Trip to L.A.
If Aubrey Plaza had had a deck of tarot cards in 2007, they might have tipped her off to a big change coming in her near future.
“I was in film school studying directing and writing at NYU, but at night I was doing UCB classes and shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. I was really obsessed with improv and sketch comedy, and I spent a lot of my time at the theater,” she says.
When Plaza was 20, she had a stroke that caused a communication disorder called expressive aphasia, which takes away one’s ability to speak. She was also briefly paralyzed, but fortunately made a full recovery.
When she was well enough to get back to pursuing her career, Plaza wasted no time. In contrast with April Ludgate, the eye-rolling, wise-cracking intern she would soon play on Parks and Rec, the post-collegiate Plaza hustled hard.
The role that set her up for success was as Tina Tate, the constantly annoyed stepdaughter in the 2007 web series The Jeannie Tate Show, created by Maggie Carey (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Liz Cackowski (Saturday Night Live, Community).
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.
The role helped Plaza catch the attention of a talent agent.
“I just was very proactive and kind of aggressive with her,” Plaza recalls. “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 audition turned out to be for the role of Daisy Danby in 2009’s Funny People, starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Leslie Mann.
Aubrey Plaza booked it as “a complete unknown,” she says.
When she got the call to send in an audition tape for Funny People, she was in the middle of shooting Mystery Team with Glover.
“Donald actually taped my audition, which is really funny to think about now. He taped me and did Seth Rogen’s lines,” Plaza says.
“I sent it in, and then Allison Jones, who was casting Funny People at the time, who’s like this huge comedy casting director, said, ‘Judd really likes your tape, but he needs to see you do standup because the character is a standup comedian, and they need to cast someone that does standup.’ I was not a standup comedian at the time, but I just decided, Okay, I’m just going to pretend to be a standup comedian. So then, I asked Donald if I could do five minutes — everything goes back to Donald Glover for some reason — I asked Donald if I could do five minutes at his standup show in Long Island City, and I had my friend tape me. I basically just did five minutes of jokes that I wrote, and I sent that tape back just thinking, Oh, maybe they’ll believe I’m a standup. And then they believed it.”
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.
“While I was there, 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,’” she 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 vs. The World director Edgar Wright 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 Plaza ended up landing Scott Pilgrim as well as Parks and Rec — in addition to Funny People.
“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.”
She says it’s a myth that she was discovered as a waitress — in fact, she had recently 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,” she 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.”
Other jobs before she got her big breaks included working as a temp in NBC’s digital marketing department, as a page giving NBC studio tours, and as an intern at Saturday Night Live for college credit during the 2005-2006 season. At SNL, her job was to take continuity pictures of the set during dress rehearsals.
“I was more just, like, lurking in the shadows and keeping my head down,” she jokes. “And stealing scripts.”
Of her page days, she recalls: “I would definitely say that I was kind of April Ludgate-y on that job, too, ‘cause I had to give studio tours. Everybody else in the program, they were sorority or fraternity kind of people that were really upbeat and confident and had a lot of energy, and I was always — they labeled me as the witch. They were like, ‘She’s the witch tour guide,’ ‘cause I was always doing it on a lower frequency and making weird jokes that the tourists didn’t understand, but I thought it was funny. I think I got fired from that job, too.”
But Plaza maintains that no matter how April Ludgate-y she may have behaved, “I was always really good at my job.”
“I would do my job, I’d do it really fast, and then I would do what I wanted to do. But then I would still get in trouble,” she jokes.
Her experience as an intern and a temp worker fused with other inspirations to create the character of April Ludgate.
“I honestly think it came from The Jeannie Tate Show because I was that character — the character of Tina Tate was basically like a teenage version of April Ludgate that I was developing. Then, when I went to L.A. for that one week and I met with Greg Daniels and Mike Schur and they were pitching me the idea for Parks and Rec, they hadn’t even written the script and they were like, ‘We think that Amy Poehler is going to have an assistant.’ Like blonde, not very smart. I can’t remember exactly what kind of character it was, but I just kind of pitched them, ‘Oh, no, that’s stupid. She should have an assistant that’s an intern that’s really, really smart, but doesn’t give a shit about anything that’s going on, she’s just there to get college credit.’ Because that’s what I was doing,” Plaza explained. “I was just trying to do stuff to get college credit so I could just graduate.”
Her character in Funny People, she says, was “loosely inspired” by comic and actress Janeane Garofalo.
“I had to do my comedy in that deadpan style,” she says. “I think it was a combination of all those things, because I was not really doing the character of April Ludgate — like, that wasn’t my signature. I was doing all kinds of different characters, but I think because I found this thing that was kind of working for me, I just went with it. I think April Ludgate was a combination of that kind of deadpan character that I was doing, but then also inspired by myself and my sisters. I was kind of doing impressions of like my younger sisters, basically, so it’s kind of a weird mashup.”
Her advice for those trying to break into the industry is simple.
“Always say yes to everything,” she says. “If I had said no to The Jeannie Tate Show, if I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t feel like getting up early and whatever and doing this stupid thing,’ then I never would have met certain people. It’s all about collaboration and working with other people, because you just never know what leads to what. That’s like the biggest advice I have, is to be open.”
She also learned to follow her instincts.
“For me, it’s more satisfying to work with people that I love working with and to create something for myself and not get caught up in waiting for other people to give you jobs or waiting for other people to pick you,” she says. “The more that I follow the truth of who I am and don’t care about what other people think and just do the things that I feel are authentic to myself, the more I feel like I have success. The more times I try to be like other people or do what I think other people want me to do, it never works out.”
After 16 years in show business, her goal now is to find satisfaction in the everyday journey of making art.
“Success is so fleeting. What is the end game? I don’t know. It never ends. You get the biggest job ever, and then you end up in the same spot, where you’re like, ‘Alright, what’s next?’” she says.
“So if that’s how it’s gonna go, then I think it’s more about just surrounding yourself with people that you want to be around and doing things that you really, really care about. It’s easy to get caught up in the business of it all, thinking of things like, ‘Well, what’s good for my career?’ Once you start doing that, you just lose why you were doing it in the first place. I forget it a lot, but I try to remember that when I’m making decisions. If I really, really, really, really feel passionate about something then I should just do it, and if I don’t, then I should just walk away.”
It took a long time for Aubrey Plaza to learn to trust her intuition. She credits her experience on Matt Spicer’s 2017 dramedy Ingrid Goes West as one of the defining moments of her career.
“Ingrid Goes West was a really, really big deal for me. It was the first time that I really produced a movie, and that I really felt ownership over it in a way, and I got to be there from the very start of it to the very finish of it and got my hands all over it,” she says.
“That changed things for me a lot — going through that process and seeing all aspects of how the movie came from the script to the screen. I changed a lot after that. That really taught me so many things, and after that film, I was like, ‘Okay, I know what I’m doing.’ I was really questioning myself a lot and not trusting my own instincts. And that movie, I really just tried to trust my instincts, and it felt really fulfilling.”
She hasn’t looked back.
“After that, I felt like, okay, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know what I’m doing or I need some powerful man to help me or something,” she says. “After that, I just felt like, no, fuck it. I know what I’m doing and I can just keep trying to re-create that experience in other ways. I think that really changed me a lot.”
Continue reading our cover story on Aubrey Plaza and Emily the Criminal…