“I think people are suspicious of me”: Aubrey Plaza’s mysterious ways

Aubrey Plaza cemented her inscrutable persona on the hit series Parks and Recreation, and uses it to discomfiting effect in Black Bear, which takes an unsettling look behind the scenes of an indie film, and at the abuse of power in the name of creativity. She talks about the challenges of the shoot, and why she’s really not that hard to read.

Aubrey PlazaEmily Assiran/Contour by Getty Images for Pizza Hut

Black Bear is released on digital platforms from 23 April.

In Lawrence Michael Levine’s new black-comedy drama, Black Bear, a chimerical Aubrey Plaza sits alone at the end of a dock, her mystifying gaze fixed straight ahead in silent introspection.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Plaza play the sphinx. Ever since her breakout role as disaffected intern April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, that scheming, oddly sensual quality has been her signature. With her monotone delivery, and dazed, shifty-eyed demeanour, she’s played everything from party girls in raunchy comedies like Dirty Grandpa (2016) to troubled obsessives in indie titles like Ingrid Goes West (2017) and Ned Rifle (2014).

As Allison, a filmmaker and the newly arrived guest at a couple’s deep-forest cabin, Plaza weaponises her inscrutable persona to eerie effect, swiftly creating tensions between the pregnant Blair (Sarah Gadon) and her husband Gabe (Christopher Abbott), and later seducing him. Levine then pulls the rug out from under us. In part two, Allison is an unhinged actress with a drinking problem, and Gabe, her husband, is a tyrannical director who may or may not be having an affair with Blair.

Inspired in part by Levine’s many cinematic collaborations with his own spouse, fellow writer-director Sophia Takal, Black Bear is a dizzying trip down the rabbit hole of the creative process, and a meditation on the gendered double standards applied to artistic genius. Plaza, who has worked on several films with her own husband, Jeff Baena, has never been better.

Sight & Sound May 2021

This interview and a review of Black Bear also appear in our May 2021 issue, alongside a cover interview with Barry Jenkins talking truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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Beatrice Loayza: How did you get involved with Black Bear? It feels like it was written for you and your particular qualities as a performer.

Aubrey Plaza: The part was written specifically for me. I met Larry Michael Levine a year before he wrote the script, and we realised we both had a lot to say about how complicated it can be to make a film with your partner. I don’t want to speak for Larry, but the movie is almost like a deconstruction of my persona. A lot of people think I’m a certain way, that I’m like the characters I’ve played, but I’m not all the time.

Do you think you’re hard to read?

No. I think people are suspicious of me. They think I’m fucking with them or being sarcastic. I joke around a lot but most of the time I’m being literal. Maybe it’s the tone of my voice. Maybe I don’t smile enough.

Aubrey Plaza on the set of Black Bear with writer-director Larry Michael Levine

Your character in Black Bear drinks so much. What was it like to perform that?

It was exhausting. You kind of have to trick your body into thinking you’re drunk. Before a take, I’d spin around to the point where I almost wanted to throw up.

[Christopher Abbott and I] talked a lot about Cassavetes when we were shooting – we’re both really big fans. The performances in his movies are so insane and inspiring to me, and I’ve always wanted to try something like that. We shot at night for three weeks, so our bodies were also out of whack since we weren’t sleeping normally.

So you were nocturnal?

[The production] didn’t have enough money to black out the windows, so we’d basically start when the sun went down and get as much done until it came up. Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon and I car-pooled back to our hotel an hour away after the shoot. So in the morning we’d drive through the breathtakingly beautiful Adirondacks [in New York state], then get back to our rooms feeling like it was all a dream.

The second part of Black Bear takes place on a film set – how conscious were you of the set-within-the-set?

It was very trippy. The actors that played the crew members were so convincing, and some of the actual crew ended up on camera. The first half was very deliberate, while the second half was shot documentary-style with a fake camera in the mix. So half the time I didn’t even know where the real camera was.

Black Bear (2020)

Did you find yourself relating in any way to the director-muse aspect of Black Bear?

The movie is an extreme version of what can go wrong when you’re making a movie with your partner – though I don’t think there’s a place for that kind of emotionally abusive situation any more. It’s more about this romanticised notion of a director who tortures his actors because he’s a mad genius than it is anything personal. But, of course, it’s incredibly challenging to shoot with your partner because of the power dynamics of dealing with someone you love and wanting their approval and attention.

I’ve never been in such a terrible situation, but I understand what it’s like having an argument before you shoot, and how that affects you when you go on camera. How do you shake that off when the person you’re upset with is the one you’re also trying to please in that moment? It’s confusing.

You’re a natural at performing sensuality, and here there’s no exception. Do you enjoy playing sexual characters?

There are so many shades of sluttiness that we don’t get to see [in movies]! My Catholic upbringing probably made me a very naturally horny and perverted person. There’s something very freeing about doing it on camera, and bringing that raw, maybe even sloppy, messy or funny aspect to someone’s character.

Elaine May has this line: “When in doubt, seduce” – that’s always resonated with me. If I’m struggling with a scene, I ask myself, ‘What am I really doing here?’ And it’s true, even if you don’t realise it: a lot of the time performance is about seduction.

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In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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