Nobody nails deadpan humor better than Aubrey Plaza. But as the Parks and Recreation star enters her career’s headlining phase, she’s out to prove she can do more than droll eye rolls.
This feature appears in Complex's April/May 2013 issue.
Aubrey Plaza had a really good feeling about this one.
Scrolling through the options on her iPhone’s Petfinder app late last year, the sardonic, scene-stealing co-star of NBC’s hit sitcom Parks and Recreation knew she’d find the perfect dog in “a spiritual kind of way.” When she came across a Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever, the 28-year-old actress/comedian felt a connection.
The brown-haired pooch, whom she named Frances (her childhood hero Judy Garland’s government name), came with a touching backstory. Frances was rescued from a construction site, where she took care of a second, pregnant canine. Frightened around people, Frances was adopted by owners who sent her back a week later for being perpetually freaked out.
“I’m teaching her how not to be scared of everything,” says Plaza. “She’s a lot like me: She doesn’t like to be around too many people. She likes to be home doing quiet activities.”
It’s a picturesque late-January afternoon in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Joggers with iPods sprint past couples walking hand in hand and women pushing baby strollers. Today is the first time Frances has been in a crowd since Plaza adopted her two weeks earlier. Any attempt to pet Frances—by anyone other than Plaza, that is—is met with lowered ears and startled eyes. As Plaza sips on an iced mocha, a little girl asks if she can “pet the puppy.”
“She’s a baby,” says Plaza, “so she’s a little nervous.” As if on cue, Frances cowers from the pint-size stranger’s fingertips like they’re Freddy Krueger’s razor blades, before retreating to Plaza’s side.
Plaza can relate to Frances’ leave-me-be mood. Raised in Wilmington, DE by a Puerto Rican financial advisor (her father, David) and an Irish attorney (her mother, Bernadette), Plaza attended NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, where she “didn’t make any friends” but did secure an internship at Saturday Night Live. After landing a spot in the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe, Plaza scored prime roles in Judd Apatow’s dramedy Funny People and the aforementioned Parks and Recreation before moving to Los Angeles in 2009.
Unlike April, [Aubrey] is really open and light and a secret goofball. Plus, she’s part witch, so she can turn you into dust. Watch what you say about her.”
“I’ve always been outgoing, but I’ve never been social,” says Plaza, who likes living in L.A. because “I get to hang out at my house and hide.” Those days may soon be over. Parks and Recreation is now in its fifth season, and her role as the perennially disinterested April Ludgate keeps her away from home 12 hours a day. The show’s success has made her increasingly in demand. Last year, Plaza led the quirky, critically adored indie time-travel flick Safety Not Guaranteed. This August, she’ll star in her biggest movie yet, the raunchy, R-rated comedy The To Do List, in which she plays a high school valedictorian who vows to complete a series of sexual acts before beginning college.
“Aubrey always makes surprising choices,” says her Parks co-star Amy Poehler. “She took the character of April and made her this multi-dimensional person. Scary and soft. And always hilarious. Unlike April, she is really open and light and a secret goofball. Plus, she’s part witch, so she can turn you into dust. Watch what you say about her.”
Plaza has been known for her work in Funny People and Parks, playing characters that require her to, in her words, “come into a couple scenes, say some funny shit, and then peace out.” Now she’s ready to become a comedic headliner. “I want to be a leading lady,” she says. “I want to just go for it, Sandra Bullock style. I know I can do it.”
How long have you wanted to be an actress?
I always knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be both a comedian and an actor. I got really into Saturday Night Live. I became obsessed with the idea of being on that show. I started doing improv. I always had a goal. I never had a time in my life where I thought, I don’t know what I want to do. It was always me saying, “I know what I want to do and I want to do it now!”
What did you like about Saturday Night Live?
My mom would let me stay up late to watch it. When I was younger, it had that really good cast, with Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon. I remember watching it and thinking, Those people get paid to do that? That must be the most fun thing ever. So I was like, I’m definitely going to put all of my energy into trying to do that.
While interning at Saturday Night Live, were you able to learn anything about comedy?
Yeah, totally. I felt like I was undercover, learning about everything. I read every sketch. I was stealing script pages and putting them in my bag. I would take them home, study them, and say to myself, “So this is how you write a sketch!”
Were you ever able to chat with the other cast members?
Not really. I could have, but I'm not really like that. I was kind of quiet. I just wanted to do my thing and not get into anyone else's space. Amy [Poehler] was working there that season and I never once talked to her.
When you started on Parks, did she remember you at all?
No, but I told her. She was like, “Oh, my God!” She kind of recognized me, but I didn't really talk to anyone at that time.