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Aubrey Plaza on Her Sundance Zombie Movie, Life After Beth, and Parks and Recreation’s Seventh Season

Aubrey Plaza. Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty

Now, this is the role Aubrey Plaza was born to play. In Life After Beth, written and directed by Plaza’s real-life boyfriend of many years Jeff Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees), the Parks and Recreation star finds her first great synergy with a big-screen character as a girl who comes back from the dead but doesn’t realize she’s dead and keeps trying to date her bereft boyfriend (Dane DeHaan). The story plays out less like a zombie movie than a relationship movie, tracing the emotional arc of the living — like DeHaan, and John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as Beth’s parents — who grieve over the young woman’s death, eschew all sanity when she comes back to life, and enjoy her company all over again.

Baena wrote the script ten years ago, and like Beth, it’s been resurrected. “It was probably informed by the evolution of a relationship that went to shit and you try to get back together, if you broke up. But that was unconscious,” he said in the post-screening Q&A. Jada Yuan spoke with Plaza, who said she was starving and hung-over, about how to play the undead, Parks and Rec getting renewed, and being chained to an oven she carried on her back, which was “really special.”

Plaza [into my recorder]: Rrrrraaaahhhhhhhhhhh. That’s my zombie voice. I have such low blood sugar.

Has playing a zombie been a dream of yours?
No, it has not been a dream of mine, but it’s a nightmare of mine now … okay, let’s talk normally. I’m not obsessed with zombie movies or anything. I was more interested in the story of the movie. The relationship between Beth and Zach [Dane DeHaan] made me love the script because it reminded me of my high school, college relationships.

What reminded you of high school, college relationships? Because I do think it really is a relationship movie.
Like the relationships that you have with the other person’s parents and those kind of boundaries — I thought they were handled really well. And certain things that Zach and Beth do, like trying to find a place to go make out and have sex. I remember when you live with your parents, it’s like you can’t go to their house so you have to go make out in the woods or whatever, and that felt real to me because I remember that feeling. And I thought that the love that they had is very young love and I liked it.

Jeff was saying the movie is a metaphor for when you break up with somebody and then you try to get back together with them.
I think definitely one of the themes of the movie is breakups, and how weird they are and how when you break up it almost is like they die. And I think the movie explores, Well, what if they came back and you could say all the things that you wanted to say to them that you didn’t say when you were together? It’s kind of messing with those ideas.

And you say those things but then it’s still never the same.
Right, then you still have to shoot them in the head and they die.

How did you prep for being a zombie — did you work on your zombie voice?
No, but I weirdly enough have this demon voice that I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I got to use that voice, and then Jeff and I realized, Oh, it’s weird that I didn’t have to prepare a demon voice, that I just had that one in my back pocket. I don’t think a lot of actors have those kind of voices or sounds that are just ready to go. [Does the demon voice.] This is my demon voice. I guess I’ve been preparing my whole life for this part as a zombie, because I’ve always had this weird demon voice inside me and now everyone knows. I just hope my mommy’s proud.

It seems like it would be really fun to play that part, when you destroy the house, wear a stove on your back.
Wear a stove on my back … that was … fun may not be the word. Hard.

Was it a fake stove?
It was the front half of a real stove and the back half of a fake stove, but it was heavy any way you stove it — what? [Laughs.] It was heavy, and I tore my abdominal muscles when I did some of those scenes. I actually really got hurt.

Did you throw out your back, too?
I had back problems, yeah, but I didn’t throw it out. It was from standing up and then leaning back, and you’d think it would be really good exercise for my core but I just overdid it. Also, I don’t know how to exercise.

Onstage, Jeff said that you resurrected the script. What does that mean?
He’s written so many scripts, and we’ve been together for a couple years, and ever since I’ve been together with him, a lot of people have said, “Oh, have you ever read this one script that he wrote that’s, like, the best script?” Because he tried to get it going years ago and studio, whatever, bullshit happened and it fell apart for whatever reason. But it was a script that still stuck in a lot of people’s minds and one of my agents at the time was one of those people. And Jeff is not the kind of person — he doesn’t like talking about work, we don’t talk about work that much. He’s not into business stuff or whatever, so he’s never given me a script and been like, “Do this.” So I kind of had to make him let me read it. And then I read it and it was so fucking good, and it felt perfect for me and he felt the same way, so then we started the process.

What was the directorial relationship like, given that you have a personal relationship?
It was great. I was nervous. I was like, We’re either going to break up or stay together forever.

Forever. [In her zombie voice, imitating something her character says constantly in the movie.] “Together forever. Together forever.” It was great, he’s a great director and that didn’t surprise me either because his brain is operating on another level — he’s too smart and he’s got so many opinions and he’s a very confident person that always knows what he wants.

Were there any moments when you were like, “We might break up”?
No, not one. The only weird thing was — and it wasn’t even weird, which is why it was weird — was all of the making out with Dane stuff. In my head, I was like, This is gonna be weird, I wonder how this is gonna go. [Jeff and I] never talked about it. We were never like, “Oh, in the scenes where I have to have sex with Dane, is it going to be weird?” And we did one take where Dane and I are really going at it and [Jeff] was like, “Cut.” In my head I was like, Oh my God, he’s gonna be weird about this and everyone was kind of quiet, and he walked over to me and was like, “Do you think you could get more into it and maybe moan a little bit louder and just kind of amp it up?” And I was like, “Copy that, you want me to moan louder? Okay, I can do that for you.” And then Molly [Shannon] and John [C. Reilly] were like, “You guys have a really weird relationship.”’ And later that night I was like, “Is it weird for you to direct me making out with other guys?” And his response was like, “You know my feeling: You’re going to be doing it anyway so I might as well be supervising it,” which I think is a great attitude to have.

Did you think you might go insane listening to all that smooth jazz? [Editor’s note: Eventually, Beth starts to decay and grows so constantly agitated that the only thing that will calm her (and simultaneously give her an orgasm) is smooth jazz.]
Yes! No, I don’t mind smooth jazz that much, I play the saxophone, so …

Do you really?
Yeah. I actually played on this album on this track that just came online and I played on Conan once with a friend’s band. I’m not very good, but I’ve played since I was a kid. I liked the smooth jazz stuff. It was funny to have a trigger that’s supposed to basically give me an orgasm.

Are you just having an awesome time right now, given that Parks and Recreation got renewed just a few days ago?
I actually found out because Jim O’Heir, who plays Jerry on the show, is here [he’s also in Life After Beth] and was shouting to me on the street, like “Seventh season!”’ and I was like, “What?! Shut up.” So that was bizarre.

And Amy Poehler won the Golden Globe.
I’m so psyched for her. It was so fun to celebrate her that night. I feel like she is always the funniest person in the room and whenever she doesn’t win I’m like, How can the funniest person not win? So finally the funniest person won, which I thought was pretty cool. It was just awesome to have our leader up onstage just leading the night and crushing it like she does. Wait, what was the question?

Oh, just I guess what was that like for you. And I’ll wrap this up: What do you think a seventh season means for April?
I’ve been saying this for two seasons now: If they don’t put a baby inside of me, I’m going to put one in myself, literally, so that they’re forced to write it on to the show! I declare. I just think the idea of her and Andy having quintuplets or something would be pretty hilarious. But I have no idea. I don’t know what they are going to do with her character.

Is this the final season?
I don’t know. I really was shocked that we got picked up, and so early. Every year, we all feel uncertain as to whether we’re going to go back or not, we’ve never felt secure. So I don’t know when the end will be, or when the beginning is — it’s all relative. We’re like the little engine that could. We’re just a little fighter guy. We’re not going anywhere.

Aubrey Plaza on Her Zombie Movie Life After Beth