Steve Zissis, Jennifer Lafleur and Mark Kelly in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
The Do-Deca Pentathlon, the latest film from indie filmmaking staples Jay and Mark Duplass (Baghead, Cyrus) is currently available on Video On-Demand and opens in theaters this Friday, July 6th. In addition to interviewing Mark and Jay in anticipation of their latest film being released, I was also able to speak with the cast of the film, including Steve Zissis, who has appeared in five Duplass Brothers films, Jennifer Lafleur, who has appeared in three Duplass Brothers films, and gave a performance in The Do-Deca Pentathlon that was the best by any actress in the 52 movies I saw at the LA Film Festival last month. Rounding out the trio is Mark Kelly, who may be best-known for his recurring role as Dale on Mad Men. The Do-Deca Pentathlon is the story of brothers Mark (Zissis) and Jeremy (Kelly) reuniting over a weekend and rekindling their childhood Olympics of 25 events to determine who is the better brother. When Mark’s wife Stephanie (Lafleur) protests, the brothers attempt to hold their events in secret.
Here’s what the three actors shared with me about working with the Duplass Brothers, becoming a family on set, and crafting The Do-Deca Pentathlon.
Jackson Truax: How did the three of you each come to meet and work with the Duplass Brothers?
Jennifer Lafleur: In 2005, Jay Duplass came to a play that I was in in New York…. He was really sweet and interested in me. I got a copy of The Puffy Chair and fell madly in love with their work… They were about to cast Baghead… I was too young for one role and too old for the other. But he said, “We like you. Do you want to come down and play this little role and hang out with us for a couple of weeks in Austin?” I said, “Hell, yes.” That’s how I met them and started to work with them.
Steve Zissis: Jay, Mark, and I all went to the same high school in New Orleans. Jay was three years older than me. And then Mark was one grade below. So we all sort of knew of each other. Then after high school, we became friends. I was doing some theater in Austin, Texas. Jay came to see the play. I met him that way. And when Jay and Mark were shooting one of their first, first, first, first, first films in New Orleans, they cast me in it. That’s how our relationship started.
Mark Kelly: I met Mark’s wife Katie Asleton first… We were both actors working for a casting director. Then when she met Mark and moved back to Los Angeles, she introduced me to Mark. We hit it off right away… Then I got to work with Jay, through meeting Mark, on a short film. That’s where Jay got to experience me as an actor. That eventually led to me getting cast.
Jackson: Steve, you’ve been on a number of Duplass Brothers sets, so you know what it’s like shooting with Mark and Jay and a small cast. But you’ve also seen how it’s manifest with a larger budget and big crew and name actors involved. How are the two experiences different for you as an actor? Is there one you find more fulfilling?
Steve: The small version is more enjoyable. But they’re both opportunities to act, so they’re both fulfilling… The difference to me is, on the studio movies, you’ve got a lot of people, everywhere around you… Cyrus was a little more tense. You could sort of feel the pressure around you. It was palpable. But Jeff, Who Lives at Home was a much more relaxed set, from what I experienced. But I think really the main difference is, you just have three times as many crew people around you, and logistics and stuff like that.
Jackson: Having worked with Mark and Jay closely on a wide range of projects, how much are they able to set a tone for the actors or the set in general, regardless of the size of budget or crew?
Steve: They do. I don’t know how they do it. But they manage to do it. On Jeff, Who Lives at Home, for example, I think all the actors, even though they’re superstars, they get on board. They know what Jay and Mark do. They set that tone immediately. It’s a very improv-based way of shooting. They only work with actors that they know will be open to that.
Jackson: Jennifer, you took a character that was unsympathetic on the page and made her very much sympathetic and very multi-dimensional. How did you find her humanity?
Jennifer: Her humanity was so clear to me from the very beginning. When I first read the script, I actually was literally weeping… because I felt her so deeply and I saw her so clearly. She was never a nag or a shrew to me. She was this smart, perceptive, nurturing wife who really loved and wanted to take car of her husband… So it all worked out okay. But I have always viewed her as a sensitive, nurturing, loving person. Who also, maybe has a nice set of balls on her too.
Jackson: The Duplass Brothers don’t like to do table reads and rehearsals. At the same time, you three have to be in front of a camera and be believable as a married couple and as brothers with this shared history. How do you create that chemistry?
Mark: Fortunately, we are all trained actors, which helps. You compile all your experiences, and draw from what works along the way. It was such a great, powerful script, as Jen described. We had time to get into the world of what they wrote. It was easy for me to apply a lot from having two older brothers… Once we all got together and had [Jay and Mark’s] guidance, it all fell into place a lot easier than I imagined. I went into it very nervous. And feeling a lot of pressure, not enough time, and all those things. But it was just wonderful to start in a place of fear and arrive in a place of joy. And get to ride that out the rest of the way.
Jennifer: I had gotten to know Steve through Baghead. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him, both as a person and as an actor. So it was a bit of a no-brainer for me. That was one of the easiest parts of the job, was slipping right into that natural affection.
Mark: I couldn’t second that more… It certainly helped in the ending of the movie, to have that love for Steve.
Steve: Mark and I did hit it off immediately. We got along really well.
Jackson: Mark, in the movie you and Steve do a lot of intense physical stuff, and you both end up with bumps, cuts, scrapes, and bruises. How much choreography was involved in that?
Mark: That scene at the end was a little scary for us. We said, “What a minute. We actually have to make this part look real.” We did have to practice and choreograph some of the moves, in a stage combat sort of way. Some of just the rolling around on the lawn and stuff, we had to just do. We were so adrenalized, I don’t really remember hurting myself in the moment, but was certainly sore afterwards. That was really the only scary part of improvisation that went down.
Steve: There were some minor injuries, for sure. I injured myself in the Laser Tag scene when I had to take a fall. But luckily, Jennifer Lafleur is an EMT. So she was able to tend to me.
Jennifer: It’s true.
Jackson: Looking at the events in the Pentathlon, it’s not Mortal Kombat. It’s these thirty-something roughhousing brothers. How did you define and capture the spirit of that?
Mark: All I remember is wanting to get it right, and not have it be the fake moment in this very real movie we were shooting… I thought it was important they actually do physically fight. I’m just glad we were able to pull it off and not get hurt. And not destroy the rhododendrons in the flower beds.
Steve: A friend of mine said, “This has to be the least vain performance given by you guys.” And it’s true. Mark and I are – past our prime.
Jennifer: No you’re not! You’re in your prime.
Steve: You know what I mean. We’re past our high school athletic prime. So we went at these sports with one hundred percent commitment. And it’s pathetic and funny.
Mark: I remember learning a lesson on that short I did with Jay. I had to take my shirt off. I didn’t want to be photographed that way. And then just realized how ridiculous it is to be vain in anything, really.
Jennifer: This is certainly not a vanity project.
Mark: Yeah, just embrace that in anything you do. You were cast for a reason. Just do what you’re told. You’re the story.
Jennifer: When you work on a Duplass Brothers project, you don’t do it because they’re going to make you look glowing and stunning with breeze blowing through your hair. You will certainly get your share of close-ups, but they will be when your are contorting your face into the most unattractive faces that you can possibly imagine. You do it because it’s real and it’s raw and it’s funny and sad and magical. They have a way of just doing that over and over and over again. I love their movies. And I love being in their movies.
Jackson: I’ve heard stories about filming Baghead, about how the Duplass Brothers would frequently leave the cast to their own devices and go off on these long walks and then come back and workshop different things with the cast. Did that happen on The Do-Deca Pentathlon?
Steve: Yes, certainly. They’re called “pow-wows.” Mark and Jay, if something’s not working, they go take a walk.
Jennifer: They say to each other, “You want to do a little pow-wow?” “Sure, Dupes.”
Steve: You know how bad we’re in trouble, depending on how long the walk-and-talk takes.
Jennifer: They’re also really good at making you feel like it’s not in any way, shape, or form, your fault. That you were brilliant and wonderful and perfect, and that they’re the ones that messed up. So we don’t fall apart as actors on set.
Mark: I’d really like to be a fly on the wall at some of those far away pow-wows. There were a few that lasted, forty minutes or something. I wonder if it was them, just having a good time, realizing that I or one of us needed a breather, just to reset our brain a little bit.
Jennifer: There was an especially long pow-wow when Steve and I were shooting one of our final scenes together…when he’s coming to me and apologizing and admitting that he was wrong… It wasn’t clicking and it wasn’t working and it was kind of falling flat. They went on quite a long pow-wow, and they came back with a totally new scene, that was all about how Steve’s foot was fat. And that’s what ended up being in the movie.
Jackson: So when Jay and Mark go on a pow-wow, what are the actors typically doing during that time?
Mark: We’re comforting each other. Reassuring each other, “My bad. I kind of took us off course… Let’s get back in this and finish the job.”
Jennifer: I was watching a lot of Deadliest Catch. That was a big thing for me at that time.
Jackson: How is all of that manifest when working with Reid Williams, a young actor in his first movie who’s playing your son or your nephew?
Mark: Sometimes, he would actually pull me into a more honest place. Because he was coming from such raw, honesty… Kids can do that sometimes… There’s no fear. I’m in my head. He’s not.
Jennifer: He’s a really smart, playful kid… He was a lot of fun to work with. He was game for anything and everything. A lot of times he made you take yourself less seriously so you could have more fun within the scene. That comes through in the movie.
Steve: And an incredibly sensitive kid, too.
Mark: There were a few scenes that were hard to shoot because of his age, and wondering if I’d crossed the line in certain things I’d say or whatever. His mom…was always there to make sure we were keeping it in the right world for him.
Jennifer: He’s not actually a kid anymore. He’s a grown man. We saw him at South By Southwest. He’s about six feet tall…and has a deep voice. He’s a different kid now.
Jackson: With The Do-Deca Pentathlon coming to Video On-Demand as well as opening in theaters, it will be easily accessible to audiences throughout the country. Is there anything in particular you hope audience members might be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
Jennifer: I’m hoping that they will think, “Damn. I’ve got to get those people in my movie.” No. I hope that they see their own lives reflected in little bits. And they can take their own lives a little less seriously and leave with a sense of lightness and happiness.
Mark: I hope people walk away with never giving up on your own family. That it’s never too late to mend broken relationships.
Steve: I definitely echo Mark’s sentiment… I just really hope people laugh, have a good time. For people that are real movie-goers, I hope they enjoy the placement that this movie has. The fact that you’re looking at these not-so-famous actors in this Duplass Brothers movie after you’ve seen a lot of famous actors in the past two movies. I hope they –
Jennifer: Are okay with that.
Steve: I hope they find it kind of special and cool. That there’s this really personal, intimate Duplass Brothers movie that’s out there now.
Mark: Within that, going back to what Jennifer said, I hope we get a four-picture deal from Fox or whoever recognizes our chemistry and puts us in a bunch of movies.
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