The world may know Aubrey Plaza as the charmingly apathetic April Ludgate from the beloved series Parks and Recreation, but now that the show has ended, we’re about to see a whole new side of her. Having appeared in a number of independent films over the past five years, Plaza’s finest on screen performance yet comes in Hal Hartley’s intelligent and sexy new satire, Ned Rifle. As the third and final chapter of the iconic American independent director’s “Henry Fool Trilogy,” the film focuses on Ned Rifle, a devout young man on a mission to kill his father.
Now eighteen and free from witness protection, on Ned’s quest to avenge the man who ruined his the life of his mother (played brilliantly by Parker Posey) he meets Susan (Plaza), an obsessive graduate student who hitches herself along for the ride. Clad in tattered mini dresses, smeared lipstick, thigh highs, and wobbly stilettos, Plaza feels perfectly at home in Hartley’s world—one rife with taut, deadpan dialogue, great physical energy, and sincerity that shines through its arched exteriors.
Ned Rifle is currently having its theatrical run at IFC Center this week, as well as the first ever Hartley retrospective happening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. So yesterday we hopped on the phone with Plaza to chat about the transition from improvisational comedy to Hartley’s precise style, entering the cast as an outsider, and bring Susan to life through her unique wardrobe.
How did you meet Hal and become a part of the film? Were you previous a fan of his work?
Yeah, I was a fan of Hal’s, and I’d seen Henry Fool in college. I went to NYU Film School, so I saw it then, but had not seen all of his movies. I’d seen Henry Fool and The Unbelievable Truth, which I love so much, and then Trust. It was actually a pretty fast process. My agent got wind that he was doing a Kickstarter campaign and thought it might be something that I was into. So he sent Hal a movie that I was in called Safety Not Guaranteed and, because of that, Hal thought that maybe I would be right for Susan. Then we had a really great phone call where I just said I would love to do it and he said, well I would love for you to do it, so then we just did it.
When I spoke to him earlier this week he mentioned that you reached out to Parker for advice before shooting started.
I talked to her when I got to New York, and she was so kind to meet me for coffee and let me pick her brain a little bit about working with Hal and what it’s like, because I was a little intimidated. She’s so generous and encouraging, and she told me what it was like to shoot with him and really prepared me for it. She also reminded me that I need to know every single word and not forget any lines. It was a nice welcome to the world of Hal Hartley.
What exactly were you intimidated by?
I just wasn’t sure what his process was. I’ve been in a very improvised world in the past couple years, so being so specific with dialogue was something that was a new challenge for me, which I really loved. Recently I’ve worked with a lot of first time film directors, so I was a little intimated to work with someone who has made so many movies—but that was also one of the reasons why I was so excited to work with him.
How was the experience then once you got on set? I’m sure the very precise way he works must be a challenge but also really fun and rewarding as an actor.
He just has a really clear vision of how scenes go down. Parker and Martin Donovan explained it to me by likening his scene directing to dance choreography. He knows what your movements should be and then it’s your job to make sense of it all and put the subtext behind why you’re, like, walking across the room at a certain time or whatever. So it was definitely a collaboration. He loves actors and he loves hearing what actors have to say also, so it was a good balance working with someone who was very specific and knew what they wanted and someone that’s also hearing you out.
Did you look to other female Hartley actors for inspiration, like Parker, Adrienne Shelley, Elina Löwensohn, or did you want to make Susan entirely your own?
I didn’t use anyone, I just worked on the character. It’s all on the page, so I tired to make Susan like a real person.
Hal said that you contributed a lot to the way Susan looked and the specificity of her wardrobe. Can you tell me about your interpretation of her and how you wanted to bring her to life aesthetically?
I worked with a costume designer and we really did a casual fitting in the apartment I was staying in. It’s really fun to come up with what a character wears—especially when you have a character that’s basically homeless and has such a strong agenda of finding this person and seducing them. So for me it was really fun to come up with what this person would wear, and I do think that Susan, she had this kind of seductive agenda with everyone really because that’s all she has to work with. That was my thinking of it.
This girl is trying to find a needle in a haystack in New York City and she’s got to get information on people, so how’s she going to do that? She’s got no money and no resources, and the only thing she’s really got going for her is her body and her mind. So I just kind of tried to use that as an information. I like to make really specific choices that help me get into character, so I thought one kind of runner would be having her always in these thigh high stockings because there’s something kind of off about it and it doesn’t totally make sense.
Susan running around in giant stilettos was inherently amusing, especially when she’s not supposed to be super graceful.
Totally, I loved that. The shoes were more Hal’s idea. He had a very specific idea of my shoe wear, and it all helps. It is kind of a funny images to see this girl wobbling on heels don the street trying to go after these men.
How was getting to work in such charged scenes with Thomas Jay Ryan?
It was the best. I love working with him so much. It was so bizarre to interact with him in character when he was playing Henry Fool because I’m familiar with the movie and the characters. So it was a little trippy to be in a movie with him. But he’s such a seasoned theater actor, and I learned a lot from working with him. He’s so patient and so thoughtful.
As a fan of the movie that must be a strange experience to suddenly be inhabiting this world that you’ve watch on screen, and one where everyone else has already been a part of for so long.
It’s weird. It was scary at first because you just hope that you’re going to fit in and you’re going to do the material justice, especially working with someone like Hal you just want so badly for him to be pleased. Of course I was ridiculously insecure about it but everyone was so welcoming. The minute we started shooting I felt totally free and confident, but leading up to it, it was scary.
Was there one day on set that stood out for you as a particular pleasure?
The very first day was so crazy to me. The very first scene we shot was the first scene with me and Liam where I approach him in the coffee shop. I didn’t really know where we were shooting or what the deal was in terms of production and how many people were going to be on the crew and all that. So when they brought me on set for the very first time to shoot that scene, the PA led me into this coffee shop, and it was a fully functioning coffee shop. People were ordering coffee, there was music playing, there were people talking, and at first I thought, oh these must be extras. I’m just used to background actors or something. Then Liam was like, oh no, these people are just getting coffee on the Lower East Side. I didn’t see a camera and I didn’t see lights and I didn’t see anyone and couldn’t believe that we were shooting in that way. So that was just crazy to me. Once we started going it was amazing to just do it among real people and in a real coffee shop. It was a little bit different from Parks and Recreation, but it felt really freeing.
Speaking of Parks and Recreation, how does it feel now that the show has ended? Was it hard to say goodbye after being a part of the show for so long?
It’s been a really weird couple months. Those people were like my family for so long and that show is the reason I moved to L.A. I have such an attachment to that show and really grew up in my 20s on it. So it was hard to let it go, but I’m still in denial. Right now is the time I would be hiatus, so I think once July and August roll around and I’m not going back to the Pawnee bullpen, that’s when it will really hit me. The cool thing about that group of people is that we all genuinely love each other and we’re doing a really good job so far of keeping in touch, so I’m pretty grateful more than anything.
Now that the show is over, do you want to start taking on more projects like this and opening yourself to new kinds of roles?
Yeah, it’s hard to really know how that will really change what I do. Not having the option to do things during those months, I just didn’t know anything different, so it’s a whole new ballgame for me. It’s very strange to not have a plan and not know what you’re doing in the next couple months. So living month to month is a new thing for me, but I’m excited to have a clean slate and just see what will come out of it. Of course I’m always looking to do different roles and things I haven’t done before.
Is there anyone you’d love to work with that you haven’t yet?
I was actually thinking this morning that I would actually love to work with Kristen Wiig. I realized that we’ve never really done anything together and she’s so funny. All the dramatic roles she’s taken in the past year or two just show what a range she has and. There are so many people I’d love to work with, but I was actually thinking about her this morning and how I’d love to do some kind of comedy with her.