There’s a reason Aubrey Plaza keeps getting cast as interns — as eyerolling Pawnee Parks Department lackey April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation and as the defeatist, toilet-scrubbing Seattle Magazine intern in the upcoming Safety Not Guaranteed, and in real life as well, in NBC’s famed page program. According to Safety director Colin Trevorrow, the 27-year-old actress is an everygirl, a face for the masses of underpaid, overeducated young workers of the world.
“Aubrey represents a whole generation of young women who are very disaffected,” Trevorrow said. “Not just women, a whole generation. And disaffected for a reason. They don’t see anything out there for them, and this is not a world for them, and they have every reason to want to go back to a time when everything was a little bit easier and there were more opportunities and they weren’t treated like shit as an intern somewhere.”
Amy Poehler, creator and star of Parks and Rec and the woman responsible for casting Plaza as April the intern, told Splitsider that though she never met Plaza in her years at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the pair shared an “instant love.”
What was it that made Poehler think Plaza’s Parks role could be expanded from its initial bit-part origins? “Her talent,” Poehler said. “Her range. Her smart mouth.”
Those three attributes are on full display in this month’s Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza’s first starring role. In Safety, she portrays Darius, a disaffected young writer who stumbles upon the story of her young life when she and another intern (newcomer Karan Soni) accompany a staff reporter (scruffy New Girl roommate Jake Johnson) to investigate a classified ad placed by a man who believes he can time travel.
“This is not a joke,” the ad reads. “Safety not guaranteed.”
The trio heads to rural Washington to find the ad’s author, a paranoid grocery clerk named Kenneth (portrayed by Mark Duplass) who worried as a child that his action figures would get lonely if he left them at home all day. Darius goes undercover to report the story, training to travel back in time with Kenneth, but soon discovers that her connection with him is stronger than that of journalist and (unwitting) subject. As the two grow closer, Darius realizes she’s probing into unfamiliar territory of both the heart and the time-space continuum. Over the arc of the film, she morphs from a disaffected skeptic to someone more open and believing.
“My character, Darius, really goes through a change and it never feels forced, it feels real,” Plaza said. “I think that’s true to real life, that people meet people in their lives that kinda open them up in a way.”
Plaza, too, delved into lands unknown in the process of shooting the film. This is her first role that borders on dramatic, leaps and bounds away from eyerolling April or the Sarah Silverman impression Plaza perfected in her days as a regular performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
“Safety Not Guaranteed is a pretty organic way to kind of break away from the roles that I’ve done in the past,” she said. “It felt like a kind of gentle way of letting people see me act in a way that they haven’t seen before instead of trying to shock people into believing that I’m a totally different character. Which I can do! But I think sometimes it takes people a while to see someone blooming into a different kind of actor.”
Despite her weekly appearances during the last four years on Parks and Recreation, Plaza is relatively new to feature filmmaking. Before “Safety Not Guaranteed,” her highest-profile roles were in 2009’s “Funny People” and 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” — both portraying scowling ice princesses. Trevorrow said that he and screenwriter Derek Connolly wanted to take advantage of the fact that Plaza is known for her surly persona, and gradually introduce audiences to her softer side.
“She was a perfect candidate for somebody to transform from the character that we see at the beginning of this film to the one that we see at the end, because it’s really her showing us the wall that she tends to put up in general and then you get to see the real Aubrey,” Trevorrow said. “When she smiles for the first time in this movie — and I think for the first time that’s ever been captured on film — she lights it up. When you see it, you realize you’re dealing with a movie star.”
And that’s exactly what Plaza hopes to be: a movie star. Or, more specifically, that’s one of the things Plaza is shooting for.
“I hope I get to be on Saturday Night Live someday, that would be a dream come true,” she said. “Or maybe when I’m old, I’ll have my own show, like Golden Girls. I kind of want to just always be doing different things and surprising people in every way I can, whether it’s acting or doing dramatic roles or writing movies or directing movies. People who do that, I really look up to. People like Tina Fey and Adam Sandler. I’d like to just always be growing and surprising people and myself.”
Poehler joked that Plaza’s time for a batty Golden Girls role may have already passed.
“She is an old soul,” Poehler said. “Aubrey was born a 200-year-old witch and she has that Brad Pitt disease where she is aging backwards.”
Despite her vision of a crowded IMDb credits page (and apparent struggles with Benjamin Button syndrome), Plaza said she was intimidated by Trevorrow and Connolly’s offer of a leading role written specifically for her.
“I’m not confident at all,” she said when asked if she knew she could pass muster on the big screen. “I was terrified. It was cool. It was definitely weird because I didn’t feel like I was at a point in my career where people were going to be writing for me, and I still don’t really feel like that, but so I was really flattered and scared. I was definitely nervous that I wouldn’t live up to his expectations of what he hoped I would bring to his movie, but it was a fun challenge. It seems to be working out so far.”
Indeed, Plaza is at peace with her career. Perhaps it’s the way the cards have fallen into place perfectly so far, but when asked what she would change in her life if, like her Safety character Darius, she were given the chance, Plaza’s time tweaks would be decidedly sartorial; she wouldn’t even go back and remember Ryan Gosling’s name when he hit on her at a juice bar.
“I might go back to seventh grade and tell myself not to wear those chain ball necklaces or those JNCO jeans that were really wide,” Plaza said. “I look at pictures of myself in seventh grade and my style was just so wrong. I’d change that, but otherwise, I have no regrets.”
No matter the past, Poehler has high hopes for Plaza’s future. Asked what she saw coming for her protege, she answered, “Love, fame and murder.”
Kase Wickman has done her share of grubby intern tasks, but has yet to time travel. She lives and brunches in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter.