We're bringing some of our favorite BUST articles from the past online as we prepare to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Here's our Oct/Nov 2012 cover story with Aubrey Plaza.
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."
Just because Plaza wasn’t a cheerleader doesn’t mean she wasn’t popular, though. “I’ll admit,” she says, “I was actually not a loner or anything in school. I was popular because I was nice to everyone and I was also into a lot of activities and clubs—a lot of dorky stuff. At the school I went to, it was cool to be smart.” That school was Ursuline, an all-girls Catholic school in Wilmington, DE, where Plaza grew up as part of huge family, Puerto Rican on her father’s side and Irish-Catholic on her mother’s. “I think that environment shaped me a lot,” she says of her school. “I never cared what I was wearing, and I didn’t care what I looked like—I didn’t have to, because we all had uniforms. And I was never distracted by guys, either. Ursuline was very feminist and all about ‘Girls can do anything! Girls can take over the world!’”
When I ask if she identifies as a feminist now, she gives me a quintessential Plaza response. “No, no, I hate women,” she says with a smirk, breaking into a laugh before she can even get the sentence out. “I definitely have it in me, because that’s just how I grew up. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Mary Wollstonecraft; she was one of the very first feminists ever. My friend and I were always making videos, and we made this movie called Mary Wollstonecraft and the Renaissance Rangers. It was like a Power Rangers spoof, taking all these historical characters out of context. Mary Wollstonecraft, Robespierre, and Marie Curie—they would all fight crime together. This is the kind of stuff I used to do,” she says. “One time I showed up at a school dance dressed up like [Wollstonecraft]. So yeah, if that answers your question.”
The high school realm is something Plaza got to revisit while shooting her upcoming movie, The To Do List (due out early next year), which she says is like a female version of Superbad. In it, she plays an overachiever who decides to gain some sexual experience before heading off to college. “That movie will either be the end of me and my career or not. I really went for it. I do every sexual thing you can think of in one movie,” she says. The film was written and directed by Maggie Carey, whose husband is SNL ace Bill Hader and whom Plaza has known since the two took classes together at UCB. From what Plaza tells me, it sounds like a movie women have been waiting on for a long time. “Even though you see movies all the time with guys learning how to have sex for the first time, when it’s a girl doing that, people think, ‘Oh no, no, it’s bad, we shouldn’t watch this.’ That’s why Maggie wrote it. Most girls learn to touch a penis at some point, and it’s weird. Hello! It’s weird,” she says emphatically. “But it happens, and no one’s talking about it. So maybe this movie will offend everyone, but it could also be important for girls.”
I have no doubt that Plaza will continue making movies that are important for girls, particularly since writing and directing are also on her to-do list. It’s just a matter of finding the time. “That’s a constant struggle for me because I want to write so badly,” she says. “It’s hard to sit around and wait for a great part to fall in your lap.”
Thankfully, she’s already got a great recurring part on Parks and Recreation, and when we meet, it’s a month before she’ll be back on set, filming season five—something she can’t wait to do. “I hate not working. This morning is a good example of why I need to be at work. When I don’t have to get up at 5 a.m., I can’t function. I’m, like, in my pajamas right now,” she says, tugging at the black tank top she’s wearing with gray yoga pants. When I ask if she’s got any spoilers she can share about our favorite Pawnee residents, she swears she’s as in the dark as I am. “I really don’t. Amy literally texted me this morning, ‘Oh my God, have you heard from Mike Schur about the season-five details about April? You’re gonna freak out.’ I’m like, ‘No! No one tells me shit!’” she says, fake-slamming her fist on the table.
Even when she’s pretending to be upset, Plaza seems pretty unflappable, which belies the anxiety problems she’s talked openly about in the past. “There’s just a constant stream of thoughts. A lot of worrying,” she told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast last year, also citing the stress-related migraines she used to get. “So, you’ve been anxious your entire life?” he asked. “I guess, yeah,” she responded.
When I ask if her recent successes have alleviated some of the stress associated with “making it,” she sets me straight. “No, I’m totally still…it’s a whole different level,” she says. “It’s really weird to have to be constantly presenting yourself to people.” For a long time, it wasn’t simply work stuff that caused Plaza anxiety; it was also the mindfuckery of a freak stroke she suffered when she was 20, something else she spoke about for the first time on WTF. She had just arrived at a friend’s house for dinner in Queens, NY, when she suddenly had the sensation that her arm wasn’t her own. She blacked out, then woke up unable to speak (the term for the condition is expressive aphasia). After her friends realized she wasn’t joking, they called 911, and Plaza spent the next three days fully conscious but unable to communicate. “The most frustrating thing about it was I don’t know why it happened, and that’s where a lot of my anxiety came from,” she says. “Once you know why something happened to you, you can rationalize it, like, ‘If I do this, I won’t get sick.’ But if you don’t know exactly why, at all times you’re thinking, At any moment I could die, because when it did happen, it was totally out of nowhere. That’s the scariest part. But I don’t really think about it. Except now, now I’m thinking about it,” she says, giving me a mock stink eye.
Her doctors were never able to pinpoint the cause of her stroke, but she tells me she’s been anti-birth control ever since, because one theory is that being on the pill may have triggered it. “It’s definitely made me think about what I put in my body. I’m not really into chemicals and medicines…and I probably should be on a lot of medicine,” she says. “I’m sure that I have ADD. I can’t do anything without the TV on and the CD player on, and I can’t focus without seven levels of distraction. That is not normal, but I am not about to be medicated; that’s just who I am.” When I ask how she keeps her anxiety in check, she’s quick to answer: “I do yoga. I know, it’s like, ‘Ugh, yoga!’ But it changed my life. I’m not into exercising. I’d rather jump off a building than go running, but yoga is different,” she says. “I’ll get really stressed and anxious, and my boyfriend will literally drag me to yoga for an hour and a half, and at the end of it, everything will be fine. It really helps.”
Lucky for us, Plaza’s also learned that pushing herself creatively is at the heart of her happiness. “Whatever I do, I think it’s important to keep generating material, whether it’s stand-up or writing or improv or something else,” she says. “It’s easy to become complacent when you have success. My worst fear is that I’ll end up just coasting by, but I don’t think that will fulfill me. I need to be constantly bringing things into the world—or else, what’s the point?”
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