Aubrey Plaza gives a go-for-broke performance in “Black Bear,” a galvanizing and serpentine drama about a weekend getaway that goes dangerously off the rails.
The film premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and Plaza’s work is a million miles removed from April Ludgate, the deadpan and apathetic intern from “Parks and Recreation” that served as the actress’ breakout role. Here, Plaza plays both sides of the coin, in the story of a couple who get obsessed with their overnight guest. Without revealing “Black Bear’s” killer twist, in one part of the film, Plaza is both seductive and poised, while in another section she is unbalanced and wracked with anxiety. It was, she admits, the greatest acting challenge of her career, one that was tailor made for her by writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine.
On the eve of “Black Bear’s” Sundance debut, Plaza spoke with Variety about the difficulties of filming this emotionally demanding part on a shoe-string budget, as well as her upcoming stint hosting the Independent Spirit Awards.
This film is intense. What interested you in the project?
It was probably one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. We were in Long Lake in the Adirondacks and the lines between reality and fiction were very blurred. We were shooting off the grid on this property that was a 25-minute drive from the main road. So there was no cell service, no backup generators. We had a complete blackout when we first got to the location. And waiting for me in my dressing room was a miner’s light for my head in case of emergencies and a bear bell. That was comforting.
That sounds like roughing it. Are you outdoorsy?
I’m not. I would not consider myself outdoorsy. I mean, I love nature, but that wasn’t what this was. We weren’t staying in some charming cabin. We were working three weeks in those conditions. But I felt like I needed to do it, because the movie was written for me. It was very personal. Both Larry [Michael Levine] and myself are in these relationships with filmmakers, so we know how that can alter things on set. [Editor’s note: Plaza is dating writer and director Jeff Baena, with whom she made ‘The Little Hours.’]
Is that scary to be presented with something that someone wrote for you? It sounds like a lot of pressure. What if it sucks?
There is pressure, but with this project more than any other project, I decided to do it right after I first read it. When Larry gave it to me, I couldn’t believe that he believed I could pull it off. It was this challenging exercise in terms of performance — mentally, emotionally, I knew I was diving off the deep end. But that appealed to me. There were notes in the script that literally said, “[my character] Allison gives the most amazing performance that anyone has ever seen.” It was like, “Thanks Larry!” But it was flattering. I said, “If I’m going to do this, I need Christopher Abbott.”
Did you know Christopher Abbott before co-starring with him in “Black Bear”?
No. I’d seen him in “James White,” and I just felt like he’d be a good scene partner. I knew I couldn’t put myself in a position of being in a movie that had a low budget and was shot in challenging conditions, without that. It’s funny, because I’m a producer on the film, and I decided to help get Chris. So I wrote him this letter asking him to do the project, and then I sort of opted to let the universe decide if I should send it to him. So I slept on it. And the next day, I got a call from Larry who said, “Thank you. I don’t know what you said, but it worked. Christopher signed on.” I didn’t do a goddamn thing. The universe did it. So there you go.
This film deals a lot with duality. Your character is self-confident in one part and suffering from an emotional meltdown in another. Were there films you looked to for inspiration?
Definitely Almodovar. But performance wise, the movies that Chris Abbott and I talked about were Cassavetes. My work is kind of a homage to Gena Rowlands in “Woman Under the Influence.” What’s so interesting is while we were shooting this film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” came out. I went to see it some small theater in the Adirondacks and there’s that scene where Leonardo DiCaprio is doing the performance in the cowboy show, and he’s losing his grip. That was what I was trying to do. Pull off this challenging part with all these layers.
At a time when all these awards shows are going hostless, you’re hosting the Independent Spirit Awards. Why are awards show hosts an endangered species?
Can you believe it’s just Ricky Gervais and me this awards season. It’s the end of the road. It’s burning down to the ground. But I want to convince the world there’s a reason to have a host. It’s my second time, and I was surprised last year when they asked me. But it’s genuinely something that I care about doing and it taps into the 12-year-old, community theater, let’s-put-on-a-show part of my brain. It’s exhilarating.
I like awards show hosts. Why are they going away?
It’s so depressing. I treat being hosts in an old-school, Billy Crystal way. They let the audience know they’re in good hands and they say what everyone at home is thinking. If you don’t have that, you may as well just read a list of winners online. What’s the point of watching?
Is it true that you’re obsessed with “Judy”?
It is. I saw it twice in theaters and Renée Zellweger blew me away. It seems so scary to inhabit a person like that and tap into their psyche and she just commits to it. She went to another level. And the movie was so tasteful. It could have been all about the drugs and the death, but it was about the joy she had in performing and her relationship with the audience. If Renée doesn’t win the Oscar, I’m going to storm out of my own living room.
Grumpy Cat died last year, and you were the voice of Grumpy Cat in “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas.” What was your reaction to his death.
Well, first of all, Grumpy Cat was a girl. Her real name was Tardar Sauce. She is dead. She had UTIs and disabilities, but we don’t need to get into all that. But the important thing is Grumpy Cat will live on. There are many projects in development that will carry on the Grumpy Cat legacy. I wrote a script for a Halloween movie with Grumpy Cat. I’d just finished the script and messaged Grumpy’s manager and said, “check your inbox.” Then I got the tragic news that Grumpy was dead. But there are ways to keep Grumpy in the movie.
Will that involve CGI?
I’m more into puppets, of the Jim Henson variety. CGI is creepy.