Aubrey Plaza: Beyond the Smirk

Movies Features Aubrey Plaza

In The To-Do List Aubrey Plaza’s character makes a checklist of sexual acts to try, and then methodically makes her way through them. But it’s in Plaza’s own career that the plans actually seem to be coming together the best. In the midst of a long and much-beloved run on critical and popular favorite sitcom Parks and Recreation, she began with a few small parts in celebrated indies—notably Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She then progressed to her first co-lead, with Mark Duplass, in the Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. And now The To-Do List marks her first solo lead in a film.

But it all makes so much sense, since she grew up in the acting hotbed of… Delaware? Or, as a current indie film calls it, Hellaware? Plaza is aghast at the reference. “I’ve never heard of anyone calling it Hellaware!” she shouts. “That’s not accurate! Delaware is magical!”

She will cop, though, to Delaware having a certain spookiness to it. Take, for example, the street near her home in North Wilmington called Devil’s Road. “North Wilmington borders Pennsylvania,” she explains, “and once you get on some of those backroads, you don’t even know what state you’re in anymore. You’re just kind of in the woods at this point. There’s a legendary place where, as the story goes, there was a satanic cult that sacrificed babies. And there’s a dead baby tree right on the side of the road. And all the trees on this particular road grow away from the road in this eerier, spooky way. It’s pretty insane looking.”

Now if only Devil’s Road had spawned some Scooby Doo-esque urban myth. “There’s a whole legend,” she continues excitedly, “that if you drive down that road, a red pickup truck will follow you. And if you don’t get out in time, they’ll kill you and sacrifice your baby. It’s one of my mom’s favorite things to do when we come home for the holidays. She’ll put all the cousins in a truck, and we’ll drive down Devil’s Road and scare the shit out of them.” She pauses meaningfully. “I mean, it is pretty scary.”

Those woods hold a great portion of Plaza’s childhood memories. “When I grew up,” she explains, “I grew up in the suburbs for most of my childhood, and we had a lot of freedom. But I had a whole band of neighborhood kids, and we were always playing in the woods until it was too dark to play. I mean, within our neighborhood—it’s not like we were riding our bikes down the freeway or anything. But we did have a lot of freedom. I feel like I’m the last of the generation that got sent outside to play until it got dark. My sisters never did that.”

It’s a background tailor-made to foster an artistic sensibility. “Absolutely,” she agrees, “I didn’t have the Internet to keep my brain occupied. I was outside, building forts and creating drama and mischief. You had to make up your own fun. And I think that’s really important. My imagination was the most important thing for me as I was growing up, and I definitely think it affected what I’m doing now.”

Suburban kids also often grow up with a lot of independent time while their parents are at work. Plaza experienced that, too, but she venerates her parents for it. “My parents had me when they were very young,” she explains. “Twenty years old. I was a very big surprise. When I was younger, my parents were working their way through school. My mom was in night school, and working different jobs. My dad was working a million different jobs—he was a door-to-door salesman, a taxi driver, other things. At one point my parents both worked at a Wawa [convenience store] together. They were just very ambitious hardworking people, and we did not come from money so we were poor and they were working their asses off.”

Eventually both the Plazas worked hard enough to pull the family up into a very comfortable status—Aubrey’s mom became a successful attorney and her dad became a prominent financial advisor at Merrill Lynch. Her extended family stepped into the breach for most of Plaza’s childhood. “I have a really big family,” she says, “on both sides, so my childhood was spent with a lot of my extended family around me all the time. I have a million cousins, and so it was this big mass of people.

“There was always a larger feeling of security,” she says about the extended familial support system. “I was raised by a lot of different people. My mother was adopted when she was eight, so my foster grandparents and that family raised me too. I was in a lot of different places growing up. Which was a good thing, I think, because I learned at a very early age to be comfortable with a lot of different people. And I think that’s shaped who I am today.”

Seeing her parents working so hard to better the family’s place in life also had a strong impact on Plaza. “I think that work ethic is really in my bones,” she muses, “because of my parents. I’m a very hard worker, and I don’t feel comfortable when I’m not working. Which sometimes is not a good thing! But that’s just the way it is for me. I really like working.”

She pauses, as if thinking back on those days. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she says, “what they accomplished. They really had no support from anyone, and they did it all themselves. I don’t know how they did it—my mom, especially. It’s pretty amazing.”

Plaza inherited those work habits when it came to her artistic pursuits. Her determination to be an actor was cemented by age 12 when she started throwing herself in earnest into community theater. There was one early influence that she remembers clearly—“this really random Bette Midler movie,” she says in an embarrassed tone, “called For the Boys. I remember seeing that at too young an age, and something about it made me want to be Bette Midler. Which just makes me laugh, because it’s so gay, but I love it. I’m such a gay man. I just always wanted to do that, and I always thought it would happen. I was very delusional.”

That self-confidence propelled Plaza along her path, and she was inspired by another comic actress to take the leap. “I read Rosie O’Donnell’s autobiography,” she explains, “and that really helped me wrap my brain around not having a backup plan. She said in her autobiography that if you have a net, you’ll fall into it. That always stuck in my head. So that was what kind of motivated me to keep forging ahead. I never had too many bad moments; I was pretty convinced it was going to happen.”

She began making movies with a friend in middle school, and by the time she got to high school her identity as an artist was forged. It was a Catholic high school, and although some artists have felt stifled by that environment, Plaza thrived there. “I really loved it,” she says. “I had been in Catholic school all my life, and all girls school since second grade. I really liked all my teachers. It wasn’t a school filled with all these strict nuns. We had a couple of nuns at our school, but they were cool—they played guitar, and they were nice. So I was really into it. I was into being Catholic. I was really active in the church, and in youth group.”

Although her faith would change in the coming years, she does credit her time in Catholic school with giving her a solid spiritual foundation. “It’s important to me to have some kind of faith,” she says, “although I don’t have very strong views on religion or what the right thing to do is. But when I was growing up I really liked church, just in that it was a time of reflection each week. And I think I still carry that with me now, even though I don’t go to church every week. I still like to do things that bring me back to that place of reflection and having a spiritual life. It’s not really Catholic-based any more, but I didn’t mind it growing up. I think it actually helped me wrap my brain around things. And then when I got older, I was able to decide what I liked about it, and what I didn’t.”

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream in high school. She’s said before that at that point “I wasn’t exactly killing it in the guy department.” That’s right, like nearly every beautiful actress, Plaza claims to have been a dating underachiever in high school. But she’s got a little twist on it. “In my mind,” she says, “I was never a popular girl as far as all the guys having a crush on me. I was one of the guys. I had a lot of guy friends. But I think that was because I related to them more. I had some boyfriends toward the end of high school, but until then that wasn’t really a big focus for me. And in middle school I didn’t have a very positive experience with guys. I was awkward, and guys weren’t into me. So I went into high school with that state of mind, thinking I needed to focus on something else since that wasn’t really working out. But everyone is awkward in middle school, right? It’s the worst time ever.”

When high school was over, Plaza set out for the only logical place for a Northeastern girl with big dreams of acting to go. “I think that’s why people want to move to New York,” she says. “There’s just a feeling that anything can happen in New York. Your dreams can come true in New York. You see that growing up, in movies and all that stuff. That’s why I wanted to be there, to be surrounded by all those people that wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to be thrown into that bunch of crazy people trying to do something crazy.”

Specifically, she was accepted into NYU’s Tisch school, but her choice of major was surprising. “I always wanted to be an actor,” she explains, “but I didn’t want to get a degree in acting. I wanted to get a filmmaking degree. I had an acting teacher in high school that told me I shouldn’t study theater in college, that what would help me most as an actor was to learn other things. And I really wanted to study writing and directing, just as a study. But acting was always what I wanted to do; I was always scheming about auditions and how to get an agent and everything. I was on that track from the get-go.”

Perhaps equally surprising was the fact that her venerated film school wasn’t the biggest boost to her career. Nor was her internship at Saturday Night Live. “The SNL internship was my third year of college,” she says, “and that was an insanely awesome experience, but that didn’t help me in my career in any way.”

No, Plaza says that the most important thing she did in New York was study improvisation. “I had learned about Upright Citizens Brigade in high school, with their show on TV. I had a couple of older friends at The Univeristy of Delaware that kind of opened my eyes to the world of improv. And once I realized that UCB was an actual place where I could go and take classes, that’s all I wanted to do. I was a fan of the sketch group from early on, as well as The State and Mr. Show and some others. So I moved to New York, and the first improv class I ever took was actually not at UCB; it was with an improv guru named Armando Diaz. But he was in the scene with all the founders of UCB. And once you get into it, it just takes over your life. I t was like a second home for me. And I think I spent more time at the theater than I did at college. It became almost a second college.”

Improv gave Plaza a whole new way to approach acting. “The main thing that improv did for me,” she says, “was that it kind of changed the way my brain works. I’ve been trained to identify what’s funny about a situation and then expand on it in seconds. That’s kind of what you learn, the game of a scene. That’s a technical term, and what it means is identifying what’s funny about something, and then learning how to make it funnier. I think there’s a weird brain chemistry thing that happens when you go through that program. You learn to think on your feet, really fast.”

But possibly her biggest takeaway form the improve experience came from the principles on which Upright Citizens Brigade was founded. “The whole philosophy at UCB is ‘truth in comedy.’ It’s not about trying to be funny. It’s not about making jokes. It’s about playing real characters and really playing things for what they truly are. And the funny comes out of the truth. It’s helped my acting, because it’s only funny if it’s real and true. It’s not funny if it’s trying to be true. And it’s more about ensemble, and that’s a big thing with Amy Poehler, the feeling of always wanting to prop up your scene mates, your partners. It’s about helping them be as funny as they can be. And I think I have that inside me, wanting to have that supportive environment for comedy and being a part of an ensemble.”

Amy Poehler, of course, in addition to founding the Upright Citizens Brigade, was a cast member for years on Saturday Night Live. Somehow Plaza missed her both places. But a couple of years out of school, when Poehler was working on a new show called Parks and Recreation, another writer had seen some of Plaza’s UCB-related work and wrote a part in the new show specifically for her. Unsurprisingly, when she auditioned for that part, she was just right for it.

And that’s how Aubrey Plaza found a sitcom home. Just like she planned it.

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