Note: This interview reveals plot details from tonight’s premiere episode and some subsequent developments on Legion.
Aubrey Plaza is probably best-known for playing sardonic office worker April on Parks And Recreation, or for portraying party girl characters in recent movies like Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates and Dirty Grandpa. So her role in FX’s new series Legion, which premiered tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX, is a bit of a departure, to say the least. Plaza plays Lenny, a fellow inmate of David (Dan Stevens) in what appears to be a mental hospital. David, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, might actually be the most powerful mutant in the world. While tied to the Marvel universe, Legion offers a rich tapestry of flashbacks, flash-forwards, alternate realities, and fantasies, which makes for a highly original superhero/sci-fi combo.
Plaza’s Lenny has the dubious distinction of dying in the very first episode. But in the reality-bending world of Legion, helmed by Fargo’s Noah Hawley, we haven’t seen the last of her character. The A.V. Club spoke to Plaza about her role in a show that challenges not only the boundaries of the superhero genre but also reality itself.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with this project?
Aubrey Plaza: I initially had a meeting with them, and I was assuming that it would be for the lead female character [Rachel Keller as Syd Barrett]. In the original script, Lenny Busker was a man. So I didn’t have that role in mind when I was meeting with Noah and the producers and the casting director. Then the next thing I heard was that Noah wanted to get coffee with me, and he pitched the idea of me playing Lenny and swapping the gender. I thought that was interesting, and I just decided to do it. For some insane reason, I didn’t have to audition, but he had an idea in his mind of what I was going to do before I did it.
AVC: Did you know the comic or David’s backstory? What were the scripts like?
AP: I had to probably read [the script] about five times before I even began to understand it. That goes for every script that I received while we were shooting. I had to read them all over and over again constantly, because, as you can tell, they’re very confusing.
But I’d heard of Noah Hawley, and I’d seen Fargo, and I loved that so, so much, and I thought it was a really interesting collaboration—him with Marvel. I was not familiar with the comic book at all, and I’ve never really been into comic books that much, so I wouldn’t say it was because of that. But I was interested in a different kind of show, a different genre. I just feel very lucky that he let me be in his show. [Laughs.]
AVC: There are so many different versions of your character, Lenny. There’s the Lenny in the hospital, and there’s the Lenny who’s kind of like David’s conscience. It must be interesting to play, because you’re keeping the thread of that character, but every situation is different.
AP: The promise that [Noah Hawley] made me in our initial meeting was that Lenny would be going on a very, very interesting journey. Watching the pilot, you really have no idea what that would be. He gave me a little bit of a spoiler in that meeting that made me go, “Okay, I definitely want to play this part.” But I can’t tell you what that is. You’ll have to wait and see. But I can say that you are dead-on about the many Lennys, as we call them. And I think you can expect more of that.
AVC: When you’re pitched this thing, the bad news is that you die in the first episode and you’re going to be stuck in a wall. The good news: You’re going to do all this other weird, amazing stuff.
AP: Yeah, Lenny is very important to David’s story. It’s hard for me to talk about, but yeah.
AVC: How did you and Dan work together? Did you guys have some bonding time before running lines?
AP: We got really close when we shot the pilot. It was a really intense experience. It was terrifying for all of us for different reasons, so we bonded over that immediately. You know, we’re all stuck in Vancouver, it’s raining every day, we’re all losing our minds. And Dan and I immediately got along. I think we both have a crazy instinct to dive off the deep end when we’re working. And we kind of held hands and just did it together. I really, really loved working with him. He’s interesting in exploring all kinds of choices and thinking outside the box and never doing the same things. We did rehearse some things; we didn’t rehearse other things; we played mind games with each other. There was a lot of art imitating life imitating art. It got really crazy, man. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kind of mind games?
AP: The most fun one for me was, Noah had told me—Noah’s a man of few words—and the big question while we were all shooting—well, there were so many questions we had. But the bigger question we had with each other was, “What do you know that I don’t know in terms of what’s going to happen to my character and our relationship?” Because Dan is playing someone that is, essentially, going insane, or is insane, or doesn’t know what reality is, or what’s real or not. I basically told him at one point in the beginning that I knew everything that was going to happen to his character and mine, which was a total lie.
And he believed me at first. But then there was an element, too, where he was like, “Well, you know what? Fuck it, I don’t want to know.” But he did want to know. And I also didn’t know. It was funny, because of the way that Noah allowed us to learn information, the timing of that was very slow. We only learned things when we needed to know them. It created this anxious environment. It was a constant dialogue of, “What the fuck is going on?” Hopefully that infused something into the show.
AVC: You’re like the audience, trying to piece it all together. If they were not telling you guys on set, they probably don’t want anyone else out there with that information. But so far, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The music has that Wes Anderson vibe going on, and the sets are all so futuristic and trippy, and then it just careens—
AP: Oh, dude, it’s going to get crazy. All of that is going to keep happening. It’s just going to get crazier. You’re going to love it.
AVC: What has been the reaction so far? Many people are probably very effusive, but are some people like, “What the hell was that?”
AP: Other people are confused. But I think people are intrigued by it, and I think people are excited that there’s a Marvel superhero show out there that’s doing something completely different. I think it’s exciting, and I think it’s a good time for it. I think people need the escape from reality, man.
AVC: You mentioned being “terrified” when you guys were shooting in Vancouver. What was the big fear while working on it? Were there parts you were shooting that were scary, or just opening yourself up like that on set?
AP: On the page is one thing, but when you show up—we didn’t really have much direction in the beginning. I think one thing that Noah likes to do is he likes to cast people that he trusts and just let them do their thing. Which is very terrifying for someone who hasn’t been in that situation so much. I had so many ideas, and I was so pumped up about it, but it was scary. I had been on another show for so long that was a completely different vibe. I was making jokes all day. And so this was a different kind of set for me. It was scary at first, but then it became really empowering and fun.
AVC: It’s like he’s turning TV inside out, like, “What can’t I do on this TV show?”
AP: And it never felt like a TV show. It felt like we were shooting an eight-hour movie. He treated it like that, which I liked.
AVC: It definitely has a cinematic quality. Were there any stunts you had to do, or anything green screen, or things like that?
AP: Oh, yeah. I learned a lot. I had my first-ever harness stunt. So I’m now inducted into the harness club. I had to do some stunts. I had to do some crazy shit.
AVC: And that scene where David blows up the kitchen—how is that even done?
AP: I’m pretty sure that that was a practical effect and they added digital effects later to freeze it. But I remember Dan saying it was a practical effect, which means that they loaded up all those drawers and they actually blew that stuff out of them.
AVC: At the Television Critics Association panel, they said there were a lot of practical effects, which is surprising, because it’s so over the top.
AP: Yeah, it was really fun. We shot in this insanely huge warehouse somewhere in Vancouver. There were multiple sets happening and multiple units, because there was so much to shoot. Every now and then, you’d hear an explosion, or screaming, or something from across the room, and you’d be like, “Wow, I guess they’re doing some kind of crazy stunt over there.” They did a lot of it on-set, which was really, really, really cool. Really old school, which I liked.