The Parks and Recreation star gets serious in the crime drama Emily the Criminal
Playing an iconic TV character can end up freezing an actor’s career in amber, but for Aubrey Plaza, it was just the beginning. Her 2009 breakthrough in the NBC hit comedy Parks and Recreation, in which she played April Ludgate, the withering intern whose brown eyes were constantly rolling, has led to a long résumé of delightfully edgy women. Among the many roles she has played in the last decade are a social media stalker (Ingrid Goes West), a mischievous nun (The Little Hours), and a manipulative filmmaker (Black Bear).
“I only ever felt constrained by April when people were assuming that that’s who I was in real life,” Plaza says. “But that’s actually a gift, because then when I did something different, I had the ability to really shock people. They were so convinced I was this other person.”
It’s no surprise that the 38-year-old native of Wilmington, Delaware, is so comfortable catching people on the wrong foot. After graduating from an all-girls Catholic high school, she moved to New York, where she studied improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and her idols were similarly offbeat comedians. “I grew up loving Andy Kaufman and Charles Grodin, people who were always switching it up and being kind of strange,” she says. “It seems more interesting to me to veer off the path.”
This month she veers off the path again, in the indie thriller Emily the Criminal. Plaza stars as a tough-talking Jersey girl in a dead-end catering job who commits credit card fraud in order to pay off her student loans. It’s an intense performance, not played for laughs, in what Plaza, who also coproduced, calls “a revenge story for millennials.” On a call from Los Angeles, where she’s celebrating her birthday with her husband, writer-director Jeff Baena, after sneaking away from the Italian set of the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus, Plaza tells Hemispheres about the new movie, getting witchy with Amy Poehler, and her sometimes surprising, always interesting brand of comedy.
Emily the Criminal is a rare dramatic role for you. What about the film appealed to you?
It has this unapologetic energy. There was something really timely about it. Young people are overqualified and underpaid and drowning in student debt, and entering an economy that is not helping them out. The character is flawed, but you’re so with her. I just love complicated antiheroes. They’re the most interesting parts to play.
In the film, your character commits credit card fraud. Have you ever stolen anything?
I’m not going to tell you! No, no, no. I never got my kicks from things like that. I grew up with a very Roman Catholic mentality. I was afraid of the wrath of God. And, fortunately, I was never put in a position where I felt like I had to steal.
Emily feels like she has to break the law in order to survive. In your own career, do you think you’ve gotten ahead more by playing by the rules or breaking them?
A little bit of both. I don’t think I ever fully go off the rails and operate outside of the system because I’m too strategic for that. In order to get what you want, you have to play the game a little. But I try to do things my own way when I can. That’s always the challenge in this industry. If you do one thing well—for example, my character on Parks and Rec—then people start to assume that’s what you do, and those are the kinds of parts that you get offered. I’ve always had a desire to show people the side of myself they haven’t seen. I try to be patient and find things that really speak to me. As I started to work as a producer, I realized I don’t have to sit around and wait for the next thing to fall in my lap: I can have total control over my career.
A lot of projects have created roles specifically for you—even April Ludgate was written for you. That must be flattering.
I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea the weight of those initial meetings with the Parks and Rec people. You’re up for this big role—naturally you want to sell yourself. I wasn’t doing that. I was trying to authentically interest them in me. I think they thought that was refreshing and really odd. Like, why is this person not trying? I didn’t know any better.
In the beginning of your career, your comedy was so deadpan that it would sometimes throw people off in interviews or late-night appearances. You seemed comfortable making other people feel uncomfortable.
My own discomfort was dictating those moments. It was never intentional. I would never want to purposefully make other people uncomfortable. Those interview scenarios go against all of my impulses. I come from an improv background. The idea of pre-planning a conversation felt so wrong to me, because I was taught you can’t rehearse. You can’t plan a joke. I think I was almost more interested in having a truthful moment, even if it’s awkward and reflects weirdly on me, than trying to be likable.
Were you like that as a kid, too?
I’ve always been like that. I grew up in a normal suburban situation, so my friends and I were always trying to rebel against the everyday. What was funny to me was creating spectacles. We would dress up as cute animals in costumes and throw a beach ball around on the side of a highway just to make other people stop and wonder, Why this is happening? But it’s coming from a place of wanting to give other people a story, like, Oh, this weird thing happened to me today…
Speaking of potential awkwardness, you starred in and coproduced Black Bear, a cautionary tale about working with a spouse, but you’ve also worked with your husband on a few films, including Life After Beth. How do you and Jeff approach collaboration?
It’s historically really complicated to succeed at that director-actor marriage dynamic. It can create amazing art, but it can also destroy you as a couple. We’re really conscious of that. It’s a constant ongoing dialogue. I’m so happy that we’ve made so many films together, but we’ve had struggles. There’s this compartmentalization thing that has to happen where, OK, this is work, and we’re not going to bring our relationship stuff into it. It’s never easy, but I will say it’s gotten easier over the years.
Speaking of husbands, would you ever have imagined that your Parks and Rec spouse, Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt, would become a buff action hero?
I mean, maybe not in the first season, when he was wearing a leg cast and eating 17 bags of potato chips every day, but it all totally makes sense to me. With Chris, I wouldn’t call him a witch or a warlock, but I think he dabbles in the art of manifestation. He lived his life as an action figure superhero guy, and it came full circle for him.
And now you’ve got your own starring role in an upcoming action movie, Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, directed by Guy Ritchie. Did you enjoy working on that film?
It was incredible. I’ve always wanted to be in an action movie, so when I got the opportunity to star alongside Jason Statham, who is arguably the biggest action star working today, I was like, bull’s-eye. I grew up very sporty—I was always playing softball and basketball and volleyball. I’m way more athletic than people would probably assume. I got to flex those skills a little bit, which was really fun.
A very different interest you have that I wanted to ask about is witchcraft. The sequel to your children’s book The Legend of the Christmas Witch is coming out in October, and you once performed a moon spell at Megan Mullally’s house with Amy Poehler and Kathy Griffin. How seriously do you take the practice?
It’s partially this persona that is projected onto me. It’s not necessarily that I’m hexing people or that I think I have magical powers. It’s more ritualistic. There’s a lot of crossover with how I was brought up as a Catholic—it’s just a different language. That Megan Mullally party is a good example of my approach to it: It started as a joke, but once you go, OK, we are going to do this moon ritual, and we are going to stand in a circle and repeat things, it starts to not become a joke. You’re doing it. When you have multiple women together harnessing their power at the same time, you feel it and believe in it. Historically, that power has been scary for men. That’s why witches were burned at the stake.
We’ve talked about how people see you and how that has affected your career. When you were starting out, you briefly interned at SNL in the design department but never auditioned for the cast because you got a part in Judd Apatow’s Funny People. How do you think your career would have gone if you’d been on the show?
I’ll always wonder what my life would have been like if I’d properly auditioned. I put SNL on a pedestal. I grew up obsessed with it. I still watch it every week. I hope someday I’ll get to host it. But I don’t have any regrets about how things turned out.