Mark Duplass on More ‘Room 104,’ Working With Mahershala Ali & His Role in Apple’s Morning Show Drama

HBO/John P. Johnson

HBO’s anthology Room 104 returns Friday, November 9, and brothers Mark and Jay Duplass are back at the helm — and in fine form — on the peculiar half-hour series.

From a musical episode to appearances by top-notch actors like Mahershala Ali (True Detective) and Michael Shannon (The Little Drummer Girl), Room 104 serves to excite and intrigue audiences.

Ahead of the premiere, TV Insider spoke with multi-hyphenate Mark Duplass about what viewers can expect this season and the episodes he’s most looking forward to. He also clued us in on his role in Apple’s upcoming morning show drama featuring Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carrell, and Jennifer Aniston.

Heading into Season 2, was there any story you had in mind that didn’t make it into the first run?

Mark Duplass: I have this sort of ongoing friendship with Mahershala Ali and we’ve been trying to find a project to do together cause we just see the world in a very similar way, and his career has just exploded since winning the Oscar with Moonlight. We’re also very busy and we keep talking about making a movie together or something but we can’t find eight to 12 weeks to do that ever. So over email, we struck up this idea of ‘Let’s just do a Room 104 episode.’

It was this wonderful collaboration where I asked him to pitch me a character or world, just anything to start with that he would like to do. He told me he loved the idea of pool hall hustlers being on the road together. I said, ‘Great, don’t tell me anything more,’ and I went away and I wrote something really fast over the course of two or three days. I sent it to him and he said, ‘Oh man, that’s great, let’s do it,’ and I said, ‘You know, I wrote it like a one act play, it all happens real-time in 25-minutes, [so I think] we can shoot this in two days and I’ll direct it, and we’ll just do it together.’

James Earl and Mahershala Ali.

That really set the tone for me for what Room 104 should be. There are so many projects we have that are so long-gestating and take forever to come together for people’s schedules or to find the right money. These are made cheaply and quickly and fun and they just kinda have a little bit of an explosive energy to them because of that. It makes me feel like I’m making the kind of art I used to make in my 20s before I had any resources and it’s reconnecting to that part of myself.

How would you describe the show to those who missed the first season?

The simplest way to look at it is most of the television that you turn on, you kind of know what you’re gonna get in terms of tone and style. And if you’re looking to spin the roulette wheel, and know that the room is gonna be the same every night, but you literally have no idea what kind of story you can get and wanna be surprised by that, this is a really good show for you.

So many great actors have appeared in the series. Is there anyone you’d like to get for an episode that you haven’t yet?

Oh my god, like thousands of people. You know, I really — I hope we get to make this show for years on end, because there are people that are just too hard to pin down that we’ve almost worked with over the years. There was a moment where, huge movie stars, we almost worked together and we just couldn’t do it.

The Room is the perfect scenario for it cause we shoot an episode every two or three days and we get to do it in a really fun way where I can just reach out to someone and say, ‘What’s a role you never get to play or something you’re interested in doing? Hand it to me, and I’ll handcraft something for you.’ So there’s probably a list of a thousand names with people I would love work with. Hopefully, I’ll get a few of them.

This show is literally confined to one room; do you find that challenging or freeing?

There’s a lot of theories about being creative within limits. I have based my whole career on trying to find interesting ways to be creative with limited resources. I came up making micro-budgeted movies with my brother in my 20s and I found it inspiring to try to think of how I keep these stories fresh inside of the same four walls, and how I can try to keep surprising people. Having those limits to fight against keeps me inspired, so I really kind of dig it.

This season seems to dabble in the supernatural and surreal. Why did you decide to include those elements?

For better for worse, when my brother and I were coming up as filmmakers, we were branded as these sort of dramedy guys, and we made a career out of that. That was great, and we stayed close to that because not only is it close to our hearts and what we feel we’re good at, but it was what people expected from us.

Room 104 is kind of about exploding that and exploring other sides of ourselves — [to] achieve an experimental and explosive sort of Friday night environment. You know [there’s] reason that this show is on Friday nights instead of Sunday nights — it’s not supposed to be the next Game of Thrones, it’s supposed to be something wild, it’s supposed to be something different. So I think that purposefully we’re trying to stretch ourselves a little bit and collaborate with different kinds of filmmakers.

Ginger Gonzaga, Brian Tyree Henry in Room 104.

There are so many different genres from horror to comedy touched on in this show. Do you have one you prefer to write?

We did a musical episode this year with my really close friend [film composer] Julian Wass who has been composing for me for years — we play in the campfire band for our daughters’ school together. [Laughs] I used to have a musical background so it was really fun for us to collaborate and try to make that classical musical form work within 25 minutes.

That was the riskiest episode we tried to do this year and the one that I think secretly like most excited to share with people because it’s just so different for me. But they’re all so fun cause they’re so different — you can’t get complacent on this show.

There are a lot of fan theories about this show. Do you have any favorites? Any that are just flat out false?

I’m definitely not in a position to disprove anything because I love the fact that people are talking about all these wildly different theories about what Room 104 is or where it is or why it is. It’s starting to get to this level of a show like Lost, where people are trying to figure out what’s going on. One of the more fun theories that’s developed, is like, everyone is dead and they’re in a form of…


Purgatory, or something like that which I think is also very fun. So, you know, theorize away as far as I’m concerned. It’s great.

Will there be a point when we’ll see you in front of the camera for this series?

Yeah, I designed one for my brother Jay in the first season, and we keep talking about what’s gonna be the episode that I’m going to do in front of the camera. We haven’t really nailed it down just yet. Secretly we kind of keep me as an actor in reserve just in case someone drops out the day before I can always hop in. [Laughs] So there’s a little bit of that that we’re holding onto. But I don’t know, I kind of want it to be the perfect thing and I haven’t found it yet.

Pia Shah, Tom Lenk and Charlyne Yi in the Room 104 Season 2 premiere.

You were recently cast in Apple’s morning show drama alongside Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carrell. Is there anything you can tease about your role or the project?

Everybody’s keeping the plot under wraps, so I’d probably be tarred and feathered if I talked about what that is. But I will say I’ve shot a couple of days already and being on set with Reese Witherspoon and Jen Aniston and Steve Carell and Billy Crudup — there’s an energy about this thing that feels very explosive and it’s really exciting.

Room 104 is my little kingdom in my little playground with all my buddies, and then I walk off of that set and walk into the morning show which is just this monstrous television show and I feel like that guy who’s like, ‘What am I doing here with all of these people?’ It’s really fun, I’ve gotta say, I have high hopes for the show.

Michael Shannon in Room 104.

What lured you to a new streaming service like Apple?
Well, you know, the creator and the cast of the show were first and foremost what brought me to it. That being said, the fact that we’re on Apple positions this show in an interesting way. I think if you look back at the moment when Netflix entered the array of original content and they took House of Cards out and put everything behind it, they were committed and went for it.

There’s something really good about that because whether this show works or not it won’t be because it got lost in the fray. Apple’s going to make this kind of a flagship show for them and I’ve never been in that position. I like to tuck myself away on Friday nights with my Room 104, and play in my little corner of the sandbox. This is a big dude, and while I’m really happy I’m not at the helm of the show, I’m more than happy to take a seat.

Duplass in HBO’s Togetherness.

Your TV roles have been really varied, from comedy (The League, The Mindy Project) to darker (Goliath, Manhunt: Unibomber), and in between (Togetherness). Is there a type of role or project you haven’t tried yet that you want to?

Yeah, there’s so many things that I’m interested in doing. Right now, I’m in a phase where I’m doing a lot of producing and writing and some acting because my kids are 10 and 6 and I really like to be home for dinner as much as I can.

Directing is really tough on the hours right now, but I have a series of books that I’ve been working on privately and secretly over the last year or so. I really enjoyed writing our book, Like Brothers, with my brother Jay and that process was just so wonderful to me. So I have a series of fictionalized books that I’m slowly working on that may take me five years to get out, but that’s a really fun side of myself that I haven’t explored yet.

Room 104, Season 2 Premiere, Friday, November 9, 11:30/10:30c, HBO