I do not know what to expect when I fire up the Zoom link for my conversation with Aubrey Plaza. This is an actress who has spoken about gifting her co-stars phials of her own blood, hair and fingernails on late-night TV; told old people to “go fuck themselves” when accepting a Young Hollywood award; showed a GQ reporter the knife she could easily murder him with; and pledged her allegiance to the devil on red carpets. She knows what audiences think of her: that she is as apathetic as April Ludgate, the eye-rolling misomaniac she played for seven years on the beloved sit-com Parks and Recreation. So what does Plaza do? She messes with us, doubling down on this put-on sarcasm to, as she describes it, “make people uncomfortable”. Plaza essentially treats each public appearance like a performance-art piece, ramping up disturbing behaviours to test how much she can get away with. A notification pops up on my desktop: “Evil Hag” has entered the waiting-room. Of course that’s her screen name.
In reality, Plaza is soft-spoken and friendly, willing to reflect on her career with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Why does she think she is still considered the poster girl for deadpan humour, even though she has portrayed a mutant parasite (Legion), a social-media stalker (Ingrid Goes West) and many other diverse roles since her breakout? She lets out a laugh, then a weary sigh. “I think it’s just that people don’t have an imagination,” she says. “It’s funny, looking back, because when I first started performing in New York I was never known as the ‘sarcasm queen’. I do a couple of parts like April and people want to put me in a box, they can’t fathom that I’d be anyone else. It’s just laziness. It happens to everybody and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to keep going and hopefully change people’s minds.”
Plaza admits that her bizarre talk-show appearances – inexplicably featuring everything from fake teeth to low-energy dancing – furthered the notion that she is playing herself. “Those are my defence mechanisms coming into play there,” she says. “Celebrity and fame and all that stuff is scary to me. My reaction is to find the funny in it, even if I come out looking weird. I’d rather humiliate myself to feel like at least I’m having a truthful moment, and not playing this weird game because I’m supposed to be likeable or approachable or accessible.” She pauses. “Even that sounds like I’m taking it so seriously! It’s a lose-lose situation for me.”
Plaza remains sanguine about the public’s misconception of her, considering it backhanded praise of her work. “It’s a compliment in some ways. You do something really well and people go, ‘That must be who she is because she’s so believable.’ That’s how I take it.” Plaza’s ease in front of the camera seems effortless to the extent that viewers assume it is, but she is actually very process-driven in her approach to her craft, meticulously preparing for each project alongside her acting coach and enjoying the “nerdy” research of studying other performances to enrich her own. Her latest film, the slippery psychosexual thriller Black Bear, was one of her most challenging to date, a physically and emotionally gruelling experience that pushed her to the brink.
She plays Allison, an indie film-maker who settles into an isolated cabin upstate in search of creative inspiration for her next project. Enigmatic and seductive, she ensnares her hosts – the married couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) – in a trap of lies and deceit, and the three of them spend a drunken night bickering with increasing hostility. At the halfway point, the film resets: the actors swap roles and we watch a funhouse-mirror reflection of the previous events, this time on a low-budget movie set with Plaza as a disintegrating, insecure actress bullied into delivering her best work by her director-husband (Abbott).
The part was written for her by Lawrence Michael Levine, Plaza’s onscreen partner in the Netflix anthology series Easy, who has delicately suggested that Hollywood has typecast his star (“I realised how much more complex she was than a lot of the parts she was doing,” he says.) Levine hoped Black Bear would show audiences what she was capable of. Given that his script includes the line “she breaks down and gives the best performance that anyone has ever seen”, Plaza knew she had to bring her A game. “I’m always attracted to things that scare me,” she says. “As an actor, there’s nothing more exciting than having so many layers and getting to play a character who’s also playing a character. That’s too much to pass up.”
Filmed over 20 days in the Adirondack Mountains, Black Bear proved a “very tricky and hard and exhausting” shoot for Plaza. There was no internet, no phone signal and power cuts every hour or so, not to mention all the creepy crawlies that pestered the cast and crew on location in the woods. The actress presumed that the bear bell in her dressing-room had been left there as an in-joke about the movie’s title. No such luck: it was for warding off any stray bears she may encounter. “That added to the intensity!” she says. “It was work, we got down and dirty to make this movie. All of those things played into it – that energy seeped onto the screen. It was very helpful for my performance, it felt like a dream.” The resulting film hinges on a Plaza turn for the ages. She is an agent of chaos. She starts off coy and controlled, simmering with self-satisfaction, then becomes jealous, wounded, overcome by thrashing pain. If anything is going to put the unfounded argument to bed that Plaza lacks range, it is surely her soul-baring work in this movie.
In addition to being a showcase for Plaza’s under-appreciated talent, Black Bear is an endlessly interpretable drama; whether it is a meta storytelling exercise, a commentary on the limits of marriage or something else entirely is left to the viewer’s discretion. “On a very basic level it’s almost a deconstruction of independent film-making, but there’s a lot going on,” she admits. “For me, it was an exploration of emotional abuse and how complicated those power structures can be on set. The film is asking at what cost do we make art and what is really important? I’m in a constant struggle with that, I have to remind myself that you can create without suffering. It’s just that classic artist mentality where you feel ‘Well if I’m not depressed, I can’t write my poems!’ But at the end of the day, who wants to be tortured?”
This is a particularly probing theme in a post-Me Too landscape where movie titans are finally being held accountable for years of unchecked bullying and harassment. Plaza welcomes this change of attitude. “There is this romanticised idea of a mad-genius director torturing his actress into getting this brilliant, beautiful performance out of her. Those days, I hope, are over – it’s not necessary for any actor to be manipulated into doing a good job. In my experience the opposite is true: if you take care of your cast, they end up giving more to you.”
Beneath her public-facing façade of indifference, Plaza cares profoundly about her industry and wants to see it adapt with the times. This – along with her love of indie film and straight-talking attitude – has made her a captivating host of the Independent Spirits, an awards show she has emceed for the past two years. In typical Plaza fashion, she pulls no punches, picking on the crowd, downing vodka shots and singing wobbly renditions of showtunes.
It is thrilling to watch her verbally flambé a tent of A listers and jibe at Hollywood’s failings. She cuts through the usual obsequiousness of what can be, in less capable hands, self-important, back-patting ceremonies. There’s no way you’d ever hear a host call a celebrity a “lazy sack of shit” at the Oscars (as Plaza did last year). “It was so exhilarating for me to do the Indie Spirits,” she says now. “You rarely get to perform live, especially on television.” Plaza has passed the baton of hosting duties this year, and is looking forward to seeing how her successor, SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor, fares. “My hope is that they embrace the virtualness of it rather than just trying to do a show and pretend it’s not weird. We’ll see what they do. It ain’t my show this year, so I’m just gonna be sitting back, eating some popcorn, watching it go down.”
Plaza may have some downtime tuning into the Indie Spirits but generally she has been remarkably productive during the pandemic. As well as shooting a new action movie starring Hugh Grant and Jason Statham, she has also written a screenplay that she plans to direct. “I’m so mad at myself that I haven’t directed something already. I went to film school, I have all of these things inside me. I’m overly precious about it,” she says. “Movies are so important to me. They changed my life – they’re how you experience the human condition. I want to contribute to the legacy of film and get my own ideas out there, and affect people like other directors have affected me.” And on that note of warm-hearted sincerity, Evil Hag leaves the meeting.
‘Black Bear’ is out now on digital platforms.
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