The former ‘Parks and Recreation’ star reflects on a breakthrough year that saw her run away with FX’s ‘Legion’ and build up her producing cred behind the scenes.
To the naked eye, it looks as though Aubrey Plaza is reinventing herself. The 33-year-old actress, famous for her portrayal of the lovably sardonic April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, has spent the last year portraying characters far different than her familiar depictions of eye-rolling best friends in wacky comedies.
But to Plaza, it’s just a matter of scheduling. “Being on a television show for seven years, it's hard to break out of that box,” she says, speaking by phone with ET. “I guess to everyone else it's a reinvention, but for me, it's something that I've always been.”
With three projects in 2017 -- FX’s Legion, Ingrid Goes West and The Little Hours -- that showcased some of her best acting to date, Plaza has proved once and for all that she is a formidable talent, not just a sitcom trope.
Her year started off strong with a complex role on the first season of Noah Hawley’s cerebral superhero show, Legion. Plaza plays Lenny Busker, the gender-bent parasitic mutant who lives within the mind of protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens). Or is Lenny just a childhood friend of David’s? Or a psychiatrist? Or a dog? “It’s kind of a head trip,” Plaza says.
The role of Lenny was originally written for a middle-aged man. But Hawley specifically met with Plaza to pitch her the part. “I was very confused,” she says. “I was like ‘Oh, the middle-aged drug addict in the mental hospital? I don’t understand.’”
But once Hawley let Plaza in on the character’s true identity as the mentally manipulative Shadow King, Plaza said she was in. But she did have one condition: She didn’t want the character’s dialogue to change based on her gender.
“I didn’t want to be trapped in a man's body or a woman's body, I wanted to be fluid,” the actress says. “I wanted to create something that's more than human.”
When Hawley agreed to let the dialogue remain, Plaza took off, creating multiple personalities for Lenny, all of which make appearances in the show. In one scene at the end of the sixth episode, Plaza brings each of these personalities forward, frenetically transitioning from caring to crazy, from menacing to meek.
“That was the hardest scene that I shot in the entire season,” she says. “I kind of had to keep all of these balls in the air. That's why the show is so fun; it makes it easy for me to get lost in my own imagination and to try to really come up with these specific characters, but then have a through line that connects them all. It was challenging, but it was really fun.”
Plaza makes it no secret that she loves a challenge. For example, she explained that when shooting comedic projects, she enjoys changing things up with improvisation. “Improv is really the best thing when you're making a film,” she says. “It forces you to be present.”
And in her nunsploitation film The Little Hours, improv was a requirement; all of the film’s dialogue was ad-libbed on set. The actors knew the story arc and the finer plot points, but it became their job to fill in the dialogue. “Every scene we were figuring it out on the day, on its feet,” Plaza says. “There were different levels of challenges, I guess, but it was exhilarating and fun.”
Another big challenge for Plaza during the filming of The Little Hours was balancing her onscreen duties as an actress with her first feature film producing credit. Plaza says that she likes to “dissolve” into her characters when she’s shooting projects, so the prospect of having to constantly switch hats in the moment was a new kind of challenge for her.
“We were shooting in the middle of nowhere in Tuscany with half of a crew that speaks Italian,” she says, laughing. “It was very stressful to problem-solve in that way, but then to also put my nun habit on and go do these scenes.”
The actress says that producing the film was a “natural kind of progression” from working with her longtime creative collaborator and boyfriend Jeff Baena. “I had been in all of his movies, and I had been very heavily involved in the development process and the casting process, so it just kind of made sense for me to be a producer.”
Instead, Plaza cites the indie social media satire Ingrid Goes West as her first “real” producing credit. “I got my hands on that script very early,” she says. “I just knew right away that this movie had the potential to be something that was really, really special, so I just wanted to be involved in the creative process from the very beginning.”
Along with producing Ingrid, Plaza also plays the title character, an emotionally unstable woman obsessed with an Instagram celebrity. But unlike Ingrid, the actress avoids social media in real life because it can often make her feel depressed. “We all just need one day where we all throw our phones in the ocean,” she says. But then she reevaluates: “Wait, no, that's bad for the environment. I don’t know, we’re f--ked.”
With her roles behind the camera, Plaza was able to break into what is typically a male-dominated field; according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women only made up 17 percent of executive producers and 24 percent of producers for 2016’s top 500 films. Those numbers are high compared to the numbers of female directors (7 percent) and female cinematographers (5 percent).
Plaza says that while she sees those numbers as “shocking,” she doesn’t feel discouraged in the face of them. “I'm used to the feeling of being the one female amongst a group of men,” she says, citing her education at New York University’s film school and her comedic upbringing in the Upright Citizens Brigade. “I had it engrained in my head at an early age that women are just as capable as men, and our opinions matter. So I think this has always been the natural way that I see the world.”
Looking back on her year, Plaza says she feels very fortunate to have been able to break out of what could have been a career-defining box. “I'm just lucky that I've had opportunities over the past year to show the other things that I can do and the other things that I am passionate about, and to play other characters.”
As for what’s next? We know she’ll be back on FX. “I’m in it. I’m in the second season,” she says without revealing anything else. She’ll play the lead role in An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, which is in post-production. And there’s possibly more to come behind the camera. “I will direct,” she says with confidence. “But when I do, it's going to probably be the best thing that's ever been made. So, like, be ready.”
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