Aubrey Plaza plays April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation, an apathetic college student who offers her take on life, love and relationships with deadpan, witty one-liners.
Her Wikipedia entry describes her genre as ‘Deadpan’. She is the bone-dry alt.factor on sophisticated US comedy Parks and Recreation. She is the wish-list girlfriend of every undergraduate who soundtracks his interior monologues with Atoms for Peace, posts poetry on his Tumblr and wears brogues from Oxfam. Her name sounds like somewhere you’d go to buy costume jewellery or get a perky tattoo in the San Fernando Valley. There is very little about Aubrey Plaza that is not 100% amazing.
Aubrey is the heartfelt version of the thing Zooey Deschanel hard-sells in easily digestible, cute cartoon snippets. She didn’t cover her pretty face with thick tortoiseshell Urban Outfitters spectacle frames and put on a pair of flats to transmit weird. The delineation is more rudimentary. It’s in the eyes. For Aubrey, comedy is not a skill cultivated by which to be liked. It is a way of processing internal mania.
“The best comedy comes out of self-loathing. It’s not really funny when someone loves themselves and loves everything that they do. If you’re not happy with yourself, it’s a lot funnier.” Aubrey Plaza
“I’m not going to speak for everyone else but personally I feel like the best comedy comes out of self-loathing,” she says, over the telephone from Los Angeles, where she is simultaneously on the last day of shooting Life After Beth, a zombie movie with venerable comedy heroes John C.Riley and Molly Shannon as her parents and mid-way through shooting season six of Parks and Recreation. “It’s not really funny when someone loves themselves and loves everything that they do. I think if you’re not happy with yourself in a lot of ways, it’s funnier.” It would be great if for her second act Aubrey Plaza became a stone cold star. She is a quietly symbolic figure who could re-engineer Hollywood’s perception of young female reach.
For those that know of her monotone dynamic, Aubrey Plaza is presumed indivisible from her character April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation. Six seasons later, Aubrey says that she loves April. “Yes.” What is it she loves about her? “I love how weird she is. I love how she doesn’t pretend to like anything. She’s not a fake person. She just doesn’t really care what people think about her. I don’t know why she resonates with people. It’s hard for me to say but I’m assuming that she maybe represents the voice inside of people’s heads that just says what its thinking. I think people wish that they did that and they just don’t.”
The character began germinating early on in the development of the ABC show. Aubrey was called in for a meeting with show creator Greg Daniels after he’d spotted her in a low budget independent movie. Born in Delaware to liberal parents, Aubrey had schooled in New York at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a progressive, ironically named comedy theatre workshop set up by Parks and Recreation’s star and anchor, Amy Poehler. Because she had grown up with a Saturday Night Live whitewashed by the talents of Tina Fey and Amy, Poehler was already Aubrey’s hero. As a teenager, she says, “I wanted to be like her in every way. I was a fan of her very early on. When I found myself on a TV show with her it was mind-blowing.” It reflects honourably on both Poehler and Plaza that the way Aubrey found to honour her intention to be just like her hero was by learning to have the confidence to just be herself, a fantastic new loop for role-modelling.
Poehler is at the vanguard of a wave of influential US screen-work that has recalibrated what is now deemed funny in the national psyche. The lowest common denominator thrills and spills of the Frat boy 90s and the pre-digital pretty, monied upper middle classes that swanned through New York never having to worry themselves with self-loathing on Friends or Will and Grace were virtually extinguished by an influx of literate, political, humane, other comedy voices that were interested in stepping behind the surface of an America in transition. The new breed is a twisted comedy envelope that is more interested in picking apart what the fractiously divisive voice of Sarah Palin says about the new America than the smooth, glossy PR-ese of the Obamas. Most of it has been executed on Saturday Night Live. Aubrey had interned at the show after graduating the Upright Citizens Brigade. It helped when it finally came to acting with her hero. “I think because I’d trained at the theatre,” she says, “we kind of spoke the same language. It felt very natural. Instantly we had chemistry.”
Such was the budget and expectation of Parks and Rec, the first time Aubrey Plaza filmed with Amy Poehler was for a season one commercial to run in the ad breaks of the Superbowl, the most expensive slot on American television. She was terrified. “I felt like a total fraud. I had no reason being in that show or being anywhere near that. So I was just trying to lay low,” Aubrey confesses. Astonishingly, she had never appeared on TV before inhabiting April Ludgate. “I didn’t have to audition for it, which was really weird because I’d never been on TV before and you usually have to go through quite an audition process to get on a networked TV show. I found a loophole somehow. I think I was lucky. I don’t think it’ll ever happen again so I’m trying to ride it out as long as I can.”
Greg Daniels and Amy Poehler scored an ingenious coup with Aubrey Plaza. She sits at an abject tangent to the killer ensemble cast as a voice of proactive negativity. She gets to speak the lines every intern wants to say to their boss. The smart bit is that she does it with correctness. Her raising an eyebrow is the most kick-ass she gets. It’s enough. Her two defining features are her absolute inability to get excited about anything and her love of Neutral Milk Hotel, a touch that tells you everything you need to know about the sophistication of the writing in the show. In lesser confident hands the indie girl would be dumped with The Smiths or The Cure. “Sure. Totally, I think it’s the perfect choice for her.” Aubrey feels driven by the diffident, hate-everything sass of a counter-assistant at a record store. “Oh, yeah. I think she could definitely work at Amoeba, if she didn’t live in Pawnee.”
Parks and Rec is loosely the tale of a local government office set in the fictional little America of Pawnee, Indiana. It is filmed in the mock-documentary style of the man who sits over the current wave of clever US comedy as prophetic ghost, Christopher Guest, another hero of Aubrey’s. ‘All of Christopher Guest’s movies were very important to me,’ she says, ‘because they were improvised and there was just a feeling I got from them where I just thought, that’s the kind of comedy that I want to do. I think he changed everything. The way he shot those movies was so different from anything you’ve ever seen and just showed you how much the camera can be used in a different way, so that the cameras almost became another character.”
When she began filming Parks and Rec, Aubrey thought it had a season in it. “Every season I think will be the last,” she says. Aubrey is hamstrung by some of April’s delectation at seeing life not so much as a glass half empty as lucky to stick its mouth under a running tap from time to time. So of course they gave her the guy. In a twist too lovely to pass without comment, April is squired by loveable oaf, bear pin-up and champion doofus Andy Dwyer, played by the adorable Chris Pratt. The occasion was initiated by Aubrey, front of camera at the end of season one.
“That was a very organic moment,” Aubrey says, explaining some of the process behind one of the defining US comedies of its age. “There are a lot of moments in the script where we improvise. There was a moment in the last episode of season one where Andy and April just have a weird moment where they are just looking at each other and it’s obvious that I have a crush on him. I just made that choice kind of randomly.” Daniels ran with its potential. “He directed an episode called The Hunting Trip and he wanted to explore the idea of the two of them to see if we had any chemistry. So he created an episode where Andy and April were stuck in the office together and he just let us play around all day. Out of that it was very clear that we could maybe have a relationship. I think the writers are very sensitive to all the choices that we make and we’re very sensitive to all the choices that they make. It’s a really nice collaboration where we’re all following each other and listening to each other. It’s a very truthful thing.”
It is, furthermore, a hit. Aubrey Plaza will not be April Ludgate forever. But for now she’s still delighted to be the woman that has captivated small town America’s margins. “It’s a very magical group of people,” she says, of the cast and crew on Parks and Recreation. “We all genuinely love each other and I think that really shines through.” The thing about negativity is that it makes the positives shine so much brighter. “I think that the creators did a really great job in casting people who had really different styles of comedy that clicked together. I don’t think you can plan something like that. Sometimes that happens on a television show where you get a group of people who all fit together and sometimes you don’t and it doesn’t work. We just were really lucky.”
Aubrey Plaza didn’t bother herself with reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair epistle about why women aren’t funny. It was a missive that had the unfortunate coincidence of sharing timing with her comic actor’s inarguable breakout, in a show pioneered by Poehler, another irrefutable goddess of funny. “I knew of it, though.” I wonder aloud why that thing was still deemed worth saying or publishing in the 21st century. “I don’t know,” she says, deadpan. “Because people have opinions? And there are weird opinions.”