When filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine gave the script for “Black Bear” to Aubrey Plaza, it included one hell of a direction in its final act: the leading lady “breaks down and gives the best performance that anyone has ever seen ever.” No pressure.
“I had this moment before we started shooting, where I just felt like, ‘This is going to be really hard and fucked up,'” Plaza said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “But there was something in me that felt like I needed to dive off the deep end. If the movie had been about anything else, I don’t know if I would have been able to put myself through that. It was too much for me to pass up. I just had to do it.”
While she’s best known for charmingly sardonic roles like April Ludgate in NBC’s beloved series “Parks and Recreation” to supporting turns in mainstream films like “Dirty Grandpa” and “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” Plaza has spent the last decade racking up some enviable indie cred. She’s even served as the two-time host of the Indie Spirit Awards, gamely running a live show while also poking fun at the industry she loves.
And then there’s the annual Sundance debut of whatever wild new film she’s got on deck. Sundance routinely changes the career trajectory of rising stars, but Plaza has used the annual festival as the homebase for nothing less than near-constant reinvention. In 2012, she starred alongside Mark Duplass in Colin Trevorrow’s pre-“Star Wars” charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which announced Plaza as a leading lady to watch. Two years later, she returned as the eponymous star of Jeff Baena’s witty zombie rom-com “Life After Beth.” In 2017, she starred alongside Elizabeth Olsen in Matt Spicer’s whipsmart social media satire “Ingrid Goes West,” which she also produced.
For 2020, Plaza went even bigger. While there has always been a darkness to Plaza’s humor — all that sarcasm comes from somewhere — her starring role in Levine’s film is unquestionably her most serious to date. It’s also one of her best.
The unclassifiable dramedy is part jittery psychosexual thriller, part nifty deconstruction of the current culture, part razor-sharp send-up of the world of indie filmmaking. It’s hard to explain, but start here: Plaza plays a filmmaker who sets out on a weekend retreat in a remote mountain cabin, where she can’t seem to avoid its owners, flirty Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). By the end of its first act, all that flips on its head, and Levine’s film reveals itself to be a film about filmmaking, complete with some pretty bonkers breakdowns, care of its leading lady.
Plaza first worked with filmmaker-actor Levine on the set of Netflix’s comedy series “Easy,” in which the duo were cast as a married couple. The actress was familiar with his work, particularly his wife Sophia Takal’s psychological thriller “Always Shine,” which Levine wrote and Plaza noted as a recent favorite. Working together as actors, however, gave Plaza different insight into his methodology.
“I very quickly realized how serious Larry was about the process of acting and the performance and the story,” Plaza said. “It was this really light comedic material, but Larry would be like, ‘So I was thinking we should do some intimacy exercises on the lawn before our next scene,’ and the crew was looking at us like, ‘What the fuck are these guys doing?’ And I’m just so down for that.”
A few months after working together on “Easy,” Levine handed Plaza the script with a disclaimer: “I wrote this for you and it’s very intense.” It got just a touch more intimidating from there.
“He didn’t really pitch it to me. He just gave me the script and said, ‘I want you to do this,'” Plaza recalled. “I thought it was one of the most inventive scripts I’d ever read, and I was also terrified of it because there were things in the script that I was like, ‘I don’t know why on earth you ever think I could pull this off.'”
Plaza compared the twisted, clever feature to films like “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” — the kind of films that “made her want to be in movies.” Despite (or because of) her initial fears, she jumped right in. “Black Bear” filmed in the late summer of 2019, with the cast and crew decamping to a secluded location in the Adirondack Mountains in Long Lake, New York.
“We were shooting nights for three weeks straight, so we were all losing our fucking minds,” she said. “We were shooting on a location that was essentially off the grid. We had no cell service, very bad internet. We had power outages almost every hour on the hour. We would have total blackouts. I made a t-shirt for the crew as a wrap gift that said ‘Blackout Bear,’ because we were just dealing with blackouts the whole time. It was just totally insane and a really, really hard shoot physically and emotionally, but we survived.”
The shoot schedule was just 19 days, with a 20th day added late in the process to reshoot some early scenes. That only added to, as Plaza bluntly put it, the “mindfuck” atmosphere that fed her performance. “The lines of reality were very blurry,” she said. “Not only did I have to do [some scenes] so many times the first time, I then had to go back and do it again, and again, and again, and again, and it was excruciating.”
Plaza keenly recalled a day in which reality — already tenuous in the context of the film — went ahead and fully collapsed as they shot a heart-stopping sequence in the film’s final act. “There was a moment when I fall on the floor, and Chris is holding me like a baby, and I’m just a mess. I just remember feeling like that transcended reality for me. I just didn’t know what was real or not,” she said. “Lindsay Burdge, who plays the makeup artist in the second half of the film and who is an incredible actress, I genuinely forgot that she wasn’t my makeup artist. She was coming up to me, touching up my face, and I just believed that she was my makeup artist.”
She paused for a minute. “I don’t know how to explain it. It felt very real to me.”
“Black Bear” didn’t offer many safety nets, but Plaza figured out one: She also produced the film, her third feature credit (she previously pulled double duty on “Ingrid Goes West”). “I don’t feel like I need to be producing every movie that I’m in, but with this film, I knew that I was going to be putting myself in such a vulnerable position that I needed to have some level of control over that, or else I just don’t think I could have put myself through that,” Plaza said. “I needed to know that my opinion mattered and that I was going to be able to dictate some of the decisions in terms of the cast and who we were surrounding ourselves with, because I just knew it was going to be really hard.”
Things were significantly lighter on the set of Plaza’s other big 2020 feature: Clea DuVall’s charming queer romantic comedy “Happiest Season,” which hit Hulu just last week and quickly became the streamer’s most-watched original film. While the film centers on the relationship between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and the closeted Harper (Mackenzie Davis), Plaza pops up as the scene-stealing Riley, who was Harper’s first big love.
“It’s always weird to come into a set after people have already been shooting for weeks, because you feel like you’re this outsider, but I was just so excited to work with Kristen,” she said. “Very quickly, Kristen and I found some common ground. We were just constantly talking about movies together in the nerdiest way and I just was so delighted by that. It didn’t feel like work.”
On social media, many fans of “Happiest Season” made it clear they thought Riley and Abby should have ended up together. It’s hard to deny her chemistry with Stewart, which Plaza said is rooted in something very real.
“I’m such an admirer of her work and her choices,” Plaza said. “I think she’s so incredibly talented and I think she has such good taste. I felt like we understood each other on a level of, feeling like people project certain things onto us, but that they’re not real and they’re really just based on characters that we’ve played. I get her in that way. I see all sides of her. I think she’s not what people think she is, and I think that maybe I feel that way about myself too.”
The actress said she has been “weirdly productive during the pandemic,” and found herself finally able to focus on her own writing, something she’s wanted to do for years. “The pace has slowed down for me and helped me kind of prioritize my life,” she said. “A huge part of the pandemic experience has been reconnecting with people and realizing like, ‘Oh yeah, these are my people, and these are the things that are important to me, and these are the things that I want to focus on.'”
She’s developing a pair of animated series that have been in the offing for a few years, plus crafting a brand-new comedy special. Then there’s the yet-to-be-announced Showtime series for which she wrote an episode that she will also direct. That feeds into the next big thing coming Plaza’s way: Directing her own feature, with a script she wrote during the pandemic.
“I’ve always wanted to direct. It’s been something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Plaza said. “I’ve had that kind of thing where it’s like you’re too precious about your work, ‘I can’t direct anything unless it’s the best movie that’s ever been made.’ I’m such a snob when it comes to movies. I think I haven’t allowed myself the time to get it together, because it just means too much to me. I could never do it unless I really, really do it.” Such is the Plaza way.
Momentum Pictures releases “Black Bear” in select theaters and on digital platforms on Friday, December 4. “Happiest Season” is now streaming on Hulu.