When Aubrey Plaza was cast in the second season of “The White Lotus,” on HBO, she asked the show’s creator, Mike White, what kind of role he was writing for her. White told Plaza that her character, Harper Spiller, would be “normal.” For most actors, that answer would be unremarkable, even underwhelming. But, for Plaza, it was likely a welcome change of pace. The actor and comedian, who is thirty-eight, became famous in the twenty-tens for playing a deadpan and disaffected intern, April Ludgate, on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” In the years since, she has developed a reputation for being exceedingly dry and awkward, both onscreen and off. Her antics in interviews and at awards shows—as when she made an acceptance speech on Amy Poehler’s behalf in which she thanked “the Devil and all the dark lords”—have inspired a BuzzFeed listicle with the headline “35 Times Aubrey Plaza Proved She’s Hollywood’s Weirdest and Coolest Celebrity,” and a YouTube compilation, with twenty-one million views, titled “Aubrey Plaza is really WEIRD and . . . AWKWARD. I love it!” After she hosted “Saturday Night Live,” last month, her performance was praised by The Atlantic: “Aubrey Plaza Gave ‘SNL’ Permission to Get Weird.”
Last fall, I interviewed Plaza at The New Yorker Festival, and her dry humor and trademark “weirdness” were on full display: she closed out the conversation by revealing that she has been “dabbling in a kind of druid paganism.” But when I called her for a follow-up interview, earlier this week, she could not have seemed more normal. She spoke animatedly about two upcoming projects—“Megalopolis,” a sci-fi drama from Francis Ford Coppola, and “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” a spinoff of the Marvel TV series “WandaVision”—and said that, in her spare time, she’d been watching “The Sopranos” on her laptop. (She started watching back when she was shooting “The White Lotus” with co-star Michael Imperioli, but, she said, “I’ve just been savoring it, so I haven’t even finished.”) It’s entirely plausible that her weird-cool-girl image—which has attracted die-hard admirers who fantasize on the Internet about Plaza doing them harm—is a stage persona, or something closer to a defense mechanism. During our call, she talked about how “smart and analytical” women who have a tendency to be “cold and to the point” are often misread. In Plaza’s case, this manifested as early-career typecasting: critics, producers, and audiences alike were primed for more April Ludgate. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” released not long after the première of “Parks and Rec,” leaned on her signature inscrutability; two years later, in the critically acclaimed indie “Safety Not Guaranteed,” she played another jaded intern (albeit one who goes time-travelling with Mark Duplass). Subsequent characters have felt less like April, and more like heightened versions of Plaza’s stage persona, spanning various genres. In the 2017 comedy “Ingrid Goes West,” she stars as an unhinged stalker who becomes obsessed with an Instagram influencer. Plaza doesn’t seem like the type to get sucked into social media, but when we talked, she did admit to having stalked someone in real life.
Last summer, Plaza gave her best performance to date in “Emily the Criminal,” a fast-paced, dramatic action thriller that she also produced. Her character, a volatile, desperate gig worker named Emilly, engages in a credit-card grift in order to pay off her student-loan debt, with spiralling consequences. The film confirmed that Plaza could serve as the emotional anchor for a feature, all while stealing cars and Tasing her enemies. A few months after the movie’s release, Season 2 of “The White Lotus” premièred, and Plaza’s character, Harper, was quickly embraced as the most relatable among a largely batshit ensemble. A lawyer, Harper is hypercritical, but her critiques are usually right. She resents that her husband doesn’t seem sexually attracted to her anymore, and that he has dragged her on a couple’s trip with his douchey college friend and his relentlessly chipper wife, neither of whom bothered to vote in the last Presidential election. As the trip goes on, the relationship dynamics shift, but Harper never abandons her skepticism or self-protective snark. Plaza told me that the role is closer to who she truly is than any other part she’s played. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.
I thought that we could start by talking about “Emily the Criminal.” Someone on Twitter recently described the film as “Joker but for girls with student loans.” Your company, Evil Hag Productions, actually retweeted that. Do you agree with that characterization? When you were playing the character, did you see her as a hero who was down on her luck, or were you playing her as an antihero?
I was just playing her as a human being. I wouldn’t say she’s like the Joker at all. The Joker is evil! What the fuck? They retweeted that? I mean, yes, she’s an antihero. . . . which is one thing I really liked about the script. There aren’t a lot of female characters that take on that antihero status, because audiences are used to seeing female characters that they have to like. She’s flawed, but I don’t think she’s an evil psychopath and murderer—yet.
When I first read a script, I definitely think about larger themes, but I approach every role the same way: It’s really just about finding those things that I relate to, and trying to dig in and find the truth of the character. What’s driving her? Why is she doing these things? Especially in this movie—her choices are so insane. I’m just trying to create a fully realized, multidimensional human being that you feel is real. That’s how I approached her. And I think it’s up to the audience to decide how they feel about that.
So the fact that she was committing crimes because she was trying to pay off her student-loan debt—how important was that to you as a motivating factor? Would you have been as attracted to the script if, say, she had been trying to pay off medical debt, or if she was just trying to get rich and wasn’t actually in debt at all?
Since Biden just relieved student debt, it’s very timely, but it was written years ago—pre-pandemic, pre-Trump—and, unfortunately, some things haven’t changed. . . . But I wouldn’t say that that was the reason that I wanted to do the film. I’m not interested in making movies for political-statement reasons, or anything like that. I want to make entertaining, memorable movies, with characters that you care about. And the student-debt part of it was just something that I felt like a lot of people would care about.
You mentioned Biden. You are famously from Wilmington, Delaware. Have you ever met him?
I have. Many times. Me and Joe? Come on! The first time I met him, I was sixteen. I was at the Joe Biden youth-leadership conference. That was a very competitive situation, as a high-school student, to get into—they picked one student from, I believe, every high school. And then you’d show up, and it was an entire day’s worth of Joe Biden-themed events.
What’s a Joe Biden-themed event?
I don’t know. I actually don’t know why I said that. I take it back. The whole point of the conference was to allow students to speak out on different issues—and I have a terrible memory, so this could all be a lie, actually. But, from what I remember, they shuttled us from room to room, and there was a different speaker in each room, and it was all leading up to this climax where we were going to sit in the auditorium, and Joe himself was going to get up onstage and give his speech. It was supposed to be, like, “Let’s get the students’ point of view.” But I was very Tracy-Flick-in-“Election”-style aggressive as a student. I was really angry about the conference—and, in fact, I had a stare-down with Joe Biden from the audience, because he asked how it went, and I raised my hand immediately, and I was, like, “It’s bullshit. This conference sucks. You didn’t let us talk. This was supposed to be about the students.” I was always trying to rabble-rouse at that point. And he did not like it. I remember his face got really red. He used to get really fiery when he would make speeches. It was crazy.
Did you guys make up when he did his cameos on “Parks and Recreation”?
Yeah, we did. And, in fact, there’s a really funny story, because we shot at the White House when he was the Vice-President, and they gave us a tour of the Vice-President’s office. Before the tour, I saw him, and he knew my name. He was, like, “Aubrey!” Whenever I see him, he always tells me the same story. His first wife went to the same high school that I went to, so he always tells me about how he used to wait outside the convent for her, because it’s an all-girls Catholic school—and it’s a very sweet story, but I’ve heard it a lot. I was, like, “I know, Joe! She went to Ursuline!” But then, later, when we got a tour of the Vice-President’s office, I saw a note on his desk that had been written by his assistant on official White House stationery that said, “Aubrey Plaza”—underlined—“Wilmington, Delaware. You met her at the Joe Biden youth-leadership conference when she was sixteen.” There were bullet points about me. And I was, like, “I knew it! He doesn’t remember me at all!” But that’s how politicians are, you know? I pocketed it, and Mike Schur, the creator of “Parks and Rec,” was horrified. He was, like, “You cannot steal from the White House!” And I was, like, “I don’t give a shit! I know what he did! He didn’t know me!” And it’s sad because I lost it. Can you imagine if I’d kept it? I could’ve framed it or sold it. Now he’s the President—I had no idea. But, yeah, I stole it right off his desk. And there’s got to be cameras in the White House. But they didn’t do anything to me.