Actress Aubrey Plaza’s naturally deadpan personality is so entertaining, the role of April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation was based entirely on her dry wit and trademark sullen stare. Here, the up-and-coming Hollywood hotshot opens up about funny women, famous feminists, and facing death
“What’s my cover line gonna say?” Aubrey Plaza asks as we walk down a sun-drenched Los Angeles street after a leisurely weekday brunch. “Wait, I can guess: ‘In one roll of an eye…’ or some bullshit,” she says, affecting a reporter-y tone before breaking character with a laugh. It’s funny because it’s true. The 28-year-old actress is famous for playing disaffected young women, and thanks to her most well-known role—as sullen intern–turned–reluctant government employee April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation—her impeccable eye roll has become a signature move. But Plaza is so much more than a sardonic celebrity with a dark sense of humor. She’s also a greatly needed pop-culture poster child for smart, sarcastic girls who would rather give stereotypical expectations the finger than conform to any role society would have them play.
Take, for instance, Plaza’s appearance at June’s Critics’ Choice Awards, where she accepted the Best Actress in a Comedy Series statuette for her Parks and Recreation co-star Amy Poehler, who couldn’t make it. “On behalf of Amy,” she said, taking the stage in front of the industry’s most reputable stars, “I’d like to, um, thank the devil and all the dark lords who gave her this award and allowed her to feast on the flesh of the innocent.” She didn’t even crack a smile. And if you Google “most awkward interview ever,” her 2010 appearance on Good Day New York is one of the first videos to pop up. She starts the segment wearing a set of fake Halloween-worthy teeth, and stymies the anchors with smart-alecky answers in response to their cheesy banter. They just don’t know what to do with her. Which is part of what makes Plaza so awesome. If you get it, she’s a genius. If you don’t, the joke’s on you.
It’s a talent she’s parlayed into a number of odd-girl roles, from an up-and-coming comic in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, to the temperamental Julie in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, to the foil of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen’s feminist-bookstore workers on Portlandia, to the lead in this year’s most unconventional romance, Safety Not Guaranteed. But it’s Plaza’s Parks and Recreation part that was written especially for her, so I’m already quite familiar with her subdued demeanor and deadpan wisecracking when I flag her down at Little Dom’s, a classy Italian joint in her Los Feliz neighborhood. (She lives nearby with her boyfriend, screenwriter Jeff Baena.) What I don’t expect is her endearing mix of self-assuredness and vulnerability. One minute she’s telling stories about making ballsy Hollywood moves (like suggesting to the Parks and Rec creators that they invent a whole new character for her after just having met them), and the next, she’s looking at me with a nervous glimmer in her huge brown eyes and saying, “I can’t believe I’m gonna be on the cover. I’ve never been on a cover!” By the end of our conversation, we kind of forget the whole interview pretense and simply shoot the shit about Tina Fey (“She’s the fucking bomb. She’s, like, my hero”), the dreadlocks Plaza donned for an upcoming role (“I consider myself a young Meryl Streep, always changing my look”), and our mutual love of dogs (“I got stoned last night and was on Petfinder for, like, three hours”). When we get settled into an oversized booth, a double soy latte is the first thing she orders. “This is gonna change everything for us,” the self-proclaimed coffee addict says when it arrives. “So get ready.”
“Even when people recognize me, it’s usually younger girls, and I hear a lot of times from friends and family, ‘Oh, my niece is a fan of yours.’ At first I thought, That’s so weird. But then I remembered that when I was younger, the people I gravitated toward were, like, Janeane Garofalo. She was so big for me because she made it OK to be sarcastic and smart and wear glasses and not be a cheerleader. I think maybe I’m a version of that now.”
This is the same sentiment someone could’ve expressed to Plaza back in 2008, when a weeklong visit to L.A. kick-started her career. She’d graduated from NYU’s film school, where she studied directing and writing, and was doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade when the opportunity to audition for Apatow got her on a plane to the West Coast. That netted her breakthrough role in Funny People, and several days later, what she thought was a simple meet-and-greet with Parks and Recreation co-creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur resulted in her being written into the pilot. In fact, in the original pilot script, the unenthusiastic intern for the Pawnee parks department was named Aubrey; they later changed it to April. “It’s not a normal way to get on a TV show,” she says. “Those guys took a risk on me. I was really lucky.”
After getting to know Plaza, however, I realize her success has more to do with determination than luck. “Honestly, I’ve wanted to act for as long as I can remember,” she says. “And my mom, I have to credit her. She was really into SNL back when the cast was really good. It was the Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon era, so that was like my first ‘Oh, my God!’ moment.” She pauses to suck down the last of her latte. “And I was obsessed with movies. Weird movies would make me want to act. Like, do you remember For the Boys with Bette Midler? It’s such a weird reference, but I would see random movies, and they would affect me. For some reason, I was like, ‘Yes, I want to do that. I want to sing for the army!’” she says, in a faux-dreamy voice. It’s this offhanded humor that sets Plaza apart from the majority of today’s young Hollywood actresses. But for her, it began as a way to fit in. “I’d say around middle school I started being funny socially, because of how insecure I was,” she says. “I realized, ‘Oh, this can save me.’” I’d venture to guess that her current presence in pop culture is saving a whole new generation of girls. When I suggest that she’s becoming an alternative girl-culture icon of sorts, like the cartoon character Daria come to life, she totally gets it. “I have younger sisters, they’re 15 and 20, so I feel like I’m connected to younger girls,” she says. “Even when people recognize me, it’s usually younger girls, and I hear a lot of times from friends and family, ‘Oh, my niece is a fan of yours.’ At first I thought, That’s so weird. But then I remembered that when I was younger, the people I gravitated toward were, like, Janeane Garofalo. She was so big for me because she made it OK to be sarcastic and smart and wear glasses and not be a cheerleader. I think maybe I’m a version of that now.”
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By Lisa Butterworth
Photographed by Emily Shur
Makeup by Roz Music/The Magnet Agency
Hair by David Gardner/Solo Artists
Styled by Jessica Paster/Crosby Carter Management
Nails by Beth Fricke for O.P.I./ArtistsbyTimothyPriano.com
This interview appears in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of BUST Magazine.