Meet Aubrey Plaza – cult cinema's new queen

She started as an intern on Saturday Night Live. Now she is LA’s most sought-after rom-com heroine, works regularly with Judd Apatow – and has turned down Ryan Gosling, twice. James Mottram meets her

Look up Aubrey Plaza’s Wikipedia entry and in the box-out, under genres, it just says “deadpan”. While she might not appreciate such a limited description of her talents, it does rather sum up what the 28-year-old actress-comedian has become known for.

All long dark hair, saucer-shaped hazel eyes and a smile that barely cracks, the petite half-Puerto Rican can put this down to her starring role as April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation, the cult sitcom from the makers of the US version of The Office.

“It happened by accident,” she  explains. “When I was doing comedy in New York, before I was in movies, I was never known as the deadpan actress. I was just a comedienne. Then I was cast in a couple of different parts in a row, where I had that sense of humour and attitude, and it just stuck. But I’m OK with that. It’s a part of me.”

Already ticking off films with Judd Apatow (on Funny People, as a lusted-after stand-up) and Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, as an obnoxious ex), Plaza is about to enter a crucial year. “I feel like I’m at the beginning of spreading my wings,” she says. Five films are on the slate, beginning with the marvellous Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza’s first starring role. “I felt ready for it,” she says. “I wanted to do the script justice, and I wanted to go deeper, and try to start acting, as a movie actor.” Pause. “I don’t know.”

Plaza, it should be noted, punctuates most sentences with either “like”, “y’know” or “I don’t know”. Still, her answers are cutthroat. We get into a long, increasingly surreal conversation about how she spends her time when Parks and Recreation finishes shooting every March. “I try to do laundry. I haven’t had time to do laundry for nine months. There are so many dirty panties in my room that I can’t even see anything.”

Talk turns to Safety Not Guaranteed, an indie time-travel romance, in which she plays Darius, a Seattle magazine intern assigned to track down the person behind an intriguing classified ad requesting a partner with whom to travel back in time. Her detective work leads her to antisocial grocery store clerk Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Is he a crank or is he for real? Either way, Darius begins to fall for him. “The story was just a really  interesting combination,” she says. “A sci-fi Back To The Future vibe with a quirky love story.” 

Plaza, more über-cool than girl-next-door, was reminded of her early years playing Darius. Raised in Wilmington, Delaware – her mother is an attorney, her father a financial advisor – she studied film in New York, whilst taking a number of internships. “I worked at a temp agency and they would send me on many different shitty jobs,” she says. The best was a design intern on US comedy show Saturday Night Live. “That was one of the cool ones. That was awesome. That was my dream since I was a kid to be on that show.”

While she didn’t ever speak to any of the actors – “I kept myself under the radar, just lurking in the shadows” – she was inspired to carve out her own comedy career, starting at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. A swift glance at her Tumblr account shows that even then she boasted sharp observational skills (check out her spot-on Sarah Silverman impression or the dating show parody “Kaplowee”, where she requests her man have “the body of Vin Diesel and the brains of J. Edgar Hoover”).

Her web-based comedy (including for the Apatow site Funny or Die) has built her a strong alt-following, making her the poster-girl for the dry and disaffected. Living in LA for the past four years, she’s clearly not impressed by celebrity. In fact, she might be the only woman in the world who has turned down Ryan Gosling – twice. The first time was at a juice bar, Plaza claiming she didn’t recognise him. Later, he asked her to go to a magic show – and she flatly refused. 

Now Plaza is increasingly on the indie/studio radar. After Safety Not Guaranteed, she’ll be seen in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, in which Shia LaBeouf gets entangled with Romanian gangsters. Then there’s A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swann III, Roman Coppola’s 1970s-set fantasy in which she plays the long-suffering assistant to Charlie Sheen’s daydreaming ad exec. “The entire film is like this super-stylised, trippy movie,” she explains. “I do get to wear a sexy sailor outfit from the 1940s, so get ready for that.” Most intriguing is the x-rated comedy The To Do List, in which she plays a high-school swot who takes it upon herself to tick off a series of sexual experiences before she heads to college. “It was really liberating. It was fun to play a character who was not weird, depressed, sarcastic, deadpan. I’m totally the Type A  go-getter.” Another pause. “Then add on the angry masturbating scenes.” Come again? “Yeah, there’s a scene where I’m angrily masturbating – that was fun to do! Can’t wait for the world to see that one.”

Secretly, she must be delighted that she’s finally beating those wings of hers – dropping the deadpan to tinker with the raunchy or the romantic. She nods. “I’m excited to start switching over and explore other things.” She’s just wrapped A Many Splintered Thing, a rom-com about a writer’s group in which she plays a performance artist. “At one point, I’m wearing underwear on stage and I’m pulling bloody, baby doll arms and legs out of my vagina!” On this evidence, the cult of Aubrey Plaza is only going to get bigger.

‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ is out now

Four Funny women Coming Your Way in 2013

Amy Poehler

Plaza’s ‘Parks’ co-star, and a ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumna, Poehler, 41, will co-host the Golden Globes with Tina Fey before starring in ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner’s feature debut ‘You Are Here’ and ensemble divorce  comedy ‘A.C.O.D.’

Ellie Kemper

With the American ‘Office’ on its final season, expect Kemper – receptionist Erin – to break out in 2013. The 32-year-old girl-next-door has already made the leap into movies, with parts in ‘21 Jump Street’ and ‘Bridesmaids’.  

Melissa Rauch

A regular on the New York stand-up circuit, she’s best known for playing microbiology student Bernadette on the hit US sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Rauch, 32, co-stars with Poehler in ‘You Are Here’ then segues into a love story ‘In Lieu of Flowers’.

Rashida Jones

A regular on both ‘Parks’ and ‘The Office’, Jones, 36, will be seen opposite Nick Frost in British dance comedy ‘Cuban Fury’ in March, before taking on a more serious role in cancer tale ‘Decoding Annie Parker’.