Emily the Criminal star Aubrey Plaza auditioned for the three roles that made her famous in a single week: Daisy Danby in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Julie Powers in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and April Ludgate in Greg Daniels and Mike Schur’s long-running NBC series Parks and Rec.
The actress is part of a rare subset of entertainers who broke into show business quickly and as a complete unknown. Shortly after graduating from New York University’s film school, she worked odd jobs and did improv in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s basement theater in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.
That’s how she met Maggie Carey and Liz Cackowski, who gave her the role that set her up for success — Tina Tate, the wisecracking teen in the 2007 web series The Jeannie Tate Show. Fellow comedians who appeared on the show included Carey’s then-husband, Bill Hader, as well as Rob Riggle, Lonny Ross, Eliza Skinner, Jordan Carlos, Jason Mantzoukas, Brian Huskey, and Plaza’s future Parks and Rec castmate Rashida Jones.
That small part as Tina Tate helped Plaza catch the attention of a talent agent who would go on to help her get her big break.
“I just was very proactive and kind of aggressive with her,” Plaza told MovieMaker. “I would just constantly invite her to my shows and constantly try to get her attention. Eventually, she just called me kind of out of nowhere. She was like, ‘I have this audition.’”
That 2009 audition turned out to be for Funny People, in which Plaza would appear alongside Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Leslie Mann.
After sending in an audition tape and a sample of her stand-up comedy chops, the next thing she knew, she was heading to Los Angeles for a chemistry read.
“I kept making it through these audition levels, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I’m doing this. I’m just completely faking this until I make it,” she says. “I flew myself out to L.A. I had no money at the time, but figured out how to get out there.”
The future Emily the Criminal star also didn’t have any representation yet, but she booked the part as “a complete unknown.”
“While I was there, [casting director] Allison Jones was like, ‘Well, while you’re here, can I just send you on a couple other meetings?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, I don’t know what’s going on. Whatever you want, lady,’” Plaza says in her characteristic poker-faced tone.
“And then she sent me to meet Greg Daniels and Mike Schur. They were writing the pilot for Parks and Rec at the time. And then she asked me to audition for Scott Pilgrim.”
Aubrey Plaza proceeds to tell the story of meeting Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright — who is now a good friend of hers — for the first time.
“I didn’t realize it was a director’s audition. I thought I was just going in to do a cold read. So I went into that audition, and then it turned out that Edgar Wright was there, and I didn’t even know who he was,” she says. “I remember doing the audition and then leaving abruptly, and he was like, ‘Hello? You do realize that I am the director. I’m Edgar Wright.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t know, I thought you were, like, the casting person.’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Clearly, Wright wasn’t too put off, because he did end up giving Plaza the part in Scott Pilgrim. Then she got and “yes” from Parks and Rec and Funny People, too.
“I was in the right place at the right time, because I had no idea what’s going on,” she says. “Of course, I went out to L.A. thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get any of this. I’ll probably, maybe have a chance of getting one thing.’ But I got all three of them, and I really think, looking back, it was because I didn’t realize how meaningful or heavy those meetings were. I had no idea. I was wearing jean shorts and not really taking it that seriously and just kind of weird about everything.”
Oh, and she says it’s a myth that she was discovered as a waitress. In fact, she had just been fired from that job before landing Funny People.
“I was waiting tables at the time, but I had just recently gotten fired because I was always getting fired from restaurants because I just didn’t care,” Aubrey Plaza says. “I just felt like, well, I’m not going to be loyal to any of these establishments because I really want to be an actor, so if they don’t let me go on an audition, I’ll just quit or I just won’t show up, and then they’ll fire me. So it happened very fast, and then my whole life changed basically very fast — like overnight, almost.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.
Main Image: Aubrey Plaza raises a glass in Emily the Criminal, courtesy of Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment