Did comedy come naturally to you?
I guess so. I was always trying to make people laugh.
How would you make people laugh?
I looked at everything as an opportunity for comedy. Like, instead of doing my school assignment normally, I would beg my teacher, “Can I please make a movie?” I’d turn it into a video assignment and do something crazy. I’m still like that. When I was living in New York, I would only take jobs that could be funny—never for practical or smart financial reasons. I’d be like, “It would be hilarious if I worked in a bowling alley.”
What sparked your interest in Upright Citizens Brigade?
I was online, researching how people got on Saturday Night Live. [Laughs.] I saw that if you were in L.A. you did the Groundlings, and if you were in New York you did UCB. I knew that Amy Poehler started UCB, and Tina Fey and a lot of other people did it. I had a couple of older friends taking classes there who were like, “This is the place to be,” so I knew I needed to be there.
When I was living in New York, I would only take jobs that could be funny—never for practical or smart financial reasons. I’d be like, 'It would be hilarious if I worked in a bowling alley.'
You went to NYU for film school. When did comedy become more appealing?
Filmmaking is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s something that I’m still planning on doing. I just let the winds take me where they take me. The comedy stuff started working. There’s no set way to be an actor. People are always asking me, “How do I get an agent? How do I do stuff?” It’s kind of like the Wild West: every man for himself. But UCB was a structured program I could see results from.
The biggest result so far has been Parks and Recreation. Didn’t co-creator Greg Daniels write the part of April Ludgate for you?
Yeah. I came out to L.A. to have a couple meetings, and one was with Greg Daniels and [Parks co-creator] Mike Schur. They hadn’t written the script, they just had a general idea of what it was. So I met them way early in the process. The only people attached to the show were Amy, Rashida [Jones], and Aziz [Ansari], but they didn’t even know their characters yet. I didn’t realize how important that meeting was. [Laughs.] I was like, “Hey, I’ve never been to L.A., so whatever.” I showed up in jean shorts and was just a weirdo.
Clearly, it worked out for you.
We started talking casually, and I threw out a couple of ideas. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they had a college intern who didn’t really want to be there and was only there for the college credit?” And they said, “That’d be really funny.” I found out later that they wrote me into the pilot, and they even used my name. But then I had to audition for it. I just went in and read on tape, but they changed the character’s name from Aubrey to April so I wouldn’t think that it was written for me. [Laughs.] I pretty much had it in the bag, but I didn’t know it.
How has Parks helped you grow as an actor?
It’s taught me everything. The biggest thing is gaining experience from doing it every day, so getting to work on the show for so many years has been the best thing for me. And it’s nice that the character I play on that show is pretty close to home. It feels like a part of me, something I’ve created. When I do movies or other projects I can say I want to do something different.
So the strategy is to find characters who are nothing like April?
The strategy is a good script and a good director. [Laughs.] Which you think would be a no-brainer, but it’s hard. It’s a crap shoot; you never know what you’re gonna get. A couple things I’ve done have a similar vibe to April. I got caught up in that for a while. People would say, “She just does the same thing all the time,” but I’m me, so whatever I do is going to be a part of me.
You’re aware that people pigeonhole you as this one-note, deadpan comedian?
One Safety Not Guaranteed review said, “Even Aubrey Plaza would have to roll her eyes at it.”
Of course. The first thing everyone saw me in was Funny People, and then I did Scott Pilgrim and then Parks. Those three characters all have a similar fuck-you attitude. I’m good at that because I have that attitude myself. [Laughs.] But it doesn’t mean that’s all I can do. Those are just the parts I got. I try to look at it as a positive thing, as an opportunity to surprise people. If people have those expectations of me, it’s fun to do something totally different. I can be like, “OK, so how about this kind of fuck-you character?” [Laughs.]