Aubrey Plaza: the art of making people squirm
The queen of cringe comedy on making people squirm, and her new film, Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza: ‘People think that I’m always sarcastic. But I’m actually just being real.’
Comedy is a complicated science that has been pondered by everyone from Plato to Freud, without anyone, to date, pinpointing what exactly it requires to make a person laugh. Cringe comedy is even trickier still. Painfully Funny: Cringe Comedy, Benign Masochism, and Not-So-Benign Violations, a 2018 paper by Marc Hye-Knudsen, postulates that contemporary cringe comedies such as The Office and The Inbetweeners “...differ from traditional embarrassment humour by being explicitly aimed at evoking not just the positive emotion of amusement but also the decidedly negative emotion of vicarious embarrassment (ie ‘cringe’) in their audiences.”
Nobody embodies this theory quite like Aubrey Plaza. From her early awkward TV appearances as “the worst talk show guest ever” and her 2013 attempt to wrestle Will Ferrell’s award from his hands at the MTV Movie Awards, Plaza has worked and honed cringe to hilarious effect. That’s especially true of the films she has produced and starred in. In Ingrid Goes West, she stalks Elizabeth Olsen’s Instagram influencer to eye-wateringly embarrassing effect; in the Decameron-inspired, squirm-making Little Hours, she plays a secretly sadistic medieval nun competing with other novices to seduce a young gardener posing as a deaf-mute.
“I don’t think I consciously seek out scripts that make people really uncomfortable,” laughs Plaza. “But I think maybe I do. I’m interested in really complicated behaviours that are just not okay. And those feelings of making someone squirm or feel uncomfortable, for better or worse, you feel more alive. There’s nothing more relatable than things that people want to avoid most. There’s something gratifying about putting myself in those vulnerable, humiliating positions and situations on camera. It’s a way of dealing with my own fears.”
Cringe lurks in every scene of Black Bear, a new genre-defying comedy in which icy filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) descends on an artist’s retreat run by the inappropriately forward Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his heavily pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). As the evening wears on, prepare to watch through your fingers as marital tensions flare, too much alcohol is consumed, and bad choices are opted for. The wild second half of the film pulls the rug from beneath the viewer, with self-reflexive re-casting and some clothes swapping. Imagine Mulholland Drive played for laughs. And yes, there really is a bear.
It was, says Plaza, “a mindf*** experience”, complicated by her friendship with writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine and his wife, Sophia Takal. “It was a very intense first read,” says Plaza. “The movie was inspired by a lot of personal things that Larry [Michael Levine] and I have discussed. There are lines in there that are things that I have said. The line about how I come off to people as being hard to read, and say, ‘I don’t think I am hard to read; I think that everyone else is projecting.’ That’s me. And in some ways, it was Larry’s deconstruction of me. It was just a very personal read. And also scary. A lot of the movie is too close for comfort. I remember reading and thinking: ‘Oh God, I’m gonna do this movie and I know I’m going to do it but I’m going to suck.’ My love for making movies and the script meant it was just too much to pass up. For my own mental health and wellbeing, I was going to say yes. But I knew it would be a challenge to my mental health and wellbeing.”
The film was shot in the Adirondack Mountains in Long Lake, New York, a pretty spot prone to blackouts and infrequent internet. Add to that a stage direction in the final sequence that requires the leading lady to “...break[s] down and give[s] the best performance that anyone has ever seen ever”. (Happy to report that Plaza acquits herself with aplomb and a career-best turn.)
“More than any movie, this movie completely pummelled me,” she says. “At the end of the process, I was just this broken-down person. It was excruciating. Just to have the stamina to stay in that physical state for so long. There were a lot of things that added to that exhaustion. The circumstances of the shooting. The isolated location. We were shooting nights for three weeks and sleeping during the day and that was for the first half of the film when I was doing a lot of heavy lifting. And doing a performance on top of her performance on top of the performance. At some point, I became this creepy, weird animal. All of my inhibitions were gone. I was just in survival mode.”
Plaza was born in Wilmington, Delaware, to Bernadette, a lawyer, and David Plaza, a financial advisor. Her mother is Irish, her father is Puerto Rican, and she describes her childhood as “very Catholic” and “very Irish”.
“I’ve done the 23andMe [DNA test] thing and I’m half Irish and a little bit French,” she says. “It’s a long story so I’ll give you the short version. My mom was adopted by an Irish couple that was very Irish and still had family there. I’m not blood-related to them but I was raised by them. And then my grandfather, who was also Irish, was also adopted. We don’t know anything about where he came from. So I don’t know if I have actual family in Ireland. I probably do. I don’t know where they are. I’ve always wanted to do those shows where you go back and find your roots .
“I was raised very Irish. So much so that I competed in Irish dance competitions and I went to feiseanna. I was a skinny half Puerto Rican kid thrown in with the children that had beautiful curly hair. I had a scary teacher named Veronica McAleer from the McAleer Institute of Dance. She was hardcore. I was not good and I did not stick at it but those were formative experiences.”
Her family, she notes, are all funny people with “big personalities”. She was partly inspired towards the performing arts by her Uncle Pat – from her father’s side of the family – who ran a salsa dancing studio in Philadelphia and made short films. Another aunt gave her a part-time job in a video store where young Aubrey discovered filmmakers like Christopher Guest and John Waters and was immediately hooked. She has subsequently befriended America’s Pope of Trash. “We got to know each other through the Independent Spirit Awards,” she explains. “I keep asking him to make a movie but he wants like a bajillionaire dollars. Maybe I can produce something for him. But I just don’t have that kind of cash. Oh John, please make something. Please make something with me in it.”
After graduating from the Tisch School of Performing Arts in New York, Plaza began her career as an intern and briefly wandered around convention centres in a Noddy costume. (There exists a photo of Plaza’s Noddy standing beside Donald Trump.) After performing improv and sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – the alma mater of Amy Poehler and Adam McKay – she appeared in the 2007 web series The Jeannie Tate Show and starred in the first episode of “Terrible Decisions with Ben Schwartz” on Funny or Die. She wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
“The beginnings of my professional career were crazy,” she says. “I was really heavily involved in the improv comedy theatre scene in New York. I was doing live shows and then I ended up being cast in a Judd Apatow called Funny People. So I went from having literally no credits to starring in a $100 million studio movie. And then everything happened so fast for me, I didn’t even realise it was happening. It was like whiplash. I got cast in Parks and Recreation at the same time. I never thought I was going to be on a TV show. For the first couple of seasons of Parks and Rec, it was like I’d started in a new office job and was hanging out with my new friends. I didn’t even realise I was on TV. I didn’t have a plan. I still don’t. I feel like I’m trying to do something. I don’t know what it is, though.”
Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate was written for Plaza after a casting director told the show’s co-creator Michael Schur that she had met “the weirdest girl” and that he should make her part of the sitcom. The deadpan local government clerk April allowed Plaza to turn the eye roll into high art. She was, consequently, an obvious – and likely the only –- choice to voice internet sensation Grumpy Cat in Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. “People think that I’m always sarcastic,” she says. “But I’m actually just being real.”
She has several big-budget movies on her CV, including Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Monsters University and Dirty Grandpa, but continues to gravitate towards the independent sector, where she has worked with Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley and Clea DuVall. She has just spent three months in Turkey shooting Guy Ritchie’s Five Eyes, a spy caper co-starring Jason Statham, Cary Elwes and Hugh Grant.
“It was the most British set ever,” she says. “I mean, Josh Hartnett is in it and he’s American but he’s been living in Britain for so long he doesn’t count anymore. Even the greetings were British. Every morning, sweet Paul – who is the second AD – asked: ‘Are you all right?’ And I was, like ‘Yeah, I’m fine? Why are you asking me that?’ But that’s just the way they say ‘hello’. In British.”
Plaza has been in a relationship with writer-director (and frequent collaborator) Jeff Baena since 2011 but she has, nevertheless, amassed a sizeable LGBTQ following. Not least because she has played the lesbian Krav Maga instructor pursuing Natasha Lyonne in Addicted to Fresno, Marisa Tomei’s butch partner in She Said, She Said, and an ex-girlfriend who threatens to come between Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in Happiest Season. Plaza had hoped that her character would prise Stewart away but – to the dismay of many of the film’s fans – it was not to be.
“Kristen’s got really good taste in movies and that was something we bonded over on Happiest Season,” says Plaza. “She showed me Morvern Callar, which I hadn’t seen before, and now it’s one of my favourite movies ever. She just makes the coolest choices. She is someone I admire because she got famous at a very young age but she’s done really cool stuff with that fame. She finds amazing directors and scripts. I hope I can be Kristen when I grow up.”
Black Bear is on digital download from April 23