From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Aubrey Plaza, whose Ingrid Goes West is out right now. Get your tickets here.
For seven seasons, Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan delivery of apathetic intern April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation sold the character so well that the line between actress and character distorted to the point that many assumed Plaza wasn’t acting at all. It probably didn’t help that within the same week of landing the iconic role, Plaza also landed a breakout role in Judd Apatow’s Funny People as well as a small part in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Each part contributed to launching Plaza’s career, but also highlighted the awkward humor that became her trademark. The irony of it, though, is that while April Ludgate hated people and wanted to not do things, Aubrey Plaza wants to do all the things. Plaza’s fearlessness to dive into the deep end began long before her transformative turn as April Ludgate and culminated in her pulling double-duty on two indie darlings that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. She’s not slowing down, either.
The discovery of community theater at an early age moved Plaza to pursue acting. She attended NYU and studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yet it wasn’t college that drastically changed her approach to life, but a debilitating stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed and with expressive aphasia at the age of 20. Unable to talk or communicate, despite understanding what was happening around her, made for a terrifying experience that undoubtedly caused a shift in perspective. Her youth allowed her to regain full health and she pushed forward.
Once Plaza broke into Hollywood, she didn’t stop. Challenging herself again and again, she continued to pursue roles that were unlike the characters she’d played previously. Her relationship with long-time beau writer/director Jeff Baena steered toward a natural collaboration between the pair, including his directorial debut Life After Beth, a zombie comedy in which Plaza plays the eponymous Beth. Plaza also appeared in his follow up film, Joshy. That collaboration organically evolved for his third feature, The Little Hours, landing Plaza her first feature producer credit.
Plaza plays foul-mouthed nun Fernanda in this Middle Ages set comedy. Based on a novella from the 14th century book The Decameron, the script pretty much existed solely within Baena’s vision for the film. Meaning that Plaza, along with the rest of the cast, improvised everything. The mental acuity required for improvisation over the entire shoot is impressive, but Plaza’s role in the film expanded far beyond what was on screen. She was involved in every stage of the film’s creation, from pre-production to post-production, and her existing relationships factored into the casting process. Even the film’s title is an imprint of Plaza’s touch; originally titled Nunz, Plaza’s extensive research for the project inspired her to rename the film after a convent’s daily prayer services. She even arranged all of the chapel services depicted in the film.
Upon returning from shooting The Little Hours in Tuscany, Italy, Plaza jumped right into her next project, the dark dramedy Ingrid Goes West. Written and directed by newcomer Matt Spicer, there’s not a single scene in the entire film that lacks Plaza on screen as the titular Ingrid. Her turn as the unhinged stalker that forces her way into the life of Instagram star Taylor Sloane shows a tremendous growth gained by experience. The blackest of comedies, Ingrid is both awkward and heartbreaking. Plaza avoids the pitfall of creating what could’ve been a sociopathic caricature and instead builds a fleshed out, layered human full of flaws and heart in equal measure.
Shooting 14-16 hour days on an independent feature that rests largely on Plaza’s shoulders is an exhaustive job, but Plaza’s clearly an overachiever. Plaza pushed Spicer farther than he thought he could in terms of production and is accountable for pulling the cast together. Without her, perhaps Elizabeth Olsen would have been more reluctant to take on the superficial Taylor Sloane. More importantly, O’Shea Jackson wouldn’t have signed on as the Batman loving Dan Pinto. Jackson’s affable charm offers an undercurrent of sweetness in the dark, and his chemistry with Plaza is vital to Ingrid’s arc. There’s no denying that Spicer is a talented new voice on the rise, but Ingrid Goes West would have been a very different film without Plaza’s guidance and partnership.
What Plaza’s work on The Little Hours and Ingrid Goes West has demonstrated is that she has an appetite for learning and a passion for collaboration. She’s consistently utilizing all of her experience to propel herself forward. She’s not interested in keeping all of the experience, knowledge, and connections within the confines of her acting either, though she’s become magnetic in that area of her career as well.