The night before Aubrey Plaza and I met up, she went to the premiere of her latest film, Emily the Criminal, at the London film festival, and was surprised to see an old friend in the audience. It was Aziz Ansari, her co-star on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. “I hadn’t seen him in a really long time, and he lives here now and it was honestly like seeing a family member,” she says, her signature dry monotone belying the warm smile on her face.
What did they talk about?
“I was saying how sometimes I imagine, like, what if my career was happening to April Ludgate, would that be funny?” she says, referring to her supremely cynical-verging-on-nihilistic character on the show. And it is funny, thinking of April, who couldn’t be bothered to answer a phone, now producing and starring in acclaimed indie films like Ingrid Goes West and Emily the Criminal, as Plaza is. Thinking about any of the small-town characters from that star-making show – Tom, Ben, Ron – making it as big as the actors who played them have since (respectively, Ansari, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman) is surreal.
But of all the show’s cast members, it’s Chris Pratt, who played dopey Andy Dwyer, who has had the most unexpected career trajectory, going from doughy unknown to chiselled action star.
“I was joking about this with Aziz. Like, imagine if Chris’s career was happening to Andy. That makes sense now, right? And of course – of course – Andy would end up marrying a Schwarzenegger,” she says, referring to Pratt’s real-life wife, Katherine Schwarzenegger (yes, as in, daughter of).
Today, Plaza is in a London hotel suite, dressed in a camel-coloured short skirt suit with a tan jumper and brown boots. She has just finished filming the wildly awaited second series of The White Lotus, and there is also an upcoming, and slightly improbable, Guy Ritchie film, Operation Fortune, in which she stars alongside Jason Statham and Hugh Grant. And yet, despite all the colour coordination and professional polish, it takes a few moments to not see April Ludgate, the world’s most sarcastic intern, who asked where she got her haircut replied: “Prison.”
This is a common mistake people make with Plaza and she knows she hasn’t helped matters. There are multiple YouTube compilations of her April-like appearances on US talkshows with titles such as “Aubrey Plaza is really WEIRD and AWKWARD. I love it!” Whereas most celebrity appearances on those shows are full of carefully scripted cheese and schmooze, Plaza’s are more in the vein of Andy Kaufman, the late comedian who preferred uncomfortable silences over easy laughs. “I don’t know many people from Delaware,” David Letterman once said to her, after asking where she is from. “Thank you,” Plaza replied with half-held breath, as if taken aback by his comment (Letterman paused and then laughed in surprise). “What’s your red carpet strategy this year?” Conan O’Brien asked her. “I’m just gonna get as drunk as I can and deny, deny, deny,” she replied.
“Each time I think, ‘Just surrender to the process, go with it.’ But I always go off script because I’m desperately trying to have a real moment there and even if it’s uncomfortable, I prefer that to doing something fake. Because that’s what makes me uncomfortable. So I end up doing a character,” she says.
So she’s not naturally like that, gleefully confounding people’s expectations?
“No, I’m a total people pleaser, and it’s something that I’m dealing with in therapy. I think that might come as a surprise to people because they project on to me this disaffected persona. But I totally care what people think, and I wish that I didn’t. I wish I was more like Emily, in fact, and it was really good for me to play that character because it reminded me that I can assert myself, and I can set boundaries and stuff, because I’m really not good at that,” she says.
Written and directed by John Patton Ford, making his debut feature, Emily the Criminal is a tense, smart film. Plaza plays Emily, a gifted artist stuck in a deadening food-delivery job that offers no protections, no security and little pay. She tries to get something better but an old conviction for assault makes that impossible. The closest she gets is the offer of an internship at an ad agency, but when she finds out that it’s unpaid and she protests, the boss (Gina Gershon) tells her she’s spoiled. A colleague at the food delivery company puts her in touch with Youcef (Theo Rossi), an immigrant who has figured out a quick way to make an illegal buck, and Emily – ground down by student debt so large she can’t even pay off the monthly interest – is in.
“I loved how cathartic the story is, especially for young people in America who are drowning in debt. So it felt like an opportunity to do something that could really mean a lot to someone, that they felt seen in a way,” Plaza says.
Emily fits into a roster of intriguingly original characters she has played who have sharp corners and awkward angles – the kind that would be described by a film studio as “unlikable”. There was the obsessive Ingrid in Ingrid Goes West, who stalks and befriends an Instagram influencer (Elizabeth Olsen); the sadistic nun, Sister Fernanda, in the black comedy The Little Hours, which was written and directed by Plaza’s then boyfriend and now husband, Jeff Baena; the cynical journalist Darius in the endearingly quirky Safety Not Guaranteed; and, of course, there’s April.
“We’re so used to accepting male characters who are unlikable and flawed and we just watch them do their thing. But with female characters, we’re conditioned to analyse them and want them to be likable. I think it’s cool to normalise the female antihero because women do questionable things, and you still like them. To me, it’s not about likability, it’s about relatability, and if you create a fully fleshed out character, people will see something in it that they relate to,” she says.
But isn’t it hard to get a movie greenlit if the woman isn’t obviously likable?
“Maybe at a [film] studio, and this one wouldn’t have had a chance at a studio because there would have been too many notes about likability. But that’s why independent films are the best, because we don’t have to listen to those people and we can do whatever we want,” she says with a barely suppressed “ha ha ha” in her voice.
As well as starring in the film, Plaza produced it, and previous films that she produced include some of her best work: Ingrid Goes West, the very dark and meta Black Bear, and the upcoming FX animated series Little Demon, in which she plays the ex-wife of Satan, voiced by Danny DeVito.
“It was never a conscious choice, like, ‘I will be a producer.’ It was more like I became a producer because I cared too much [how the movie turned out]. And it’s really fun – it’s fun for my opinion to matter,” she says.
How was it working with DeVito?
“Oh my God, what an asshole,” she deadpans in full April mode, and then drops it. “I love him. He’s just funny and it’s a non-stop funny, funny time. I think this is the first cartoon for which people have gone method because whenever we meet up we talk like we’re an old, bickering divorced couple because we’re both so corny and ridiculous.”
Plaza grew up in Delaware, the daughter of an Irish-Catholic mother and a Puerto Rican father. “I was definitely the only Puerto Rican doing competitive Irish dancing,” she says. She was born when her parents were 19 and she remembers them going to night school to get their professional qualifications (her mother is a lawyer and her father is a financial adviser).
“My two younger sisters are a lot more like April than me, whereas I was more like Lesley Knope,” she says, referring to Amy Poehler’s hard-working character in Parks and Rec. “My parents are very ambitious and they came from nothing. So I grew up watching them work really hard to get to where they are today, and as a child I had this hunger to make a name for myself.”
Plaza discovered acting as a shy child when she happened to audition for community theatre and fell in love with doing characters: “I felt like, I don’t know, I could just survive better or something. And then I never thought about doing anything else.” After studying film production at New York University, she interned at Saturday Night Live and soon after that, barely out of her teens, she flew to Los Angeles to audition for Judd Apatow’s film Funny People, which she got. She was then asked to meet with producer, writer and director Michael Schur, about his upcoming project, following on from his success with the US version of The Office. The casting director described her as “the weirdest girl I’ve ever met”.
“I have no idea what I did in that meeting to weird them out so badly. But I think I just didn’t realise what a big opportunity this was for me. I had never been to Hollywood before. I was a huge fan of The Office and this meeting was on the set of The Office, and I was so distracted by all the famous people walking around, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s BJ Novak! And Mindy Kaling!’ I think maybe they were more used to normal actors who seem like they are actually trying to get the job.”
Plaza, of course, did get the job, and, despite ending seven years ago, Parks and Rec has endured in pop culture, to the point that during the pandemic the cast did a reunion Zoom to cheer people up. Few shows were as comforting to rewatch during the bleak days of lockdown as Parks and Rec, which managed that near impossible trick of being cheerful but never cheesy, smart but not snarky. But surely she is tired of annoying people like me asking about a show that ended so long ago?
“I don’t ever mind talking about it. It was kind of this unique thing where we actually knew how special it was as were making it, and a lot of that came from Amy. She was the producer and number one on the call sheet and whoever is number one, that’s the energy that informs the vibe of the set.” There is still, she says, a Parks and Rec cast members text chain, where they all check in with each other a couple of times a month: “[This summer] we were all congratulating Adam and Amy on their Emmy nominations. We’re incredibly supportive of each other,” she says, referring to Adam Scott’s best actor nomination for the Apple+ series Severance and Poehler’s for best director of a documentary for Lucy and Desi.
When I interviewed Poehler in 2015, shortly after the show ended, she told me that she, Plaza and Rashida Jones, who was also in Parks and Rec, regularly hung out together. Does that still happen?
“Oh yeah, we are incredibly close. It’s like family. And there’s also Kathryn Hahn [who appeared in the show occasionally]. During the pandemic we’d all meet up and hang out in Amy’s yard. I’m an older sister, so they are like my big sisters, and Amy never had sisters, so she’s always like, ‘You guys are my sisters.’ Rashida has sisters but, you know, not like us,” she smiles.
Plaza says the mistake people keep making is that they confuse her shyness for weirdness: “Maybe it confuses people that I just don’t take things that seriously. You see actors all the time who take themselves so seriously and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re talking about a movie. I try not to lose that spirit because it’s got me where I am today. Seriously, we’re all gonna die one day.” April couldn’t have put it better.