aubrey plaza takes instagram-stalking to the next level in her new film
Everyone’s favourite deadpan, acerbic actress discusses her new film Ingrid Goes West, a disturbing tale of obsession in the age of Instagram that we’re surprised wasn’t made until now.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
The poster for the Sundance-winning film Ingrid Goes West looks like it’s advertising some kind of bubblegum LA fantasy -- the only suggestion of menace is the look in its star Aubrey Plaza’s eyes. Most articles about the actor point out how expressive they are. It’s true, they’re saucer-sized, they say a lot. They were put to good use while she was playing April Ludgate on TV comedy Parks and Recreation, everyone’s favourite unhelpful office assistant, lovably caustic, exceptionally deadpan and much meme-ified character. “Oh yeah. I was trained on Parks and Rec. With my eye acting. There was a lot of eye-rolling and subtle glances at the camera.” Eye acting -- yeah that’s definitely a thing. “'Eye-cting’ should be a thing. Like, me and Emma Stone. She's really good at eye-cting. She's an expert eye-ctor.”
Aubrey’s knack for sharp-edged comedy cuts deeper in Ingrid Goes West, for which she plays the titular character, and stars alongside Elizabeth Olsen as the archetype Instagram influencer, and the brilliant O'shea Jackson as Ingrid’s weed-smoking, Batman-obsessed landlord-cum-love-interest. The film earned Aubrey her second producer credit -- something she intends to wrack up more of.
Ingrid Goes West is definitely funny, but in a very uncomfortable, dark AF kind of way. It deals with the mundane horror of Instagram and imagines how awry it could go. Firstly, it’s a deft rendering of how Instagram has sucked into its Valencia-hued vortex everything from mid-century modern design and Joan Didion, to nature’s most photogenic output and basically all weddings, especially rustic ones. There they now live, cropped, softly blurred, hashtagged and converted into visual cliches, ubiquitous signals of living your best life.
When we first meet Ingrid, she’s unleashing serious rage on a girl she became obsessed with through Instagram. She has clearly got some issues -- it’s not made explicit what they are exactly, though she recently lost her mum. But the film resists reducing the story to simply the acts of an unstable young woman. Because, though Ingrid’s actions are next level and wince-inducing, she is a bit all of us really, #IamIngrid. “The cool thing about that character is that she's definitely an anti-hero and the things that she does are really extreme and questionable,” Aubrey agrees. “But you can relate to it in this weird way that's kind of scary.”
“She's definitely an anti-hero and the things that she does are really extreme and questionable, but you can relate to it in this weird way that's kind of scary.”
At its core Ingrid Goes West is about the human desire to connect with others, especially those who seem to have it all worked out, and to compare, both natural instincts that can become heightened and all-consuming -- maybe even exploited -- via the app. As Aubrey says, “It's a universal feeling for most people to want to connect with someone, or to feel misunderstood, or not good enough, or comparing yourself and wanting what other people have.”
After things come to a messy end with the first Insta-obsession we’re introduced to, Ingrid soon finds a new social influencer to become infatuated with -- Taylor Sloane played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is living a perfectly curated, brand-sponsored life and has the perfectly awful Insta tagline: “Treasure Hunter. Castle Builder. Proud Angeleno.” Her curated life is, of course, not quite real -- she’s never actually read the Norman Mailer book she says is her favourite, her husband’s awful art isn’t actually selling, and her propensity for thinking everything is “the best!” rings false. As Taylor quotes of Joan Didion in an Instagram post, “We tell ourselves stories to live.” We’ve always built our sense of self by the stories we tell about ourselves -- and the stories others tell about us. Now our stories are often being told online via Insta Stories and posts, and the ones other people tell about us -- they’re unfolding in the comments, likes and views we get or don’t get. This is especially true for those who’ve grown up not knowing life pre-social media. “It's like everyone's telling such a false story about who they are and what they're doing,” says Aubrey. “It's like Instagram has become a drug for people. Getting likes and getting followers, it's a rush of serotonin where you're like, oh this is making me feel good, but it's almost self medicating in a way. It's not really true joy -- it's just feeding on that part of your brain.”
Of course there is the world outside it, but it’s increasingly being sucked into the social media vortex. We make friends on it, stalk crushes and exes through it, plan holidays through it, and land or not land jobs because of it -- opting out doesn’t really feel like an option for most. It’s unreality is becoming entrenched in our day-to-day reality. So developing an addiction to it is hard to avoid. And the film is as much about addiction as it is about the pursuit of a desirable life. Ingrid scrolls and double taps and scrolls and double taps, she surveys her sad unphotogenic meal as she pauses on a post of artful avocado toast. She scrolls while she’s brushing her teeth, she does it unthinkingly, she refreshes and refreshes, checking and waiting. It’s excruciating to watch, it’s close to the bone.
Even successful and famous actors aren’t immune: “The movie was interesting for me because before that I didn't have a public instagram. I had a private one that I would really rarely use,” says Aubrey. “But I got into the habit of going on Instagram because when we were shooting the movie we had to, I was on Instagram when we were shooting those scenes. And I found myself, when the cameras weren't rolling, I would just be sitting there scrolling, scrolling, and allowing myself to go there for the character. But that weirdly trained my brain. So after that I got a public Instagram and I was in it. It sucks you in.”
“It's like Instagram has become a drug for people. Getting likes and getting followers, it's a rush of serotonin where you're like, oh this is making me feel good, but it's almost self medicating in a way. It's not really true joy -- it's just feeding on that part of your brain.”
The ending of the film is, no spoilers, but let’s just say it seemed to me to be pointing in a very ominous direction. “I think the scripted ending was kind of meant to make people think and be kind of like a big question mark, I don’t think they wanted to have it be clear either way, happy or sad, but for me, my personal preference is a happy ending and a hopeful ending and so I felt kind of conflicted about it,” Aubrey says. “But I think it does speak on culturally how social media is affecting young people.”
So, aside from the terrifying nature of social media, what else does Aubrey Plaza worry about? Career failure, ageism, sexism in the industry? “All of the above? I mean, I think I'm most afraid of just not growing and changing and doing something wildly different from the last thing I did. I try not to have my happiness be entangled with my ups and downs of my career. But I would say I just want to be able to be making really bold choices. As long as I can do that then I think I'm fine. I'd prefer to not get older, that'd be nice too. But then there's a part of me that's kind of excited to get older. Because I feel like when I'm in my 40s that's when I'll really hit my stride. I'll get to play some high powered attorney.”
Maybe if the acting thing doesn’t pan out Aubrey can become an eye-cting teacher, but how would she handle those not blessed with huge puddle eyes like her? “Then I'd be like look, you have tiny eyes, we're gonna have to do very small surgery. Expand your eye sockets. And I'm gonna have to do it myself. So take your clothes off and let's do this.” Take your clothes off, for the surgery?” I'm just brainstorming. How it would be if I was a doctor. But maybe I'd get fired right away.”
Oh, and for the record, Aubrey’s most used emojis are the daggers “I tend to throw three daggers a lot at people”, and the gritted teeth grinning face.
Ingrid Goes West is in cinemas from 17 November