In the indie dramedy “Blue Jay,” Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson have great chemistry as Jim and Amanda, high school sweethearts who reconnect some two decades later. And the actors have great chemistry in person, too. Even with a pesky journalist across the table from them, they’re prone to joke around, interrupt each other and — because the movie is steeped in jokey ’90s nostalgia — sing. (They manage to break out Barenaked Ladies, Shawn Colvin and Extreme while we're there.) Our conversation is lighter than the movie, which was entirely improvised over a story Duplass wrote, and whichfinds Jim and Amanda fighting off resurfacing feelings and fighting to ignore untold elephants in the room. But we still touch on some of the same downer ideas.
I feel like we could spend this entire interview reminiscing about the ’90s. As a teen I listened to Blues Traveler. And Bush.
Mark Duplass: If you go to the early- to mid-’90s, you find me at Lilith Fair, grooving to Shawn Colvin.
Sarah Paulson: She’s my favorite ever. She’s really, really a genius. I think she’s the Joni Mitchell of [her day]. I drove to some tiny town in Pennsylvania, and it was rained out. And she came out and played for those of us who stayed, because everyone left.
Duplass: I had a very serious high school girlfriend, much earlier than the Jim and Amanda phase. When we were 14 I had my parents bring us to downtown New Orleans, a fairly dangerous area, to go see the Indigo Girls in concert. I was one of four dudes there. And I just wept.
Duplass and Paulson: [start singing Indigo Girls’ “Galileo”]
I didn’t listen to the Indigo Girls because I was an angry teenager who listened to sad, angry music — and mainstream alternative, not even the cool stuff. I was so earnest and mopey.
Duplass: The other night my friend Julian [Wass], who did the music for “Blue Jay,” we jammed together over our melancholy and just over-sensitivity to life in general. We put on Gin Blossoms and listened to “Hey Jealousy,” and really felt that song. The guy who wrote it ended up committing suicide. What’s so amazing is it’s covered in grungy guitars and it’s upbeat, but then you listen to the lyrics and go, “Oh my god…” It says, “All I really want is to be with you, feeling like I matter, too.” We just drove around and cried listening to The Gin Blossoms. So you can see where “Blue Jay” may have come from. [Laughs]
The movie is sad but also very funny. Or rather, the characters laugh about things that eat them up inside, almost like a defense mechanism.
Duplass: When you watch it theatrically I think it plays more funny. If you’re at home, snuggled up with some Thai food and wine and someone you love, it plays a little more like a drama. That’s not dissimilar from some of my movies: Some of the comedy is awkward and you almost need permission to laugh from other people. But Sarah and I, I would venture to say, see at least some of the elements of the world in the same way: We see darkness, we see sadness, we’re able to cry with it but then giggle about it the same time. We have that awareness that makes it so joyful to go and play Jim and Amanda, who aren’t aware of these things yet. That was part of the fun of the movie to me: Playing unemotionally aware people is really fun to me.
It touches on this idea that, even if we haven’t seen people we dated in high school for years, no matter how much we’ve changed we share this deep connection that never goes away.
Duplass: We had a screening last night, and no less than seven or eight people came up to me and either told me they had texted their ex or showed me an ongoing text exchange. It really got people to go back. And they don’t go back with an agenda; they just want to make contact. It’s at the heart of the movie. The way I feel about it is Jim and Amanda are not trying to be who they were. That side just comes out. I’m always looking for a little piece of [my former self] — that idealism and silly romanticism, that “take your girlfriend to an Indigo Girls concert and cry all over her when I was 14.” I miss that guy. The world has taught me that guy doesn’t win and I’ve left him behind a little bit. But I miss him. [Laughs]
I don’t want to say why, but you do have a crying scene, Mark. Those seem terrifying.
Duplass:I’m terrified of them. I’m terrified that I’m going to fail. I’m terrified that I’m not going to be able to bring it or access it, to be too in my head. Sarah mentioned this, but sometimes fear is helpful. The fact that you’re not getting it and the shame that comes with it can be something to cry about in and of itself. [Laughs] This one, luckily, I was just there for it. I was tired because we were shooting all night. In all fairness, though, if I’m just being honest, my life really is so great. I’m so happy in my life. And it’s confusing to me, at this point, why I am a melancholic and sad person still. In light of the fact that everything is going great for me, it’s very easy for me to access this character. It was right under the surface.
I’d like to argue that melancholia is underrated. Being sad is fine.
Paulson: You’re very aware that you’re alive when you have a feeling about anything. It’s how you can locate yourself sometimes. It’s like, “Look, I’m having a feeling! I exist! I’m on the planet!”
Duplass: I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to be cheery. Not in a terrible way; my parents were great. But when you’re raised in the ’80s, it was all about bucking up. It’s different now. I’m raising my kids to think that to be sad is OK — and also funny, to me. It’s like, “It’s OK, we can do that.”
Sadness is definitely funny, at least after the fact.
Paulson: Absolutely. Carrie Fisher once said if you can find a way to see the funny in the most absurd situations, everything will be fine. That really is true. You get so mired in all this muck, especially when you’re young. It’s hard to untangle yourself from it. But if you’re able to see how absurd something is, it opens your experiences up in a way that makes it really alright to put one foot in front of the other.
Duplass: The only thing I would add is if you accept that 30 percent of the time you won’t be able to find the absurdity and forgive yourself that, that’s the last part of that.
Paulson: Even if you can find the funny and absurd in something three days later or a week later…
Duplass: Then you’re f—kin’ killing it.
I wanted to ask about the improvisation, especially since Sarah, you haven’t done it as much as Mark has.
Duplass: It’s easier for me. I wrote the story. And I’ve done this quiet a bit. I was so thrilled to do it with Sarah. I knew she was going to be great at it. But she was scared. I felt almost like a parent.
Paulson: “You can do it! You’re gonna be great!”
Duplass: She’s going to be so great and she doesn’t even know it! It was so cute that she thinks she’s not going to be able to do it. And she was great from the start, just f—king great.
Paulson: I paid him a lot of money to say that. But it was scary. I like a script. I like to be able to hold onto what I learn about a character on page 24, then apply that to page 76. I like coming to an end point, to know what the journey is. It makes me feel secure. This was just flapping in the breeze.
Duplass: It was “emotional commando.”
Paulson: [Laughs] It was like going from monkey bar to monkey bar and going, ‘I don’t know if I got this!’ [shrieks] ‘OK, I got it.’
Duplass: One thing I appreciated was I tend to be a little verbose. I’m a writer first. That’s the first thing I am in anything I do. I’m a decent director because I know how to tell stories. I’m a pretty good actor because I know how to create that throughline in a story. So I tend to be a little verbose in my improvisation. And Sarah was quiet and patient. If you watch the film, you see it helped a ton. I was learning a lot from this — like, ‘Maybe I can do less here.’ We cut for that a little bit. It was nice for me to see that.
So you basically taught him how to improvise.
Paulson: I basically taught him everything he knows. It’s weird he didn’t know that until just now.