Playing April Ludgate for four seasons on Parks And Recreation (with a fifth on the way in autumn 2012) has canonized Aubrey Plaza as the patron saint of malcontent interns. As such, it’s no surprise that the lead role in Safety Not Guaranteed—that of a disaffected, unpaid magazine employee investigating an anonymous newspaper solicitation for a time-traveling partner—was written with Plaza in mind. But the role also gave Plaza the chance to project a previously unseen vulnerability, as her character’s withering glares and cutting sarcasm are progressively broken down by Mark Duplass’ sincere, possibly insane wannabe Doc Brown. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Plaza about the challenges that drew her to Safety Not Guaranteed, how she responded to being serenaded by an alleged time-traveler, and what the future might hold for her Parks And Recreation character.
The A.V. Club: When Derek Connolly wrote the script for Safety Not Guaranteed, he envisioned you in the role of Darius. How did that affect the way you approached your performance?
Aubrey Plaza: [Joking.] Well, I decided to use myself, just physically and emotionally, for the movie, because I thought that was fitting.
I was flattered it was written for me, and I was so happy that the script was good and not terrible, because that would have been a shame, if he had written something with me in mind and it was the worst thing. And at the time, I was looking to do a movie where I used some different skills as an actor, and flex different muscles. I felt like this part was a really organic way to start out in a zone that people are comfortable seeing me in—a snarky, depressed intern—and then transform into a different person by the end of the movie.
AVC: Did you feel any additional pressure because you had to flex those acting muscles?
AP: Honestly, I felt pressure just being a lead in a movie. I have never done that before, so it was very scary to play the part in a movie where the weight of the film was on my shoulders. I never had to really think about a movie like that—usually I go in there, do a supporting role, be funny, and then get out of there. But this one, you’re kind of stuck with me. So figuring out how to make Darius track throughout the movie and have all of her emotional beats feel true and feel like they’re coming one after the other, and that she’s really going on this journey—that was a really big challenge for me. But it was one that I’ve been dreaming of my whole life. So I was very excited about it, but it was very scary.
AVC: It helped to have such a talented supporting cast surrounding you.
AP: Yeah, for sure. Jake Johnson was amazing—we’re friends, and we knew each other before we started the movie. And he was so good at taking such a douchebag character and making him likeable in a weird way. And Mark Duplass made it very easy for me to play off of him. His character is very tricky, and he deserves a lot of credit for tackling that character, because that could have easily gone the wrong way. He could have overplayed it, he could have underplayed it, he could have done a million different things wrong, and he really brought a vulnerability to Kenneth that I think the film needs. It just always felt real and like the characters were really connecting, and that Darius was falling in love with him, and the only way that was possible was because Mark was so good at playing Kenneth and good at drawing me into him.
AVC: Was it difficult to keep a straight face in response to some of Kenneth’s more outrageous eccentricities?
AP: Yeah, totally. But that was part of the fun of playing that character, because as Darius, I always had to be cognizant of a bunch of different things. I had to be trying to gain his trust, protecting myself, trying to get the story, dealing with falling in love with him, and dealing with my own issues at the same time. There were so many things happening at once that trying to not laugh at him was something I was dealing with as an actress, but it helped with the character, too, because she’s trying to not laugh at him and she’s trying to make him feel like she’s on the level with him—and really, I was totally on a million different levels.
AVC: When was the first time you heard “Big Machine,” the song that Kenneth performs for Darius?
AP: When the camera was rolling. Mark would not let me hear the song until the camera was rolling. So that reaction I had to him was real. I didn’t even know he could sing.
AVC: What was your impression of his voice?
AP: I was blown away! I mean, he can sing. It’s weird. I did not think that would happen. And I didn’t know he could play the zither. In my head, it was going to be him pretending to play and pretending to sing, and then they would just fix it in post or something—but he just full-on went for it, and played this song and it was beautiful. And there was just no sense of irony whatsoever. It was so sincere when he was doing it, as the character and as himself. And I was so touched by that.
AVC: You shot Safety Not Guaranteed between seasons of Parks And Recreation. Are there film roles you’ve had to turn down due to your commitment to the show?
AP: There’s a lot of things… I mean, it’s more that I can’t pursue movies that I would like to pursue. I haven’t had a lot of, “We got to get you in this movie,” and me being like, “Sorry, I can’t.” I’m not really at that point in my career yet. I hope to be someday, but I’m still at a point where I need to go toward roles that I want and try to win them and get them. So there’s been a couple movies I really wanted to do that I just had to pretend it didn’t even exist, because I knew it wouldn’t work out with my schedule.
AVC: Not to open old wounds, but do you remember what any of those movies were?
AP: [Joking.] Um, well you know they really wanted me for Spider-Man, they wanted me for Batman, all these big movies they wanted me, and I can’t do it because I’m on a TV show. So what am I going to do?
AVC: But you did shoot a movie during season four, correct?
AVC: Yeah. I shot a couple movies at the same time. I shot a movie called The Hand Job—well, it’s called The To Do List, but I am determined to still call it that, even though the studio is saying they’re not going to be calling it that. That overlapped with Parks, Damsels In Distress overlapped with Parks, and a movie I did called A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III overlapped, too. It’s easier to do small parts that overlap; it’s hard to do a movie when you’re the lead and then also be on the show.
AVC: In the training scenes in Safety Not Guaranteed, you get to act like a bit of a badass action-movie star. Would you consider taking a role in an action film?
AP: Yes. Especially if it was Nicolas Cage starring opposite me. That’s a dream of mine.
AVC: How do you think you would play off Nicholas Cage?
AP: I think we would have the best chemistry you’ve ever seen onscreen, hands down. I think we get each other, even though we’ve never met. I just feel like we’d just be communicating on a whole different level.
AVC: It would kind of be like having to play off Kenneth. You would have to take Nicholas Cage’s craziness at face value.
AP: I guess. Or he would have to take my craziness on another level. I think we’re both crazy in the same way.
AVC: And what way is that?
AP: Just the right way. Just the best way.
AVC: Do you see parallels between Darius’ journey in Safety Not Guaranteed and the development April’s been going through on Parks And Rec?
AP: On a basic level, those characters are a bit closed off to the world. And then they’re slowly opened to life and happiness and things and people. But, you know, that’s a journey most characters take on TV and in movies, in different ways.
AVC: Do you think April will eventually transform into Leslie Knope?
AP: Oh God, I hope so, I think that would be hilarious. That would be a great way for that show to end, if April is a crazy, obnoxious, obsessed, goody-two-shoes, political-activist woman. And also pregnant with twins.
AVC: Pregnant with Dwyer twins.
AP: Dwyer twins, yeah. That would be amazing. You know that if April and Andy had sex, if they tried to have a baby, they would have quadruplets or something crazy.
AVC: And they’d all be constantly beating up Ben.
AP: And they would all hate Jerry.
AVC: Well, everybody hates Jerry.
AP: Yeah, fuck Jerry.
AVC: You’ve probably had to field a lot of questions like this, but if you could actually travel back in time, would you change—
AP: Oh God. Here’s my answer to that question: I would travel back 30 seconds to when you were about to ask me that question, and I would say “Please don’t ask me that question.”
AVC: Fair enough.
AP: No, I would go back to the… no, I don’t know. You can ask me, now I feel bad.
AVC: Okay, would you change something from your personal life, or change something on a global scale?
AP: Global scale—uh, no, the world’s all right. Global scale, I don’t know: slavery? I would change the clothes that I wore in seventh grade. Just terrible, terrible decisions. No more chain-ball choker necklaces and skater jeans. I don’t know: slavery, the Holocaust—
AVC: Slavery or ’90s fashion, which one?
AP: We’ll just end with the Holocaust.