By Mary Sollosi
November 17, 2020 at 03:14 PM EST
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Marooned in a remote cabin in the Adirondacks, Aubrey Plaza faced a unique challenge: “Just to maintain drunkenness, for days on end.” As she recalls over Zoom from her home in L.A., “not just a little drunk, but really, really drunk.”

She’s talking work, not play. The actress stars in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, an indie drama of startling intensity, as a filmmaker-actress staying in a lake house, struggling to create (and hitting the booze) as she becomes embroiled in a toxic love triangle. When the brainy, increasingly surreal film premiered at Sundance in January, Plaza, 36, earned raves for her dynamic performance, which stretched her beyond anything she’d done before.

“For me, this was an opportunity to try out a different approach to acting — a more abstract exploration,” says the star, who broke out as a master of deadpan on Parks and Recreation. It paid off; per her costar Christopher Abbott, “She’s doing some Gena Rowlands-type s--- in this.”

Credit: Momentum Pictures

Plaza and Levine were already friends (and had previously acted together in an episode of Joe Swanberg’s Easy) when the filmmaker showed her the dense, complex script for Black Bear, which he’d written with her in mind. The highly personal project — which Plaza lovingly describes as “two nightmares interwoven into one mega-nightmare” — immediately resonated with the actress.

“It wasn’t something that I didn’t want to have my hands all over,” she says. “There was a level of involvement that I needed for this project in particular, because I knew it was going to be a really challenging piece of material.” So she signed on to produce as well as star, having previously done the same on past festival titles The Little Hours and Ingrid Goes West. She credits the latter as having “really fired me up about the possibilities of moviemaking as a producer,” especially on the audacious, DIY-style films where she’s found a creative home.

Credit: Momentum Pictures

“Independent films are the most inspiring kinds of movies, for me, because they're just about exploring the human condition, always. It’s not about money and it's not about pandering. There’s something very pure about it to me,” Plaza says. She first got her indie education when she had a job in a video store, where she fell in love with the offbeat titles from filmmakers like John Waters and Christopher Guest. Years later, she would celebrate the form by hosting the Independent Spirit Awards in 2019 and 2020 — a gig previously held by Waters himself, who also assisted Plaza in her first opening monologue.

“It’s allowed me, very selfishly, to reach out and collaborate with some of my heroes,” she says of the hosting spot. “And also, I think I do have an inclination to kind of, like, put on a show!” (The 2020 ceremony’s musical homage to Judy Garland, whom Plaza has been “obsessed with since I was 11 years old,” was her idea.) “I know it’s not something that people would think for me, because I know that my persona, or whatever, has become kind of intertwined with characters that seem to not give a s--- about anything, but it’s really the opposite for me.”

She gives many, many s---s about making movies that speak to her and playing characters that plumb the depths of human experience. She wants to take on a wide variety of roles ("and I know everyone says that," she acknowledges) and dismisses the common observation that she always plays the same type. “I always want to go, ‘Well, I’m me. So I’m always gonna look like me and sound like me.’ Unless I really get to do some Gary Oldman s---, which I will do. Just wait until I’m in my 50s, I'm really gonna hit my prime. I'll be unrecognizable!”

Credit: Momentum Pictures

You’ll still recognize her, but you need only wait until December to see another side of Plaza — or a few of them, depending on how you interpret the riddles of Black Bear — as she delves into what she calls “an exploration of someone’s unconscious mind, tapping into their creative source.” As her artist character’s own (fictional) indie film production lends its way to chaos in the (real) movie’s second act, “the lines of reality were very blurred for me.” But even having gone down that rabbit hole on this trippy project, “I’ll never get over the feeling of being on an independent film set,” Plaza maintains. “I can’t get enough of it.”

Sadly, in disease-ridden 2020 she’s hardly gotten any of it; she laments having had to postpone shooting a movie with Mike White in Finland this summer. (Her next release, Hulu’s holiday rom-com Happiest Season, just barely wrapped production right before quarantine began.) Plaza has no doubt, however, that the scrappy indies she loves will make a comeback. “On these huge studio productions, everyone relies on someone else to get the job done. But with independent films, you’re the one that has to do it,” she says, recalling one night on Black Bear’s grueling shoot when the caterer dropped out, and one of the producers swooped in to make salads for the crew. “That culture of filmmaking is perfect for the situation we’re in now.” Post-pandemic, “I think independent films are going to thrive.” Judging by her track record, that means Plaza will, too.

Black Bear hits theaters and VOD Dec. 4. Trailer courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

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