‘The Goal Is To Make Something People Remember’

Dec 20, 2022

Yes, Aubrey Plaza has her own ideas on what happened between her character Harper and Cameron (Theo James) during those infamous 10 minutes on “The White Lotus” season two. And, yes, she wants to know what happened to Harper’s husband Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Cameron’s wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy) when they took a walk on that secluded part of the resort. But, the fact she’s finally getting her flowers for both “Lotus” and her performance in the indie hit “Emily The Criminal,” which she produced, was the main topic of our conversation yesterday.
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It would have been a shock if Mike White’s “The White Lotus” didn’t match the ratings of the original limited series (it, in fact, surpassed them). And we’ll assume Plaza knew that when she signed on board. But out of an ensemble full of celebrated actors, Plaza has been near the top of the most lauded of the bunch, which considering the cast is no easy feat. On the flip side, “Emily,” which debuted almost a year ago at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, went from late summer theatrical success story to a shocking streaming hit on Netflix this month. As Plaza notes, to see “Emily” land at no. 2 on Netflix’s movie rankings behind the blockbuster hit “Bullet Train” and “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio,” was something of a “dream come true.” Throw in Gotham Award, Spirit Award and Golden Globe Award nominations and, well, Ms. Plaza is having a moment. And having a moment with content people will remember.
“Honestly, it means everything to me. And what I say a lot is my goal as a producer and as an actor is to make things that people don’t forget, things that don’t just disappear into the ether,” Plaza says. “And I think that that’s the thing that scares me the most. I could psychoanalyze myself, and maybe that’s my fear of death. I don’t know what it is, but it feels to me like the goal is to make something that people remember. Because everybody grows up and they think of all their favorite movies, and they think of all the things that changed them or that spoke to them. And I want to be in that category of movie and actor.”
Over the course of our chat, Plaza clarifies what she knows and doesn’t know about the Harper/Cameron tryst, discusses her passion for legit producing (“Emily” is her fourth film in that regard), reveals if Harper could return for another season of “Lotus” and much, much more.
The Playlist: It’s sort of amazing oI log on to Netflix and discover that “Emily the Criminal” is still in the top four on the biggest streaming network anywhere.
Aubrey Plaza: Yes, yes! I love to hear it.
Are you shocked? What is your take on it?
I’m shocked. Man, it’s everything you could ask for such a small movie to be … I mean, I don’t know what the other top four movies are, but we were number two last week in between “Bullet Train” and “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.” And I’m looking at it going, “Our movie was so small.” And the fact that it’s broken through the noise is, it’s just … Honestly, it’s like a dream come true. I mean, I can’t believe it.
Does that make you happier as a producer than even the star?
Oh, 100,000,000%. Yeah. I mean, the movie is my baby. Any movie that I produce, it’s a baby, it’s a living, breathing thing that you birthed out of your whatever.
I wanted to ask about the producing aspect of this, because I know that the filmmaker, this was his debut, and he done a couple shorts, but it wasn’t like he was a writer on a TV show bubbling up through the industry. How did the script even come your way? Did an agent slip it to you or your company? How did it work?
No, it’s just a classic kind of example of how you never know what leads to what. And I was working on a documentary with Angus Wall and Kent Kubena who have a production company called Rock Paper Scissors. And they’re amazing producers. And Angus, he’s an editor as well. But I was developing a documentary with those guys and they had a different script from John that they were working on, developing with him, that he had written a bigger movie. And we just love working together, me, Kent, and Angus. And it was just very random. Kent one day just said, “Hey, I have some other ideas. We love working with you. Let’s talk about maybe let’s make a movie. I don’t know.” And he had this script, “Emily the Criminal,” that was another script that John had written, and he just kind of slipped it to me, really just for fun and just said, “You might get a kick out of this. It’s a great character.” And I read it so fast. I kind of just picked it up and I read it, and it’s just an undeniably great script. Anyone that reads it, they’re just like, “That’s a great film.” So my brain kind of started buzzing around about that, and I had just come off of doing “Black Bear” as a producer. And so I was really not looking that aggressively for my next movie. And it just was a no-brainer. And this was a couple years ago. And I did not know when I read it that John wanted direct it. I didn’t know anything about him. I just thought he was the writer. And so I said, “I’d like to meet this guy. I want to produce this.” And then we had coffee, and then I’m thinking, “Who am I going to get to direct this? And how much money can I get for this and all this stuff to make it?” We just got to know each other and he just said, “I want to direct it.” And I, at first was like, “Well, no, because this is a big movie,” and blah, blah. But then in five seconds I realized, of course he should direct it. It’s his script. And I didn’t know at the time that he had gone to AFI and that he had a short film Sundance and that he was a real filmmaker. And once we started talking movies, I was like, “Oh, we’re on the exact same page and he should absolutely do it.” And then we set off on our journey. Took a couple years to get it made, but it was a very organic process. But it really is just one of those stories of, I was working on something else with these guys. We all had a love fest working together. And then it was just really out of the love of working together that I discovered the script.
I saw your appearance on “Late Night with Seth Myers,” and you were talking about how much of a low budget movie it was and you were unexpectedly shooting scenes on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles.
I’m assuming you did not have a permit to do that.
Sure. Well, maybe you did. [Laughs.] But how did you pull off this movie on this budget? I was sort of shocked when I saw the amount.
*”Emily the Criminal” has a reported production budget of $2 million
Yeah. I don’t know. You know what? We’re still trying to pull it off. To be honest, we didn’t even have enough money to finish the movie when we started the movie. And I knew that going into it, and my producer and I just had to make a decision. And we just decided, “Are we just going to take a risk on this and go, we’re going to find the money. This is too good to pass up? Do we really believe in this?” And we both said, “F**k yeah, we’re just going to do it. It’s too good and we’ll figure it out.” And so it was really a kind of day-by-day situation. And the thing that I’m most proud of about the movie is that we did not compromise the script. And in a lot of cases with these kind of films, you get to a point where you go, “We can’t pull this off. We got to cut things, we got to cut scenes, we got to cut locations, we got to combine things, we got to cut characters,” whatever it is.
And we didn’t do it. We just figured it out. We zhuzhed some things. We just kept pushing forward and doing everything we had to do to get it done. And really, that’s what it is. That’s what it was. And I do keep saying, the production really mirrored the spirit of the movie itself. Every day, it felt like we were pulling off some kind of scam, like we’re just pulling off a heist every day.
I think this is your third full producing credit?
Fourth! Thank you for correcting me. But even before it went to Netflix, it looks like it broke even based on theatrical. Maybe not, but it came close. Is the fact that it blew up on Netflix, do you feel that this helps you with the next one you want to get made? Or is every movie just a fight these days?
I don’t know. I’m in an interesting spot now because this hasn’t happened in terms of movies that I’ve produced before. I would have to imagine that I’d be able to green-light a bigger-budget movie. We wanted to make this movie for more, $5 million, whatever, but we just couldn’t get it done. But I would hope that after this, people would take a bigger risk on me as a producer and as an actor if I’m going to be in the movie. Maybe not, but I’d hope that people would back it from the beginning and it wouldn’t have to be such a down-and-dirty kind of scraping by kind of situation. But I don’t know. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The Netflix thing is so interesting to me because it does appear as if we’re making a ton of money off this tiny movie, but that’s really not the case.
Nope. It is not.
It’s just not the case, but it’s fine because what’s great about it is that there’s more eyes on it, more eyes than you could ever imagine. And I still have a slight heartbreak about just the idea that can’t be the theatrical kind of experience. But we did O.K. in the theaters. We really did. And so I’ll take it. I’ll just take it as a win.
You received a Gotham Award nomination, a Spirit Award nomination, and you landed a Golden Globe this week for this performance. For a movie that premiered at Sundance in January, came out over the summer, could have totally been forgotten, what does that mean to you?
Honestly, it means everything to me. And what I say a lot is my goal as a producer and as an actor is to make things that people don’t forget, things that don’t just disappear into the ether. And I think that that’s the thing that scares me the most. I could psychoanalyze myself, and maybe that’s my fear of death. I don’t know what it is, but it feels to me like the goal is to make something that people remember. Because everybody grows up and they think of all their favorite movies, and they think of all the things that changed them or that spoke to them. And I want to be in that category of movie and actor. It’s scary to me how much content and how much just stuff there is out there. The streamers really just, they inundated the whole industry. There’s so much stuff. I don’t know how people keep track of it all. And that scares me the most is just to make something that just disappears, just like that, poof. It’s gone. Nobody thinks about it again. That’s scary to me. So all I want is just for people to remember the things that I’ve done and maybe even watch it again.
I don’t remember when, it was a couple weeks ago, but I saw or heard an interview where the interviewer was acting as though you had never done anything dramatic before. And you were rightfully sort of annoyed. And I was sort of annoyed too. I was like, “Did this person not get prepped before this?” But do you feel though, after “Emily” and with “The White Lotus,” maybe you can knock that misconception about your slate of work so far, to the side?
I mean, I don’t know. I would hope so. But to be honest, even “The White Lotus,” even the perception of what I’m doing in that show, sometimes people still put it in a category. I can’t control any of that stuff. And I think I’m now a little bit more kind of mature and I have things that make me more happy and fulfilled, and I don’t have to fixate on people’s perception of me or whatever. I just can’t control it. I can’t control it. But I mean, It always hurts a little bit when people are reductive about your kind of work because you try so hard. And I’ve been really busting my ass for a really long time, but not so much to prove myself. But really just because it’s just survival for me. It’s like I have to keep doing things that are challenging and things that are different or else…I just can’t control it, I guess. But I would hope to think that the kind of perception of me would be ever-shifting and ever-changing and that I could be in a category of a chameleon. But who knows? Because people, just think what they think.
So, I talked to Adam Scott last week, and you both are two actors though, who are doing that. You came from “the comedy world” but you’re now both doing incredible dramatic work. And I think that the more people see your stuff, I think the more that misconception will go away.
You were both part of a seminal show a decade ago, critically acclaimed, and super popular, and now you’re on another one, in this case, “The White Lotus.” Granted, there was a season before, but as someone who I know is on social media and pays attention to all this, how did you recognize that “Oh, this is even bigger than the first season,” that this has taken a jump? Or have you not?
I mean, again, it’s so hard for me to have perspective on things like that because I feel like I’m in a bubble. Yeah. I mean, the amount of random text messages and the amount of people just telling me… It’s very clear to me that it has surpassed the first season in terms of just viewership, first of all. I mean, everybody in every kind of category of person is talking about the show. And I feel the reverberations of that. But I’ve been shooting, so I’ve got one leg in and one leg out of this whole phenomenon. It’s really weird, but I definitely feel it. And I don’t know, I feel so lucky. I can’t believe it. I feel like I hit the jackpot twice with “Parks and Rec” and then this show. It just doesn’t happen. So, I just feel very lucky.
I talked to Will Sharpe and he told me about how the cast received all the scripts before you even shot it. When you were reading them, were you thinking, “Oh s**t, my character might die by the end”?
No, because I’m pretty sure Mike told me who died immediately. So, I was in a different position because I’m pretty sure the first, I don’t know, one of the earlier conversations I had with him, he kind of was just like, “And this happens.” And I was like, “Whoa, O.K.” So no, I never feared death as Harper. I knew I was going to make it out alive, just in terms of my own existence.
And also, in that interview with Seth, it sounded like you were teasing that you guys might have shot stuff that didn’t make it in the final cut. You were talking about the scene where Will’s character comes in and you guys have the confrontation about whether Harper did anything with Cameron or not. And I didn’t know if you were just teasing or if there actually could have been more shot that didn’t make the cut?
No. O.K. No, I was totally teasing. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I don’t know what I was saying. First of all, it’s true. I still haven’t seen how it was cut together. But no, I was teasing. I was basically saying that there’s a version in my head where I feel like a little bit more stuff happened than I admit to him in that moment. But it’s not a scene in the show, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s the same thing of what happens with Ethan and Daphne on that little cove in the last episode. What are they doing? And it drove me crazy because when I read the script, I never in a million years made the assumption that they did anything together. And when we were shooting it, people kept kind of saying like, “Ooh, something’s going on.” I mean, it drove me insane. I was like, “Are you kidding me? He’s going to go do something with her after all this?” I take it too hard. That’s the thing that’s so brilliant about the script is you don’t know at the end of the day. It’s all speculation. It’s all speculation and secrets. But no, what I was saying on the talk show, I think, and I don’t remember because I always black out when I’m on those shows and I’m like, “What the fuck did I say?” I think I was just saying there’s a version in my mind, and it doesn’t matter. It’s up to everybody’s interpretation, where maybe we did something a little more than what I admitted, but that’s up to everybody else to decide. I don’t know.
Were other members of the cast asking Mike for clarification? Or was he just more like, “Nope, I’m not going to tell you. Just look at the script”?
All I’ll say is there was not a lot of discussion about anything. Yeah, I think we were all really left to our own devices and left to our own interpretations of what went down. At least that was my experience.
There are rumors that Connie Britton, who starred in the first season, might come back in season three.
No way. Really? Who said that?
I mean, it was in a trade outlet, so who knows?
Did Mike eve suggest, “Hey, maybe not season three, but season four, I might want to revisit these characters”?
No, he would never. No. He holds his cards very close to his chest. Is that the phrase?
Yeah, it is.
No, he’s a man of little words. He doesn’t reveal anything like that. And I don’t even think he would know. I mean, I don’t know. I think he’s really kind of in the moment. I think he is a genius. He’s brilliant. I think he’s focused on what he’s doing in the moment. I think that’s what’s so great about him is everything feels really organic and I don’t think he’s interested in where he’s going. I think he’s interested in what he’s doing.
My last question for you before I let you go is, are you shooting the “Agatha: House of Harkness” series right now?
I haven’t started. I’m still shooting [Francis Ford Coppola’s] “Megalopolis.” And I think I’ll be shooting “Megalopolis” until the end of time, which I hope I am because I’m having such a good time. But no, I start shooting that next year.
“Emily the Criminal” is available on digital download and Netflix. “The White Lotus” season 2 is available on HBO Max.

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