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Black Bear 3

Actor Aubrey Plaza on acting in a psychosexual thriller about acting

Plaza discusses her twisty, meta comedy-drama, her love of Korean arthouse legend Hong Sang-Soo (call her Hong!), and the COVID-era script she wants to bring to screen

Aubrey Plaza would like to be in a Hong Sang-Soo movie. “Someone tell him I’m available,” Plaza states over Zoom from LA, with ‘Evil Hag’ as her username. “I’m tech avail. I’m down, if he would have me.” Although the 36-year-old American actor gained fame for mainstream comedies such as Parks and RecreationFunny People, and Dirty Grandpa, her latest movie is Black Bear, an idiosyncratic, low-budget indie that doesn’t hide its indebtedness to South Korean arthouse cinema. “I watched another Hong Sang-Soo movie two nights ago, On the Beach at Night Alone. There’s definitely a connection. You could watch it several times and go, ‘The guy that lifts her up at the end wasn’t real, or that did happen’. It’s like dreams. You can’t remember what’s real or not.”

In the tradition of Hong Sang-Soo, Black Bear is a film about filmmaking. Or should that be two films about filmmaking? Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, Black Bear divides itself into two stories, both led by the same cast. In the prologue, Allison (Plaza) is an actor-turned-filmmaker at an isolated cabin, scratching away at a notebook. Cue the first chapter, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road”, in which the getaway is visited by a feuding couple, failed musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). The conversations start off cordial, then descend into all-out, furious screaming matches about feminism, personal failures, and religion. Not helping are the sexual sparks between Allison and Gabe, each flirtatious gesture executed like a chess move.

When tensions topple into violence, Black Bear suddenly snaps into a new chapter called “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House”. Allison remains at the cabin – then the camera pulls out to reveal she’s an actor on a film set. In this dimension, Gabe is a director and Allison’s romantic partner; to psychologically torture Allison, Gabe hints at an affair with her co-star, Blair. Same actors, no explanation; a storytelling trick unlocking the movie-deciphering part of your brain. I ask Plaza for permission to reveal this transformation in the article. “Even if you say what happens, I don’t think people could ever expect what they’re going to see.”

Both versions of Allison differ greatly from the oddball characters that made Plaza a household name. So too are the Allisons unrecognisable from Plaza’s deadpan talk show appearances. A 13-minute YouTube compilation from 2018 titled “Aubrey Plaza is really WEIRD and...AWKWARD. I love it!” has 17 million views. She’s learning these numbers because it’s my Zoom background. “17 million?! 13 minutes?! Ugh. How can someone be so weird and awkward for that long? Unbelievable.”

In the past, Plaza has spoken openly about her mental health, as well as suspicions that the stroke she suffered as a 20-year-old was related to stress. Does Black Blear comment on the anxiety that accompanies and perhaps fuels her creativity? “Absolutely,” she says. “The movie explores how valuable your suffering can be. At what cost do you make art? It’s a constant struggle because I have a lot of social and personal anxieties. Acting is a way for me to deal with that. It’s the nature of making art. It’s therapeutic. But at a certain point of your life, you have to prioritise and go, ‘Is it really worth it to be suffering? Is it necessary?’ I don’t think it is, but it’s something I get trapped in a lot, where I think, ‘It’s OK for me to self-destruct. It’ll be better for the movie’. But not better for my life.”

After acting with Plaza in Netflix’s Easy, Levine wrote the role of Allison specifically for his “weird and awkward” co-star. The first Allison utilises Plaza’s sharp, mischievous, snappy dialogue-delivering skills and inscrutable facial expressions; the second Allison presents a fragile, trembling figure evoking Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. “Larry and I have a strong familiarity with how complicated it can be to make a film with your partner intimately,” Plaza says, referring to her relationship with director Jeff Baena. “So in the second half, there’s something very close to home with that dynamic. In the first half? In some ways, the movie felt like a deconstruction of my persona. There were things about Allison that were inspired by discussions Larry and I had. So much so, there are actual lines of dialogue I said in real life that he put in the script.”

In a Reddit thread titled “I absolutely loved Black Bear, but can anyone clarify a few things for me?”, few share the same interpretation. Theories range from time-travel to both chapters being ideas brainstormed by Allison. I have two readings, neither I’ve found online. Firstly, like Possessor, which also featured Abbott, Black Bear reveals that everyday life involves meaningless roleplay; at any moment, we could quit our jobs, reinvent our personalities, or walk out on commitments, but the prospect is too daunting. “I think you’re kind of right. We’re all one slight reality away from another reality. It’s a subtle shift in perspective.”

“It’s a constant struggle because I have a lot of social and personal anxieties. Acting is a way for me to deal with that. It’s the nature of making art. It’s therapeutic” – Aubrey Plaza

My second interpretation is that we underestimate the emotional impact of dreams and movies. If you suffer a traumatic experience, then wake up and realise it was a dream, that ordeal still lingers in your bones. That applies to art, too. “I completely agree,” Plaza says. “This movie, more than most movies, was inspired by dreamlike imagery and the process of dreaming. For me, dreams affect me very much so. They linger in my day, they hurt my feelings, they make me angry. It’s really: how big of an imagination do some people have? I agree that movies are like dreams. They’re real to me.”

She continues: “The movie has a Jungian approach to dreams. When you’re dreaming, every aspect of your dream is another part of you. Every character is you. Every object is you. Every feeling is you. It’s all a representation of your ego and anxieties, and how they play out is your mind navigating those anxieties. I do think that’s what’s happening in the film. I would go so far as to call them nightmare anxieties come to life. They’re not dreams I would wake up from and feel good about. I’d wake up in a sweat and be like ugh.” She laughs and does a face that would make the YouTube compilation if it was being filmed.

In the second half, Allison repeatedly drinks on set to calm her nerves and morph into character. In a blistering film-within-a-film-within-a-film, Allison undergoes an emotional breakdown for the camera, but it appears to be real, the product of a manipulative director whose mind games have crushed and humiliated his lead performer. Plaza admits she’s felt similarly to Allison before. “I have a tendency to put myself in precarious situations, and maybe unsafe situations, for the love of the process and the film. But I’m learning that boundaries need to be set, and there’s a time and place for certain things. Some things aren’t worth it.”

Are industry protocols improving? “Slowly. People have a romanticised idea of filmmaking. For years, certain auteurs have abused their power, and caused suffering for their actors needlessly. I think it’s changing, and people are realising it’s not worth it. It doesn’t matter how good the movie is, it’s not worth making someone else suffer. I think the days are numbered for directors that approach filmmaking like that. I know that I don’t want to put up with that. I actually think it’s foolish, because when you make your actors feel safe, you get more out of them. They expose themselves more. The other stuff is just a representation of the director’s ego. It’s bullshit.”

So how did Plaza shoot Allison’s tearful, drunken breakdown, given that it’s so realistic it looks like her soul is attempting to leave her body? “I eat a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and…” She laughs. “I can only prepare so much. That’s why filmmaking is so exhilarating, because you only have a couple of chances, and then you move on. It’s like a sport. I think I respond well to pressure, because it allows me to let go of my anxieties and inhibitions. There were so many things about the production that were so chaotic and insane that they helped my performance, because it put me in that place.

“That situation felt as real as anything for me. I had moments in that movie that felt like I was transcending reality. Not to sound pretentious and actor-y, but I had moments where I felt confused about what was real or not. Looking back on it, it was really heartbreaking, and it was really hard, and maybe not the best for my mental health. But that’s what happened. It was helpful for the performance.”

“I had moments in that movie that felt like I was transcending reality. Not to sound pretentious and actor-y, but I had moments where I felt confused about what was real or not” – Aubrey Plaza

In one week in 2008, Plaza landed three acting gigs that would shape her career: Funny PeopleScott Pilgrim Vs the World, and Parks and Recreation (she played April Ludgate for 125 episodes). Other on-screen roles range from multiplex releases (Dirty Grandpa, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) to festival favourites (Ingrid Goes WestNed Rifle). However, she trained as a director at NYU and originally envisioned a career behind the camera.

So during COVID, Plaza wrote a screenplay which she plans to direct. “It was good to have that space to remember I’m a filmmaker, and that I want to get my own stories out there as well.” What details can she share? Preferably something juicy that would force Indiewire to link to my article? “There are no announcements to be made! But I will act in it. I’m not afraid of that. You know, me and Bradley Cooper, it’s just what we do. And people will be surprised to find out it’s a four-quadrant film. It’s not going to be some ‘weird and awkward Aubrey Plaza movie’. It’s going to be for everyone.” So it won’t make the “weird and awkward” compilation? “It probably will. I can’t help that.”

On the topic of Guy Ritchie’s Five Eyes, a spy movie she shot earlier this year with Jason Statham and Hugh Grant, Plaza is reluctant to reveal too much other than her place on the call sheet (number two, behind Statham) and that she’s playing a sort of “female James Bond”.

To compensate for the lack of scoops, Plaza thinks of other Indiewire-worthy nuggets she could drop. Any good audition stories? “I auditioned for Deadpool 2. I really thought I was going to get that one. It was a bad day for me. I was exhausted. Their loss. I really thought Ryan Reynolds and I would have a lot of chemistry together. I’m actually sure of it. It’s unfortunate they went in another direction. I’m happy for whoever got it – I didn’t watch it.” She could invite Reynolds to audition for her film, then select another actor? “I can’t wait to reject him. I should be so lucky. God, he’s so funny.”

Before we end, I feel compelled to bring up Greta Gerwig’s failed CBS sitcom. In 2014, Gerwig cowrote and starred in a pilot for a How I Met Your Mother spinoff called How I Met Your Dad; if the series had been picked up, she probably wouldn’t have had time to direct Lady Bird and Little Women. Would Plaza have become a Hong Sang-Soo-esque arthouse filmmaker if she hadn’t been cast in Parks and Recreation?

“Honestly, maybe. There’s still time. My life isn’t over, Nick. I’m not on my deathbed here. I still have time to be Hong Sang-Soo. That’s honestly what would make me the most happy. I don’t know what it is. I appreciate those kinds of movies so much, because they’re my favourite kinds of movies. But in a weird way, I have this instinct to make bigger, more commercial films. I grew up on blockbusters in the 80s and 90s. It was all these huge, tentpole movies. Even the romances were big, high-concept romances. They don’t make movies like that anymore. I have this desire to go big. Go big or go home.”

But didn’t she do Happiest Season last year? “Happiest Season is a studio romantic comedy. I mean, it’s a great film, and that kind of gay love story should’ve been in the mainstream years and years and years ago. It’s crazy it’s taken so long. But I’m talking even bigger than that. I’m talking about Romancing the Stone kind of romance movies. High-concept! I’m going to need a lot of money. I’m going to need a big budget, Nick. So tell Indiewire to start my crowdfund for my $30 million comedy.”

Black Bear is released on digital on April 23