The subtle genius of Aubrey Plaza
Plaza likes to joke that she came out of the womb frowning. Get used to this frown. You’ll be seeing a lot more of it.
By ANGIE ROMERO
In comedy, as in any other genre, game recognizes game. So Aubrey Plaza, otherwise known as April, Amy Poehler’s snarky college intern on NBC’s mockumentary-style show Parks and Recreation, is the kind of funny that my favorite comedians — people like Conan or Chelsea — give props to.
It’s called subtlety. And it’s not exactly something Latinos are known to do on the big or small screen. Blame George Lopez– anyone who relies on muecas to elicit chuckles is going to run out of jokes eventually.
It’s like Marlon Brando once said: “We only have so many faces in our pockets.”
But as Darius, Plaza’s first major film role in this summer’s Safety Not Guaranteed, the 27-year-old, half-Puerto Rican, half-Irish actress isn’t so much funny as she is a disaffected, deeply insecure, socially awkward live-at-home college grad who has never fully dealt with the one big tragedy in her life: the death of her mother.
She’s not exactly someone you love at first sight, but there’s a transformation that happens here, and eventually, Darius becomes endearing, relatable, and most important, memorable.
It’s the kind of performance that sets off a respectable career in Hollywood, not unlike that of industry darling Emma Stone, whose ascent has been thrilling to watch – Vogue covers and all.
In the movie, a romantic comedy with sci-fi elements thrown in, three cynical Seattle Magazine employees (Plaza, New Girl’s Jake Johnson, and Karan Soni) set out to find and profile the eccentric (Mark Duplass, who is wonderful here) behind a classified ad looking for a partner to travel through time.
“It doesn’t feel like a movie from this era, you know?” says Plaza via phone from Los Angeles. She can be heard chewing on something, candy or perhaps chocolate, as she often does during interviews to counteract her awkwardness. “Most movies these days are so cynical and this one reminds me of movies I saw in the early nineties or something, ones that make you believe in magic and dinosaurs.”
Plaza in one of the more memorable scenes from Safety Not Guaranteed with Mark Duplass. In the story, the two strike up an unlikely friendship/romance.
The story is actually based on a real ad that appeared in the survivalist magazine Backwoods Home in the early 90s and resurfaced years later as an Internet sensation. The writer, Derek Connolly, wrote the part of Darius with Aubrey Plaza in mind, after seeing her play Seth Rogen’s love interest in 2009’s Funny People, from producer/director Judd Apatow.
The pressure of her first lead is something that scared the shit out of her, but she used that momentary freak-out to her advantage. “I actually think that I do well under pressure,” says the self-proclaimed “improv dork” (she cut her teeth at NYC’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the same place where people like Amy Poehler have passed through). “I’m used to tapping in and out of movies and doing supporting characters and not having the weight of the movie or the story on my shoulders in any way,” she says, “so this was kind of a really daunting, but I was ready and I wanted it badly. That’s what I’ve wanted forever: just to have the opportunity to show people I can really do it.”
Though Plaza says she’s “never had something really tragic happen like Darius has, thank God,” she did suffer a stroke, caused by a clot in the left temporal lobe of her brain, during her time as an acting student at New York University. She’s fully recovered now, but you get the feeling that the experience has given her a sense of perspective most starlets don’t have.
“I never thought that I would be on a TV show — it hadn’t even crossed my mind — and now I’ve been on one for four years,” she says. “I have no control, I have no idea if the show is gonna last. I just hope that I always make smart choices. That’s pretty much all I can do.”
The good news is Parks and Recreation has been renewed for a fifth season. As for movies, Plaza has a few up her sleeve, most notably The To-Do List, which she describes as “[Emma Stone’s] Easy A, with actual dirty, sexual things happening.”
The comedy, slated for 2013, is about a high school valedictorian (Plaza) who makes a list of all the sexual things she needs to learn how to do before she goes to college. It co-stars Saturday Night Live alum Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who rose to fame in Apatow’s Superbad.
As part of Apatow’s inner circle, Plaza is friends with some interesting characters in Hollywood, among them Lena Dunham, the creator/star of HBO’s Girls. When asked if she thinks the show is too “white,” as several critics claim, Plaza offers up an honest-sounding answer. “I’ve thought about that [the Girls controversy] before, and because I know Lena, I have a little bit more of an insight into why she writes the things that she writes,” says Plaza. “It’s the age-old thing — you have to write what you know, and what she’s writing in that show, those are her personal experiences, that’s the life that she knows. She lived a very interesting life in Manhattan, with a lot of different characters, and I guess not a lot of them are Latina or Black.
That’s where television gets tricky,” adds Plaza, “you think that you’re creating art but then there’s all these expectations that people have.”
Plaza herself is in a unique position in Hollywood in that she’s part Latina but she looks white. She’s self-aware enough to know that this is a privilege. “I guess with me, I’m subtly Puerto Rican because people don’t even think about that [race] when they look at me. I look more like my mom, who’s Irish, and my sisters [Renee and Natalie, both younger] look more like my dad, who’s Puerto Rican. Maybe if I looked more like them, things would be different. But this is just who I am.”
Despite living in L.A. for a few years now, Plaza says she’s remained close to her Puerto Rican side of the family on the East Coast. “I wish I was living on the same coast as them,” she says. “My Titi [aunt] Susie called me the other day, she lives in the Bronx, and said, ‘I know you’re busy, but you gotta come stay with me, I’ll cook for you, you can lay on the couch and watch TV, don’t talk to anyone. You need your family to take care of you.”
Obviously Latinas come in all shades, but not in the minds of Hollywood casting agents – to them, a Latina is supposed to look like Salma, Jennifer, or Penelope. It’s the reason Sofia Vergara, a natural blonde, had to dye her hair to get work in this town.
And while some people feel like Vergara sets Latinos back in many ways, Plaza is of a different mind-set: “I know I wouldn’t be able to pull that part off,” says Plaza with a laugh when asked to weigh in on Vergara’s character on Modern Family, Gloria. “She’s got something awesome going. It’s funny; people like it. Who am I to say there’s no room for that? She’s winning awards and stuff.”
And soon, I get the feeling Plaza will know what that feels like, too.
(Photos: Film District)