Aubrey Plaza is breathing heavily. Asking her about the special kind of male nervousness she inspires, it seems, makes her nervous, too. “I feel like guys are a little intimidated because they don’t fully know what I’m thinking, or what is going on with me, and maybe I’m mysterious to them in that way,” she says, over the phone from Los Angeles (it sort of sounds like she’s on a Stairmaster). “I don’t know: It’s like that thing when you’re in a bar and someone hits on you, and you’re mean to them, and they interpret it as hardcore flirting. Maybe it’s like that, but on a bigger scale.”
This goes some way toward explaining Plaza’s trademark appeal—a comedy style so deadpan she makes Janeane Garofolo look effusive—which, paired with her slight frame, and her demure, plucked-from-the-comic-book-store looks, landed her the part of the apathetic intern April on Parks and Recreation and convinced Judd Apatow to cast her as the apathetic standup comedian Daisy in Funny People, transporting her from Upright Citizens Brigade obscurity to stardom back in 2009. There have been variations on the theme since then: Her tense, monotone delivery has made late-night hosts squirm, bewildered red carpet reporters, and informed the role of Julie in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and small parts like that of “Depressed Debbie” in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and a frustrated shopper on Portlandia. During the past three years we have come to know and love Plaza as our very own real-life Daria.
But this spectacle of awkwardness and death stares, as evidenced by the sly grin that occasionally sneaks onto her face, is not the whole of Aubrey Plaza. And she’s hoping her latest film, Safety Not Guaranteed, in which she plays a sour newspaper intern softened by Kenneth (played by Mark Duplass), the eccentric subject of a story she’s researching, will serve as a neat little metaphor for her transition. “Before we started shooting, I told her that my brain doesn’t process sarcasm or irony, which is actually somewhat true,” says director Colin Trevorrow, “so everything she said would have to be exactly what she meant. That made a massive difference.” Plaza’s character, Darius, becomes acquainted with Kenneth when she, along with a fellow intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) and staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) are assigned to locate the person who placed a classified ad in search of a time-traveling partner (the film is based on a true story).
Her foray into territory like regret, vulnerability, and romance—wrapped in what Plaza describes as the “weird, independent love-story-slash-’80s-sci-fi-Goonies” style of the film—feels both genuinely surprising and, by the end of it, inevitable. “I didn’t have to coax the performance out of her,” says Trevorrow. “She came prepared and ready to do this. She’s a great actor, and I think she really just needed the opportunity.” The role didn’t feel like a stretch for Plaza, either. “Darius’s transformation really resonated with me,” she says. “She opens up, and in the end, she’s a fully realized person with all kinds of human emotions.” If I also told you that the real Aubrey Plaza has a totally endearing obsession with Judy Garland—like, her best friend gives her a framed black-and white photo of the actress every year for her birthday—would you believe this Aubrey Plaza-asreal- person-with-feelings-and-stuff thing?
That this might be a little hard to believe is not lost on Plaza, especially since the occasions in which she is supposed to be herself, like on late night talk shows, often seem so strained they border on performance art. “I really just like to have fun, and fun for me is turning those [appearances] into some kind of performance, as opposed to trying to be charming and likable…because I have a really hard time doing that,” she says, laughing. “I feel like if I just did those talks shows and sat there and told stories about myself, who cares? Like, who cares what I did for the summer? I wouldn’t care about this random stranger’s weird anecdotes.”
And who could blame her for opting out? Judging by the sentiments often regurgitated in profiles of female comedians from Tina Fey to Olivia Munn, the public is often bewildered by funny women who are also charming and beautiful. But these pressures are something that Plaza has been slowly outgrowing. “When I did standup, I remember always feeling like I wanted to wear something nice. If I wore what I really wanted to wear, I’d wear a dress and a sweater or something cute, but I never did,” says Plaza, who instead went for a hoodie, jeans, and Converse. “Maybe I just wasn’t capable and confident enough to go for it and wear a fucking dress and be hilarious. But I do think it’s harder, because you have to fight through that a little bit. If you’re a girl and you wear a dress, people are gonna look at your legs, and that’s just like…how it goes.”
Lately, she’s just as likely to appear in a World of Warcraft commercial as she is on the red carpet in a strappy, sparkly designer number. But after the busy year she’s had, Plaza is taking a little step back from both during her summer break from filming Parks and Recreation. “I’m working on trying to be a normal person in my off time,” she says, a grin surely spreading across her face. Not too normal, we hope.