Aubrey Plaza finds it hard to describe her character in the TV superhero drama Legion. Is she alive or dead? Good or evil? Human or mutant? Real or a figment of the lead character, mutant David Haller’s imagination? “That’s a really, really good question,” says Plaza, before saying that Lenny Busker began as a human woman, then became trapped in a dimension of Haller’s mind, and has now been stranded by the evil Shadow King on the “astral plane”. It’s “a total mindfuck”, says Plaza. “It’s mentally and physically exhausting to not exist as a human. At the end of the day I would just feel like nothing, just this rag doll that’s been thrown around.”
Legion’s strangeness might be stifling, but the 33-year-old has long specialised in disconcerting kooks. She is best known for playing April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation, a sardonic and contrarian member of the low-level local government department who spends her days spouting morbid soundbites and making people feel uncomfortable. It was a part written especially for her after a casting director told the show’s co-creator Michael Schur that she had met “the weirdest girl” and he should work her into the sitcom.
Soon, it would become obvious to everyone that Plaza’s strangeness wasn’t confined to the screen. In 2013, for reasons she would later refuse to explain, she stormed the stage at the MTV Movie awards and attempted to wrestle Will Ferrell’s award from his hands. On YouTube, people began making compilations of her eye-wateringly awkward chatshow appearances, characterised by eerily deadpan jokes and a thousand-yard stare. Plaza’s oddball shtick has been convincing enough to earn her some high-profile gigs: over the past decade she’s brought her singular sensibility to a swath of comedies, from Judd Apatow’s Funny People to the frankly alarming Robert De Niro vehicle Dirty Grandpa.
Last year, however, Plaza took her eccentric persona to new dramatic heights in the comedy-drama Ingrid Goes West, which she also produced. As Ingrid, a lost and lonely young woman who obsesses over and eventually infiltrates the life of an Instagram influencer, Plaza was both peculiarly amusing and hauntingly sad.
Ingrid Goes West is a brilliant distillation of the compulsion and deceit hardwired into platforms like Instagram; for Plaza, it was a message that really hit home. “In Ingrid, you have someone who already has enough trouble having normal healthy relationships, then you give them a device that lets them play out their most toxic impulses,” she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “And I think on a smaller scale that’s what’s happening with everyone on social media.”
Plaza briefly deleted her Twitter account in 2016, signing off with the message: “Dear Twitter it’s been fun but I’ve realized you are wrong for me and maybe the world.” She explains that she has “such a hard time” with social media. “Most of the time it just makes me feel bad. I know the feeling of being scared not to engage with social media because you feel like ‘I’m going to lose these connections and lose this awareness of myself’, but it’s all bullshit. I haven’t been on Facebook in over 10 years. It’s changed nothing in my life, I don’t think about it at all.”
Though it’s adapted from a Marvel comic, Legion, which returns for its second series this week, certainly isn’t your average superhero fare. With Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley at the helm, it’s set in a retro-futurist 1960s universe, and spends less time on deafening fight scenes and more on goofy dance routines.
Another thing that differentiates Legion from the rest of the Marvel universe is its depiction of mental illness. Haller, played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, and Plaza’s character Busker originally meet in Clockworks psychiatric hospital, where the former has received a schizophrenia diagnosis as a result of the “voices” he is able to hear. Once Haller is rescued, however, he is told that those voices are not symptoms but telepathic powers.
In a world where television shows from Mr Robot to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are tackling mental health with increasing sensitivity, Legion’s equation of mental illness and superheroism has divided critics, with some praising Legion’s detailed depiction of the condition, and others criticising the show for using schizophrenia as a flimsy way to court thrills.
Busker begins (and, in some senses, ends) her life in a psychiatric ward, so I’m interested to hear Plaza’s take on the issue. Yet while she acknowledges her character had “addiction problems”, Plaza sounds unclear about Lenny’s precise ailment, claiming “it wasn’t something that was ever labelled”. For that reason, she says, she didn’t do much research into the subject of mental illness in preparation for the role. Instead, she stresses the way the show mines horror from the disorientating nature of mental distress. “What is real, what is not real – it’s the overall question,” says Plaza. “Going mad is one of the scariest ideas for me. To not trust your own mind is a really frightening idea.”
Legion is indeed frightening. A sense of nameless horror pervades every scene, as the grotesque monsters that plague Haller’s memories shift in and out of focus (“I have some friends who can’t watch it because they’re so disturbed by it,” says Plaza). Lenny was initially written to be played by a middle-aged man, with Plaza insisting all the original dialogue remained intact, meaning Lenny ends up both crass and subtly androgynous.
It’s something that becomes especially apparent when Lenny is viewed in the context of the show’s other major female character Syd, a wide-eyed, girlish mutant who begins a romantic relationship with Haller. I ask Plaza how it feels to play a character whose gender seems so ambiguous. “I love it,” she says. “There’s a fluidity to Lenny and I just think it’s more interesting playing a character that’s not so identifiable. It’s really fun to decide how someone like that moves and looks – it’s allowed me to do whatever I want.”
Sporting a curly bob and a selection of suits and dungarees, Plaza spends most of Legion physically unrecognisable – swaggering and manspreading, as well as cajoling and threatening Haller with a blokey air. But as time goes on and the Shadow King becomes more desperate, Lenny uses intimidation tactics that feel sexually loaded and sinister. “I think it’s really interesting when you have a character like that pitted against someone like David Haller,” says Plaza. “That dynamic was always really interesting to me because I feel like Lenny has a sexual energy to her, but it’s not always a feminine energy, it’s more kind of masculine.”
Despite being possessed by the embodiment of evil, throughout all of this Lenny also remains Haller’s close pal from the psychiatric hospital, and Plaza interprets the original characters’ relationship as sexual too. “At times it feels like they’re just friends and at times it feels like there’s some kind of attraction there,” she says.
Plaza’s next project is unsettling in a different sense. She stars in An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, a film by Jim Hoskings, whose gross-out debut The Greasy Strangler proved to be one of the more curious films of 2016. Plaza describes it as a “quadrangle love story between four freaks”, and the film, which also features her Legion co-star Jemaine Clement, has already disturbed critics on the festival circuit (the Hollywood Reporter called it “strenuously weird”). It’s another eccentric addition to her CV, but Plaza still feels as if she doesn’t get enough odd scripts.
“I like them strange,” she says. “I want more of them. I’ve always been drawn to weird movies, I loved John Waters and Christopher Guest growing up, and I’m always looking for stories you just can’t believe someone would think up.” Considering a dimension-hopping, mutant-baiting creature wasn’t enough to sate Plaza’s appetite for strange stories, you suspect that where weirdness is concerned, the astral plane’s not quite the limit.