Unless you’re Sherman Howard, not many actors get to play a zombie and still talk of their character. Aubrey Plaza gets to do both in Life After Beth, a zom-rom-com as deep as Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes.
With a reputation for deadpan, restrained performances (most notably as April Ludgate in Parks And Recreation), Beth gives Plaza a chance to get impressively unhinged.
Den Of Geek interviewed her during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where we both left a lot of awkward pauses.
What’s your favourite zombie movie?
…I like all zombie movies. Uh…Night Of The Living Dead. That’s my favourite one.
Have you ever been to Edinburgh for the Fringe?
No. I…someone…people lied to me and told me the Fringe Festival was going on right now, and that I’d get to experience both, but that’s a lie.
It used to be the same time, but they moved the Film Festival forward. Have you ever been to Edinburgh before?
No, never been to Scotland.
…I like it. I mean, I haven’t got to do any things but it’s beautiful.
You kinda get used to it, but you constantly end up in new bits of it – to you – and remember ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got all this’.
It’s ridiculously beautiful, I mean, it’s like it’s out of a storybook or something. I guess if you live here you forget.
Yeah, there was a writer from London came up [Ben Aaronovitch] and said ‘How are you all not constantly writing fantasy novels? Just look out the window’.
So. Life After Beth. Did you do research the role? Watch other zombie films, or something with a monster/non-monster element, or did you just go with the script?
I…did not do research…because I didn’t want to copy anyone…as a zombie, and I’d never really- there’s never really been a movie where a zombie has so many human emotions and qualities…but I did think – in my head – that maybe I should watch… zombie movies just to get the physical kind of thing…but then I thought, ‘Any movie about a zombie is just making that shit up anyway’. What’s the real thing anyway? It’s not a real thing, so why not make it my own? Just do whatever I want to do.
The only thing I did is, I accidentally saw World War Z. I happened to see it a couple of months before shooting this, and I couldn’t help but just pay such close attention to the zombies, and there was like one zombie move that the zombies did where they were, like, chattering their teeth, like [She demonstrates], doing some weird thing and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll try to do that one’.
But I failed.
I remember thinking about Linda Blair in The Exorcist towards the end of the movie, the insanely angry sweary bits.
Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that. I did feel, I did feel like…because I had to transform into a zombie…it was like, there was a demon inside of me, or something, that I was fighting with.
It’s also got a similar contrast to The Exorcist, you start off smiling in a summer dress and end up covered in blood and swearing your head off.
Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.
Why does smooth jazz have that effect on Beth? Was that ever explained? [In the film, smooth jazz calms the zombies]
It was not explained ever. Have you asked Jeff [Baena, the director]?
I have not.
His answer is better, but I’ll tell you what he says. The thing about the movie is…there are so many weird little details that you might think were an accident, or that they came from nowhere, but he’s such a smart person that he has a reason for every single thing in the movie, and the smooth jazz part is because: he read a thing about smooth jazz a long time ago, in some kind of science magazine or something, and it said that smooth jazz actually calms humans down, which is why they play it lobbies of hospitals and waiting rooms, because there’s something about the tone of it that, um, it triggers some chemical in your body that makes you relax. Even if you don’t like the music you have a physical response, or it makes you have a physical response. So, his thinking was that zombies are just base level humans, just urges, so they would like the base level music. Smooth jazz would be the only kind of music that zombies would respond to.
I think we took it one step further and actually made it sexual. In my head it was orgasmic or something.
The soundtrack does get more…grindy as it goes on. That also reminds me of a thing I heard working at a call centre, that the middle-class Glasgow accent is the most soothing accent to be told bad news in.
Do you have that?
No, it’s…oh, you know the World Heath Organisation Doctor at the end of World War Z? The Scottish one? Peter Capaldi? A bit like that.
I can see how that accent would be soothing. I could listen to it all day.
You eat people in this film, and normally that’s frowned upon, but here it’s funny. Do you think you can make anything funny given the right context?
Myself? If I find it funny myself?
Or just generally, if you find the right context do you think you can make anything funny?
Everything in life is funny; I think you can make anything funny to some people. Joan Rivers goes to some pretty dark, fucked up places, makes jokes about things about things you’re not supposed to make jokes about. They’re still funny, but…not…acceptable.
Anything can be funny, I guess.
And you’ve got a few scenes in this film that aren’t big on dignity. How do you process performing those?
Stuff like lying on your back, kicking your legs in the air, thrashing about: it’s funny in context but it looks undignified to film. Do you get nervous filming that or just throw yourself into it?
I…was…nervous…about everything that I do! But in the same way I always just throw myself…if I decide to do a movie I just have to say to myself…you’re deciding to do it, so if you’re gonna do it you have to do it 110% You can’t wuss out. So, I try very hard to do that.
How can you tell that you’re not dead at the moment?
I can’t. Most times I feel dead.
Most of the time I’m convinced I’m in one of those simulated videogames. That’s the idea that scares me the most. There was a New York Times article about that. Some kind of scientist/engineer basically giving a report, and his whole reasoning about how we could actually be inside a videogame but we don’t know.
Like The Matrix but with pre-programmed moves?
Yeah. That freaks me out more than the idea that I’m dead.
Finally: What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?
Um…can you name a bunch of them and I’ll pick? I can’t remember…
All the Expendables, Crank, Transporter, Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels…
I like that movie, but I guess I’ll go with Crank.
Aubrey Plaza, thank you very much.
Life After Beth is out in UK cinemas now.
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