Going from a bit part on 30 Rock to roles in a successful sitcom and two major movies within the space of a few years would be enough to make anyone jump for joy. Except perhaps for Aubrey Plaza, who, with her portrayal of perpetually unimpressed ex-intern April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks And Recreation, has more or less cornered the market on comic disdain. As the foil to Amy Poehler’s blithely optimistic small-town functionary, Plaza bides her time as Poehler’s trial balloons fill with hot air, then punctures them with a swift, sharp stroke. In Judd Apatow’s Funny People, she held her own as the sole distaff member of a circle of stand-ups, parrying their nonstop barrage of dick jokes with a quip about her skinny vagina, and in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, she stares daggers at Michael Cera as snarky scene queen Julie Powers. Before that, she appeared in the online series Mayne Street and The Jeannie Tate Show, and onstage at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. (You can check out her Sarah Silverman impression at her Tumblr page.) During the crush of Scott Pilgrim’s press tour, Plaza talked to The A.V. Club about the secret loves of Julie Powers, Nick Offerman’s plot-point larcenies, and her plan to out-birth Amy Poehler.
The A.V. Club: Were you aware of the intensity of the Scott Pilgrim fans before you took the part?
Aubrey Plaza: I wasn’t really aware how popular the comic book was. I knew, because I was one of them, how many fans Edgar Wright has. He has such a cult following. So I knew that was going to be a thing, but I really had no idea about the comic book. I read them before I auditioned, and I loved them so much. I got it right away. So I’m not surprised. They’re so good. I really didn’t know it was going to be like this. Comic Con was insane.
AVC: Your character, Julie Powers, is somewhere between angry and disdainful.
AP: That’s accurate. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you have to get a handle on why she’s so pissed off all the time?
AP: I wanted be true to the comic book. In the book, she’s just a crazy bitch. She’s screaming in every scene. I wanted to make her, I guess, likeable, vulnerable in some way. Before we started shooting, Bryan Lee O’Malley, the writer, and Edgar handed out these secret 10 facts about our characters that weren’t in the comic books. Some of them were just silly, just jokes, but some of them actually shed light on the characters’ motivations and why they were the way they are. One of mine actually informed me a bit when I was doing Julie. One of the reasons she is so passionately against Scott dating Ramona is that she actually has a crush on Scott, and she’s pissed off because he never liked her. He likes all her friends, and he’s never been interested in her, so that’s a big reason why she just really hates him.
AVC: That’s something you have ended up playing a lot. Metaphorically, at least, you do a lot of eye-rolling. Your characters are constantly underwhelmed by what’s going on around them.
AP: Yeah, that’s fair. I mean, for the three things I’ve done.
AVC: Are you personally not easily impressed? Is that just something you play well?
AP: I don’t think I’m really like that. I think I’m really good at playing that. That all really came from—I can pinpoint it. I think it came from this web series I did called The Jeannie Tate Show. That was the first time I really took that kind of attitude, personality, and put it into a project where people saw it. I think that helped me get a lot of parts. Once people see you do one thing and they like it, they want to see more of it, or they can’t look past it. So I definitely think that’s been an underlying theme with a lot of the things I’ve done so far, but I don’t think they’re all exactly the same. And I don’t think I’m like that in real life. I just think I’m good at being like that. I don’t know why.
AVC: It’s hard to generate a mental picture of you being wildly enthusiastic about something.
AP: Oh no, I’m not. You’re right. I’m not. I’m definitely underwhelmed, I guess. Sometimes. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character on Parks And Recreation has broadened a lot since the first six-episode season, but at first, her main purpose was to be sulking in the background of every scene. Was it hard to find levels within that, so you weren’t doing the same thing week after week?
AP: Yeah, I think so. In the first season, I did have a smaller role to play. In the second season, I had this relationship that was kind of a motivation for April, so I think once that came into the picture, I found I had something I was fighting for, something I really cared about. Up until then, [April] really just didn’t want to be there, so the comedy came out of that. But once you give her a goal, there are different choices and different things that come out of her. That was really important to me. It was really good for me to do that, because I think—I hope she’s not rolling her eyes in every scene. There’s more to her than that.
AVC: Just the fact that she’s interested in Andy changes our idea of the character. She’s been so concerned with seeming cool and uninvolved, and he’s basically an enthusiastic idiot.
AP: I think it’s really cool the way the writers did that. I think April kind of represents a generation, in a way. She represents this young force in the office. At first glance, you kind of write her off as this disaffected young person that is over it and doesn’t care about anything. But with the Andy stuff, it shows you—I don’t know. Maybe the message there is, there’s still something to be said about being positive and being around people that are just optimistic about life in general. That’s something young people need, or want secretly.
AVC: You come out of an improv background. Is it hard to settle into doing the same character and having those boundaries? There’s improv in Parks And Rec, but you have to stay within the lines of what April would and wouldn’t do.
AP: It’s kind of the best of both worlds for me. It’s almost like I know the character so well now that improvising as April is the most fun. I’m UCB trained—I came up learning about game, which is a really big part of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. They teach you about game, and game in a scene is what makes the scene funny. And oftentimes, it’s the character—this is really improv dorky stuff. [Laughs.] But I learned about game so early on, and game can be what’s funny in a scene, or it can be a character game. With the show, it feels like we all have our character games down. We know what’s funny about our characters, and then we just have to fit that into whatever situation is happening. So it’s kind of freeing, because I don’t have to worry about who I am at any moment, because I know. All I have to worry about is how April would react in any situation, and coming up with that on my feet is the most fun. I can’t believe I get paid to do that. And to do it with people like Amy and Aziz [Ansari] and Nick [Offerman] and everyone, because we all kind of speak the same comedy improv language—it works so well. We don’t improvise as much as people think we do. The writers are really good, and our scripts are really funny. But there’s definitely a lot of opportunity for us to play around, and we get to do that a lot. It’s really fun.
AVC: Do the things that come out of improv end up affecting the scripted scenes as well?
AP: Definitely. There’s a lot of times where we’ll come up with something on the spot, and the writers will catch it in the editing room, and then they’ll be like “Wait a minute, this could turn into something.” That’s kind of how the Andy/April thing started. That was an improvised reaction that I had to him in season one, when they didn’t even think that was going to be possible, to have a love arc. It was this one take we did where he’s talking about his band and he’s trying to describe what kind of music it is, and no one gets it. In my head, I was like, “Well, April would probably get it. Also, April would probably think he’s hot, and she’d probably want to flirt with him in some way.” So I reacted and added a line where I was just like “I totally get it.” And they caught it on camera, and then that kind of sparked something. It’s important for us to keep coming up with things on the spot. But ultimately, we don’t have to.
AVC: Also, ultimately any opportunity for April to side with one person against everyone else is—
AP: Definitely. And any opportunity to shit all over Rashida Jones’ character. [Laughs.] Any opportunity to make Ann feel uncomfortable will make April happy.
AVC: Does the fact that you’re coming back mid-season affect the schedule at all, or are you still shooting as you were last year?
AP: I don’t think it affects the schedule. The only thing affecting the schedule is Amy having another baby. Amy’s always having babies. She has a baby like every month.
AVC: It’s not easy having a baby every few weeks. You have to give her credit for that.
AP: No, I give her credit. I know it’s hard. I’m going to have a million babies in seasons three and four, so it’s not just going to be her that affects the schedule.
AVC: So you’re going to compete for who can disrupt the schedule the most with your ovaries?
AP: I just want to be like Amy. She’s my hero. She has a baby, I want a baby.
AVC: You mentioned April and Andy’s relationship coming out of improv. How much do you know episode to episode where your character is going?
AP: I have no idea what’s going to happen. We don’t really know. They don’t tell us what’s going to happen. I definitely know that our relationship is going to be dealt with, and I hope we get together, because it would be really funny to see them in a relationship. But I have no idea. Nick Offerman, he’s like a sneaky little plot thief. He goes up to the writers’ office sometimes and sneaks around and looks at the board and then comes back and gives us information. But other than that, I have nothing.
AVC: Is it better not to have things fixed in your head too far in advance?
AP: I guess so. I don’t really know. I think it’s just once we start shooting, we’re so overwhelmed with the task at hand and what episode we’re working on that week, we don’t even have time to think ahead. I’m always like maybe one or two—two at the most—episodes in the future in my head. Otherwise, I’m kind of just trying to figure out what’s going on that day and keep up with it.