Don’t Let Her Chill Fool You, Legion’s Aubrey Plaza Is an Overachiever
"I can’t stop. You can’t make me stop.”
1. The Story of How We Met
Twenty-five minutes into Ingrid Goes West, I started to subconsciously rub my forehead. I was also sweating and restless. My girlfriend thought I was being funny. It was like in the “Thriller” music video, when pre-zombie Michael giggles as his date tries to avoid watching the terrors on the screen. Only we’re not watching a horror movie. Not in the conventional sense, anyway.
I had read enough reviews of Ingrid Goes West—which came out last year and is now available on Netflix—to know that it wasn’t for me. Not because the reviews were bad by any means; in fact, the film represents an exciting jump forward in Aubrey Plaza’s acting career. She’s great in it—too great, because she’s too believable.
Ingrid Goes West is a contemporary satire about a woman so obsessed with an Instagram influencer that she moves across the country to either become her BFF or maybe become her. I don’t know, because I didn’t finish the movie. I have an intense vulnerability to anything socially inappropriate, and this film is full of cringing silences that make the British The Office seem like a quaint comedy of errors.
My girlfriend encouraged me to push through it. “It’s just a movie,” she said. But it was still basically giving me a panic attack. At least, I told myself, I’ll have a funny story to tell Plaza when we chat over the phone. After all, what actor wouldn’t be charmed to hear how emotionally painful their latest film was to watch, right?
“You didn’t watch the end of the movie?” Plaza exclaims. She isn’t yelling, but her voice is raised, probably in jest. “What’s wrong with you? The end is amazing.”
“I believe you,” I say. “Tell me what happens.”
“It’s the best part. No, I’m not going to tell you what happens. No, you should hang up and go finish it right now.”
I try to explain that it isn’t that the film is bad but that, actually, the fact that I felt so uncomfortable means the movie is effective: It’s real and honest, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so tortured by its potential awkwardness. In a way, the fact that her performance gave me the first stirrings of a full-blown anxiety attack is a compliment. Plaza disagrees. “Well, I’m very offended,” she says.
Of course, I know that Plaza isn’t really offended. She’s joking. If there’s a thread of legitimate annoyance in the joke, it doesn’t sour our conversation at all. But I get the sense that, if she wanted to, she could easily push the joke further, until we were in some liminal space between riff and rebuke. And I also get the sense that Plaza could live in that space, as if she has some higher social adaptation that lets her thrive where other humans might apologize and shrink. I ask her about it.
“I think what you’re talking about is me when I’m acting versus me in real life,” she says. “That’s very different from me in real life, but I think people forget that.”
I take her point, but I think we’re talking about different things.
2. Some Commentary
See, there’s a common mistake that people make when they talk about Plaza, and, despite being aware of it before we talk, I nearly make it, too. It’s a little different from the typical actor/character confusion we all get when confronted with a complete stranger who looks like someone we watch regularly and know intimately. It’s not that I expect Plaza to be April Ludgate—the eye-rolling, secretly earnest municipal employee she played on seven seasons of Parks and Recreation. It’s that, well, Plaza actually got that gig because the show’s co-creator Michael Schur was told he had to meet with this strange, confounding, hilarious actress. After their meeting, he wrote April’s character to match his impression of Plaza. So there’s some similar DNA there, whether Plaza admits it or not.
“I just think that when people know me as that character, it’s really hard to get that out of their head,” she explains. “I don’t blame anyone for that, but I feel like I’ve proven that I’m more than that at this point.”
Actually, this past year has been a kind of professional puberty for Ms. Plaza (and I apologize for that metaphor). You can see it in both Ingrid Goes West and Legion, the X-Men spinoff starring Dan Stevens, in which she plays a mysterious, gender-nonconforming manifestation of one character who is secretly also another character…it’s hard to explain. The point is, it’s the kind of role we’ve never seen Plaza do, exactly, and she kills it.
The truth, though, isn’t that Plaza grew as an actor this year. Really, she just allowed us to see more of the person she has always been.
Question is, who is that?
3. The Person She Has Always Been
(a) Plaza was raised in Wilmington, Del. There are exactly two things the average person should know about “The First State”: (1) Former vice-president Joe Biden grew up in Delaware and (2) Delaware was the punchline in Wayne’s World, when Wayne and Garth were having fun with a green screen, pretending they were travelling to the places thrown up behind them. In front of a picture of New York, they adopted stereotypical Bronx accents and talked about Broadway and hailing taxis. In front of a postcard from Hawaii, they hula-danced and spouted nonsense sounds that seemed vaguely Hawaiian. “And do you remember the line about Delaware?” I ask Plaza, maybe a bit too giddily.
“Hi. I’m in Delaware,” she deadpans. I laugh, because it’s exactly right. “A lot of people say that back to me,” she continues. “This is the first time I got to say it to someone. Most people I meet tell me I’m the first person they have ever met from Delaware. It’s not hard to be the most famous person from Delaware.” And aside from Uncle Joe, she probably is—with all respect to Judge Reinhold, Valerie Bertinelli and Ryan Phillippe.
Now, is the fact that she’s from Delaware important? Maybe. The odds of making it in Hollywood are always daunting, but you could make the argument that they at least seem less daunting if you’re raised in Los Angeles or New York, where there are enough people working in the entertainment industry that it appears doable. The distance from Delaware to stardom is much longer.
(b) Aside from her roles in television, films and animated features, Plaza has tangible proof from her childhood of how much she wanted to be where she is now. “I was really obsessed with movies, with filmmaking, and I was constantly making these weird little short films in high school,” she says. “It became like my biggest hobby.”
“Is there any way to see these masterpieces?” I ask. “Yeah, I’m going to have a garage screening,” she replies. “I’m going to show my 16 millimetre film tomorrow at 10 p.m.” I tell her that that might be difficult, what with me being in Toronto and all. “Well, after the screening, I’m setting all the tapes on fire. So…”
But there is other evidence, too. Before making films, Plaza chose a more personal medium: audio drama. “I was very obsessed with acting. I think it actually started with my Talkboy,” she says, unsure if I would know what a Talkboy is, which, of course, I do, since I am a good millennial who is also familiar with the film Home Alone 2 and Kevin’s must-have tape recorder prop. “I found those cassettes the other day. I was doing some Andy Kaufman shit at a young age. I was constantly walking around with this voice recorder, interviewing people and just kind of narrating my life.”
Only performing wasn’t her only obsession growing up. Or, at least, it wasn’t the only activity that consumed her time. She was an active member of her local 4-H club, even though she lived in a city and didn’t raise cattle. “I was the cool city girl with a leather jacket,” she says. Cool but not aloof. She loved 4-H—learning how to sew, cook, survive and generally be an adult. The organization recently presented her with an award honouring the work she did for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (She is half Puerto Rican, incidentally.)
“I was very much like Tracy Flick in high school,” she explains. “I was very active, and I was always going for all of the student council positions and awards. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I was unstoppable. I just needed those extracurricular activities. Honestly, a lot of it had to do with college applications, too.”
She got into NYU, which might seem natural, especially if you’re looking at a list of all the other famous actors who came out of that school. It’s not strange to have someone from NYU make it big, but it did seem big to make it to NYU from Delaware.
4. The Truth About Aubrey Plaza
The truth, as far as I can tell, is that Plaza is a highly committed nerd. You see that commitment in Legion, which is just starting its second season (in all of her films, actually) and in the jokes she’ll play on reporters and talk-show hosts and at awards shows (like the time she awkwardly pretended to try to steal Will Ferrell’s MTV award).
One specific example: In what was kind of her breakout role, Plaza played a young standup comic and Seth Rogen’s love interest in Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Plaza had done lots of sketch comedy and improv at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, but she wasn’t a standup comedian. She knew she would have to perform believable standup, so she started doing it for real. She commits. And obviously that’s more than cool. “I’m definitely addicted to working,” she says. “I love to work. I can’t stop. You can’t make me stop.”