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.
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.]
Is your character in The To Do List different from April?
Yeah, The To Do List is gonna be fun because I’m not sarcastic, depressed, or weird in it. I’m a type-A, almost obnoxious kind of girl. I wanted to do something where I’m not the weirdo who’s in the back of the classroom for a change. I want to be the girl who’s in the front of the classroom raising her hand.
Growing up, were you the girl in the back of the classroom?
No, I was more like the girl in the front. I think that’s something people would be surprised about. Even though I’m similar to April in that I’m sarcastic or whatever, I was never “the sarcastic girl,” even when I was starting out. When I was doing sketch comedy, I was doing all kinds of characters.
You’ll say to yourself, 'I shouldn’t be watching a girl learning how to give a hand job.' But girls give hand jobs sometimes, so deal with it.
Was starring in Safety Not Guaranteed scary?
It was terrifying. That character carries the movie. My emotional arc had to make sense and get people through the movie. That part was actually written for me. It felt like an organic way to be a lead in a movie by taking on something I knew—at least the first part of the movie. The depressed intern? I definitely know how to do that. [Laughs.]
You say you want to be a leading lady, but that would mean you can’t hide out in your house anymore. Is that intimidating?
I don’t know. I kind of forget about that part, being famous. I’m not factoring it into my decision-making process. But, yeah, it would definitely suck if I wasn’t able to do normal things anymore. The goal is to have control over my career, and at this point I don’t have that much control. I’m not a big, huge star, so I don’t get to call the shots. I’m still hustling to get my next job. The goal is to be in a position where I can say, “I want to do that, and I don’t want to do that.”
Do you enjoy going on talk shows?
I’m getting better at doing interviews, but it’s not something I’m totally comfortable with. I try to treat talk shows like fun performance art pieces.
That’s clear from your talk show appearances.
People must think I have a plan. I end up being weird because I can’t be normal in those situations. You’re supposed to pretend you’re having this spontaneous conversation when, really, it’s all planned, and that goes against every instinct in my body. I can’t get on that rhythm, so it ends up being awkward. People must watch those shows and think I’m weird or on drugs. Half of them probably think it’s funny and the other half are annoyed.
That plays into the perception that you’re just like April on Parks.
I think about that, but then I try to remember that there’s nothing I can do about it. On talk shows, part of me wants people to like me! [Laughs.] I feel like shouting, “Like me, everyone!” But what am I gonna do? I just gotta do my thing.
Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a role?
I did everything in The To Do List. I never had to do a sex scene or anything too sexual before this movie, but I do everything in it.
Is it weird to think that men find you attractive?
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t have a great perspective on it. I didn’t grow up thinking I was attractive. I was cool, but not in the hot cheerleader way, so I don’t have that mentality. I definitely wasn’t killing it in the guy department back in school. [Laughs.] But I realized I could be the funny one, so I did that. The guy stuff didn’t come until later for me.
Do you relate to your character in The To Do List in that way?
I relate to her a lot, which is funny because she’s so annoying. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of stuff I tapped into from being 13. It’s a really weird age. I don’t think there’s ever been a good movie about a girl losing her virginity. I think it’ll rub some people the wrong way. It’s like this Superbad, American Pie teen sex comedy but from a girl’s perspective. So it feels very wrong. You’ll say to yourself, “I shouldn’t be watching a girl learning how to give a hand job.” But girls give hand jobs sometimes, so deal with it. [Laughs.]
You have a younger sister, Renee, who’s 16. She must be the perfect audience for the movie.
I’ve shown her the trailer. It’s pretty dirty. I showed it to a ton of my cousins in that age range. I wondered if guys would like it too, but all my guy cousins loved it. There’s so much penis humor. My sister liked it, but she was a little uncomfortable. There’s a scene where I’m masturbating angrily. How awkward must that be for her? [Laughs.] There’s a lot of stuff that will be weird for my family.
It seems like a good time to be a female comedian, what with HBO’s Girls and the post-Bridesmaids wave of female-driven projects.
We actually shot the movie before Girls and Bridesmaids came out. We shot it two summers ago. It’s taken a long time to come out. But maybe that’ll be a good thing. There’s still not as many good parts for girls, but it’s a good time for the movie because there’s been an ongoing discussion about girls embracing sexuality.
Comedians talk about how their comedy comes from a dark place of insecurity. Can you relate?
Yeah, totally. Growing up, I had a weird combination of insecurity and not caring about what people thought about me. That’s still how I am to this day. It’s a good thing. As things get bigger for me, that mentality will help.
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WATCH AUBREY PLAZA's EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW: