A master of the side-eye, Aubrey Plaza became, in her own words, “a poster child for irony” for playing such worldly, antiauthoritarian characters as Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate. Lately, though, she’s been getting opportunities to explore other aspects of her elastic and intense range. Plaza’s characters always radiate hyper-observant intelligence, but that can express itself in very different ways, from April’s sardonic ennui, to the uncanny omniscience of Legion’s Lenny, to the warped but tenacious ingenuity of Ingrid, the title character of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West.
In the film, Plaza plays a desperately lonely woman who interacts with other people almost exclusively through social media. After following “taste ambassador” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) on Instagram, Ingrid becomes so enamored of the life portrayed on Taylor’s feed that she moves to L.A., convinced that the two will become best friends in real life.
Talking about the film this week at the Crosby Street Hotel, Plaza was quiet and often a bit tentative, seeming as sincere as her early characters seemed snarky. She answered thoroughly and thoughtfully, whether talking about why costar O’Shea Jackson is a natural movie star, how doing TV talk shows is like improv, or how having a stroke at age 20 has informed her work.
Who do you think is more mentally unstable: Lenny or Ingrid?
I don’t think you can compare those characters. Lenny isn’t a human being, totally, so I don’t think she can be compared to a normal person. She’s a lot of different things at once. There’s a part of Lenny that I think is mentally disturbed but in a different way than Ingrid.
I think Lenny’s scarier, but Ingrid is creepier because she’s doing things almost all of us do but pushes it further than most people push things.
Some of the things she does are so hard to relate to, but she’s impossible not to empathize with. I totally blame you for that.
Thank you [laughs].
How did you find that character? You didn’t make her likeable, per se, yet you made her very empathize-ble.
I think I just tried to commit to what I thought her character was. Her behavior is questionable, but her motivations are so pure and come from a place of loneliness and wanting so badly to connect to someone. I think you can’t help but empathize with that, because it’s a human story that we all share: feeling misunderstood, feeling like you want to have a friend, or that you want to be like someone, or with someone. Those feelings are all relatable.
There’s a new study about social media making teens lonely and depressed.
Is that the one that was in The Atlantic?
Right. Do you think Ingrid got pushed more toward the edge of her depression and isolation because of social media, or is that who she would be in any case and Instagram just made it easier for her to be a stalker?
I think someone who has social problems, or borderline personality disorder, chemical imbalance, whatever you want to call it, having that person be confronted with a device that allows you to connect with people in that way can be really dangerous. I think most of us have self-control and we’re able to have more healthy relationships with our phones and with those apps because we’re able to cut ourselves off before it gets too crazy, but Instagram and social media can be really dangerous for someone who’s depressed and slightly delusional. Because all of it is happening in your mind. Instagram isn’t tangible. It’s an imagery that’s in your brain.
And it’s almost designed to encourage delusions, by making us exaggerate the glamorous parts of our lives and leave out the not so great parts.
And it feeds off that rat impulse that we have as humans, where we know that if we go on Instagram or we go on social media, we’re going to get that hit of, whatever. Serotonin?
Yeah, dopamine, when we get a like or whatever. We all know that feeling. With people that aren’t able to control themselves, or not aware of that, I think it can be really toxic. I think in the future we’ll look back to this day and we’ll find that we weren’t responsible enough with these technologies. It feels to me like there’s an awareness that’s building about the effects of social media. Articles like the one in The Atlantic are great, because regardless of whether it’s good or bad, awareness is the most important thing, I think, not to just be unconsciously on these platforms. The more people are in touch with how it makes them feel and why they’re doing it, the safer we’ll be in the long run. But it’s really hard to control, the internet.
And apps are designed to be addictive, like cigarettes.
I know! It’s addictive! I got off Twitter around the election. It was a New Year’s resolution moment to me, where I felt like, “This is just feeling negative.” Every time I went on Twitter at that time, in the fall, it made me feel bad.
Was it the politics?
Yeah, it was mostly the political stuff that was creeping me out. People can be so anonymous on there, and there’s no accountability. It’s just chaos. But what I found most disturbing was that, after I got off I wasn’t off, because Twitter makes it really hard for you to delete your account. You can deactivate your account, but it’ll still be there for 12 months after that, and in that 12 months you’re constantly getting emails and notifications from Twitter, saying, “Are you sure you don’t want to come back? Look at what these people are saying.” It’s really enticing, because you do feel left out. So it’s a really kind of fucked-up mind game.
O’Shea Jackson is a revelation in the film. He plays such a great boyfriend, so sweet, understanding, and easygoing. He was great in Straight Out of Compton in a very different part, and there’s such a tendency to typecast actors that it was nice to see him being given a chance to branch out, especially so early in his career. I read that you were the one who thought of him for the part. Was it hard to convince the producers to hire him?
It wasn’t hard to convince the director or the producers. But it was hard to convince O’Shea. The way he ended up in this movie is so insane. I briefly made eye contact with him backstage at an awards show. Because I had read the script that day, it was fresh in my mind. The character of Dan Pinto was the only character that I read in the script and felt like, “I don’t know, this character needs something more. There’s just something kind of missing here.” And I had a kind of wild feeling about O’Shea. I direct-messaged him on Twitter—ironically, using social media—and he ended up responding to me.
You thought you had sent him the script and he was interested in the part, but he’d never gotten it, right?
Right. I thought I had sent him the script, and then because he texted me, “Yo, what’s up? It’s Batman,” I assumed he had read the script and wanted to do it, and that was why we were meeting. He thought we were just hanging out. So when I said, “Are you going to do the movie?,” he had no idea what I was talking about. My follow-up question was, “Well then, why did you say you were Batman if you really don’t have any idea that this character is obsessed with Batman?,” and he was like, “Because I’m obsessed with Batman.” So it was this really, honestly, cosmically weird thing that happened. I was just, like, “Look, the dialogue doesn’t matter anymore. You’re the character, and I won’t do the movie without you. Now, for me, it’s all about you.” [laughs] So, it wasn’t about convincing the directors or the producers. It was more, like, he thought I was insane because I was meeting with him thinking I had emailed him and I hadn’t. So I had to convince him that I wasn’t crazy.