Aubrey Plaza on Safety Not Guaranteed, Parks and Rec, and Hand Jobs

Interviews with a point.
June 8 2012 11:42 AM

A Conversation With Aubrey Plaza

The Safety Not Guaranteed star on internships, mental illness, and the metaphorical meaning of the hand job.

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Slate: Do you have any personal experience with that?

Plaza: No, I’ve never been clinically depressed, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve felt depressed many times in my life, so I can draw on those times in my life when I need to.

Slate: You did a music video for Father John Misty and portrayed, not exactly depression, but perhaps a different kind of mental illness. Can you tell me how you got into that project?

Plaza: Yeah, Josh Tillman and I met at a Canadian Thanksgiving, even though I’m not Canadian and neither is he. But we just became friends. And I never thought that I would be in a music video, but a year after we met, he called me and told me that he had an idea and wanted me to be in his music video. I wasn’t sure that I would do it, but then he sent me the song, and it was such a weird song, and it was awesome. So I agreed to do it, and I didn’t know what the video was going to be about; I basically just said, “Yes, I’ll show up and I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

The only discussion we had of what was going to happen was that they wanted me to have an emotional meltdown in some way on camera. And at the time, I hadn’t really done anything where I’d had to break down in tears, really, or go outside of myself. I said yes because it was a weird acting challenge, which I liked. They kind of outlined this weird narrative, this funeral scene in Laurel Canyon, but I really didn’t know what was going on; I just knew there would be heavy and really emotional stuff going on. So I kind of showed up knowing that and trying to be as open as possible.

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Slate: Are you afraid of getting typecast as a depressed person?

Plaza: No, I’m not. I played different characters in a bunch of movies last year that haven’t come out yet. I think I’m just at the beginning of breaking out of the depressed bubble.

Slate: I’ve read a lot about The Hand Job—which I guess is not called The Hand Job anymore, is it?

Plaza: I’ve been calling it The Hand Job anyway.

Slate: What’s the real title?

Plaza: It’s called The To-Do List right now.

Slate: Why was it originally called The Hand Job? Was there a specific hand job that’s very important in the movie?

Plaza: There is a very specific hand job in the movie, but overall it’s about a girl who has never done anything sexual with a guy. It’s about the summer after her graduation, and she’s the valedictorian of her class, and she’s just a really homework-obsessed, type-A freak. (In no way depressed! No depression or sarcastic weirdness there.) And she basically makes a list of all the things she needs to learn how to do with guys, hand jobs included, and decides to tackle it as a homework assignment for the summer, because she’s really good at homework, and she plows through that list. But yeah, the hand job is literally in the script and I guess it’s also a metaphor for the jobs that women have to learn how to do. That sounds really weird.

Slate: It sounds sort of like Easy A, but that movie had a slightly hypocritical message at the end. The To-Do List sounds like a genuinely sex-positive movie. Is that accurate?

Plaza: I don’t know. It’s not really about “Go have sex!” It’s more kind of … There are so many movies about guys having their first sexual experiences, whether it be actual intercourse or just anything sexual. For girls, you just don’t see movies about girls learning how to give a hand job. Which is something that girls do when they’re in middle school; it’s a thing that happens. I mean, not for everyone, but people give hand jobs for the first time, and you never see that happen [onscreen], because it feels wrong or something to watch it. So this movie is just an honest, funny portrayal of a girl having her firsts with all of that stuff. So I don’t know what people will think the message is at the end, but it’s kind of just supposed to be a very honest look at how a young girl figures out the penis.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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