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.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.
Aubrey Plaza in a still from Safety Not Guaranteed

Photograph courtesy FilmDistrict and Big Beach.

Parks and Recreation fans know Aubrey Plaza as the acerbic yet lovable April Ludgate, the intern-turned-assistant who has become an integral part of Pawnee’s parks department in recent seasons. In this week’s Safety Not Guaranteed, Plaza plays Darius, an editorial intern at a Seattle magazine investigating a classified ad soliciting a partner for time travel. Darius becomes close to the man who posted the ad (played by Mark Duplass) and finds her beliefs about the possibility of time travel shaken.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Slate spoke with Plaza about her new role, the evolution of April on Parks and Rec, and Plaza’s upcoming film projects.

Slate: For people who know you from Parks and Rec but haven’t seen Safety Not Guaranteed, how would you describe the similarities and differences between April and Darius?

Aubrey Plaza: They’re different characters. Their similarity is that they are both interns, but actually that’s not really a similarity anymore, because April’s not an intern in the parks department anymore. I guess in the beginning of the film the characters have a similar way about them. Darius is kind of closed off to the world, and that makes her a little weird and dark and moody, and I guess some people would describe April like that, so that’s a similarity.

Slate: How do you feel April has changed over the seasons? It seems like recently she’s become this weird source of advice for the other characters.

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Plaza: I think she’s grown up a lot over the past few seasons. You can kind of see her change from a teenager to a young woman. She does end up becoming a backboard for people when they need advice for whatever they’re going through. It is kind of funny that she’s in that role now, because she’s a smart, logical, mature adult now, but still maintains her creepy weirdness.

Slate: Well put. If you had to do either April’s internship or Darius’ internship, which would you choose?

Plaza: Oh, God. I guess I would choose Darius’ internship. I think I would rather live in Seattle and be writing ironic articles about Internet memes than living in Pawnee, Ind.

Slate: So it comes down to location, primarily?

Plaza: Yeah. Pawnee sucks.

Slate: In Safety Not Guaranteed, there are two plotlines in which men want to go back in time and relive or fix relationships they had when they were younger. Do you think that that’s a common experience that men or women have at a certain point, wanting to go back and fix earlier relationships? Has anyone ever come out of the woodwork to try to rekindle a relationship they had with you in the past?

Plaza: I think that happens to people a lot, because people change so much, and after you’ve been in a couple of relationships, you look back on some of your early ones and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I was like that at the time. If I only knew, maybe it would have worked out.” But truthfully, no, I haven’t really had much of that. The only thing I’ve had that’s similar is that I dated a high school Swedish exchange student when I was 16. And about 10 years later, I actually went to Sweden to see him, not knowing what that would bring. That’s the only time I’ve ever been like, “Wait, what if that relationship didn’t work out because we’re 16 and now we’re older but we still are in love?” I was very wrong.

Slate: I think that’s how it usually goes, unfortunately. At the beginning of the movie, it seems like your character is depressed, and her father even says as much to her, that he thinks that she’s depressed.

Depression was also definitely a theme of Damsels in Distress, and you played a depressed person in that as well.

Plaza: Literally. My character’s name was Depressed Debbie. I barely did anything in that movie, but I’m the go-to—if you have a depressed character in your movie, you gotta get me in there.

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.

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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