When Aubrey Plaza first got the call about her role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, she’d literally just stocked up on Godfather-themed keychains and lighters from an actual Godfather gift shop. It should be noted she was not obsessively combing eBay for insane fan memorabilia. In fact, there was a legitimate reason for her purchases: she just happened to be in Taormina, Sicily — the home of The Godfather, if you will — where it was partly shot. And of course there’s a gift shop.

Plaza was, at the time, taking her turn as the maritally-challenged Harper in the second season of the HBO hit series The White Lotus — a role for which she was individually Emmy and Golden Globe nominated. And, when she heard that Coppola wanted to get on Zoom with her, she was also staying in the San Domenico hotel, his old home-from-home during The Godfather shoot.

If all of that felt cosmically Coppola coincidental, Plaza also points out, “I’ve orbited this family a lot. I’ve been in a Roman Coppola movie, and I’ve been in four movies with [Coppola’s nephew] Jason Schwartzman.”

In Megalopolis, Plaza stars as Wow Platinum, an ambitious and Machiavellian journalist in the world of the mega-rich and influential. Set in a sort of near-future Manhattan-meets-New Rome, the story is based on the Catiline Conspiracy, a feud between a Roman senator and Cicero. Here, Cicero is represented by the city’s old-school mayor (Giancarlo Esposito) as he goes head-to-head with Adam Driver’s Caesar, an architectural idealist. After a disaster destroys the city, Caesar pushes for a rebuild with innovative, renewable materials, aiming for a utopia that will free the underclasses, while his enemy Cicero prefers to go with the traditional concrete, corruption, and class system. Between them comes not only Wow’s manipulations, but also the mayor’s daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), who falls hard for the idealist Caesar.

When I sit down with Plaza, in a photographic studio somewhere off the West Side Highway, it’s one of those perfectly New York, crisp, blue-sky days. Framed in the window behind us, the sun glints off the Empire State Building — a fittingly cinematic setting in which to discuss Coppola’s Manhattan-esque film, his first mainstream feature offering since 2011, and one that’s been the talk of the industry in the build-up to its Cannes premiere.

And not all of that talk has been kind.

Rumblings abound — about Coppola’s decision to self-fund the production to the tune of $120 million, and the film’s lack of U.S. distributor. Then there were the muted reactions to its one-and-only industry screening back in March.

Coppola, however, turned around and upped the ante, entering the film in Competition at Cannes. Apocalypse Now comparisons have been made, given that both films walked a rocky road of sorts. So, will Megalopolis, like Apocalypse Now, rise up in a blaze of glory at the festival? What does Plaza make of all the swirling gossip and speculation?

“I thought it was kind of funny,” she says. “I would defend Francis all day long, but he doesn’t need my defense. I think when you’re on the inside of it, and you know what’s really going down, it’s almost like, ‘Let them make up their stories and let them cause a big ruckus about it. Why not? Drum up some more attention for the movie.’ I think it ends up, in my mind, all working for the movie.”

She also cites the “mythology” surrounding Coppola’s work. “People want that, especially with him, with all the stories about Apocalypse Now. They want it to be a disaster, they want some big epic… whatever. Knowing Francis like I do now, I would think that it wouldn’t bother him at all, that he would love the tales that are being told about the film, like, ‘Go on, make up all the stories you want.’

“He’s got such a magical way of directing and inspiring actors. You can feel it when you watch his movies and I felt it when I worked with him. It was everything that I had hoped for. And I think ultimately, he is just a brilliant storyteller, and he has something to say, I think. Every movie that he makes, there is a passion behind it. It feels like there is a reason for it. It’s pure in an artistic sense. Even though he’s obviously commercially successful through the years, it never seems like it’s about that. It’s just that he wants to tell stories and he wants to play with actors. So, it’s my favorite stuff.”

Back before their first Zoom meeting, Coppola sent Plaza the film’s entire script — a move she says shocked her. “He emailed it to me and said something like, ‘You should read it first and make sure that you want to audition.’”

Plaza promptly read it and emailed back. “I believe the way I described it was, ‘This is a beautiful nightmare.’ And he, of course, picked the ‘nightmare’ word out first, which was not meant in a negative way. But he was like, ‘A nightmare? This movie is a love letter to humanity. This is going to give hope to society and humanity, it’s not a nightmare.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t mean it like it is a nightmare. But it feels impressionistic in that way. It feels like it’s a dream.’ The whole thing feels very, very dreamlike, and scary. There is, in my opinion, some scary imagery and some nightmarish qualities to it, but in a beautiful and unforgettable way.”

Once she was cast, Plaza dug into her character of Wow. “The backstory that we came up with was that she was born in a trailer park in the Midwest, Kansas City. It had a very To Die For vibe to it, or small-town girl wants to be famous news anchor kind of thing. Power is very important to her, and she will stop at nothing to get it.”

Wow also needed to appear extremely magnetic and seductive. “Francis would call me The Golden Woman, and Milena Canonero, the costumer that he’s worked with forever, they wanted me to be dripping in diamonds and just be radiating luster and wealth.”

The name Wow Platinum seemingly required matching platinum hair. “Which is very funny because I’m a dark brown-haired girl,” Plaza says. “But yes, I bleached my hair blonde for Francis and Milena. For anybody else, never again. But for them, I did it.”

Wow is also something of an outsider — a characteristic Plaza has often gravitated towards. “My character was the biggest outcast. Because I’m dealing with this incredibly wealthy family, the richest family in the world, I’m navigating these dynamics, and I end up marrying the richest man in the world, played by Jon Voight. I am totally an imposter in every sense. But I have such an insane ambition that it just overwhelms that feeling that I don’t belong.”

In her 2022 film Emily the Criminal, which she also produced, Plaza’s titular character sits on the fringes of a successful friend group, unable to gain a foothold as she slides into debt and fraud. In The White Lotus, she is the one person unable to swallow the Kool-Aid that marriage is a don’t ask-don’t tell endeavor. And in Ingrid Goes West, Plaza is a deranged codependent, stalking Elizabeth Olsen’s immaculate influencer character. In every case, Plaza’s character is on the outside looking in. She’s the one doing or saying the ‘wrong’ thing, the awkward thing. Even back in her breakout role in the long-running comedy series Parks and Recreation, her famously deadpan character of April Ludgate portrayed a woman out of kilter and off-beat.

So why does she feel compelled to look under every sharp rock; to point to the extremely uncomfortable?

“I think one thing that I really love about acting and about putting myself out there is to wear those icky feelings and portray all of those things that everybody feels, because it’s a universal feeling,” she says. “It makes people feel seen. And I think with a lot of the characters that I choose to play, there is an underlying sense of wanting people to feel seen. I felt that way when I did Emily the Criminal and Ingrid Goes West too.

“Personally, I relate to those characters in the way that I think a lot of people do. And it’s all those feelings of feeling like an outsider, whatever it is, not good enough, or a freak, or whatever. And I feel like I, definitely, over the years, have embraced those things because I have this impulse: I’d rather humiliate myself and put myself in the line of fire for the good, so everyone else can sit back and feel like, ‘I’m OK.’ It’s my own little way of trying to make the world a better place.”

Growing up in Delaware, Plaza had zero industry connections. “So, I think there’s always been a sense of feeling out of place in that way. I’m sure so many people feel that way,” she says. “I always felt like something was different about me. I think I’ve always had this sense of strangeness, or feeling like I’m an alien or something. But I think also, that feeling has helped me always connect with other people that feel that way.”

Plaza’s family was extremely committed to community service, and from the age of eight, she would go along with them, experiencing “nursing homes and working with the elderly, or working with disabled people and homeless daycares. So, thinking about it now, maybe that shaped me in a really big way.”

Upon her arrival on the set of Megalopolis, Plaza discovered a kind of workshop-type scenario, where improvisation, collaboration and even actors’ re-writing were welcomed.

“I think that’s a really big part of Francis’s approach,” Plaza says. “I don’t want to speak for him, but it seems to me that he gathers a group of interesting, wild actors and then he tries to inspire them to play. We wrote scenes and we conducted ourselves like a theater troupe, me and Jon Voight and Shia [LaBeouf]. We were writing scenes and giving them to the script supervisor. And then she would give them to Francis and sometimes he would like it and put it in. But every day he wanted to play. He ran it like it was a theater camp. There were games all day, and we were in character the whole time.”

Wow and Driver’s Caesar have some explosive dynamics, and Driver turned out to be a perfect match for Plaza’s approach. “I loved working with him. I felt that we were on the same page instantly. And what I really loved about working with him was, he was like me, where he really likes to play. He likes to surprise you. He’s so prepared and so thoughtful about his work, but he’s also willing to throw it out the window and have a laugh and mess around. And I love to work with an actor that can do both at the same time. I think a lot of times, people lose their sense of spontaneity and playfulness when they take themselves so seriously. And there’s a really amazing confidence about someone that can be both. It’s everything I like about a scene partner.”

That playful theater troupe scenario will, Plaza says, result in some rather, shall we say, interesting footage for Mike Figgis’s making-of Megalopolis documentary. For one thing, Plaza had no idea who Figgis was, or what he was doing on the set.

“I didn’t know that it was a real documentary being made or that Mike Figgis, no less, was operating the camera, until he introduced himself, I’d say a week into shooting, maybe even longer than that. I thought it was b-roll! That documentary is going to be really something to watch. Just think about the roster of personalities.” It is, of course, a roster that apart from Plaza, Driver, Voight, LaBeouf and Emmanuel, includes Laurence Fishburne, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Schwartzman.

Plaza staying constantly in character probably helped Figgis somewhat. “I was just speaking in tongues,” she says. “I was out of my mind, I’ll be honest. I don’t know what’s going on in that documentary, but I hope I have approval over all that footage. And I will demand that legally.”

And there it is, that deadpan schtick Plaza was famously branded with post-Parks and Recreation. She’s long since proven her range well beyond that early label but seeing it in action is a belly-laugh moment. She betrays nothing, and yet somehow silently also conveys she’s enjoying the joke on the inside — it’s some Jedi mind-trickery, and it is funny.

Back on Megalopolis, the in-character, in-deep approach felt necessary, Plaza points out. “Most of the time I was so in it, and I think all the actors were, that I didn’t have time to even think about the optics of what was going on, I was just so immersed in the experience. It’s a pretty relentless approach of shooting those movies [with Coppola]. It’s an intense set when you know that Francis is behind the monitor and it’s your turn. Of course, there were moments that were just insane.”

All told, Plaza was shooting in Atlanta for eight months. For the final two weeks of that, her Megalopolis shoot overlapped with her role as the witch Rio Vidal in Agatha, Marvel’s follow-up to the Wandavision series. Fortunately, both projects shot on the same lot, but the double-duty led to some shenanigans.

“I would literally go from one to the other and would put my Wow wig on and my Wow costume on. And then the next day, I would go to the Agatha set and I’d be dressed as a warrior witch with a dagger and stuff,” Plaza says. “At one point, when I was dressed in the Marvel character, I snuck onto the Megalopolis set and I started harassing Giancarlo Esposito and Adam and everyone. It was absolutely insane behavior.”

When she finally left Wow behind in Atlanta, Plaza felt her lingering ghost. “She was wildly confident and not scared of anything. And I would say that there were days for sure where I felt empowered by the character, because I think my confidence lies mainly in my work. I find sometimes that in my personal life and when I go home, I don’t have the same kind of confidence and assertiveness that I do somehow when I’m working and when I’m playing these other people. There were certain things that would normally take me down, or normally I’d have a hard time, and I felt that Wow was really fueling me, giving me strength.”

But the other side of that was the strain of becoming someone so opposite to her actual self. “That energy, being ‘on’, and being this big personality that walks into a room and demands attention and isn’t afraid of anybody or anything, it’s just exhausting to play someone like that. And I think in my real life actually, I have much more social anxiety and insecurity, and,” — she laughs — “I tend to not want to be around anyone.”

But, despite that anxiety and insecurity, Plaza has felt a generational pull toward performing. “There are people in my family that were very, very inspirational to me. My Uncle Chico, who passed away, was an artist. He ran a salsa dancing studio in Philadelphia, and he made films. He had no money, and he would sell everything he had to make a short film. He was just really that kind of person. And my great-grandmother was a flamenco dancer. No one ever really went to Hollywood and did anything, but I think I’ve always had this feeling like there’s unfinished business in the generations of people in my family. It almost felt like I’m empowered by all of these people — especially the women — in my family that wanted to be actresses or wanted to be out there but didn’t have the resources or the money to ever make their dreams come true.”

And those inspirational figures extended beyond family, too. “I was always slightly delusional as a child, and I grew up very, very obsessed with Judy Garland. She was a very big inspiration to me. Rosie O’Donnell is someone that I really admired as a young person. I read her biography and I felt very inspired by her. I think I was inspired by just so many women that made it happen that didn’t have a connection or came from nothing. And I felt like, well, if they can do that, I can do it too.”

And then there’s John Waters. His film Serial Mom is one Plaza cites as deeply affecting. When she hosted the Independent Spirit Awards for the first time in 2019, Waters gamely jumped in on her opening monologue, and now she’s cast as the lead in his upcoming film Liarmouth, based on his first novel, which is described as a ‘feel-bad romance’.

“She takes big chances,” Waters says of Plaza via email. “She can be scary OR charming OR beautiful OR criminal on screen and often all four. My kind of star — the real thing!”

“It’s an absolute dream come true,” Plaza says. “His movies meant a lot to me growing up. Really, they changed my life. And so even just knowing him and being his friend is enough for me. But the fact that he wants me to star in the movie is crazy, and I just want to do it justice.”

Despite rumors that Liarmouth is struggling with financing, Plaza says, “We are gearing up to shoot. It’s not in flux. We were hoping to shoot, I would say, in the spring 2025. And it’s an epic script.”

A couple of days after our New York meet-up, Plaza calls me from Albuquerque, where she’s gone straight into shooting Honey Don’t, Ethan Coen’s lesbian B-movie follow-up to Drive-Away Dolls, with Margaret Qualley, Chris Evans and Charlie Day. So far, one day in, Plaza describes the job as “just wild”.

She’s “striking while the iron is hot” she says, and her schedule is packed. Only last week she wasin Bulgaria for the animation/live action hybrid movie Animal Friends — a experience she describes as “amazing and very funny to shoot with animals voiced by Ryan Reynolds and Jason Momoa. And Dan Levy and I had a blast.” She “learned all kinds of skills” she says, including shooting machine guns, jumping out of helicopters, and pole dancing. “I had no idea how weak my core was until I tried to pole dance. It was a kind of run-and-gun situation, but I did get upside down.”

She also plans to produce more projects. She’s very proud of the four films she has produced so far, including her seat-of-the-pants experience shepherding Emily the Criminal from insufficient funds on day one of its shoot, to making Obama’s ‘Best Movies of 2022’ list.

“I found out the night before that we actually didn’t have all the financing,” she says, “and I had to make a really hard decision to either shut it down or to start shooting and trust that I could find the money while we shot. I believed in that movie so much that I said, ‘We’ll start. We’re not shutting down. We’re going to start tomorrow, and I will find the money.’ And I did.”

Directing is on the table, too. “I don’t need to take over the world,” Plaza says, “but I want to keep up a standard of quality for any movie that I decide to make. And I do want to direct. I’m very, very much going to do that.”

So how did working with Coppola influence or inspire her for the future?

“All of my instincts about directing and about making movies, I felt, were validated. All the things that are important to me, I felt like were important to Francis. And all of the instincts that I would have, I think, as a director, I felt that he was embodying them. So, me and him are just basically the same…” — she allows a tiny smile — ”I’ve met my match, finally in Francis Ford… No, that sounds obnoxious. I don’t mean it like that. I just mean I felt so inspired by him. And I think all of the things that I love about making a movie were all of the things that he loved about making a movie. I think that I will definitely carry that on when I direct a movie and remember that at the end of the day making the movie is just as important as the finished movie itself. Because he loved being on set and he loves the process of making it and playing. The thing that I was so impressed by, especially considering the enormous budget and the fact that it was all of his own money and time, and everything, was that he was not precious at all. You would think that if someone spent that much money on their own film that they would be so controlling and so particular about every single thing. But there was a real sense of collaboration and experimentation.

“We would do something that was off-the-cuff and weird, and Francis would say, ‘I like that, do that again.’ And then all of a sudden, the scene would change. And then all of a sudden, he would have another idea. And then all of a sudden, we’re shooting in a different location we didn’t even plan to shoot. And then the whole day goes by and you’re like, ‘I had no idea any of that was going to happen.’ So, I will definitely remember those moments.

“For me, movies are a spiritual experience. The movie itself is this living, breathing organism and you have to feed it and inspire it and nourish it and watch it evolve. And I think people that are so controlling about it, sometimes they lose that quality. Whatever the end product is, he’ll never lose that quality.”

In My Old Ass, Megan Park’s festival hit, set to premiere this fall, Plaza plays Elliott — a woman given the chance to meet her younger self. Older Elliott warns younger Elliott (Maisy Stella) not to fall in love. But, although armed with the truth of how badly it will hurt, young Elliott decides she is going to go ahead and do it all anyway.

This of course leaves one pondering the course of things, but Plaza, for her part, has absolutely no notes for younger Aubrey.

“I don’t have any regrets about anything like that,” she says. “I think what it really makes you feel is just how precious time is, and you can take comfort in knowing that it’s all happening for a reason.”

Perhaps then, all those early-on cosmic Coppola coincidences were happening for a reason, leading to what was meant to be?

But then came one more.

A few months ago, when Plaza was at dinner in New York, a woman passed by her table. It was Sofia Coppola.

“I don’t know her and I’m a huge fan of hers,” Plaza says. “She stopped and said, ‘I just saw my father’s film.’ And I was so scared, waiting to hear any kind of reaction. She said, ‘What you did in that movie was very impressive.’ She used the word ‘impressive’ in a way that I was like, ‘Oh, my god. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I’ll take it.’”

Now, on the eve of her very first Cannes, Plaza reflects upon it all. She’s starring in a film Francis Ford Coppola has wanted to make for decades, surrounded by chatter and buzz and the possibility of so much more to come. She smiles. “It’s unbelievable. It’s ridiculous,” she says.

If she, like Coppola, could do the thing she truly wanted, and make choices unfettered by compromise, what would she do? “I’d like to be the owner of a WNBA team in Philadelphia,” she says. “Women’s sports are the future.”

I don’t think she’s joking.

Source: Deadline