Both startling and sultry, Aubrey Plaza has always stuck out. The eccentric actor offers an unexpected kinship for writer Brianna Zigler: from Ingrid Goes West to Parks & Recreation, Plaza celebrates the misplacement of an almost-person.
It was while watching Ingrid Goes West that I felt a pang in my chest. The lonely and obsessed stalker played by Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Thorburn, visits the house of her artificially acquired friends – Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), the object of Ingrid’s ill-begotten fixation, and her hack artist husband, Ezra O’Keefe (Wyatt Russell). The couple have welcomed Ingrid into their home and their lives, unaware of the unsavory way that she got there. Ingrid has dyed and styled her hair in a trendy, blonde, L.A.-appropriate quiff, and today it’s woven into a plait that lays against her collarbone. She’s wearing a pair of large, circle-lens sunglasses with mocha frames, and a sleeveless, floral jumpsuit. Her appearance evokes an idea that Ingrid has been desperate to get across: not only has she assimilated herself into a material facade of happiness and prosperity, but she has adopted the lifestyle of these people she’s surrounding herself with. It’s the idea that she is finally a part of something, no matter how underhandedly this “something” has been achieved.
Up until this day, Ingrid had been doing quite well at lying to Taylor and Ezra about who she is and how she came to be acquainted with them – as well as tricking the audience into believing that maybe she could keep up her charade. But it’s the arrival of Taylor’s brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen), who immediately senses Ingrid’s dishonesty, that makes Ingrid’s misplacement amongst these people become startlingly clear. Ingrid never belonged here but, suddenly, it’s so transparent just how much she sticks out. No matter how many doses of bleach she soaks her hair in, no matter how many chic hats or flowery sundresses she dons, Ingrid is not one of them. She never will be.
Watching her, I felt a real kinship with Ingrid. Tweaking yourself just so, to the point that there’s no way anyone could consider you apart from the people you’re surrounded by; and yet, that inescapable sense of not belonging, of being an outsider looking in at all times. It felt very overwhelming. I was unlike Ingrid in almost every way, but that experience of being the weirdo and thinking you’ve finally done your hair just right, you’ve finally worn just the right outfit, and that you’re finally the right shape of puzzle piece to fit yourself in place, was undeniably familiar. Because there’s still a little notch on your side, a little divot where one shouldn’t be. It’s mostly unnoticeable, and if you push hard enough, the piece might squeeze in – but it’ll never quite fit right in place.
I began to think about how Aubrey Plaza has always stuck out, and the roles that she’s chosen have proven just how fiercely she embraces this eccentricism. She’s gifted with a striking appearance, which is a combination of startling and sultry. At five-foot-six she is petite, but still undeniably lanky – hers is a slenderness that can just as easily look alien-like as it can feel seductive. And while her chocolate hair and olive skin evoke a traditional type of beauty, her protuberant brown eyes switch from flirtatious to deeply unnerving at a moment’s notice. She can play a shapeshifting demon poisoning the mind of a superhero, or a goofy, sexy party girl with the same amount of ease. But from her endearingly menacing April Ludgate in Parks & Recreation, to the quirky, sex-obsessed teen in The To-Do List, a lovestruck kidnapper in An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, and the girlfriend back from the grave in Life After Beth, it seems that Plaza, more often than not, rejects the stereotypical beauty she might otherwise embody in favour of the abnormal – in favour of the unconventionality that she can just as easily harness, which has an allure to it all on its own.
At the same time, sexiness isn’t really crucial to many of Plaza’s characters, nor is it the most noticeable thing that can be taken from her performances. Ingrid Thorburn is unlikeable and often unforgivable, despite sympathy drawn from her alienating mental instability, and nothing about her life and the situations she puts herself in have any sexiness to them whatsoever. Most of Ingrid Goes West is spent looking on, in a perpetual state of horror and pity, wondering when Ingrid will get it through her head that this isn’t how people are supposed to behave, let alone make friends. But can she even help it? This is what makes Ingrid so intriguing, and why she works as such a distinctive lead character. She speaks to the rest of Plaza’s unconventional women who can’t be pigeonholed, but who have transcended my own expectations of how female characters are supposed to act and be: ultra-feminine, conventionally attractive, and consistently likeable.
In Parks and Recreation, April Ludgate makes a point of causing discomfort wherever she goes, fomenting ominous threats or absurd, cynical proclamations, while her deadpan delivery and infamous death glare complement her random acts of impulsion and awkwardness. Lulu Danger, of the offbeat comedy An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, could be April Ludgate’s long-lost cousin from an alternate, absurdist dimension, minus the occasional feigned promise of death and destruction. In Legion, Lenny Busker, the friendly disguise used by powerful mutant Amahl Farouk (who lives like a parasite inside mutant David Haller’s mind) is a completely unhinged coalescing of genders into someone who is neither all female nor quite male (the part was written for a man, but Plaza was cast unexpectedly and wanted to keep the original dialogue). They exude a potent eroticism both in despite of and working in tangent with Lenny’s horror villain-like status.
Plaza’s characters are often so peculiar in their physicality and patterns of speech that they feel like they don’t belong to this world. Even when she’s playing something a little more toned down, she is still evocative of walking amongst another plane of existence. In the first year since Time’s Up and #MeToo, during which the film industry seemed to favour touting the ‘Strong Female Character’ and the ‘Complex Female Character’ as marketing schemes instead of showing tangible progress, Aubrey Plaza has been portraying weird, fascinating, flawed women that toy with gender norms and feminine expectations for the past decade.
I have found it hard – near impossible, actually – to relate to the portrayals I’ve seen of women my age on screen. Before Aubrey Plaza, very few fictionalized women proved to embody any similarities I felt attuned to, or even showed the kind of depth I could understand. I feel like the weirdo even when I’ve got my hair curled just perfectly, while my sleeveless chambray jumpsuit and black ribbed turtleneck sweater combo could’ve been ripped out of the pages of a Vogue magazine in my dreams. People around me can surely sense that I feel this way; that I’m feminine but not feminine enough, that maybe I’m pretty but maybe a little too masculine as well. Too childlike and boyish for women who have already embraced their own maturity, but not womanly enough for men to take me seriously as a sexual being.
Always perpetually out of place, Plaza’s characters revel in their own misplacement rather than dwell on it. But when it does, very occasionally, get under their skin, it allows me to feel a little less alone. There’s someone else out there who is burdened with this sense of detachment just like me – like an almost-person who’s still fighting to be seen as whole.
I don’t mean to try and insinuate that I’m “not like other girls.” Aubrey Plaza very much is, and she feels like proof that I am too.
Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs) is a freelance film writer based in the Philadelphia suburbs. She loves movies about sad boys and has words in Film School Rejects, Screen Queens, Vague Visages, Much Ado About Cinema, and more.