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Aubrey Plaza digs deep on ‘Black Bear,’ a complicated blending, shifting of narratives

Actress Aubrey Plaza
Shooting the psychologically tormenting “Black Bear” “was very taxing on my body,” says Aubrey Plaza. “But I made it out alive. Ready to go again.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

What do you call the most demanding role of your career so far, one that evokes some of your traumatic experiences in a script you characterize as “two nightmares inside a mega nightmare,” for a fraught, micro-budget indie you’re also producing?

Aubrey Plaza calls it “a labor of love.”

“This performance was so complex; there were so many things I had to keep tracking through the shoot. And the subject matter is dark territory. In some ways, it’s a story of emotional abuse,” says the producer-star of “Black Bear.” “Physically, too, it was one of the most demanding things I’ve done, because my character was inebriated for a good portion of the film. Just to get to that place every day for 16 hours a day, it was very taxing on my body.

“But I made it out alive. Ready to go again.”

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“Black Bear” isn’t easy to define, in part because of an experimental narrative that defies logic. The movie, about the making of a movie, is in two parts. The same actors (Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon) play roles with the same names in the same remote location in each part, but the characters are possibly completely different, in completely different relationships, in situations that either have nothing to do with each other, as if this were an alternate universe, or may take place in the same timeline, removed by several years. Confused? It’s all left open to interpretation, but Plaza does acknowledge those and other possibilities.

The other component that complicates interpretation is the film’s genre blending. The first part feels like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but through a horror lens, and the second, the love-hate child of “Living in Oblivion” and “The Stunt Man.” “Black Bear” goes from the savagery of domestic emotional warfare to the circus of error and pressure that is an independent-film set, with a director brutalizing an actress’ psyche in the name of art.

“I’ve never been emotionally manipulated and abused like Gabe [Abbott] does to Allison [Plaza’s character]. But I’ve worked in situations that have gotten complicated and messy. I think Larry has, too,” Plaza says of herself and writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. “I think this is an extreme version of things that have happened to me and to him.”

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Plaza and Levine met socially among filmmakers associated with Mumblecore and bonded over similar experiences in the independent film world — as well as romantic relationships with filmmakers. Soon after, he sprang “Black Bear” on her.

“I had no idea he was even writing it. He just called me a couple of months after we had spent some time together: ‘I wrote this for you; what do you think?’ I was blown away by the nuance of the scenes. It reminded me of ‘Scenes From a Marriage,’ which is one of my favorite films.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Well, Larry, I think you wrote a play, and I’m not really sure how this is a film.’ We argued about that a little bit, then I came around. It’s almost a deconstruction of independent filmmaking, so it’s interesting to put it in that medium. So I had a lot of thoughts about it.”

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Then there was the standard Levine set for Plaza.

“In that climactic performance scene in Part II, he described Allison as giving ‘the best performance that anyone had ever seen,’ ” she says, chuckling. “‘OK, Larry.... That’s a lot of pressure. I don’t know that I can do the best performance that anyone’s ever seen, but thank you so much for believing in me.’ ”

That’s a bit of a cliff dive for an actress who has crafted a public persona of being too cool for school, especially as April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation”: not caring too deeply or too much. But here, Plaza shows her hand by taking on so demanding a role and production.

“I definitely care about this one,” she admits with a laugh. “We knew it was going to be challenging, financially, but it proved to be that and more. It was a real artistic labor of love. Larry had multiple meltdowns. The movie almost fell apart a bunch of times. Every step of the way, it was a battle.”

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Plaza actively encouraged the film’s trampling of genre boundaries. The first part plays like the text of a domestic drama directed as a horror film. The horror, though, is internal; it’s what the characters are experiencing emotionally, not a slasher in the woods. The slashers are each other, metaphorically.

“Without sharing too much from my personal life, I knew if I decided to do this movie, it was going to be really painful. I have worked over the years with a process of using the things that have happened in my real life, the struggles I’m going through ... using it as a cathartic process,” says Plaza.

“I don’t know if I’d ever do something like ‘Black Bear’ again, but it was the thing I needed at that time.”


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