Mark Duplass woke up in the middle of the night, tears streaming down his face. He felt nostalgic, though he didn’t know what for. He thought about his lost loves and wondered what had become of them. He was about to turn 40: Had his life turned out the way he imagined?
“I lead the complex life of a 39-year-old husband, dad, runner of businesses,” he explained. “But once, I was just a 15-year-old who would stay up all night crafting a journal entry about my feelings. I was melodramatic and romantic, and I didn’t edit myself. But I suddenly woke up feeling like that person had died, and I didn’t know how to get that person back.”
The morning after his existential crisis, he wrote an email to Sarah Paulson.
“Hey,” the message said. “I have an idea. Are you up for doing anything?”
Six weeks later, the two actors started filming “Blue Jay,” a quiet romance about former high school lovers who reunite unexpectedly 24 years after their breakup. The film, which opened in Los Angeles on Friday and also is available on digital platforms, was shot in black-and-white in just seven days in February.
Duplass had never worked with Paulson, but he knew her well. The actress’ best friend, Amanda Peet, starred alongside Duplass on HBO’s “Togetherness,” which he co-created, directed and helped write. And when they’d all hang out at parties, he was always surprised by how different Paulson seemed from the women he’d seen her play on the FX series “American Horror Story.” Off-screen, she was goofy and giggly and made fart jokes. He could imagine her in his movie — even though he didn’t really know what his movie was going to be.
Before shooting began in Crestline, Calif., there was no screenplay — just a two-page outline that included a few basic beats. Two exes run into one another in a grocery store. They grab a cup of coffee. They go back to his house. She starts rummaging through his things — old journals and tapes, the refrigerator — and the pair start falling into old patterns.
To flesh out the story, Duplass and Paulson spent some time together talking about their romantic lives. Duplass has been with his wife, actress Katie Aselton, for 15 years, and describes himself as a serial monogamist. He already had been in two serious relationships by the time he turned 18. Paulson, meanwhile, has been dating actress Holland Taylor for about a year; she is 41, and Taylor is 73.
“I felt like I was in a weirdly stable place,” Paulson recalled. “But if I’m totally honest, external pressures regarding my age difference [with Taylor] was something I was thinking about. So I talked to Mark about what it means to be with someone who’s not of your generation, and that ended up in the film in the spirit of ‘Where are you living right now?’ Mark isn’t afraid of big feelings, which I think is a really sexy quality in a person. I think it’s appealing for a person to be like, ‘This is where I am, and I want to try to make a piece of art out of it, if I can.’ ”
The actors had met to reflect on the film at the House of Pies at 9 p.m. on a recent Sunday. It was the only time they were overlapping in L.A.: Duplass had just gotten off a flight from Vancouver, where he was visiting Aselton on a set; Paulson was about to take off for New York in a couple of hours.
“Um, cheat day?” Paulson asked, eyeing the diner’s menu.
“Cheat day!” Duplass agreed, getting giddy. “I don’t know what to blow it on. OK, I’m getting French fries and strawberry cream pie.”
Paulson ordered her own fries, plus a grilled cheese on sourdough. Less than a month ago, she’d won her first Emmy award for her performance as prosecutor Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” It was clear that a few people in the diner recognized her, and one timid teenage girl approached the booth mid-meal to say, “I really respect you as an actress, and you’re really amazing.”
Mark isn’t afraid of big feelings, which I think is a really sexy quality in a person.
Most of Paulson’s fans know her from television. She’s had small roles in acclaimed indie films over the past few years, like the lesbian drama “Carol” and the period piece “12 Years a Slave.” And she likes it that way. She doesn’t feel a particular pull to either medium — only to keep working.
“I get that real panicky feeling if I’m not working,” she said. “I don’t have children. I’m not married. So I don’t have other things that are pulling on me that are great sources of joy and life energy. When I’m an actress out of work, I’m like, ‘I guess I’ll go have lunch with Amanda [Peet],’ or read a book and sleep on the couch. Because who can read in the middle of the afternoon without falling asleep?”
She was drawn to Duplass’ pitch — however vague — because it seemed terrifying. Working with “AHS” creator Ryan Murphy, she always has a script to rely on, and she sticks to it. But Duplass — who often produces and directs indie films with his brother, “Transparent” actor Jay — is known for his loose, collaborative style. On “Blue Jay,” he came up with dialogue on the fly, handing Paulson her lines only a few minutes before she was supposed to deliver them. And those words were just supposed to be a blueprint, anyway — what Duplass really wanted was for her to improvise in the moment.
The experiment — the first in a four-picture Netflix arrangement for Duplass and his brother — seemed to pay off at the Toronto Film Festival, where “Blue Jay” debuted last month to strong reviews.
“Though the film largely trains on the simple, dialogue-fueled interaction of two people,” wrote Entertainment Weekly, “it feels more spectacular than theatrical, showcasing the acting prowess of two master performers feeding on mutual chemistry and performative bravado.”
“I just wanted us to get at a feeling — that nostalgia,” explained Duplass, mixing together ketchup and Tabasco sauce to dip his fries in. “I’m actually a very melancholy person. Look, I’m peppy in social situations and I learned how to do that because I guess it’s, like, how you win in the world. But left to my own devices, I definitely am — I don’t live right now in October 2016. I’m looking around this room, and I’m living in 1993 in that guy’s haircut. I feel it all.”
“There’s something that happens as you get older,” Paulson chimed in. “Like when you see a really young kid just bawling, tongue curling, and they don’t care who is watching. We all began in that way. As you get older and realize you have to be out in the world, the appropriateness of feeling starts to become a consideration.”
Paulson occasionally revels in that kind of sadness, usually while listening to “Dear Theodosia” from the “Hamilton” soundtrack in her car. But she doesn’t quite live in it the way Duplass does.
“Well, I can’t stop it, so it’s not a choice for me,” he said, joking about how often he cries. “It’s how I live and it’s a part of who I am, and because it is here to stay for me, it’s a way of making me feel the purity that I have lost in lots of ways. It sounds tragic when I say it like that. … But nostalgia is a way to remember the person who spent all night crafting a journal entry about his feelings. I know I can’t be that guy anymore, but I don’t want to forget about him because he’s a part of me and I don’t want him to go away.”
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