Best known for her depiction of April Ludgate on NBC’s hit sitcom Parks and Recreations, Aubrey Plaza has found a niche in the tv and Hollywood stratosphere as the perpetually awkward, alarmingly tongue-in-cheek millennial type. Quick with a jab and quicker with an eye roll, Plaza has flexed her thespian muscles lately playing Lenny Busker on FX’s standout superhero series Legion and her resume shows no signs of slowing. Her most recent venture, playing an irreverent nun in Jeff Baena‘s subversive slice of per-Renassiance feminism The Little Hours may see the star angling in familiar waters but the fit is perfect nonetheless.
I sat down with Aubrey and Jeff, real life romantic partners and professional collaborators, to talk about the eerie similarities between the 1400s and modern day America, the marketing perks of being condemned by the Catholic Church, Aubrey’s trademark snark and the pregnant donkey who make it all possible.
It seems like a lot of the issues in the movie like women suppression, religious fundamentalism, still seem really pertinent to today’s culture. Can you guys talk about drawing those parallels?
Jeff Baena: I mean there’s obviously women’s suppression going on in the world. I would say as far as religious fundamentalism, it was not as much of an interest for me in this film, it was more of just the context. I was definitely interested in the gender dynamics that were happening at that time. Coming from Miami in the 80’s and 90’s, I wasn’t super exposed to the history of medieval Tuscany and the church, and I took a class that sort of enlightened me in school called “Sexual Transgression in the (unintelligible) Renaissance.” We read The Decameron and historical documents. I think the thing that was the most mind blowing to me was the way that we think of the past, women, also men too who would be priests, in this particular case became nuns not because they were so religious and chose it, but it was women and noble people generally going to convents as school, and then when they’re about 14 or 17, they’d be married off.
So the life was obviously pretty simple, but there were so many people who didn’t want to be there. So if you were a younger daughter or a spinster or if your husband died or you’re a divorcee or your family wanted to curry favor with the church, there’s all these reasons why you’d end up getting stuck in a convent. The vast majority of these women did not want to be there. They were just like us, they were normal people that were put in this situation that was pretty much against their will. So a lot of them rebelled and a lot of them got in tons of trouble… I read these things called “the penitentials”, which were the church’s punishments towards sins. It was wild what was going on back then. It kind of blew my mind what women were going through at that time period and how we project onto them this sort of serious religious almost robotic people that were kind of going through the motions, but really they had just as rich of a life as us, and I don’t think people understand that or connect to it. So I just want to explore that.
How do you sell a raunchy period piece to a studio in 2016?
Jeff Baena: I’d say the main trick is don’t do it with a studio. This is an independent film, so we did it with equity money as opposed to going through a studio. You have a lot more latitude and leverage to make a movie that you want as opposed to something that’s watered down by committee. At the same time, this film was relatively inexpensive, considering the fact that we’re shooting in Italy for Italy and we had a mostly American crew and an entirely American cast. I wouldn’t say the majority of it, but a heavy percentage of our budget went to travel and lodging…logistics stuff. I would say, if you look at what’s going on in the film landscape with studio films, obviously they’re not taking as many risks as they were 5 years ago. It’s primarily reboots and remakes and your straight up science fiction or action or superhero movies, so the challenge is to make movies in that landscape without pandering and trying to have a unique vision and voice.
Audrey Plaza: I would also add that the finance, the people that made Jeff’s movie, our movie, have worked with him before, so I don’t think just anyone could make them feel like they were going to pull it off. Because they know Jeff and they’ve worked with him, they knew that he was going to pull it off.
Jeff Baena: Cast helped, too. One of the investors is from Tuscany, she had been asking the investor group to shoot in this rural area of Tuscany that we did shoot in because she had access to all these medieval villages, and they kept rebuffing her because why would they need that? That doesn’t make any sense. So when this idea popped back up, and I mentioned it to my producer, she was like, “You won’t believe this, but this woman’s been asking us to shoot in this village for years and you’re actually proposing that.” It was a really good fit. There was a little bit of in addition to it sort of being willful ignorance.
When this idea pops in your head, as a writer, producer director team that are obviously really close, are you bouncing ideas off each other?
Jeff Baena: I don’t really bounce ideas off anyone, honestly. It’s not by choice, I’ve sort of created this insulated space. When I first came up, I co-wrote with somebody, so I was so used to bouncing ideas off of so I have that inner dialogue happening as opposed to externalizing. With Aubrey, it’s more about her character and what she’s going through and instead of the movie itself. But we don’t really collaborate in terms of co-writing stuff as of now.
Aubrey Plaza: But who knows. (laughs)
When you were reading the script, did you feel like there was an opportunity there you can play it like you’re talking to men today?
Aubrey Plaza: Truthfully, I don’t read things in that way, I’m just more interested in a human story, but I would say that one thing that I really love about the movie are the female characters and how fleshed out they are and how interesting they are, and I think it’s rare, especially for period films to have characters like that and have them not be one-dimensional characters, and I think that’s something Jeff is really great at. I just naturally respond to that.
You guys have got kind of an endorsement by the Catholic church by proxy of them, calling it nasty and disgusting and trash. But was there any line where you were like, “Whoa, we can’t go this far, we have to dial it back here.”?
Jeff Baena: I know it’s being classified as raunchy, but I didn’t set out to make a raunchy movie. I just set out to do the best in contemporizing The Decameron itself which is baudy which I guess by extension is raunchy. But at no point was I trying to push buttons or trying to ellicit any kind of controversy with the Catholic church. In my mind this book is almost 700 years old, it’s been out there, the church has dealt with it for a very long time, so this isn’t brand new territory where the church is going to freak out about it. It’s almost like a reflex for them to come after this movie. They haven’t actually seen it, this isn’t intentionally trying to be subversive with religion or anything like that, it’s really just trying to tell this one particular story. To that point, when I did see that the Catholic League made that condemnation that it was “trash, pure trash”, it reminded of when Lost Highway came out and David Lynch put on the poster, “Siskel and Ebert give this movie two thumbs down: two more reasons to see Lost Highway”, so I think that was great, but I don’t want people thinking this is me attacking the church because it really couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we were shooting, we definitely got in situations where, at certain locations, we couldn’t say that we were doing an adaptation of The Decameron because even though it is almost 700 years old, it’s still a touchy subject in Italy because it’s a very Catholic country. For me, it’s really not about the controversy, it’s more about to make a connection to the past as opposed to creating any sort of distance between us and anyone. When we were shooting, I was never telling people to dial it up, dial it down, to what would be more controversial or raunchy, it was more trying to find the perfect tone of what we were going for.
Do you have an affection for the nun movies for yore?
Jeff Baena: I’m Jewish, so I didn’t grow up with any kind of weird fetish with nuns or catholicism or that stuff, I just thought that this one story was great, and I thought it was so funny despite being so old, and there’s jokes that I took straight out of The Decameron that people laugh at a lot and they don’t realize how old these jokes are just because it’s so timeless and hysterical. For me, that was more the energy behind it, much less seeing it as sort of a piece of a tradition of nun films. For me it’s more an approach as opposed to say, a genre.
Did each of you have a favorite scene to film in this movie?
Jeff Baena: My favorite to shoot, which I thought was really fun, was when the nuns are drinking and getting a little wild, because there was a real fun energy to that day and I think the joy that you feel in the scene itself I think is what I was trying to go for, and this whole movie’s sense of joy and fun, so that scene perfectly encapsulates for me, when they’re singing and stuff…It’s almost like if you saw girls today getting messed up and singing a pop song, that sort of dynamic was really fun for me.
Aubrey Plaza: I like that scene too, it was really fun, I also really enjoyed all of the chapel services and there was something kind of really cool about being in church again and taking communion.
In terms of assembling the cast, obviously you both have worked with several of the cast members there, going into the writing stage and whatnot, did you have most of them in mind, or do you retrofit them?
Jeff Baena: The way this movie came about, it was a lightning storm. It happened real fast, between me telling my producer that I had this idea from when I was in college that I thought would be kind of fun to shoot in Tuscany, to then scouting it a couple months later, to then shooting it a couple months after that. We didn’t really have an opportunity to just develop it for two years, so pretty much the people that you see that are in it are the people it was intended to be for. Plus this movie was almost 100% improvised. So the story itself wasn’t but the dialogue was, so I knew the kind of people that I had to assemble to pull off something as ambitious as that and wouldn’t go off the rails and stay focused. People who had familiarity with improv, but with proper structure and understanding of how that fits into the bigger picture. So with the exceptions of Kate Micucci and Fred Armisen, I had in some capacity worked with everyone before, so I trusted them and knew what they were capable of. I just put my faith in the process that they would be able to deliver, which they did.
Aubrey, you have this very distinctive, sarcastic, deadpan to a lot of the characters that you play. First of all, what about The Little Hours titillated your comedic sensibilities and drew you on not only as an actor but as a producer. Also, is that kind of your comedy style in real life?
Aubrey Plaza: I came on as a producer because Jeff and I have worked together, I’ve worked with him on all of his movies and I helped assemble the cast and I helped do other things, so it was a natural next role for me to take on. I think this kind of movie is right up my alley. I love any movie that takes a major risk and does something that you’ve never seen before. It being my first producing credit is really perfect for me and special because it’s exactly the kind of movie that I want out there and would want other people to make. Not just because of the comedy style, but just the idea of it and the fact that a bunch of money and fun went into making something so insane. In terms of my comedy style in real life, I don’t know. I don’t think about projects like, “Oh, I’m really going to get my deadpan in this one.”. When you’re an actor and you take on a part, you only have yourself to draw on. My rhythms and the way I think, all that comes into play when I’m creating any character, but I would hope that they’re always difference and it’s not a distracting thing.
What was the biggest unexpected challenge or obstacle you faced during production?
Aubrey Plaza: I would say just getting that donkey to do anything. Stubborn donkey, pregnant donkey.
Did you choose an impregnated donkey?
Jeff Baena: They didn’t bring out a lineup of donkeys. We were in rural Tuscany, so it was slim pickings. Rural sounds like it should be tons of donkeys, it’s not like they have a lot of film stuff going on there, it’s not like there’s a ton of picture donkeys. So we dealt with what we could and we got the best one we could get. We had a turtle that was super professional.
Aubrey Plaza: That turtle was an amazing actor.
You could do a lot of merchandising with that donkey.
Jeff Baena: Yeah, we’re trying. Supposedly the donkey’s baby was going to be named Aubrey. So two months after we left, baby Aubrey was probably born.
Aubrey, in the movie, you’re this rebellious presence, even to the priest or the high deacon or the bishop, you’re being snarky and rolling your eyes and then we find out later that she’s a witch who’s in a coven in the woods, dancing around naked. What about that did you relate to?
Aubrey Plaza: What kind of question is that? (Laughs) I don’t even know how to answer that. I mean, I grew up playing in the woods. I don’t think I danced around naked in the woods. I grew up going to an all girl’s catholic school with nuns, so I would say I was rebellious, so I relate to wearing a uniform and being to act a certain way and always testing boundaries and seeing what I can get away with, so I totally relate to that. The character I was given, I would have played any of the parts, but he wrote it, so why’d you make me do that?
Jeff Baena: I guess I was sort of exploring different ways that women were forced into something and ways in which they cope with it. There’s sort of the role you play, which is inauthentic, then there’s the real self which is repressed in a convent dynamic. The source story is not at all detailed. It’s two pages long, maybe two and a half pages long, and the jist of it is that it’s nuns who’ve solicited this guy. So I try to give each one of them a character that wouldn’t be too complex where it feels like we’re getting into a heavy chamber piece, and it’s light enough that it’s fun, but weighted enough that it feels like it’s historically accurate and distinct enough that it would make sense that there’s this web of lies that they’re all living and each one of them is trying in their own way to cope with that and find their own authenticity.
Aubrey Plaza: And you felt like for me, my thing would be that I’m a witch and that’s my secret.
Jeff Baena: The area we shot in was actually a pretty heavy witchcraft area, so if you look at the history of the church, they’re always trying to take things that are generally pagan and trying to spin it to be Catholic to get the people who are kind of connected to nature and those pagan beliefs into the Church. So it would make sense to me, at that time period, that there would still be witches who are pretending to be nuns and pretending to be religious, but in reality are connected to the earth and nature. They’re not evil witches, they’d probably be considered new age or hippie now, but back them because of the church, it was more pejorative. For us, we’re a little bit more evolved now, so we don’t see it as being pejorative. Aubrey, to me, definitely has witchy elements and I kind of wanted to harness those in her character.