Amber Midthunder and Aubrey Plaza Stage a Very Elaborate SOS Call
If one were to present the love affair between Amber Midthunder and Aubrey Plaza in the form of a joke, this would be the set up: an ice road trucker and an evil hag walk into a Vancouver tea house.
Despite the comedic bent of both actors (Midthunder played an intrepid truck driver in her latest film, “evil hag” is Plaza’s Zoom and Twitter username) the pair’s relationship is altogether sincere. Plaza—an established presence in all manner of comedic productions, from satirical sitcom (Parks and Recreation) to spring break slapstick (Dirty Grandpa)—met Midthunder on the set of FX’s Marvel series Legion, where the two struck up a friendship while killing time off set in Vancouver’s Chinese tea parlors. For a then-18-year-old Midthunder, who was acting in her first major TV role, Plaza was the embodiment of a strong character both on and off camera. Plaza, despite being ten years Midthunder’s senior, “wanted to grow up to be just like Amber.”
For Midthunder, a member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe who was raised by film-industry parents, acting is as much about realizing her own creative ambitions as it is about carving out space for Native American and other BIPOC actors to play roles that are compelling in their own right, without necessarily addressing issues of identity at every turn. Even in the early stages of her career, the 24-year-old has hewed to this commitment with remarkable dedication, most recently in her role as a young female trucker who joins an all-male crew in their dangerous journey across a frozen lake in Netflix’s The Ice Road. Midthunder held her own opposite Liam Neeson and the tundra-like climate in which the film was set, securing her status as a new talent whose rise is imminent.
Nobody is more certain of Midthunder’s potential than Plaza. After spending three years working together on Legion, the duo’s connection is equal parts mentor-mentee, vaudevillian duo, and—as their conversation below shows—abductee and rescuer. To mark the release of The Ice Road, Midthunder hopped on the phone with Plaza to discuss the most elaborate SOS call of all time, her recent Hollywood arrival, and the pitfalls of acting in sub-zero temperatures. —MARA VEITCH
PLAZA: This is Aubrey Plaza coming at you from Verona, Italia.
AMBER MIDTHUNDER: Ooh la la.
INTERVIEW: I like that your Zoom name is “evil hag,” Aubrey.
PLAZA: You know, that’s just who I am and I’m not going to change it for Zoom, okay?
MIDTHUNDER: The only evil hag there is.
PLAZA: I am the evilest hag out there. You heard it here first. Amber, tell me where you are and what you’re wearing. Not in a shady way.
MIDTHUNDER: I feel like you should take me to dinner before you start asking those questions.
PLAZA: You’re right, I’m sorry. I knew I was going to fuck this up.
MIDTHUNDER: I’m sorry can we stop the interview?
PLAZA: Amber no, don’t do this. Give me another chance. Just tell me where you are in the world.
MIDTHUNDER: [To her PR] Can I say where I am in the world?
PLAZA: Oh my god, are you in an undisclosed location? Amber, do you need help?
MIDTHUNDER: Please free me.
PLAZA: This is the most elaborate SOS call—through our publicists, and through Interview. But really you just need me to come save you.
MIDTHUNDER: There is no movie. I just really need help.
PLAZA: Oh my god. Well I’m in Italy, but this isn’t about me. That’s why my internet connection is so Italian.
MIDTHUNDER: Why are you in Italy?
PLAZA: I just wrapped a movie yesterday that I shot here for the last month. So now I’m just coming down off the crazy rollercoaster. You know how that is.
MIDTHUNDER: Do you feel excited that it’s over?
PLAZA: I feel very relaxed now that it’s over. I’m glad we got to the finish line. But enough about me. When I think about Legion, the show that we were both on for three years. I think that the first time we hung out, we went to a flea market with Jean Smart in Vancouver.
MIDTHUNDER: I have a memory that we first hung out at someone’s house, and for some reason I was laying on the floor by a window.
PLAZA: I do remember you sprawled out on the floor by the window. And then I remember finding out that you were an expert in Chinese tea. We were living in Vancouver, and you found some old Chinese tea shop.
MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, it was a tiny little place where I would go on my hold days. I would spend literally six hours with that guy and his family.
PLAZA: I remember being like this woman is so much younger than me but so much more mature. I need to be just like her.
MIDTHUNDER: I have upped my game since then. I now travel with a Chinese tea set.
PLAZA: You animal!
MIDTHUNDER: Somebody stop me. My mom got it for me. It’s a little tea tray and there are smelling cups and drinking cups. It’s a whole universe, Aubrey.
PLAZA: So tell me Amber, did you bring this Chinese tea set to the Ice Road film set?
MIDTHUNDER: Oh, you bet I did. It was minus 50 degrees. That’s a real temperature that real people live in.
PLAZA: So, you’re telling me it turned into iced tea?
MIDTHUNDER: And that’s why she’s the evil hag.
PLAZA: Where did you shoot this movie, Winnipeg?
MIDTHUNDER: Yes. It was not minus 50 degrees every day, but that is a kind of cold where you cannot act. You can’t imagine or pretend.
PLAZA: How the fuck did you shoot like that?
MIDTHUNDER: Well, the story is set in Winnipeg. It’s about ice road trucking, and I got to play an ice road trucker with freaking Liam Neeson and Laurence Fishburne. So being able to shoot in Winnipeg was great. They made and actual ice road out on Lake Winnipeg. The whole story is about taking these trucks out on the ice road. Driving them so close together in such little time is very dangerous, I was like “who would do that? We’ll film this in a studio.” I showed up, and no. We were really driving trucks on an ice road.
PLAZA: Wait a minute, you were actually in a giant truck on an ice road?
MIDTHUNDER: Yes ma’am. Of course, we did it safely and it wasn’t actually like we were hauling anything. But it’s crazy the things that you get used to. People’s eyelashes or eyebrows would freeze. Our director had a mustache that literally had icicles hanging past his chin.
PLAZA: How many takes can you get before you’re like “okay, I need to go back inside”?
MIDTHUNDER: There was a day when it was so cold that I couldn’t open my eyes. And I remember being like, I don’t even know if I’m acting or just trying to survive. But that was the point of the movie.
PLAZA: Let’s get into the juicy stuff now. Which actors on set took it the worst? Who was the biggest baby?
MIDTHUNDER: Liam Neeson is unsettlingly tough. He’s exactly what you would imagine, except maybe better. He was so into it.
PLAZA: He’s like, “I just want to feel something.”
MIDTHUNDER: He actually had a scene where he went into the water, like under the ice, which is super dangerous. We had people there just in case, and they were these super Canadian guys with thick accents who wore these giant yellow suits that sealed everything except for their face. They were like, “Hey, just so you know, you have 60 seconds from when you enter the water to control your breath. After that, you’ll pass out. Then, you’ll begin losing your extremities. If we’re able to get you out, you’ve got one hour to get to the hospital before irreversible things happen. Okay! Have a great shoot.”
PLAZA: Liam’s a psycho. Isn’t it wonderful when you work with someone that famous and they’re everything that you want them to be?
MIDTHUNDER: That’s my experience with you, evil hag. I still get so many people who ask me “Did you really work with Aubrey?” Yeah bro, for like three years. It’s such a funny thing for me, and it’s the same thing as Liam. He has this aura around him of being Liam Neeson, but he’s just a big Irishman.
PLAZA: I forgot to tell you this story. I was in London two summers ago and I was having dinner outside and all of a sudden these paparazzi are freaking out. I looked over and it’s Liam Neeson, standing right in front of me. I’m in the background of these paparazzi photos just eating edamame and staring at him. I photo bombed him like crazy. Speaking of being close to the action, tell me what was it like to be in a fucking huge action movie.
MIDTHUNDER: Ironically, what I learned was that action does not always feel exciting. It was a lot of sitting in the cab of a truck with some guys. We were just driving back and forth on this ice road.
PLAZA: This just feels so unsafe, which studio made this movie? I’m really mad at them for putting my Amber in this situation.
MIDTHUNDER: Before I take my next job I’m going to run it past you.
PLAZA: I want you to run everything that you’re doing by me, young lady.
MIDTHUNDER: Yes ma’am.
PLAZA: Ok, I see it’s a Netflix movie, of course. Those bastards. So you were basically in Speed on ice?
PLAZA: I want to switch gears. How did you find your way into the industry?
MIDTHUNDER: My first job was a VW commercial. I played “child.” That was in the third grade. Both my parents work in the film industry, my mom does location casting and my dad is an actor. I was just around it a lot, but I didn’t really get it. As a kid, I would go to work with my dad and he would be dressed all crazy and everybody else was dressed normally and standing really far away from him. I was like, “I don’t understand this.” I don’t think that they particularly wanted me to do it.
PLAZA: That’s a thing with parents in the industry. Now you’re really fucking doing it, you’re in a huge movie and no one can stop you. You’re basically Liam Neeson.
MIDTHUNDER: I know.
PLAZA: What was the first gig that you got where you felt like, “wow, it’s happening. “
MIDTHUNDER: I did a day on the movie Hell or High Water, where I worked with Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster, and that really shaped me.
PLAZA: Tell me about Jeff Bridges. I want to be his friend.
MIDTHUNDER: You guys would have such cool conversations.
PLAZA: This is what I’m saying.
MIDTHUNDER: Interview Magazine, you need to set this up.
PLAZA: I’m going to manifest it—hello? Amber, I think your signal is bad.
MIDTHUNDER: Hello! Hello!
PLAZA: Now I’m scared, because you’ve told me you’re at an undisclosed location. Are you in ice water right now?
MIDTHUNDER: I am in a comfortable place, don’t worry about me. I have my teas nearby.
PLAZA: Did you make tea for Liam Neeson?
MIDTHUNDER: I might have. [Laughs] I just remembered that I bought a bunch of tiny little hot water bottles before shooting, and being like “I’m so smart and prepared.”
PLAZA: You’re like, “a hot water bottle and a nice set of china and I’ll be good to go.”
MIDTHUNDER: I am indestructible. I usually decorate my trailers with Christmas lights and photos and by the end of The Ice Road, my photos were all over the floor and I had one sad string of lights dangling.
PLAZA: You were in survival mode. It’s crazy what we actors put ourselves through isn’t it?
MIDTHUNDER: I want to hear something crazy that you’ve done.
PLAZA: My cold story is like nowhere near yours. You were literally on an ice road in Winnipeg, I was shooting Dirty Grandpa in Atlanta in March. It was a spring break movie, so me and Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron and Robert De Niro were in our bathing suits pretending it was summer, but you could see the cold air coming out of our mouths. And the costumers were like, “want a little swig of whiskey honey?” It basically got so cold that De Niro shut it down. Cause that’s the power of De Niro. But again, I’m talking about being in a bikini in a Georgia parking lot, you’re talking about Alaskan survival protocol. What else have I done? I got to shoot a sniper rifle, I rode a horse bare back while naked. I woke up in a pit and crawled out of it like a fetus baby. The things that we do for art.
MIDTHUNDER: We are artists.
PLAZA: Let’s talk about your Native American background, please. I did 23 & Me recently and turns out I’m 8% Native American, but I’m Taino, which is from the island of Puerto Rico.
MIDTHUNDER: That’s super rad. Let’s get into it. I’m lucky that I get to act because I like acting and that’s the selfish part of it, but I would also just act on the sidewalk, I just love acting I want to be acting no matter what. I saw a Jennifer Lawrence interview once where she said, “I realized that if ever a moment comes where people care about what I’m saying, I’d better have something important to say.” I was in no place where people were listening to what I said then, but I remember thinking that I want to have something to say too.
PLAZA: I love that. Because I’m an actor and people know who I am, I suddenly have this platform and are you supposed to do with that? There are people that do it really well, and I look up to them. If people are listening to you, why not try to make the world a better place.
MIDTHUNDER: I’ve watched you say things and advocate, and do it gently. Also, sometimes people don’t want to hear about the world from actors.
PLAZA: I know. I’m so sensitive to that. Like people don’t care what I think, but I guess at a certain point if you feel passionate about something, then fuck it.
MIDTHUNDER: Exactly. Whether or not I had an acting career, I would care about Native people. My grandpa worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and obviously the relationship between natives and the government is quite complicated. I was raised to think about my people, and how I can contribute. I think about it with every single role that I do, even Legion, because I feel like what’s cool about the roles that I’ve played is that that part of me has been incorporated, but it’s never the focus. Representation is so important because, look, we worked together and we’re friends. You know me as Amber who loves tea and whatever, and you don’t just think of me as your Native American friend, In so many people’s lives, I’m the Native American friend.
PLAZA: Oh, there goes my crazy Native American friend again, being all native American.
MIDTHUNDER: To be able to be the girl who has complicated relationships, or is a trucker, to play characters that incorporate my culture but also have an identity beyond that. I’m lucky to have played some pretty tough, strong characters.
PLAZA: Yeah you have!
MIDTHUNDER: To have a native character and have it be female and strong I think it just important for native people to see. For my family, or people on the reservation, I think that the more we see our own people doing things that we want to do, the more it breaks down the mental barrier to access. I also want to talk about the residential schools in Canada.
PLAZA: When I was working in Vancouver, we were shooting in one of those locations. Someone that worked there told us, “This place has a really fucked up past,” and I had no idea. That’s when I really started learning about it. People don’t fucking know.
MIDTHUNDER: People are so sad to learn that these kids were taken from their families and beaten to death, or left to starve, but they don’t realize how recent it was. My grandparents’ generation was experiencing this. It’s important to me to be able to represent something strong and forward-looking while also being a voice that reminds people that this history is there. I’m going to talk about it until I’m not talking anymore.
PLAZA: I hear you. It’s not always about playing characters where their ethnicity is their identity. I’m half Puerto Rican, and I remember when we were coming up with my character on Parks and Recreation, I wanted to show a different side of that identity and avoid the clichés.
MIDTHUNDER: Right. It’s not about hiding anything, its just… I’m like a native Navy Seal. I go undercover and I’m a fighter, I’m a trucker, and then—surprise— I’m a native!
PLAZA: You’re the fucking coolest. You have such an old soul. You’re fucking gorgeous and smart and wise, and I want to be like you when I grow up.
MIDTHUNDER: I want to be like you. When we met, I did not watch Parks and Rec— I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that.
PLAZA: I didn’t watch it either.
MIDTHUNDER: Before we met I didn’t know how it was going to go. But you were so kind to me, so protective over me, and you just said, “what do I need to do to help you, and how can I take care of you?”
PLAZA: Oh, I’d kill anyone that fucks with you.
MIDTHUNDER: I was so young, when we did the pilot I was 18. I was in Vancouver for the first time, and all my friends were close to their families or in and I was doing this crazy thing with no training wheels. When I met you, I remember just being like, “I’m all right, I’m safe.”
PLAZA: Oh god, I’m so old.
MIDTHUNDER: Yes, you are. Do you evil hags even age?
PLAZA: We live forever. Amy Poehler did the same thing for me. When I got on Parks and Rec I had never done anything before, and she swooped me up and was such a role model for me. We all need to watch out for each other.
MIDTHUNDER: You definitely paid it forward with that one.
PLAZA: You took it like a champ, and now you’re a fucking ice truck driver.
MIDTHUNDER: Aren’t you proud of me?
PLAZA: I’m so proud of you darling. But you’d better text me right now and tell me where you are.