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Interview: Aubrey Plaza on Ingrid Goes West, Social Media, Legion, and More

Among other things, Plaza spoke to us about how having a stroke at age 20 has informed her work.

Interview: Aubrey Plaza on Ingrid Goes West, Social Media, Legion, and More
Photo: Neon

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.

Totally.

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?

Dopamine?

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.

Once he’d read the script, what did he think of the part?

He was really excited about it. It wasn’t an obvious part for him, and as an actor, when somebody says, “Here, why don’t you do something that’s totally different”—that’s a great thing. To be honest, I didn’t know that Straight Outta Compton was the only movie that he had ever done. I thought he’d been acting for a while. So when he showed up on set on Ingrid, I was, like, “Oh my God! You’ve only been in one movie! You have so much to learn! I’m going to teach you everything.” [laughs] But he didn’t need that, because he’s just a movie star. He can’t help it. He’s so charming and charismatic. He lights up a room.

You got typecast a lot early in your career, didn’t you?

I think it’s because of the way I was kind of rocketed into Hollywood. All at once I had three parts that were totally similar, with Parks and Recreation, Funny People, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Especially with Parks and Recreation, it was just kind of solidified into people’s minds that I was this disaffected, sarcastic person, and that was all I could do.

You’ve gotten out of that lately.

Well, I’m trying. I’m trying.

But it’s not something you can do on your own. Someone has to give you a chance. Was it Noah Hawley who did that for you?

I’ve done different kinds of parts, but I think Noah took the biggest risk on me. Especially because the part of Lenny [in Legion] was originally for a man, and he opened it up for me. And the fact that I didn’t even audition. And it was such a wild part, that he would trust me to pull it off. I have no idea why.

You did a lot of improv early in your career, at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Whenever you’re doing interviews on TV I feel like you’re using those skills. Your TV interviews are so entertaining to me, and I suspect to a lot of other people as well. I came across a video on YouTube where someone had cut together highlights from a bunch of your TV interviews.

God. What a nightmare. You know, it’s funny. I was somewhere, Chicago or something, and I was with someone who recognized me, and he kept going, “What do I know you from? What do I know you from?” I kept going, “I don’t know. It was probably Parks and Rec,” and then he went: “No! It was from Letterman!” What? You know me from a talk show? That’s bizarre to me. But it’s kind of a performance. I’m so not comfortable in that situation. I was so uncomfortable on Fallon. I try to be myself, but I can’t. It’s so unnatural.

But you don’t come off as uncomfortable to me. You come off as funny, taking control of the situation by playing with the weirdness of the situation. But it works best when you’re with a host who can meet you on the same level. You seemed to have a really good rapport with Letterman.

I know. I loved him.

He seemed to really get you and know how to play off you in interviews.

Yeah. I felt like we had a real connection. He got a kick out of it or something. I try to have genuine, real, authentic moments in those situations, and it’s really hard because they’re so pre-planned, as you know, and it just goes against every instinct in my body to tell a story in the same way that I told it an hour earlier. It goes against improv training, honestly. I think it’s just ingrained into my head to never do the same thing twice. Even if it sucks or you fall flat on your face, it’s better than if you’re trying to imitate yourself or do something that you’ve done before.

I’m very interested in your stroke because my mother had a massive stroke that gave her the kind of aphasia you experienced. She could understand everything that was said to her, but she couldn’t say what she wanted to say in response. She said words—a lot of words, after speech therapy—but they weren’t the words she wanted to say.

That’s exactly what happened to me!

When that happened to you, did you understand the world just as you always had and only your words didn’t work, or was your experience of the world different too?

I understood what was happening. There were certain things that were confusing to me. One crazy thing that happened was, when I was in the ER, I went to try to use the telephone to call my parents and I couldn’t figure out how the phone worked. There were certain things that I was confused by, but I was aware that I was confused about them, which was the weirdest part. I realized how many levels of your mind there are, because it’s like I was watching myself and I was aware that I couldn’t talk. I understood what people were saying to me and I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say it.

Did you know the words were coming out wrong as you said them?

Yes.

How frustrating!

I remember they kept asking me how old I was and I kept saying 16. I could say some words, but they weren’t the right words and I knew they weren’t the right words, so it was really frustrating. You feel like you’re trapped.

I’m sorry about your mom.

Thanks. She would work so hard to try to get something out, and the best we could do was that, sometimes after hours of trying, I would wind up with some very general idea of what she was saying, and she would kind of shrug or something to let me know that I was in the ballpark and then give up.

It was crazy when I was in that situation. You would think it would be easy to communicate nonverbally, what you need or what you want, and it’s way harder than you think it is. That was what was so shocking to me. I would be, like, “I just want to say that I need a tissue” or something, and I would try to act it out and no one would understand what I was saying.

Did you ever draw on that experience when you were acting?

I think the biggest thing that has affected me from that experience was the PTSD of it all, because I healed. I’m talking. I was really young, so I think I bounced back really fast. But ever since then I developed really bad anxiety, because any time I would feel a weird feeling in my arm or something would feel slightly off, I would immediately think, “I’m going to have a stroke again and I’m going to die.” Acting is kind of therapy for me. Not everyone treats it like that, but for me, it’s an opportunity to work out things in my own life or in my own past, through using other characters and other situations. That anxiety has helped with some of my parts, because it’s this thing that I have to work through, so it gives me something to work on.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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