It's Aubrey Plaza's 33rd birthday, and she's curled up on a couch in a deafeningly quiet, concrete-walled room at the Line hotel in Koreatown. She hugs her knees to her chest. Her T-shirt features a hyper-realistic image of Nicolas Cage's face, and I can just see his toothy, maniacal smile peeking out from between her legs — it's unnerving. Her hands fidget, knotting and unknotting a black string attached to a Santa Muerte charm. The actor hit stardom with her sardonic slacker character April on the NBC show Parks and Recreation and, like many TV stars on long-running shows, she has found it difficult to escape her monster creation. With a recent succession of mold-smashing projects — Legion, The Little Hours and Ingrid Goes West — she's about to leave April behind. But who will she become?
"If Andy Kaufman is alive, he should come and find me," Plaza tells me.
Kaufman is one of Plaza's greatest influences. The comic actor died from cancer in 1984 but he melted so deeply into his myriad personas that there are people who still believe he is alive and simply playing a long con on his suffering audiences. If you've only ever seen Plaza on the uplifting comedy Parks & Rec, the Kaufman reference may not immediately resonate for you. But to friends and colleagues, she is a Loki trickster who revels in absurdity.
"She's not just playing at being Andy Kaufman," Plaza's Legion director, Noah Hawley, tells me over the phone. "She is Andy Kaufman."
He shares the story of their first meeting: Plaza shows up 30 minutes late, on crutches, and immediately opens up about her quest to be a director on Parks and Recreation and her disappointment that they denied her the chance while letting the men direct.
"I said, 'That is wrong. They should have let you direct,' but then she said, 'Oh no, I just made that up. I didn't want to direct.'" Hawley sounds simultaneously exasperated and impressed when he speaks of Plaza. "There's a sense she's always testing you — I didn't even know if she really needed those crutches." She did, but that's another story.
On Legion, a show about a young mutant who's hospitalized for schizophrenia but realizes he may actually have powers (it exists in the X-Men universe), Plaza plays Lenny. She's a projection of the Shadow King, a psychic mutant who is a kind of gender-fluid parasite who possesses the bodies of others. Essentially, Plaza is playing up to four different characters — all of whom have varied mannerisms and speech patterns — in the same scene. Her performances are as unpredictable from take to take as the multiple characters she plays: Will she embody a power-hungry therapist, or will she break into a sexy, Fosse-style song-and-dance number?
"With her, you never quite know what's going to happen, and that's really for me very exciting," her co-star Dan Stevens says. "She's always kind of looking for the mischievous choice in the scene," which is hell on continuity folks and editors charged with making sure she picks up the coffee cup the same way in every take — that never happens. But Stevens and Hawley say Plaza's spontaneity precisely fits the show's tone.
"I needed someone who could be anything and everything in any moment," Hawley explains to me. "There's a sort of slippery quality this character has, very fast-talking. Part of this character's dance is about manipulating people and tricking them, and yet I really wanted her to be likable."
Plaza's had a lot of practice being abrasive but likable — most of the characters she plays fall into this category, from the diehard party girl of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates to Depressed Debbie in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress and perpetually annoyed Julie Powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But Hawley's casting of Plaza (and changing the character from male to female for her) has begun a small avalanche of projects that could finally leave her Parks & Rec charter behind and let Plaza become whoever she wants.
The Little Hours, a heartfelt nunsploitation period piece from Plaza's longtime romantic partner and creative collaborator, Jeff Baena, opened in June to rave reviews. Plaza not only stars in the film — alongside Alison Brie and Kate Micucci — but also earns her first producing credit.
"A lot of time you see actors getting producer credits, it's just a vanity title for them," Baena says. He describes watching Plaza naturally morph into the nurturing attitude of a producer, even using her day off to take actor Paul Reiser on a Tuscany tour — producers have to keep everyone on set happy. "Whatever she does, she takes it seriously. Ultimately, I think she's going to be a filmmaker with that heightened sensitivity."
Plaza describes that "sensitivity" as a manifestation of her tendency to "please" people, which is a double-edged sword: Acting and producing require a person to be highly attuned to others' needs, but what happens if you can't turn that off?
"I'm such a people pleaser that my natural reaction in interviews and things is to give people what they want. It's like I'm a robot," Plaza says. "'Oh, these people want me to say something weird or mean or sarcastic, so I just do that. That'll make them happy.' I'm just now getting better at feeling more comfortable in my own skin, but it can be hard when people are projecting ideas onto you at full speed, constantly."
But Plaza absolutely emphasizes that she knows her life is not achingly difficult. As a young artist who got cast on a popular network series simply by showing up to an informal meeting in shorts and a T-shirt to talk about the meaning of life and suggest that, hey, maybe a character could be a droll slacker, Plaza sometimes can't even believe that they let her on television back then. And if ever she were to get a big head, she says, her real family and her TV family were there to slap her back down to Earth.
"Nick Offerman knew every single person on set's name, [he] was the most generous man to be working with, and if I would have a bad day and be annoyed or acting like a brat or whatever, he would be the first one to say, 'Just remember we're on network television, and our lives are spectacular,'" Plaza says, offering an ace Offerman impression. "And I'd be like, 'Of course! Thank you. Fucking of course our lives are spectacular!'"
Still, this doesn't mean the road ahead to reinvent herself from past characters will be necessarily easy, but it seems the secret key to doing so is to expand her role as a producer. After The Little Hours, she read director Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith's script for the Instagram-stalker tragicomedy Ingrid Goes West and saw something special there. "I knew what it could be, and I wanted to make that happen — the script is never the final product," she says. Spicer agrees that Plaza's biggest role in production was pushing for "curve ball" casting choices, like O'Shea Jackson Jr., who most famously portrayed his father, Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton, as her character's nerdy but confident love interest.
"[The part] was written for a kind of dorky stoner dude, but I recognized that the chemistry I would have with O'Shea would be really different from something you usually see," Plaza explains. She'd met the rapper-turned-actor at a party and relentlessly waved the script in his face until he committed to the project. "I thought if we could capture that on camera, it would just make the movie that much deeper."
Plaza may be a trickster and comedic actor but she craves depth, and those things aren't mutually exclusive. Her entire life has been dictated by the motto: "Take it as far as it can go." The "it" could be anything — a character, a bit, a basketball team — because whatever Plaza does, it's gonna be sincere, even if it's just sincerely weird.
Along "Cult House Road," deep in the forest on the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, the skeletal trees lining the pavement angle outward, away from the road and their sun source. Through an overgrown path, there is a burned-out abandoned cabin, which is said to have hosted Satanic rituals, pagan animal sacrifices or DuPont incest weddings, depending on whom you ask. Something about this place seems wrong, even if you can't put your finger on exactly why. This is where M. Night Shyamalan shot The Village. It's also where Aubrey Plaza's mother, Bernadette, would drive her late at night on impromptu road trips with her cousins.
"We'd drive down Cult House Road, and she'd turn the lights off, and we'd all be screaming. My mom is kind of mysterious. She would always do weird things with us," Plaza says, taking a moment to think. "Maybe that's why I'm into witches."
Plaza was raised Catholic and attended an all-girls school in Wilmington, Delaware, with her two sisters. "The power of three is real," she says. She loved The Craft and doing silly spells, but she was also a teacher's pet (damn that need to please!) and class president. In true Plaza fashion, she took her presidential campaign as far as it could go, actually convincing a staffer from Republican senator Bill Roth's office to help her.
"He showed up at my school and was flyering and helping me with my posters, and I remember he helped me set up this archway with balloons at 6 a.m., so everyone who showed up that day had to walk through this thing to get into the door." Plaza shrugs. "Really bizarre. I was just a kid. But he helped me win."
What people most often miss about Plaza's sense of humor is that she doesn't enjoy "mean" comedy. Yes, she is deadpan, once showed up to a national TV interview wearing vampire teeth for no reason, and bewildered ESPN viewers with her re-creation of The Decision to announce that she was trading herself from her infamous Pistol Shrimps basketball team to the Spice Squirrels, but she insists she was never what you'd call a "bad" kid. She was and is a "thrill seeker."
In high school, she and her friend Neil Casey (Inside Amy Schumer, Ghostbusters) would stand on the side of the highway, dress in costume and toss a beach ball back and forth, simply to boggle passers-by. Plaza thinks her fascination with absurdity stemmed from growing up in such a conservative area. "It was satisfying to do something weird for weird's sake, with no purpose, to make people stop and laugh."
Her natural trajectory was comedy and New York. She graduated from NYU and went to work as an NBC page around the time that Amy Poehler was staffed on Saturday Night Live. "I like to think that I walked by her wearing an astronaut costume while she was making up lies to a group of tourists," Poehler wrote to me in an email.
By the time Plaza got an audition for Judd Apatow's Funny People in Los Angeles, Poehler had gone West herself and was prepping to lead her own sitcom with the creators of The Office. Plaza got that informal meeting set up with the Parks folks and quickly thereafter got the casting phone call that would change her life. Los Angeles became her home. And the Parks cast and crew became her new weirdo family.
"Leslie Knope was supposed to be April Ludgate's mentor, and so our first couple of seasons felt like that [in real life]," Poehler says. "But Aubrey Plaza, the person, is an old soul. Very wise. Always watching."
Plaza calls Poehler and Rashida Jones her "big sisters" and gushes about every co-star when asked. For a young woman who'd grown up in a tight-knit family with her two real-life sisters, landing in this supportive cast was something of a godsend.
"Looking back, I am blown away still by just that group of people being in one room doing comedy together, and everyone was a genuinely nice and lovable person," Plaza says. Then she picks up her phone that's been buzzing off and on for the duration of our interview. She holds it up to me and scrolls through an endless series of text messages just fast enough that I can't make out any single one. "Literally this morning, I got a text from every single person. We're on a mass texting chain, that whole cast, and someone will write on it at least every other day, and it's been years. I could show you hundreds of hours of texting. Aziz [Ansari] just sent me a ridiculous picture of him for my birthday. Everyone was commenting while we've been talking."
This adorable text chain feels every bit the real-life extension of the TV show. A large part of the appeal of Parks when it aired, and still today, is its earnestness and the feeling of joy amid darkness it evoked, which Plaza attributes to how pleasant things were behind the scene and how Poehler ran her set.
"I think most people at No. 1 on the call sheet, like Amy is, it's really hard for them to keep things in perspective," Plaza says. "It's easy to take on that No. 1 status and just have your ego take over, and Amy was just so always conscious of the vibe on set, and the idea of gratitude, and respect, but also having fun."
As Plaza has stepped into that No. 1 spot herself, she's tried to take to heart what she's learned from her mentors. But the problem with being a talented character actor zig-zagging from persona to persona with no stop in sight is that the self becomes malleable. "My biggest fear is that I lose myself," she says. Nowhere is that challenge more evident than in the endless press junkets and interviews she does to promote her projects. Seeing how fascinated people are with her personal life is deeply uncomfortable for her. People want to know who her celebrity BFF is, and Plaza has no desire to share yet still feels obliged to entertain. She's the kind of person who makes acquaintances easily but keeps her real friends close — she still calls her old high school pals on the phone to chat.
Even this interview brings a certain amount of discomfort to Plaza, which makes me want to apologize for even asking any personal questions — do I really need to know her favorite saint? (It's Bernadette, obviously.) She's uneasy with too much attention and especially wary of social media. "It's not real. It's just all in your head, so there's something kind of scary about it. I'm having all these interactions in my head. Physically, I'm just sitting in a chair."
But with all this in mind, it is absolutely no wonder that Plaza was drawn to her most recent project, Ingrid Goes West. The film taps into these fears she has about sharing personal information. Ironically, the actress delivers her most intimate, raw performance yet. Watching this film feels as if you finally know her. But, really, who the hell is Aubrey Plaza?
Actor Chris Pratt may know the real Aubrey Plaza.
"Aubrey is a survivor and alchemist. Her on-screen (and off-screen) personas are equal parts defense mechanism and performance art. She's tough and surprisingly complicated. The very best parts of her are yet to be discovered by audiences and most people. She would deny it, but beneath her signature eye rolls (and accessible to only the luckiest people in her life) is softness, kindness, pathos, creativity and vulnerability."
That's the heartbreakingly sweet assessment Pratt sent via email about his longtime Parks and Recreation co-star. And Pratt's right, because "most people" never will know Plaza. But audiences are now about to see a few new sides to her.
In Ingrid Goes West, Plaza plays a bereft woman with a bag of cash she inherited from her recently deceased mother. Her woeful social ineptitude renders her helpless, unable to reach out to others without becoming too attached to them; think Single White Female "lite" in the age of Instagram. Ingrid stumbles onto the candid photos of lifestyle influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and maneuvers her way into the stranger's life, forging a "friendship."
"I think the movie could have easily veered into the direction of being an indictment on social media, but I wanted it to be rooted in a human story about human connection," Plaza says. "It's about someone who really wants to have a connection, and they feel lonely and misunderstood, and that's a universal feeling for human beings."
Though Plaza jokes the trailers for the film suggest it is "a crazy, nonstop laugh express train to nowhere," viewers likely will be shocked by how emotional the story gets, or, rather, how emotional Plaza gets. Ingrid walks a tightrope of anxiety, juggling lies; when they catch up to her, her denial and subsequent breakdown turns this comedy into a tearjerker. The success of this film hinges on Plaza's ability to sell drama. And she does.
"There were times when she was in an emotional scene, and we did 20, 25 takes, and she would want to do more," Ingrid director Matt Spicer says. "I know a lot of people see her as [Parks & Rec's] April Ludgate, but I hope the takeaway from this film is that she's a real-deal actress."
Being a producer on Ingrid, Plaza was forced to watch herself in the dailies, poring over the footage. She says she never watches her own movies or interviews, so this was a little circle of hell for her, but she realized that through watching herself on screen, she was able to overcome her insecurities and simply judge a take on whether it accomplished a goal, not on whether she succeeded or failed. Spicer says she was a dream producer — a person who can deliver the impossible again and again, on and off the set.
"Making good movies is sooo hard. That should be the title of this article," Plaza laughs. But however difficult it is, Plaza seems energized by having creative control over her own projects. She tells me that she's never been in a place to be picky. Every role she takes is for a reason. ("Did I think Dirty Grandpa was going to be the best movie in the world? No. But you're telling me I've got a shot to play Robert De Niro's love interest? I'm in.") But more than anything, Plaza is excited to age; she's tired of playing a 20-year-old.
"In Dirty Grandpa, I played a college senior, and I was 30," she says. "I've always thought, 'God, when I'm in my 40s, I think I'm going to get some meaty parts.' But everyone is so obsessed with youth, so every movie is about 19-year-olds. I used to watch movies that had adults who were wearing blazers and high heels and going to work and dropping off their kid. Where did those characters go?"
Today, on Aubrey Plaza's 33rd birthday, she tells me she wants to bring the adult woman back into style. She wants to make action films. She wants to make funny films. She wants to revive the screwball romantic comedies of the 1980s, like her personal favorite, Romancing the Stone, maybe with Chris Pratt. (She cites Michael Douglas as another inspiration for producing that film when no one else wanted to make it.) She wants to be and do everything yet, she tells me, if she ends up like Adam Sandler's character in Funny People — "where I'm all alone and lost all my personal relationships" — well, it's not worth it.
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Next up for her is a bizarro comedy called An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, from Greasy Strangler director Jim Hosking. The script was so out-there that her agents had put it in their trash pile before she told them she thought it was genius. It's impossible to nail down exactly what Plaza will think or what she will like. Or who she is.
At the end of our interview, she gives me a hug. She's been candid and forthright with me in this brutalist hotel room for an hour and a half, and I'm surprised by how normal it all seemed.
An hour later, I'm at home, listening to my recording of our conversation, when I hear myself leave Plaza's hotel room momentarily. I left the recorder on while I was gone. Before I can speed through what I expected to be ambient sounds of shuffling, I hear a demonic voice growl coming from the recorder. "Satan-Satan-Satan-Satan!" it yelled. It was Plaza pulling another trick. Then I hear her deadpan voice emerge from the recorder again: "Hello? Hello? ... Huh, wow, that was weird."
Yes, Aubrey. Yes, it was.