Aubrey Plaza: “I’ve always been fuelled by rejection”

We dig into the 'Parks and Rec' star's quirky career – and find an alternative outlook at its root

Here’s how it goes when Aubrey Plaza enters a Zoom interview. Her name is “Evil Hag”, as it is on Twitter. “Hello,” she rasps in a deliberately creepy voice, emerging on screen while eating a sandwich. “Did I scare you?” A painting of a long-haired woman looking over her shoulder looms in the background, resting against a brick fireplace in her house in Los Angeles. “She’s my best friend,” Plaza says of the portrait. “She watches me when I sleep.”

A chat with Aubrey Plaza is, quite simply, a bit different to a chat with any other actor.

Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza in new indie ‘Black Bear’. CREDIT: Vertigo Releasing

Best known for the cult sitcom Parks and Recreation but increasingly as a film lead in her own right, Aubrey Plaza is fascinatingly odd. Type “Why is Aubrey Plaza…” into Google and the search engine suggests “…so weird?” for you. A 13-minute compilation of Plaza interviews on YouTube is called “Aubrey Plaza is really WEIRD and… AWKWARD. I love it!” As she has said herself, you never quite know what she’s thinking. What you see is not what you get. Her pupils seem perpetually searching for the boundaries of her eye, leaving a gleaming mischievous white, framed by heavy black eyeliner. She has both the looks and charisma of a Hollywood A-lister while boasting the awkward energy of a teenager at a prom. The reason she perfectly embodies the sardonic and ironic April Ludgate – on a show in which she fought for attention against a swathe of comedy titans – is because there is so much April in Aubrey; so much Aubrey in April.

The line between Plaza and her character is blurred in a different way in her latest movie, in which she plays an actor on the set of a film. The tiny independent production Black Bear is another example of the low-budget, esoteric films that have come to typify her career. It is split into two distinct parts that are almost entirely different films. In the first, Plaza plays Allison, an actor who comes to a lake house to write. She is thrust into the middle of an unhappy relationship between the owners, Blair and Gabe, and is soon driving them apart, proving physically irresistible to Gabe. The second half, set in the same lake house, sees the actors shift – Gabe is now the director of a film and married to Allison. In order to elicit the best performance from Allison, Gabe and Blair are pretending to have an affair. This makes Allison angry and violent but her performance is filled with the furious energy that Gabe had been striving for. As Plaza says, the movie asks: “At what cost do we give ourselves for art? When does it become not art and when does it become abuse?”

“I love when things get crazy on set and people start acting insane”

Gabe’s actions are similar to Jim Carrey’s method acting in The Man on the Moon, for which he pushed the crew to their limits by refusing to come out of character as oddball comedian Andy Kaufman. Plaza loves that film, but doesn’t mention the consequences of Carrey’s behaviour for the rest of the crew. “Those kinds of performances are the most inspiring to me. I’m all for it. I love the drama,” she says. “I love when things get crazy on set and people start acting insane and people get too into their characters and they’re fighting. I mean, of course I don’t want any fighting and negativity but it’s all very exciting for me – because it’s art. You want art to be intense. You want people to REACT.”

Black Bear endured a bumpy road, both before and during the shoot. “I think this is the kind of movie that is such a risk, artistically and financially,” Plaza says. She decided to back the film as a producer, helping to choose “brilliant actors” (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) who would commit to the intense and nocturnal experience with her.

Aubrey Plaza
As April Ludgate in cult sitcom ‘Parks and Recreation’. CREDIT: Alamy

Like many who seem disarmingly cool, Plaza is at heart an introvert; a self-confessed “film nerd”. Born and raised in Delaware to a Puerto Rican father and Irish mother, she started out in improv and stand-up, performing with the Chicago group UCB (the Upright Citizens Brigade), whose alumni include Ellie Kemper of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and founding member Amy Poehler. Poehler, who would become Plaza’s co-star in Parks and Recreation, was her hero. It was watching Poehler that inspired her to take improv classes in New York when she was in her late teens. When she watched UCB‘s TV show, which aired on Comedy Central from 1998 to 2000, she was awestruck: “Oh my God, who are these people?”

“It was the best time of my life, looking back on it,” she says about UCB. Like almost every aspiring American improviser, she wanted to get onto Saturday Night Live. (Plaza interned for the network sketch show in her early twenties.) But at UCB the focus was simply on being as good a long-form improviser as possible; the rock stars weren’t the rich and famous, they were the people who were especially funny performers. “It just truly felt like: ‘We are in an underground – literally, underground – theatre doing an art form that is so fucking hard, and just so fun when you get it right’,” she says. “It was intoxicating, and I was intoxicated.”

“Auditioning always felt like this fucked-up game”

Along with the rush came the auditions for adverts, the terrible gigs, and the rejection. “Auditioning always felt like this fucked-up game that I was playing with life,” she says. “Like playing the lottery or something.” There were times when she felt like shit. Bad comedy gigs were worse than bad auditions because there tended to be more than three people in the room. She didn’t mind the auditions: she had so much more to gain than to lose. “I think I’ve always been very fuelled by rejection,” she says. “It only made me want it more, because I think I just had that thing inside of me that’s like: ‘I wanna be in the club that I’m not in’ or whatever that is; ‘I want the thing that I can’t have, or the thing that I don’t have. And if you tell me that I’m not good enough, I’ll just find a way to prove you wrong somehow.’”

Those early days included a job being paid to dress up as Noddy, where her boss charged her with getting a photo with Donald Trump at a gala for the New York toy store FAO Schwarz when she was about 20. She kept following Trump – “the bad man”, as Plaza calls him – around the room, annoying him until she managed to get into the same picture. “I’m just so happy he’s gone and that we’ll never have to worry about his ass again,” she says.

Aubrey Plaza
CREDIT: Getty Images

Plaza’s life changed forever when she was cast in Parks and Recreation at 25 years old. In a 2011 interview with The AV Club, co-creator Michael Schur said that the part was written for her. He met Plaza after one of the casting directors described her as the weirdest girl she’d ever met. “Aubrey came over to my office and made me feel really uncomfortable for like an hour, and immediately I wanted to put her in the show,” Schur said.

After seven seasons cemented its reputation as one of the best modern American comedies, Parks and Recreation ended things in 2015 – only to return in 2020 with a pandemic special, performed over Zoom. Will there be any more? “Not that I know of,” Plaza says. She would not be shocked to get a phone call about it and will “never say never” but, especially now that Chris Pratt is starring in increasingly massive Hollywood films, tying down the cast for another season would be the tallest of orders. She imagines that, if anything were to happen, it would be in the form of a movie. “You never know what Mike Schur has up his sleeve.”

“More ‘Parks and Rec’? You never know what [creator] Mike Schur has up his sleeve…”

Where Pratt has gone down the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World route, the last 10 years have seen Plaza star in some fascinating and critically successful films that are smaller in scope but more interesting artistically. She is a mumblecore mainstay, seemingly most comfortable in this naturalistic, often part-improvised genre. In 2012 she starred in Safety Not Guaranteed, co-produced by Duplass Brothers Productions, the company behind Netflix’s massively successful 2018 documentary Wild Wild Country. The film has been claimed to have had a huge influence on streaming, giving trusted small-budget directors the opportunity to direct bigger-budget films for platforms like Netflix.

Plaza’s taste has always been laudable but the commercial scale of her projects has also been rising and rising. In the last five years she has starred alongside Robert de Niro and Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa, as the lead opposite Elizabeth Olsen in Ingrid Goes West, and again as the lead in the remake of Child’s Play. This also gives you an idea of Plaza’s range: the qualities that make her a hilariously convincing comic actor allow her to turn on a dime and become terrifying – or terrified.

Black Bear
‘Black Bear’ arrives on digital this Friday (April 23). CREDIT: Vertigo Releasing

Her choice of roles is bound to her desires and state of mind at the time, and her experiences made her want to take on a project like Black Bear: one that examined the power dynamics in filmmaking. “I wanna go to the dark place,” she thought. Allison turned out to be probably the most challenging role of her career. “It terrified me. I knew as a performer, this is no joke. If I’m doing this, I am getting into the shit.”

One of Plaza’s next projects could barely be less like Black Bear. She has been paired with Jason Statham for Guy Ritchie’s new comedy spy film, formerly called Five Eyes and now untitled. “My character just became the favourite so I think they’re just gonna name the movie after me,” she jokes. “I think it’s gonna be called Sarah Fidel: 0069.” What is the famously enigmatic Statham like? She tries an impression but backs out of it. “He’s delightful. I made him laugh a lot. He’s just a guy, looking at a girl, holding a gun, and murdering you.”

“Movies can change the world”

And Plaza has big plans off camera as well. She will soon have her first official directing credit with an anthology project called Cinema Toast, which reuses footage from old films and TV shows and turns it into something new by dubbing dialogue and adding music. “It’s very trippy; very pandemic-filming style,” she says. “It taps into my film nerd brain.” Called Quiet Illness, the film uses footage of Oscar-winning actor Loretta Young, who had her own TV show for 10 seasons in the ‘50s.

As well as this, Plaza has written a children’s book, The Legend of the Christmas Witch, out in October (“Everybody better get ready for that”), and the pandemic has given her the chance to work on directing her first feature film. She thinks that people will be surprised that she wants it to be multiplex fodder. “I love blockbusters,” she says. “I think I’m always nostalgic for big movies that are also good – which is a really hard thing to make. But when you do, you’ll never forget it. Those kinds of movies can change the world.”

This is a bit of a revelation, and sounds more like a Steven Spielberg quote than an Aubrey Plaza one. She doesn’t know exactly which films are in her future, whether they are indies or blockbusters, but they aren’t likely to be predictable. “I’m always scheming,” she says, a glint in her eye. When it comes to Aubrey Plaza, the only surprise now would be that she didn’t surprise you.

‘Black Bear’ arrives on digital this Friday (April 23)