“I mean, I just coughed a feather up like five minutes ago,” said Aubrey Plaza.
That’s the price the actress had to pay for working on the FX’s series “Legion” in which her character rips open a pillow in a mad, choreographed dream sequence that all takes place in the subconscious of David Haller (Dan Stevens).
“I was so far gone and wrapped up in that character… that I just started knifing that pillow open, and the feathers just kind of exploded into my face and I inhaled a bunch of them…But I was coughing up feathers like an animal for a while, and it was kind of scary because I had a lot of them in my lung. It was very Looney Tunes.”
Inhaling feathers may not have been part of Plaza’s original childhood dream to be an actress after growing up on a diet of ‘80s and ‘90s television and films like “When Harry Met Sally.” But she soon discovered that her sensibility was far from the mainstream rom coms she had previously been exposed to.
“I was introduced to John Waters movies at a pretty early age, in middle school,” she said. “[’Serial Mom’] really changed a lot for me, as silly as it sounds. It was like someone with my exact sense of humor had made a movie just for me; that’s how I felt when I watched that movie for the first time. And then I watched it over and over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of it. Because I just couldn’t believe the sensibility. I realized like, ‘Wow there are people making these kind of movies and these are the kinds of things that I want to be in.’”
In high school, Plaza also worked at a video store called Classic Video just before everyone started switching from VHS to DVD. She recalled discovering Christopher Guest films during that time. “At an earlier age I was just exposed to these filmmakers that were making those kinds of independent films,” she said. “They were just blowing my mind at the time.”
This love of independent films has stayed with Plaza throughout her training with acting coach Drucie McDaniel, and later taking courses in New York in addition to training at UCB. Her onscreen credits go back to 2006, but she didn’t really break out until she played the deadpan and somewhat sinister April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation.” That gig lasted seven years.
“Everything I want to do is usually different from the last thing that I did. I never want to repeat anything,” she said. “Being on a television show for seven years was amazing, but during my hiatus periods I always tried to do as many independent films or other films as I could because I’m not satisfied just playing one character for that amount of time. So I’m constantly trying to find different roles that are different from the last.”
“Legion” gave her a role that was as far from the slouchy April Ludgate as possible. In fact, Plaza had plenty of variety in her character Lenny Busker, who is wildly different from one episode to the next. [Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Season 1 of “Legion.”]
“Legion” stars Dan Stevens as David Haller, a man with incredible psionic powers but is also schizophrenic. When we first meet him in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, Lenny is his fellow patient. Even though David escapes the hospital, he can’t outrun Lenny, who appears to him in memories, visions and as the embodiment of a malevolent force in his subconscious.
The role of Lenny was originally written as an older male character, but once series creator Noah Hawley met Plaza, he decided to offer her the role instead. The actress’ one stipulation? Don’t change one word of the dialogue to reflect the gender switch.
Once Plaza accepted the role, she began to try to get a picture of who Lenny was as far as performance and cites David Bowie as an inspiration. “I just had this imagery of Bowie’s cover of ‘The Man Who Sold the World, where he’s wearing a dress,” she said. “I didn’t want to play the character as a super-villain, you know? I wanted to create a character that was kind of fun and that had kind of rock star mentality, and I just thought Bowie was like the perfect kind of subject for me to focus on early on.
“There were just little things that I was just picking up on. Like initially, Lenny had a nickname, ‘Cornflakes,’ which I don’t think made it in the show,” she continued. “But her name was supposed to be Lenny ‘Cornflakes’ Busker, and I remember a story about Bowie that I heard, where there was one period of time where he was only existing on milk and [red peppers] … He was only eating like two things. For like months and months, or something insane. But, there was something about that where I think, ‘Well maybe Lenny got her “Cornflakes” nickname because she only lived on cornflakes and milk for like a year or something,’ you know? I was just kind of going down all these weird paths. That’s just the fun part when you’re creating a character, to kind of be inspired by other artists.”