December 2020 has a lot of people thinking about Aubrey Plaza in a new way. Famous for her comedic portrayals of witheringly sarcastic characters—even Riley in Happiest Season, Plaza’s other big movie of the year, is a deadpan wit—Black Bear sees Plaza stretching her dramatic muscles. She does so in a dual role that The A.V.Club’s A.A. Dowd says “winks at all her old tricks, then shows us what she’s capable of without them.”
In the first half of this cryptically bifurcated film, Plaza plays a former actress turned writer and director (which means “I can eat cookies sometimes,” she cracks) who shows up at a couple’s lakeside cabin hoping to get some writing done. (At least, that’s how it starts.) In the second half, she plays a character with the same name, but a totally different personality—an emotionally fragile actress whose manipulation at the hands of her director husband doubles as damning commentary on the ways abusive male “genius” goes unchecked. Plaza argues, she cries, she falls down drunk. She’s vulnerable and passionate in ways we rarely get to see from her on screen. She’s a revelation.
But while casual viewers may be surprised by the dramatic excellence Plaza brings to Black Bear, it’s all part of her master plan. Plaza’s been stretching the limits of her star persona for a few years now, giving it a demented edge in Ingrid Goes West and reveling in the volatility of Legion’s Lenny Busker. We connected with Plaza over Zoom to talk about Black Bear and her career trajectory, and although you can’t see the sharp pantsuit she wore for the interview, her personality shines through just the same in print.
The A.V. Club: Given that you started your career at UCB and mostly do comedy, was a quote-unquote “dramatic” role on your bucket list as an actor?
Aubrey Plaza: Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to do both. I was very fortunate to have some success in the comedy space early on, [but] I think that was always my mastermind plan. I always looked up to Adam Sandler’s career and people like that, who did both. When I saw Punch-Drunk Love for the first time, it just blew my mind. I was like, “Oh, my god, Adam Sandler can do Billy Madison and Punch-Drunk Love. That’s what I want. I want that.” I can’t say I’ve done either of those things, but it’s always been a dream of mine to be in more dramatic films as well.
AVC: Did you feel like you had something to prove?
AP: Yeah, I got something to prove! You don’t think I’m good?!
AVC: [Laughs.] Justify your existence, Aubrey Plaza!
AP: But really, everyone’s got something to prove, right? If I have to be honest, I was never prepared for Parks And Rec and April Ludgate to become so heavily associated with my career. I mean, I’m so grateful for playing that part, but I think there’s a lot more to me than April Ludgate. I’m over that [now], but there was a time, I will say, that it felt like I had to prove something because I was sick of everyone calling me the “queen of deadpan,” and I just wanted to go, “That’s a character, okay?” But then, of course, I go on Conan and I act weird and then those videos go on the internet and—you know, the internet is really to blame for everything. That’s the point of all of this.
AVC: This role is interesting, because in some ways that dry, sarcastic persona that’s followed you around does factor in. I’m thinking about the scene at the beginning where Allison goes out on the porch with the joint and the bottle of wine while [Christopher Abbott’s and Sarah Gadon’s characters] are arguing about her.
AP: [Mischievous face.] Did I do that?
The part was written for me, and Larry [Levine] and I had met a year prior to him writing [the script]. And he was drawing on his experience with me as a person. There are lines in the film that Larry has actually said to me in real life, like “You’re really hard to read,” and my response being, “Yes, I get that all the time.” I mean, those are real conversations that we had. And I think that there was a part of the writing for him, deconstructing this persona that people have associated with me.
AVC: So how involved were you in the writing, if the part was written for you?
AP: I wasn’t involved at all. I didn’t even know he was doing it until he finished and he called me and said, “I wrote something for you, and I’d like you to read it. And if you want to do it, I’d like you to produce it, too, and let’s make it.” And so, yeah, I had no idea he was doing that.
AVC: Did you run home and read the script right away when you got it?
AP: Yes, of course. And then I read it, and I’m like, “Jesus Christ, Larry.” No, I was blown away when I read it. I had no idea. I did not see it coming at all. And the script—I wish people could read it, because it’s a beautifully written script. It’s written almost like a play. And after I read it for the first time, I thought, “I don’t know if this is a movie. This almost needs to be on stage.” But because it’s about moviemaking, I was like, “No, it is a movie.” It’s a deconstruction of independent filmmaking, in a way.
AVC: Since this was an independent movie deconstructing the making of an independent movie, did art and life come together on the set?
AP: Constantly, yeah. One hundred percent. There were times that I fully transcended reality. The actors that came on to play the crew members in the second half were incredible. Even if they had one line, they were so good and so believable. Lindsay Burdge, who is an incredible actress, she plays the makeup artist in the crew, and there were times when she would come up to me and powder my face and stuff. And I genuinely forgot that she wasn’t my makeup artist, because she was just so natural. And that house—Larry was sleeping there along with the DP and some of the PAs, and we were all living on properties nearby. So we were all consumed by the production, and the lines of reality got murkier and murkier as we went on.
AVC: Did that fuel your performance?
AP: Totally. Chris Abbott and Sarah Gavin and I stayed at a location that was about 50 minutes away from the house, which was really in the middle of nowhere. It was about a 30-, 40-minute drive off the main road, so we would have to make this very intense drive through the Adirondacks pretty much every night. We’d get there as the sun was going down, because we were shooting nights for three weeks. And I remember once we got into the woods and we would be heading towards the house and I would see the house in the distance, anxiety would just completely wash over me, because I knew, “This is going to be a long night.” It did help the performance, because it zapped me into this mental state. That was just so crazy.
AVC: There are some pretty intense scenes in this film, a lot of thrashing and screaming and crying. Did you have any trepidation about doing that? Or were you excited?
AP: I was terrified of those scenes, because I know myself well enough to know that I don’t think before I do things a lot of times. I’m not a very planned-out actor, and I sometimes get very hurt because of that physically—and emotionally, but [here it was] physically. I almost went to the hospital, because I had bruises all over my body because I’m acting drunk for days on end, and I was constantly knocking into a lamp or falling on the ground or whatever. And when I’m in that zone, I don’t think about “I shouldn’t do that, because I’m going to hurt myself.” I’m just off to the races. It’s the aftermath that sucks, because then I realize, like, “Oh, I really hurt myself. I got another bruise.”
AVC: So are you a big prep person, or do you act more intuitively?
AP: I think both. I have a process that I always put myself through with my acting coach, who I’ve worked with on everything I’ve ever done. So I have a very familiar process that I go through, but I also come from an improv background and [so] I’m interested in the spontaneity. Every time I act, I’m trying to get to that point where you forget that you’re acting. You forget that it’s not real. Once I can get to that place, then I feel happy. It just takes a lot to get there. And sometimes you never do.
AVC: It sounds like on this one, it was easier than usual, just because you were all in the same place the whole time.
AP: There were so many times when I just completely felt like what was happening was really happening, which was really, really satisfying on an artistic level, but really challenging on many others.
AVC: I’ve heard that the secret to acting drunk is to pretend like you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re drunk. Is that true?
AP: Is that a Michael Caine quote?
AVC: Maybe? I’ve heard it as just conventional wisdom, but it may have come from him.
AP: Because I worked with him recently, and I’m pretty sure he said that to me. I did a scene with him where we were drunk, and I got to experience that firsthand. But I wouldn’t say that’s the secret. I would say that the thing that people get wrong a lot about playing drunk is that they play drunk. They [Slurs.] slur their words and all that stuff. But the best actors know that when you’re wasted, you’re trying to make people think that you’re not as wasted as you are. As an actor, it’s better to do that, and not to play drunk. But anyway, on the next episode of Acting With Aubrey...
AVC: Another thing that I think is interesting in this film is it critiques this idea of the “difficult” actress. What do you think about that idea or myth and the pushback against it?
AP: I think that when people call actresses “difficult,” oftentimes they’re talking about an actress speaking up for themselves, or drawing the line in the sand and going, “I don’t feel comfortable doing this,” or having questions, and that’s not being difficult. That’s acting professional. But I think that historically, women have been treated like they’re just supposed to do what [they’re told] and be the good actress and take their clothes off, or whatever they’re supposed to do. And I think that myth is getting busted more and more, because if you really do the digging, you might find that there’s a lot underneath of that. There’s more going on that makes someone quote-unquote “difficult.” And a lot of times, when men are difficult, they’re the bosses, you know?
AP: So men are allowed to be assholes. “That’s just because they’re so stressed out, because they’re in charge.” It’s like, “No?” And women are allowed to be assholes, too! Those days are over. And in this film you do see the background, which is that he’s manipulating her into being “crazy,” quote-unquote. He’s gaslighting her. And that’s an evil that is so familiar to so many people. So I think it’s relatable in a way where it’s like, “Of course you’re going crazy, because he’s manipulating you psychologically and emotionally!”
AVC: When I watched this movie, I thought about famous directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick, who did these [manipulative] things to their actresses.
AP: I think that this movie is a commentary on that, in a way. And for me, it’s interesting because as an actress and someone that is drawn to chaos and things that aren’t necessarily, like, healthy, I’m definitely guilty of that. Like this script—this script is a total nightmare! Why would I put myself through that? There’s a sadomasochistic thing that happens sometimes with some actors.
But I would say that the power dynamics with the director and the approach of having to manipulate someone in real life? There’s no excuse for that. I don’t think that a movie, a good movie, relies on abuse and manipulation. I just think you can be a good director and not treat people badly. And I think that male directors have gotten away with that behavior for so long and are almost rewarded for it, that it’s just like, “Enough. You don’t need to be a dick. You don’t need to be an asshole to get a good performance out of someone.” And I think the best directors know that.
AVC: The excuse is, “Well, it was worth it. They got this great performance out of it.”
AP: But at what cost? I think the movie is asking that question. It’s like, at the end of the day, we all go home to our families. These are just movies. It’s like, “What’s more important? Our health, our well-being?”
AVC: Absolutely. Before we go, though—there’s a line in the movie where Sarah Gadon’s character asks yours if she likes watching herself in her own movies, and she says, “No, it’s actually really humiliating.” Is that one of the lines that you said in real life?
AP: Yes. That is an exact conversation that Larry and I had.
AVC: So you don’t like watching your own movies?
AP: Well, now that I’m producing more, I like watching the movies. I just don’t like watching myself. I have a very hard time objectively watching something. I always ruin it for myself. So I normally just close my eyes, and literally I’m like, [Plugs ears.] “Blah blah blah,” whenever I’m on camera. But I’m getting better at it. I don’t want to be so precious. I don’t want to be so insecure about it, but it’s hard not to. You just look at yourself and you’re like, “God, what an idiot.”
AVC: I get that. I’m going to dread transcribing this interview later, because I have to listen to my own voice.
AP: I hate my voice. I hate. Hate.
AVC: Is it one of those things where, the more you do it, the easier it gets?
AP: It’s still not that easy for me. I don’t even watch playback. There are some people that I’ve worked with who go behind the monitor and go, “Let me see that one again.” I just can’t. I can’t work like that. Maybe in my older age, when I’m in my fifties, I’ll be one of those sassy actresses who’s like, “Let me see it again.” Maybe I won’t care so much.
AVC: Well, I think you did excellent work in this film. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year. I’m glad to see you doing more varied stuff.
AP: Honestly, I’m so grateful that I can continue to get opportunities where I can do stuff that I haven’t done before. That’s all I want to keep doing.
AVC: And you said you’re doing more producing now?
AP: Yes! I have some things brewing. The choice of words is very important.
AVC: Oh, interesting.
AP: I can’t reveal my secrets, but yes, I will be producing more things. I will be producing some classic films in the future that will never be forgotten. Some franchises—I’m talking Harry Potter-level.
AVC: Harry Potter meets Citizen Kane, right?
AP: Yes, exactly. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Evil Hag Enterprises will be activated.
Black Bear is out now in select theaters and on VOD.