the choices being made by actors like Hill, who went from the likes of "Superbad" to an Oscar nomination this year for his supporting part in "Moneyball," and Chris Pratt, who recently had a supporting role in the broad romance "The Five-Year Engagement" but is now working on Kathryn Bigelow's as-yet-untitled film about the Navy SEALs who tracked down Osama bin Laden.
Which isn't to say that Duplass has any qualms about playing a schlub. In fact, he likes playing the dreamers — like his character Kenneth in "Safety Not Guaranteed," who believes in the seemingly impossible.
"For you to believe that time travel is possible — you can't be a cynic. And I am one. I make judgments about the car who cuts me off.... But Kenneth wouldn't do that, and I just wanna be that guy so bad. This is a little bit of wish fulfillment for me."
"The Do-Deca Pentathalon," about two brothers competing in an athletic competition of their own creation, has that same whimsical tone to it — a nostalgia for more innocent days that seems to permeate most of the Duplasses' work. Even though Mark is incrementally taking on more acting gigs, he says he and Jay wouldn't want to direct a film without the other just yet. As it is, they're working on four screenplays together, including one that's being produced by comedy bigwig Shawn Levy ("Date Night," "Night at the Museum").
"The long-standing joke with us that's true is that left to my own devices, I would probably make 10 mediocre films a year, and Jay on his own would make 80% of the perfect film but never finish it over his whole life," Mark said. "And somehow, our combined energy has allowed us to do this check-and-balance thing. My acting is like our little affairs that keep our marriage healthy."
Duplass has a few upcoming dalliances planned already, like "Convention," a sci-fi comedy in which he'll play an inventor who creates a five-sided box; the film also stars Jennifer Aniston and Ben Kingsley.
"Right now, I'm doing a studio writing job to pay my mortgage, I have two kids, and there's three acting projects I want to do. It's so hard for me to say no," he admitted. "I feel like I grew up in the Depression and I can't turn down fruit because there was once a time when there was no fruit."