Even though she’s widely considered to be the Queen of Dry Wit, sitting in the hotel room where we’re about to talk about her latest film Ingrid Goes West, there’s an unexpected innocence to Aubrey Plaza that makes her seem more like Sandy from Grease before the makeover. She’s wearing a dark baseball jacket over a lovely plaid dress in blush tones, and rather than welcoming me with a raised eyebrow, she smiles. I reach out my hand to her to say hello and apologize because it’s cold, she raises the eyebrow and explains, “I’m sorry too because my hand is warm.” And suddenly Sandy has given path to the sardonic Rizzo. Since her breakthrough in Parks & Recreation, Plaza has become one of the funniest people in the industry. Period. Few actors can accomplish so much using so little and making it seem so effortless, but Plaza can make your tummy ache from laughter with a simple look, or a deadpan retort.
Those who are only used to seeing her play cynical sidekicks might be surprised by the depth she brings to the title character in Ingrid Goes West, a troubled woman who unable to cope with the death of her mother, becomes fixated with an Instagram influencer (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who she manipulates into becoming her friend. Rather than going the Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction route, Plaza is more like Anne Baxter in All About Eve, her determination always overshadowing her inadequacy. While the film is hilarious, Plaza also breaks your heart when you least expect her to, which makes for a promising future as one can imagine her in parts where humor wouldn’t be the main draw. Talking to Plaza is easy, she’s friendly, warm and upon noticing my Sex and the City t-shirt throws me a curveball by asking me something before I sit down for our interview: “So are you a Carrie?”
Yeah, that’s who I pretend I am at least. How about you?
Hmm… I don’t know, probably Cynthia Nixon’s character.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s who I identify with the most.
You first realized you wanted to become an actor when you saw Bette Midler in For the Boys. So, what did you think of Hello, Dolly! ?
She was amazing. I love her so much, I took my mom for Mother’s Day. When Bette Midler’s onstage I am so there, I will see anything she’s in.
Were there any moments when you wanted to jump onstage and be like, “I wanna be in the show with you!”?
Yeah! Actually I met her one time, she was doing I’ll Eat You Last on Broadway and I got to go backstage. It was so crazy. I took my mom that time too. We’re both obsessed with her. It was so funny because I was so excited to talk to her that I think she got scared of us. She thought we were freaks or stalkers. She came out, I was like “Hi”, and my mom was like “We’re stalking you,” it was a joke but I think Bette Midler was like [frowns] “oh, you are?” and then Lily Tomlin walked in. The two of them, big business style were talking and catching up, while my mom and I just stood against the wall thinking we couldn’t compete with Lily Tomlin. So we ran away.
So did going from being a fan to now being someone who has fans help you prepare to play Ingrid?
Yeah, I think so. I definitely relate to being obsessed with someone. I was also really obsessed with Judy Garland growing up.
Did the Judy love transform into a Liza obsession as well?
Do you still have a VHS player?
I think so, yeah. I don’t use it anymore though, but I was obsessed with my VHS tapes. I used to watch them over and over again.
I keep hearing people call Ingrid “unhinged”, “lunatic” and other harsh adjectives. I can see where they’re coming from but it made me think that if she was a guy he would probably be a romantic hero doing quirky things to win the girl.
Right, I never thought of that. If Ingrid was a guy, yeah, that is really interesting.
It bothers me because I liked the character a lot. Did you feel the need to understand and like her in order to play her?
Yes, I needed to understand how someone that has that kind of chemical imbalance or mental illness behaves. I read a lot about borderline personality disorder and things in that area. I also just related to the feeling of being insecure and misunderstood. Wanting to connect to someone and wanting a friend reminded me of middle school. I tapped into that a lot too.
Another aspect of social media is how people who don’t have any special skills or talents become famous. You have been working all your life to become an actor. How do you feel about Instagram and YouTube celebrities who become famous just because?
I would have to say they know how to do something. They know how to do that, and I don’t know how to do that. I can’t even take an interesting picture. My Instagram is so lame. I’m always shocked by people that happen to have Instagram accounts with so many followers. It must be a skill. I think it’s a skill to gain popularity that way, but it’s not a skill that’s interesting for me as an artist. There are artists who do it also and that’s cool, but as an actor it helps me build awareness for my projects, which I really like — you have access to people who like you and care about your work — but as an artist it doesn’t connect with me.
We’re back to repeating high school structures: the popular people and all the theatre kids and the nerds.
I know, it’s a total popularity contest on a crazy, big global level.
Do you ever get used to people crying and shouting when they see you?
No one cries when they see me. It’s so not normal. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I didn’t grow up like that. Maybe it’s normal for people who grew up around that, but I’m from Delaware. I didn’t grow up around famous people. It’s always shocking for me when people recognize me out in the world. It’s like I forgot I was on TV.
Are you good at watching your projects on TV or at the movies?
No, I don’t like watching things that I’m in. I’ve had enough time away from Parks & Recreation that now I do enjoy watching it. It feels like it was so long ago and it’s comforting to me because those are my good friends. Sometimes I watch the show to feel like I’m close to Chris or Amy.
One of my favorite things you’ve done was the RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars special.
Thank you. That was so fun.
You looked so excited to be there!
Has being a celebrity and a famous actor helped you achieve dreams of meeting icons you had when you were a kid?
I still can’t believe that I’m friends with Amy Poehler or Molly Shannon. There’s people I grew up watching who were my heroes, especially comedians; the fact that now I get to work with them blows my mind. The fact that I get asked to be on Conan’s show, who I think is the best show host ever. Every time I’m a guest on his show I have an out of body experience. I can’t believe I’m here: What does this mean? What does this all mean?
You have two producing credits this year. Has that helped you find characters like Ingrid and avoid being cast in April Ludgate-like roles all the time?
Being a producer is so helpful. As an actor you don’t have a lot of control over the end product of a film, so being a producer allowed me to be involved in making the movie that I saw in my head when I read the script. I think it’s rare for people to take risks on actors. When you do a part like April Ludgate for so long, it’s ingrained in people’s minds and they don’t offer you different parts. It happens sometimes, like when Noah Hawley offered me Legion which was a very big risk and I’m so grateful for. Being a producer is another way to find interesting roles you wouldn’t get otherwise, and to just fucking make it happen yourself. At the end of the day it’s your career and it’s time for me to take more control and say, “No, I’m not going to play the sarcastic best friend anymore.” I’m gonna show people what I can really do and I have so much more to offer than that.
You also produced The Little Hours. Did Pasolini’s Decameron serve as a reference at all?
I watched it, although I would say the director didn’t want us to imitate anything else we’d seen. He wanted it to be its own thing, but just for educational, research purposes I watched it again and also listened to The Decameron on tape. I think Alison Brie and Dave Franco also watched the Pasolini version to get you in that mindset of 14th century clergy life.
If you had the opportunity to have a do over with Bette Midler and work with her what would you want to do?
Oh my God. I have the best idea for me and Bette. It’s a movie called Like Mother Like Donna, where she plays my mom. I play her adopted daughter she has never met because she gave me up for adoption when I was a baby, and then I come back and try to find out who my biological mom is. But because she’s like this unapproachable, rich bitch that works in a country club I dress up as an old lady and go in disguise as a character named Donna and become friends with her. That’s my pitch for Bette Midler.
I hope you get to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” then.
Yes, but I did that in The To Do List already. My character was obsessed with Beaches so at the end of the movie we sing that.
I don’t remember that part. I’ll have to rewatch it.
Yes, go watch all my movies.
- Bette Midler On If She’d Like To Do Movies: (bootlegbetty.com)
- Bette Midler On Why She Really Turned To Television: (bootlegbetty.com)
- Lily Tomlin on Big Business: (bootlegbetty.com)
- On working with Lily Tomlin (bootlegbetty.com)
- BetteBack August 16, 1991: Bruce Vilanch Goes It Alone (bootlegbetty.com)