Jay Duplass is the raging id at the heart of “The Chair,” a new Netflix miniseries that centers partly on an English professor whose tasteless joke lands him in the middle of a massive social-media fueled controversy. His actions also threaten his budding romance with the department’s chair, Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), who also happens to be the first woman of color to lead the English faculty, and imperils her efforts to shake up a teaching staff that’s old, white, and out-of-touch.
Duplass, who first made a name for himself behind-the-camera as one half of a bootstrapping filmmaking duo with his brother Mark, has been more active on screen in recent years, popping up on shows like “Transparent.” “The Chair” may be his biggest acting challenge yet, presenting a chance to play a romantic lead in a dramedy produced and financed by a major streaming service. It’s not a conventional star turn, however. Bill Dobson is a hard-drinking widower, who often seems hell-bent on tanking his career despite Ji-Yoon’s efforts to push him to make amends for his mistakes. Duplass spoke with Variety about what attracted him to the project and the series’ efforts to engage thoughtfully with “cancel culture” at a time when it’s become politically fraught.
How did you get involved in “The Chair”?
I had worked with Amanda Peet on “Togetherness” on HBO. When she came into audition, Mark and I did these 20 to 30 minute workshops with pretty well-known, established actors to find the right chemistry. We had been fans of hers, but we had not really seen from her what we thought we wanted for that role. But she came in and gave the most electrifying, complex, hilarious, downright scary audition that we’d ever experienced. Within two minutes we knew it was going to be her.
She confided in me and Mark that she’d been waiting her whole life for a part like the one in “Togetherness.” And it seemed like the potential energy in her was so untapped. When that show ended a little early for us, Amanda and I knew we weren’t done working together, so we started to think about what we might do next. There were various iterations, but they evolved into this project. I guess I was baked into the show from the beginning. I knew I’d be excited about any role that she created. The other thing was at the time I was starting to act seriously on “Transparent,” which was her favorite show, so we were just disgusting, gross fans of each other’s work.
What was the germ of the idea that became the series?
She wanted to tell this love story about a widower who is involved with his boss, which makes it almost impossible for her to save him or end him.
Was it difficult to make this show during the pandemic?
We shot this during COVID in one of the hardest winters that Pittsburgh has ever experienced. It was brutal. The vibe on set was post-apocalyptic, dystopian medical. I was being tested with a full PCR test five days a week. Everyone was wearing masks and shields and some people were wearing scrubs. It was freezing. But at the same time we were all making a piece of art that we loved after being dormant for a year. We were like kids in a candy store, but also genuinely risking our lives to make a television show. That’s a rare thing to be able to say and not have it be hyperbole. There are a lot of older people on this show and we all felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to be extra careful. [Co-stars] Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor, these people are national treasures. We did not want to be the ones to get them sick.
What was the key to playing Bill?
I’ve had two close friends die when I was younger but they were peers and that’s something that Amanda and I discussed a lot, peer death. That was the starting point. I tapped a little into the vibe of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which is when someone who is your partner on some level dies, you realize that the rules of life are very arbitrary. They are society’s rules, which help us get along, but they are arbitrary. Bill has unhinged from reality. My mission on the show was to infuse fun and inspiration into Sandra’s character’s life.
Was it liberating to play someone without social constraints?
My god, it was incredible. I kept joking with my friends that I’m not just a guy anymore. I’m a 48-year-old man. I’m my wife. I’m our son. I’m our daughter. And I’m our dog. And I’m kind of my parents, too. I make decisions based on the machinations of six people. It was liberating to go to Pittsburgh. I couldn’t go home and there was no way that I could bring COVID home to my son, who is immunocompromised. That alone was freeing. And then I was playing a raging mess and was just deputized to fuck shit up and have fun in a terrifying situation. There was some synergy because the show didn’t just need me, but I needed the show. I don’t have wild unbridled confidence that a lot of people have. I’ve told directors before, I don’t think I’m your guy. There are people who are better for this part. But this time it felt like there was three seconds left on the shot clock and I was one of those guys who wanted the ball.
The show deals with “cancel culture” at a time when its being fiercely debated. Was it scary to tackle such a hot-button issue?
We knew it would be a hot topic. We knew it would be dangerous. We didn’t know how it was going to evolve but the foundational concept was there wasn’t going to be one point of view from the Gen-Z’ers playing the students and there wasn’t going to be one point from the middle aged to older actors playing the faculty. We wanted to reflect a gamut of opinions. Amanda and Sandra are so well situated to tackle these problems — Amanda being a woman and Sandra being a woman of color. Sandra played a big role in shaping how this would unfold. They’re both privileged people and have had a lot of success, but they’ve also had incredible disadvantage and so I think inherently that was the goal, to capture some of those gradations and to try to live in the chaos and find some joy and comedy in that reality. The show treats these issues with empathy and this academic setting is essentially a proxy for Western civilization as we know it. Academia is weirdly at the bleeding edge of this for better and worse. As much as we’d like to poop all over it, American democracy and culture is not all bad. There’s a reason why the world has wanted to come here and why much of the world has modeled itself democratically on us. How can we reform it without destroying it is the central question? We tried to make sure that every single person on the show had a different view of that.
Where do you fall on the issue of redemption? Can people who have said or done terrible things be reformed and find their way back to their previous platforms of influence after a scandal?
I think that they can. I don’t know about Harvey Weinstein, but that’s an extreme case. More often people’s offenses are in more of a gray zone and my belief is people can be redeemed but it is up to them. It’s tricky. They have to allow themselves to be redeemed and they have to allow the pain that they have caused to come back to them and accept what they have created. If they are willing to open up to that, I do feel that they can do it. Perhaps they might not continue the career they had before, but this is a bigger issue than whether or not you get to enjoy the same state of celebrity that you once did.
The gradations of Bill’s journey reveals something about “cancel culture” and the male privilege side of it that I have felt and I have seen in terms of a couple of situations that I have been very close to. I have never personally been at the center of them, but I have been close to some intense “cancel” moments. The one thing I have learned is that as much as men often are very defensive and pissed off that one little thing can tank your whole career or everything you’ve ever built, in my experience that’s not really the case. It’s actually how that man handles that one event and their outlook on life that really determines whether they use that rope to climb out or to hang themselves. That’s something that I think Amanda did so well with this. Bill is given many opportunities and many turns to step up to the plate and some tests he does well on and some he fails. Each time it reveals things about his privileged state and lack of development.
When you talk about your personal experiences with these issues, I’m assuming you’re referring to the sexual harassment scandal that led to Jeffrey Tambor being fired from “Transparent.” Did that inform the series?
Yes. Definitely we talked about it a ton. That was a big part of the early days of the development and in charting what Bill what might go through and what the twists and turns and machinations might be like. It was a big part of it.
Another thread of “The Chair” is about how academia is dominated by white men. It’s hard not to see parallels between Sandra’s characters push to diversify the department and the recent pressure to make the entertainment industry more inclusive. Was that a connection you drew between colleges like the one on the show and Hollywood?
We definitely felt there were a lot of parallels with our industry. We consider ourselves to be very open and very smart and we consider ourselves to be humanitarians, but we are privileged people and that blinds us to things. One of the things I love about our show is that even though we are working in academia, it’s really just a highfalutin “Temptation Island.” It doesn’t matter how wise or introspective or learned these people are, once they say we might kick you off all that frontal cortex goes away and you start back-stabbing and forming alliances. These people are willing to fight to the death to maintain what they think is their’s.
You and your brother Mark also race recently produced “Not Going Quietly,” a documentary about Ady Barkan, a social justice advocate diagnosed with terminal ALS. How did you get involved in the project?
That came to us through Bradley Whitford who is close to Ady and who is married to my “Transparent” co-star Amy Landecker. I had known about Ady through social media, but it came to us at a time when Trump was trying to roll back health care. If that had succeeded, it might have resulted in the death of Ady Barkan. A lot of politics is theoretical, but when a man is facing death and a policy comes down that feels like a death sentence to him, it just felt electric. Ady is such an inspired and alive human being. It’s a hard documentary to want to turn on on a Friday night, but it’s a very uplifting film. Ady’s diagnosis is terrifying but it lifted his message up so high — it shined a light on his love of democracy.