Well-known for her signature, deadpan delivery and comedic chops in film (Neon’s upcoming Ingrid Goes West) and television (Parks and Recreation), Aubrey Plaza breaks out of a box in FX’s singular superhero series, in more ways than one. Bringing familiar shadings to the mysterious and pivotal role of Lenny Busker—a demented sensibility and taste for mischief—Plaza nonetheless displays in Legion a tremendous range and dexterity, successfully navigating the complexities of a role and a series that demands attention.
Working on Legion, Plaza was given an “overwhelming” and exciting level of creative freedom, playing a critical role in the various looks her shapeshifting character takes on in Season 1, and collaborating closely with directors and choreographers to nail down sequences that were described loosely on the page. Speaking with Deadline, Plaza gives a window into the idiosyncrasies of Hawley’s process, as well as her own process, in approaching a character that is inherently impenetrable, finding her own way in.
Before Legion came your way, did you ever give much thought to the idea of taking part in a superhero series?
I honestly never thought about it that much. I’m a fan of superhero stuff, and some of it’s really good, but yeah. I think I always had fantasies about playing certain characters in those universes. But I never thought about it beyond that, my own delusions, weird daydreams.
What was the process in getting involved with Legion, and what attracted you to the part of Lenny?
The process was interesting because I did not audition. I met briefly with Noah, and some of the producers and the casting director, after reading the script. I thought the writing was really amazing, and I loved the work that Noah had done before that, on Fargo, so I was drawn to the project really because of him.
The part of Lenny was originally written for an older man, so I didn’t read the script thinking about that role. In our second meeting, when it was just Noah and me, he pitched me the idea of playing Lenny and changing it to a female. That idea had never occurred to me when I read it initially, so I went back and reread it, and tried to imagine what that could be like, and what I could do with that, and that got me really excited. Just the idea that Noah would make a change like that, and trust that I could pull it off.
Many cast members were unaware of the season’s full story arc when they set out. How much did you know about your character’s true nature in early talks?
I would say that I knew a little bit more than anybody else about my character’s trajectory. I knew the place that I would end up, but I didn’t know how I would get there. The episodes in between were a surprise for me, and I had no idea what was coming, episode by episode, but I did know, ultimately, what I would become in the universe of the show.
What do you latch onto when inhabiting a character like Lenny, who is intentionally a mystery for the audience to puzzle over for most of the first season?
I approached it like I would any other role, I think. I don’t approach anything differently depending on the genre, or how crazy it is, or if it’s a villain or not. I just tried to focus on the human aspects of the character.
I had to make a lot of choices for myself, and I was really given a lot of freedom to explore, and to come up with whatever I wanted to do with Lenny. I tried to grasp onto the human parts of Lenny, early on.
Really, I kind of created a journey for my character that is fully focused on David Haller. He is Lenny’s everything, so that was my approach: Who am I to David, and how am I going to get what I need from him?
How much did the look of the character inform your approach?
I, like everybody else in the cast, was operating script by script. Once I started reading scenes with Lenny where she’s appearing to David, and talking to him in a different way, I made a choice that I would change my look up, and Noah let me do that. I made a decision early on that Lenny, the human is very different from Lenny, the hallucination if you want to call it that—at least up front.
The creative team was so involved in all of that. I would go into the hair and makeup trailer on my days off for hours and hours, and do different tests on my own with them—different hair tests, and makeup tests, and wardrobe tests—and they were all game.
They were really excited to come up with these different iterations, and they were fully involved in helping me create the different looks. I think that the physical changes that happened really helped me morph into these other Lennys. They all came together in the end, but it was a team effort.
The greatest part of it all is that our leader was Noah, and Noah has certain things that he’s very particular about, but I felt an overwhelming freedom in the creativity that could happen with coming up with the looks, and all of that. It was a collaboration, and I think that’s what he’s really great at, is handpicking artists in different departments that have something to say, that aren’t just doing another job. It felt like we were shooting a movie, and that’s my favorite kind of work.
In moments where Lenny is at the center of the scene, it’s been interesting to see you go off into different kinds of cinematic language. In one episode, you worked with Hiro Murai—a director known for his music videos—on a music video sequence for Lenny.
The dance sequence in Chapter 6 was written in I think one or two lines. I don’t want to misquote Noah, but it was something along the lines of, “Lenny dances a dance of malevolent joy. She rubs her stink all over David’s memories.” It wasn’t spelled out what exactly that dance would be, or what needed to happen, so I was given the freedom to come up with whatever I wanted to do.
Hiro, like Noah, was really open and just let me run with it. I was told, “These are the sets that you’ll be dancing on, and we’ll just take it step by step.” I created a routine with a choreographer who helped me, and just tried to embody what Noah wrote.
The wardrobe helped, and I kind of created the look for that, too, which I thought was really fun and different. Hiro was a great director for that particular episode, because we got to play in a different genre. It was super trippy.
The other major instance is the black-and-white silent film sequence later in the season, where we get to see more of the jerky, unearthly physicality you bring to the role. Was the process with that sequence similar?
What’s so interesting about that is that that was not in the script—that they were turning that into a black-and-white, silent film sequence. That was done in the edit, so all of that physicality was stuff that I had just decided on in the moment. I had no idea they were going to do that. That was a big surprise for me when I watched it, because when we shot it, I’m actually speaking, and it was written as scenes.
Early on, I had this idea in my head—I think it was maybe Chapter 4, when I jumped into the Mirror Room, and I drag Rachel Keller’s character across the floor. I have these jerky movements that are controlling her, so I just tried to keep that alive. That’s another example—in the script, it says, “Lenny kills The Eye.” But it doesn’t say how; it doesn’t say anything like that.
Those were things that we came up with that day. “I’m going to put a fake gun to my head and pull the trigger, and then you guys snap your heads.” That was all playful stuff that we came up with together. That was again a really fun collaboration with the rest of the cast.
And then they just transformed it into a silent film sequence, which was totally perfect.
Does any of the work you put in this season—between the two sequences we’ve discussed—take you back to your early days, honing your craft as an actor, building characters through playful physical expression?
Totally. It felt very experimental at times, and like performance art. We were forced to go back to that place, where we had to use our imagination and just surrender to the playfulness of it all, because we had no idea what was coming. It was a very weird feeling, to not know exactly what we’re doing, but try to make really bold choices. I think that having an improv background and a theater background is really helpful in those situations, because it’s all about the choices that you’re making, and it’s not the kind of show that you can just show up and say your lines. You have to really work, you have to rehearse. There were some times that we would rehearse and block scenes for an hour, which I’ve never done before, when we’re shooting, because normally you just get in there and you gotta shoot. The emphasis was on that, on the preparation and the rehearsals, which is my favorite way to work, so it was perfect for me.
In certain scenes, you’re trapped inside a box—a certain place where David is able to trap you. What was involved in shooting those bits?
I was in an actual box—I was put in a coffin. It was very claustrophobic, as you can imagine. At that point, Lenny was disintegrating physically, so I had these intense eye contact lenses, so I couldn’t really see. I was basically guided into this dark coffin, because I could barely see anything anyway, and then I was just put in there and told to scream and freak out.
I don’t have a problem being in small spaces, thank god. I wasn’t in there for that long. But it was cool. That’s the thing about this show—there were a lot of practical effects, and a lot of things that we actually did, physically. It was physically demanding, but I think the outcome is always better.
What was the biggest challenge you faced creatively with the first season?
The biggest challenge was tracking Lenny at every moment and making sure that I was playing the right version, and that I had all of those layers and motivations alive at every moment. I didn’t want to lose any of that, and I wanted to really honor the script at all times. I think it’s challenging when you don’t know what the next script is, so you can only hope that you’re going in the right direction, and trust the people that are directing you. I think that was the biggest challenge, is just the unknown. It was scary, but I think things that are scary are usually the best things.
Legion has been renewed for a second season. What has been your takeaway from working on Season 1, and what are your hopes for the future of the series?
I hope that it just continues to get weirder and weirder and that they keep pushing the envelope, and they make something that’s even more insane than the last season. My takeaway is that Noah does not hold back—he has a love for his characters and stories in ways that I haven’t really seen before.
There’s a really special feeling surrounding all of the projects that he’s involved in, and I just hope that that doesn’t go away. It’s hard, when you become successful, to hold onto that feeling and keep it authentic and true. I hope that he’ll do that, and I think he will.