Aubrey Plaza on ‘Legion’, Noah Hawley’s Brilliance, and Always Being Ambitious

     March 15, 2017

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Aubrey Plaza can’t talk about Legion. Not really. Tight-lipped, spoiler-phobic actors are pretty par for the course with any Marvel property, but this is something different. Plaza can’t tell me anything, not about her character and not about the show, which is pretty funny since that’s exactly what we sat down to discuss at a Pasadena hotel a few weeks ago, during the winter Television Critics Association press tour. But considering the nature of Legion‘s singular narrative approach and stylistic leanings, it’s easy to understand why.

Noah Hawley‘s spin on the X-Men universe is so far removed from the conventional realm of storytelling and so free of logical boundaries, literally anything is on the table. The lines between reality and illusion, if they exist at all, are blurry, overlapped, and imperceivable. As much as Legion is a show about mutants, it’s doubly so a story about mental illness. Lapsing reality, blackouts, tangled memories — confusion is a part of the series narrative fabric. Everything is malleable, including the characters and perhaps none more-so than “Lenny,” Plaza’s mysterious, erratic companion to Dan Stevens‘ ultra-powerful mutant, David Haller.

All Plaza can tell me is that nothing is as it seems. “My character has an insane journey that I think will surprise everyone,” she says. When I tell Plaza that Lenny reminds me of a batshit crazy Jiminy Cricket, she offers up a little smirk and says “I love that.” But to keep the series secrets she can’t say anymore. “I don’t know. It could be like that,” she says, and that’s the end of it.

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Image via FX

Lenny and the moments in her relationship with David could be happening at any time or place, or maybe not at all. Maybe just in his head. That goes for everything on the show, which is five episodes in and has remained utterly perplexing every step of the way. Indeed, the end of ‘Chapter Five’ threatened to rewrite the book entirely, and introduced a new incarnation of Lenny, or is she the Angriest Boy in the World? Or is she a therapist overseeing treatment of our would-be mutants? Or is she something else entirely?

Plaza didn’t get it after a first read either and she was drawn to that challenging nature in Hawley’s writing.

“I had to read them each probably about five times over and over again before I understood at all what was happening. That, for me, is refreshing. Most things that I see on TV are predictable and some kind of version of something that you’ve already seen before. This just feels genuinely authentic and new and artistic.”

And she didn’t know the intensely stylized visual approach was coming either, meaning she never approached all the versions of Lenny with high-style ideas or tonal intentions, just as the characters on the page.

“That stuff, the stylization of the show, is something that I didn’t even really know much about until I got on set and was wearing the clothes and had seen the sets. I didn’t realize how stylized it was going to be, so I didn’t even have that it my mind.”

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Image via Legion

If Legion‘s visual splendor and “fuck the rule book” narrative bravado works, it’s because it’s in the hands of creator Noah Hawley, the man mad enough to turn the Coen Brothers classic Fargo into a TV show and talented enough to make it not only work, but one of the best show’s on TV. I met Hawley on the set of Fargo‘s second season, where he was humble and eloquent, and very very obviously rather a genius. When I ask about working with a brilliant showrunner like Hawley, Plaza — who doesn’t seem like the type to throw around effusive praise — was inclined to agree with that descriptor.

“I have to be honest. Before I signed onto the show, I was a little bit skeptical. When there’s ever a person that everyone calls a genius and says, ‘This guy is the real deal. This guy is this and that’, I always have the attitude of, ‘Well, everybody calm down. I’m not so sure about him.’ After working with him, I’m totally on board. I will be one of those people that will say that now. I do think he is a brilliant man. I love his writing. I love his approach to making art. I love his philosophy on, even the little things, just the types of people that you want on set and the kinds of environment, the kind of work environment that you want. He’s just a … For me, he has all of his priorities in the right place. That’s rare to come by.”

On a broader level, Legion is a unique project for Plaza, who has made a career out of playing offbeat, strident but lovable comedic character with films like The To-Do List, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and most famously, her six-year run on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. As Lenny, Plaza gets to dig into the darker side that seems to peek through her comedic roles, an unhinged and often menacing presence in David’s mind, Plaza is definitely not playing the comedic relief. The role is a refreshing change of pace, but Plaza wasn’t necessarily on the hunt for dramatic work.

“I just enjoy working on good material and working with people that I respect and scripts that I love. I don’t really think about it in terms of comedy or drama so much, but I can say that I am really loving being in a show that’s more of a drama. Really, just because I was on a comedy for so long. It’s nice to switch it up.”

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Image via FX

Does she prefer to have a steady TV gig or have the freedom to pursue more passion projects? Well, it’s complicated.

“It’s like the grass is always greener, you know. I loved being on that show so much, but I do love the freedom. I love being available for things that will pop up that are interesting. Yeah, it’s like you always want the thing that you don’t have. You want the stability when you don’t have it. When you have it, you feel trapped. It’s always a constant back and forth, human nature type thing.”

For Plaza, that dissatisfaction may just be a part of driving ambition, which she has in spades. Plaza has big plans for the future, even though she might not be the kind of person to plan them out in detail. But the drive is always there.

“I don’t have a timeline, per se, but I definitely am never satisfied. I have that sneaky feeling in my head that I may never be satisfied. I may never feel like I’m at the place where I want to be or where I thought I would be. I think that that’s just some kind of typical actor bullshit. I think I don’t have a plan, but there are things that I really want to do. Right now, it’s just work with brilliant directors. If I can do that in the next couple years, I think I’ll feel pretty good, but probably not totally because there will be something else that I’ll want.”

Looking forward, this year will bring the release of Matt Spicer‘s Ingrid Goes West, which stars Plaza as a disturbed young woman who decides to move across the country in order befriend her favorite social media influencer. The comedy debuted at Sundance where it was picked up by Neon for a 2017 release. It’s hard to know how long Plaza will stick around on a series like Legion. Is Lenny part of a bigger bad to be defeated? Is she in it for the long haul as a figure in David’s memories and visions? With the realities of the show constantly shifting, it’s hard to say, but with the series just picked up for a second season, we can hope to see more of her unpredictable on-screen swagger as David Haller story unfolds.

Legion airs Wednesday nights on FX.

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