How Mark Duplass Fights the Sadness

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On October 13th, the filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass posted a photo of himself on Instagram—what looked like a red-carpet closeup, with a bow tie on his neck and a forced smile on his face. “I have been struggling with anxiety and depression for most of my life,” Duplass wrote in the caption. “When I see pictures of myself like this one, I can see the fear and sadness behind the smile. Even at my most ‘happy’ times. But at times like these, when the world is so deeply terrifying and saddening, it’s a struggle just to stay on my feet and keep from crashing.” Supportive comments poured in, from the likes of Glenn Close, Carson Daly, Marisa Tomei, Sterling K. Brown, Rosie O’Donnell, and Jennifer Aniston—Duplass’s co-star on “The Morning Show”—as well as thousands of non-famous followers moved by his uncommon rawness. In the following weeks, Duplass posted apprehensive selfies, with real-time updates on his depressive episode. He shared musicians whose work had helped him “through the harder times” (the Weather Station, Phoebe Bridgers) and his “tools” for getting back on track (sleep, exercise). On November 11th, he wrote, “Things are turning for me and I’m actually doing really well.”

Duplass, who is forty-seven, is probably best known as one half of the Duplass brothers. Starting in the two-thousands, he and his older brother Jay made a series of low-budget films, including “The Puffy Chair” (2005), “Baghead” (2008), and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” (2011), that were central to the “mumblecore” movement of post-9/11 slacker cinema. Mark also starred on the brothers’ HBO show “Togetherness” and on the sitcom “The League.” On “The Morning Show,” he plays the beleaguered right hand to Aniston’s news diva. In many of his roles, he has an amiable-loser vibe, with a sprinkling of Gen X loathing. But his upward trajectory as indie darling and sardonic character actor has a shadow time line: the undulating mental-health struggle that has plagued him since childhood. At some point, he nicknamed it “the Woog.”

Duplass’s posts come at a moment when more celebrities, from Selena Gomez to Jonah Hill, are being open about their mental-health issues. When I spoke to Duplass recently, over Zoom, he wore a black hoodie, his salt-and-pepper hair darkened for a role. He sat in front of a painted mountainscape, in a small office unit in the back yard of his home, in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife (and sometimes co-star), Katie Aselton, and their two daughters. “I was, honestly, just selfishly starting to share things,” he said, of his intimate series of posts. “I was surprised at the reaction I got from it, because I think I do live in a little bit of a bubble, where it’s just a bunch of sensitive men that I’m friends with, sharing our feelings. Then when you hear people say, ‘Wow, you’re destigmatizing this,’ it’s really good to hear that.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Let’s start with your post from October 13th, with the picture of you in a black tie. You wrote about the disconnect between what we see and how you were actually feeling. What led you to make that post?

The post was not a heavily considered moment in my life. It was more of a knee-jerk reaction. There’s this part of me that really wants to be known and to be seen for exactly who I am, and the more widely known my public image becomes there’s something small inside of me that wants to push back. With “The Morning Show” in particular, it’s, like, “Oh, my God, you’re with all these fabulous movie stars!” That’s what led to picking that picture of me in the tuxedo. It just doesn’t feel truthful, you know?

Were you also going through a phase of heightened depression?

Yeah. I had been coming off a hot streak of solid, well-balanced mental and physical health. I was, dare I say, getting to that point where you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. COVID was difficult for so many of us. I was able to find the silver lining by being so closely knit with my family. I was exercising consistently. I wasn’t having to do as much social stuff, so that part of my anxiety was at bay. I was writing in my little office. And then I found myself, as we reëntered real life, oddly missing my little monk-like life. At the same time, I was watching both of my daughters, who are eleven and fifteen, head back to school, all the trials and tribulations of that life, feeling the heaviness of that. I was definitely feeling the heaviness in the world, in particular with Israel and Hamas and Palestine. And, when that happens to me, I immediately activate this set of skills that I have developed over the past roughly eighteen years.

Right, you wrote about your “systems” or “tools.” Can you tell me what they are?

It’s not rocket science. Getting eight to nine hours of sleep is critical, and setting myself up for that sleep by making sure I’m not overly stimulated before bedtime. Getting hard-core exercise is the most important part—driving myself to the brink of oxygen debt on an elliptical machine to jack my endorphins up to battle against everything that’s coming. And there are times when you question that: If I’m having to do this, am I running from something? I don’t have the answer to that. I have a great relationship with my therapist. I always recommend people do this with their therapist, where I say, “I will ask you to see me on short notice only if it’s really, really important, and for that exchange I will offer you the ability to bump me at any time if someone else in your practice really, really needs you.” I call it wartime and peacetime. So I pull one of my get-out-of-jail-free cards and go see my therapist really quickly.

And then it’s a couple of other things. But what happened to me this time around, which was rough, is that I had done a good job getting all my systems in place, and it still wasn’t getting me above the waterline. That also prompted me to do this post, because I realized, like, I’ve got everything going for me, and I still couldn’t fuckin’ beat it back. And that started to bring in this level of despair and fear that is a little bit irrational.

This reminds me of when you have insomnia, and you start to obsess over the insomnia itself, and it keeps you up longer.

That’s right. You become afraid of the fear. If I’m being totally honest, partly it was a little cry for help. At the same time, I was thinking, Everyone’s watching me on “The Morning Show,” going, “Oh, my God, this guy’s got the career of his life!” And, if I’m suffering from this and working my ass off and still not able to transcend, how many people must be dealing with this right now? I had that hunch, and I sent out that first post, and there was just a flood of people coming back. And I was, like, Oh, shit, this is something.

So, once the “systems” weren’t working, what did you do next?

One part of you feels, like, I’ve been on the same medication for eighteen years, and it’s probably working. These are S.S.R.I.s that a lot of people take, like Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa. When the systems don’t work, you start questioning everything. You think, Shit, should I switch the medication? Or you’re thinking, I’m too weak to change anything right now. There are also all these new therapies that people are exploring, like ketamine and psilocybin. And I find myself scared to walk away. It’s almost like being in a relationship that isn’t quite working for you, but you’re scared to break up with that person, because you might not find anything better. That’s where you start getting into that mental spiral you’re talking about. What I generally tend to do, and what I did this last time, is just try to be patient. I’m not in a suicidal spot. I’m in a really down and hard spot. But I’ve come through this. So chill the fuck out, stay with the systems, and keep moving. And that did work for me.

You were simultaneously being very public about this particular cycle. Was that therapeutic, or did it heighten your anxiety, since everyone is watching you go through it?

There was a small part of me that felt, Oh, Mark, don’t turn yourself into the ambassador for this while you’re going through it, because that’s a lot of pressure. But the most basic emotion I got from it was: Here’s the community. You’re not alone. And that feels really, really good. The basic platitudes feel awesome when you’re down. They’re life rafts. So I really loved reading all the comments from people. It was surprising how many people keep hitting this message: “Why is no one talking about this?” Which was a bit of a disconnect from the position I was coming from, which was: We are talking about this! We’ve made so much progress. But the distinction was: “People like you aren’t really talking about it, because you’re this ambassador of independent film, and you give advice in this mentor way that makes you feel impenetrably strong. And when you tell me you’re dealing with this, and you’ve achieved this level of success, it gives me a massive amount of hope.”

What did your life look like during that time? Were you going through the motions, doing business as usual, taking meetings? Were you unable to get out of bed?

It’s different every day, but I can walk you through what a middle-of-the-road day would look like. You wake up. You feel normal for, like, a second. All of a sudden, there’s this huge surge of anxiety in your chest, and you go, Oh, fuck! It’s really overwhelming. The first thought you have is, I’m forty-seven, I’ve been battling this shit forever, when is this going to fucking end? I’m so exhausted. After about two minutes of pity party, I do my classic routine to figure out how bad it is. I call it the Scan. I take all the elements of my life, and I look at the ceiling and throw them up there virtually, like a rainbow: marriage, kids, physical health, friendships, relationships with my parents, self-esteem. And, if I can look at them and be, like, Of those eleven things, two or three of them seem really daunting, stressful, scary, then I can have a pretty good sense that my problem is circumstantial. Now I can put on my type-A hat and attack those issues. But, on a day like the one I’m describing to you, they all seem bad to me. Then I know: Well, overnight my life didn’t just turn bad. This is an internal-perception problem. I don’t need to go fix these things. I need to fix me.

The best thing I can do for myself is to not wallow. Now is the time to get up, get my endorphins going, get the kids to school. I look at my calendar, and I’m, like, All right, there are four Zooms, and two or three of them are not critical. So I’ll call Jay, my brother, or Mel [Eslyn], who runs our company. I call it either being woogie or the Woog. So I’m, like, “Guys, the Woog is on.” They’re, like, “How bad?” I’m, like, “It’s an eight. Can you handle X, Y, and Z Zooms?” So I jettison everything that isn’t critical. I get into my workout gear immediately. I start with walking, and I’ll put on some platitude-y self-help audiobook, try and look for those little anchors of hope and whatnot. Then I come home, and I’ve got my home gym—that’s the biggest part of it, blasting on the elliptical machine, seeking endorphins to beat this back.

When you’re depressed, you’re often questioning your sleep patterns. Should I not nap too much? Or should I keep napping, because while I was in bed for eight hours it was a restless sleep? If you slam the exercise, you’ve earned that nap. After that, it might be getting on the couch and watching “Painting with John.” Or, if I’ve got enough strength, I’ll try to write on one of my big-dreaming projects—not one of the harder projects, where I’m stuck in the second act and it’s a rewrite. I stay very clear of alcohol. I stay very clear of marijuana. Hopefully, I’ve got a volleyball game or a soccer game for one of my girls to go to, which just buoys me, seeing my kids running around. Then I’ll get together with Katie, and we’ll start cooking dinner, a very home-cooked comfort-food meal. And we’ll all watch an old season of “Survivor” or “Bob’s Burgers” or something that gives me that big comfort. And then take the dog to the park, read, and get to bed early. It’s a defensive kind of day.

How do you talk to your kids about this?

It’s the most complicated part, because each of them requires something different. My oldest is no stranger to this stuff, and she’s less rocked by it when she sees it in me. I can share a lot with her. My youngest, who’s eleven, she’s very much an old soul and wants to hear this stuff from me. She’ll ask for it all day long. But I know that, at a time when life is unstable for her anyway, I don’t want to remove the vision of the solid, capable father, as much as that can have its own toxic positivity if driven too far. When they look at me and say, “How are you doing?” I’m thinking, How strong are they right now? If they’re at the top of their game, I can say, “It’s really hard right now, and I could really use you guys’ support.” Then they puff up and get excited and step into it. But, if they’re not strong enough for that, and I give them my weakness, it actually is a little tough for them.

Do you actually use words like “depression” and “anxiety” with them? Or is it “Woog”?

No, I use those words with them. It mostly started when I began seeing signs of this in my oldest daughter and realizing, O.K., she might be dealing with some of this as well, so it’s time to demystify it for everybody.

Speaking of how this manifests in young people, when did you first notice it in yourself?

I grew up in New Orleans, in the suburbs, and was super athletic. I was the tallest one in the class. I was known as a bright kid. I felt this pressure on me. Then, around the age of five or six, I remember waking up in the morning and telling my parents, “I have no energy. I did not eat enough food.” I wasn’t really hungry, but that was the only word I could use to describe it. I would go eat this huge breakfast and still feel very “hungry,” which was “empty inside.” My parents are incredibly supportive, but they just didn’t have the tools. No one was talking about therapy. So I had this type-A work ethic and no one to help me identify that this emptiness isn’t something that you should charge through.

You’ve said that when you were a teen-ager you started having panic attacks. Can you explain what those were and what brought them on?

I was in a very serious relationship for, like, a year and a half, and when we broke up, when I was sixteen, I fell into a pretty heavy depression. I was sitting around all summer, watching old “Transformers” cartoons. I was exercising like crazy, because I knew it made me feel better. That’s the time when I started to become an artist, and that was helpful for me, disappearing up in my room with my guitar and learning how to express myself. But it happened to abut against turning seventeen, eighteen, and the fear of leaving home. That’s when my panic attacks really started. I would be at a dinner with my girlfriend and her parents, and I would keep getting up to go to the bathroom and say, “I ate something bad.” But it was this electric buzzing in my chest, an inability to breathe, flop sweat, feeling like you’re having a heart attack. I was, like, I think there may be something deeply wrong with me physiologically. I didn’t know what was happening.

Before you started making films with Jay, you were mostly pursuing music. Can you tell me about that time in your life, and how the Woog intervened?

I was known as the Indigo Boy, basically. I was this really sensitive male singer-songwriter. From when I was about sixteen until I was twenty-one, that was primarily my identity. It was a great place to put my feelings, but there was also a lot of pressure. Having zero connections to the music industry, I had this feeling of, Well, you’ve chosen to become an artist. You’re going to have to work ten times harder than anyone who might have those connections. I’m just going to play guitar for five hours a day! And Jay would even identify it. I would push us so hard, and he would be, like, “This doesn’t feel good, man.” And all I’d think to myself is, If we don’t do this, we’re not going to succeed. That was really unhealthy for me. And that is when the pain I was experiencing, which was primarily psychic pain, started to manifest as physical pain. That’s a very common trajectory in people with mental-health issues.

We’re talking about the nineties, which I associate with, for instance, the book “Prozac Nation” and a more open discussion of depression and antidepressants. Why do you feel like you didn’t identify it sooner?

I missed it. If you talk to my friends from sixteen to twenty-one, it was all, like, “Mark is this unstoppable force of nature, and I can’t wait to see what Mark is going to do. And, also, do you need relationship advice? Go to Mark!” I got off on being this community leader. I was going on tour when I was twenty-one years old, selling records out of the back of my van. I had booked the tour myself, pressed the CDs myself, recorded them myself. I took such pride in that. I wasn’t ready to let anybody know how much I was suffering, because getting those accolades felt really good, and I wanted to maintain that image. I didn’t read “Prozac Nation” then, and I didn’t read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I was blasting myself with Dave Matthews Band to keep the pump going, because, if I let myself stop, I knew what was going to happen.

How did you start making films with your brother after pursuing music?

They were simultaneous. I went to film school at U.T. Austin, but I did identify primarily as a musician. At the height of my music success, I was playing in this band called Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! We were out touring, doing pretty well. And then one of [my and Jay’s] tiny little movies got into Sundance. I was, like, twenty-four and realizing, This is going to be tough, to do both at the same time. Meanwhile, I developed repetitive stress injuries in both my wrists from playing acoustic guitar so furiously. I look at this now, and I just want to pat myself on the head and be, like, “Just sit down and stop for a second, you poor thing.” I couldn’t really play acoustic guitar anymore, because I had so much pain, so I created a whole other band where I played a Casio keyboard.

In the meantime, I’m supposed to be writing all these scripts for Jay and me to make movies together. I can’t sit at a computer and type, because nerve damage has radiated up my arms into my neck. Everywhere I go, I travel with this ergonomic pillow, because if I don’t sleep on my pillow I wake up semi-paralyzed. It was just awful. I look back, and I’m, like, Where the fuck was everybody? Where were the grownups in the room who could have said, “Hey, maybe you should see somebody”? No one in my life had the language to help me with it, for whatever reason. I knew the speed with which I was driving myself was unhealthy, and I didn’t want to be told that, because I felt like I needed to do that to become successful. And the dirty truth is: it’s possible that, if I had become centered and evolved before I put myself through all that stuff, I might not be as successful as I am now.

That short film which got into Sundance was “This Is John,” in 2003. You play a guy who is trying to record his outgoing answering-machine message and essentially has a nervous breakdown.

Oddly prescient!

Was that about your panic attacks?

A hundred per cent. We thought it would be a funny idea to watch someone have to rerecord their message a few times. The part that I improvised was the existential crisis, which was me at that point, and still is to a large degree. It’s no coincidence that that was the first piece of art Jay and I made that made a connection with audiences in a real way. I shot that when I was twenty-four and still, over the next four years, continued to drive myself. I was not looking inward in any significant way. It was when I was twenty-eight when I really hit the deck.

Was that after your first feature film with Jay, “The Puffy Chair,” was at Sundance?

It was pretty [soon] after that. I had convinced myself that one of my greatest artistic goals was to go to Sundance with a feature film. I got that moment, and it was beautiful. And it didn’t fix all my problems—surprise, surprise. That scared the shit out of me. Like, “You’ve reached the zenith of a mountain, with the erroneous understanding that it would bring you lifelong peace and joy.” And it made things much worse. Our movie got to Sundance, it sells to this new company Netflix, we’re travelling all around the country and then all around the world, these new, young filmmakers. They name a movement after us.


Yes. I was, like, This is incredible! Or it should be incredible. It was November, 2005. We’d been touring with “The Puffy Chair” for about ten months. Jay and I had gone to Greece for a couple of film festivals. But, rather than being able to enjoy them, I was like a tyrant. I was forcing Jay all day and all night, with every waking hour we had off, to be writing the next screenplay. I was just pushing us and pushing us. What I know now is I was just recalibrating another mountain to climb, in hopes that that would make me happy. And I could feel Jay starting to pull [away] and be, like, “Dude, you’re scaring me right now. This feels really intense.” And that made me feel more alone. Then I flew back from that trip. I was going to visit my fiancée at the time, Katie, and her family up in Maine, and had a series of panic attacks on that flight. I had to lie to a household of fifteen people enjoying their Thanksgiving together that I had gotten sick in Greece, some sort of stomach flu, and was just hiding away from everyone. When I got back to L.A., it was a state of pure panic attack for about thirty days straight. I could not get out of it. I couldn’t eat. Katie was great with me. I was in California, around enough people who were saying, “O.K., this is definitely therapy time.” I started seeing therapists, but it’s like dating. It took so long to find the right one. I wasn’t open to medication yet. I felt the stigma of it, and there was that Southern male in me that just felt, like, No, I don’t need this.

As a filmmaker and actor, did you worry about medication cutting off a certain amount of your emotional or imaginative life?

I probably would have eaten that, but I also was worried about the rewiring of brain chemistry. I was doing things like cognitive behavioral therapy. At a certain point, a doctor looked at me and said, “You’re still at thirty-five per cent of what you think you could be. Are you ready to look at medication?” I started off with things like Xanax and Ativan and Klonopin, which are a class of drugs that work more like Advil, where it just helps you for six to eight hours. It helped a little bit. And I kept saying, “O.K., now I’m going to wean myself off.” And I would crash again, until I eventually conceded to taking the S.S.R.I.s. I felt like I was broken, like it was some sort of concession. I look back and I’m, like, What’s wrong with you? It’s a pill that can help you! But it was really hard for me. And there was also embarrassing stuff, like having to tell your fiancée, “I may have sexual side effects.” It’s a level of vulnerability I was not ready for at that time.

You’ve said you had to experiment to find the right drug.

I tried this drug called Zoloft, which is an S.S.R.I. that people do really well with. But immediately I was having weight gain, sexual side effects—it just crushes your libido. And I was a little numb. But, when you’re in that bad place, you’re thinking, At least I’m functional. And then I made my way over to Celexa, which is what I take now. It was way less on the sexual side effects, way less on the weight gain, and I found a dosage where I was, like, O.K., this is providing a net for me, where it’s catching me at my worst times. After about thirty days on that, it was like a cloud had lifted. I was really stable for about six months.

Then I was going to make this movie called “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon” with my brother. I was going to act in it. And, to your point, I was, like, “I need to be raw. I need to be emotionally available. I can do this!” So I started weaning myself off my medication in anticipation of this shoot, all while I have a six-month-old child and am running the company—and I crashed again. I had to call Jay and our producers and say, “I’m not strong enough to act in this movie.” So I replaced myself with our good friend Mark Kelly. Jay and I were co-directing, but he was definitely more in the lead, because I was still hanging on by a thread. I felt like I had let a bunch of people down. But I got this great lesson out of it: Delegating authority isn’t always a negative thing. Sometimes it’s different and better.

It’s one thing to replace yourself in a movie that you are making. But, as your life has gone along, the stakes have become higher, whether it’s being on “The Morning Show” or parenting. You can’t just call in depressed. How do you handle those things?

I try to work with this basic understanding: you don’t know what is best for yourself, and you don’t know what is best for your children, and you don’t know what is best for your art and the world. I do just have to accept sometimes that this is going to hurt, and I don’t like it, and it has negatively impacted not only the piece of art but my quality of life, maybe my children’s quality of life. But, ultimately, what the fuck am I going to do?

When you enter a new project, do you let everyone know what’s going on? Like, how do you have that kind of conversation with Jennifer Aniston, or with people who aren’t living their lives around your mental health?

There was an interesting thing that happened with Season 2 of “The Morning Show.” We shot Season 1, and I was succumbing to an old rhythm of mine, which I call the Special Boy Rhythm. I love to be the special boy. I’m prepared every day. I never miss my mark. And I get all these wonderful accolades, because I’m that competent. And it worked. I had a great year, and I didn’t have a lot of mental-health issues, thankfully. It’s not a linear process. You wake up one morning, and you’re, like, the Woog is here. Why the fuck is it here? It sucks!

When Season 2 of “The Morning Show” came up, we shot two episodes and then shut down because of COVID. They were really high on me and my character, because I got the Emmy nomination and blah, blah, blah. I was really scared to go back, because I was nervous about getting COVID. I basically had to call Jen and say, “I’m scared. I don’t know if I can function properly on set. I love you, I love working with you, I love this show. I’m embarrassed that I don’t really have the fortitude that I put forward all last year. There’s this other side of me.” And I talked to Michael Ellenberg, who’s a producer. And they were incredible. If you look at my second-season arc, I’m in much fewer scenes. They kept me out of huge rooms with thirty-five actors for the most part, so I could be tested safely with me and Jen. It ended up working out great. But, yeah, it’s hard to make that phone call.

I’ve never dealt with depression, but I have close friends who have. It’s really difficult sometimes to know how to be a good friend and supporter. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.

It’s going to sound pretty obvious, but recommendations are not what I want to hear. What you generally want is a co-pilot who sits next to you and absorbs some of that energy for you. I personally don’t want to, like, talk about it all the time and make it the predominant element of my life. Someone who can be with me and still make fart jokes is important. Also, people who don’t take it personally when I drop out for a little bit. That caused problems in some of my friendships earlier on. I think now my closer friends understand that about me. I try to be really up front about it. But I have an immense empathy for people when they need to recede from me or lash out at me for some reason.

You’ve talked in your Instagram posts about work that you’re doing now to help people find resources. Is there anything you can share?

It’s early days. When I do seminars on independent film, I feel really confident that I know what I’m talking about. I feel less so about mental health, because I’m not a professional. I was able to visit a fraternity house at a university—thirty guys in a basement with pizza and beer—and just talk through our stuff. That was huge. I didn’t realize how important it was for these guys, who had seen me on “The League” doing my bro dick jokes, to also see that side of me, and to know that those can coexist. So that’s a big part of the work—the demystification, in particular with men’s mental health. But the second part is listening. I have a nonprofit that I started a couple of years ago, and I’m now looking for partnerships with other nonprofits to try to do whatever I can to help democratize access to therapy. That was the most consistent thing brought to me: therapy is too expensive. [Duplass later announced a fund-raiser with the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms.]

For people who may be reading this and aren’t in therapy or can’t go to therapy and need something to do right now, what would you recommend?

The baseline element is the 988 Lifeline. You can text, call, or chat. It’s for the moment when you’re in a really dangerous spot and considering self-harm—or a moment just beneath that. You can get someone who’s pretty well trained on the phone with you. Not nearly as good as a long-term therapist, but it can derail you from an extremely negative track. And I heavily recommend my basic life systems. Do not underestimate good food, eight hours of sleep, and exercise.

Finally, how are you feeling today? What’s the state of things?

Travelled back from the East Coast, where we were seeing my wife’s family. Got a shitty night’s sleep. Woke up feeling not great, a little anxious and depressed. I’m working on a movie right now. It’s someone else’s movie that they’ve hired me to act in, so I’m feeling that pressure. I’ve got to show up tomorrow and be good in the movie. If I’m at a six and a half out of ten right now, that feels O.K., coming from a four or four and a half last month. The door to the darkness is right next to me, and I try to open it just enough, but not so much that it’s going to suck me in. I hope that, in a couple of weeks, I can open it up a little more, be a little stronger, and examine some of those issues. This will be with me for the rest of my life. But it’s manageable. ♦


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