LOS ANGELES — Her name sounds like a GPS destination. The character she’s best known for has an emotional range that runs from deadpan to moribund. There’s footage on the Internet of her chewing roses and spanking table lamps. Yet the buzz out of Sundance and SXSW this year is that Aubrey Plaza’s star has arrived.
That’s due to the 27-year-old actress’s first leading role, in “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a post-mumblecore “time-travel” film which is pretty much to the time-travel genre what “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is to Shakespearean drama. The film opens Friday in the Boston area.
Plaza is best known as TV’s April Ludgate, the “Parks and Recreation” intern who could run a perpetual motion machine on her ennui. Plaza’s few big-screen roles to date — such as Scott Pilgrim’s sarcastic nemesis — have also been a master class in epic disengagement. You can’t stop watching her, however, because lurking behind those brown eyes is an enigmatic presence of mind of the kind that illuminated Audrey Hepburn and scant few other cinema queens.
“Aubrey to me is a movie star,” said “Safety” director Colin Trevorrow. “She’s not a movie star because she reminds us of some other star we all like, but because she is a new thing. She’s a different model. She’s 6.0. That’s what fascinates me about her.
“I think a lot of people’s initial impression of Aubrey was that she wore nothing on her sleeve, was emotionally cold, and didn’t really have anything going on behind her eyes. I hope in this movie people can see that there’s a crazy universe swirling behind her eyes, and that there’s more to be learned.”
Meeting in a déclassé Hollywood coffee shop recently, Plaza didn’t seem any too undone by her blossoming career.
“It’s hard for me to have any perspective on myself and my career. I have no idea. It seems people like the movie a lot, but I don’t know how that will change anything for me. I’m not too scared of stardom because if I have that, it means that I am working a lot and have more control of my career, and that’s what I want,” she said.
Plaza was dressed for recess in a gray tank top, shorts, and sandals, and took pains to point out some humanizing flaws: a bruise on one arm from her corgi trying to rescue her from the swimming pool, where evidently Plaza is easily mistaken for dead. (The dog can’t be blamed for being overcautious: Plaza suffered a stroke in 2004, from which she’s fully recovered.) She displays a pristine leg, injured, she says, while riding a horse — “you can’t see it, but it hurts” — and from her purse extracts an iPhone to show photos of the guilty horse and dog, and also to show off the phone itself, which is so fractured from another poolside incident it looks like it belongs to Bizarro World Superman.
Though Plaza had never carried a film before, “Safety Not Guaranteed” had been written specifically with her in mind by screenwriter Derek Connolly after he’d seen her in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (2009).
“I was really surprised and flattered that anyone would think of me like that, but, you know, thank God it was good,” Plaza said. “I read scripts all the time that are terrible, and that would have been awkward.”
The film riffs on an actual ad that appeared in a survivalist magazine in the 1990s looking for a partner to travel back in time. A disaffected intern at a Seattle-based magazine, Plaza’s character, Darius, is enlisted to accompany the mag’s cynical star writer to track down the prospective time traveler, played, respectively, by indie stalwarts Jake Johnson and Mark Duplass.
For them and the film’s other dysfunctional characters, spanning the abyss of time may be the least of the gulfs they have to bridge.
Plaza’s Darius at the outset is akin to her other tamped-down roles, but she ultimately has occasion to show more emotional range.
“The characters I’ve played in the past are not me, but of course they have some aspects of me because I’m the only instrument I can use to create them, but I was happy for the chance to break out of that by the end of the film,” she said.
This was Trevorrow’s first go at directing a feature, which should have been challenge enough without casting an unproven lead, but he said, “I have this very American blind confidence in people. My logic was that Aubrey had something to prove here, that she had every motivation to show she can get to an emotional place that people didn’t know she could get to.
“She wasn’t putting on a lot of makeup and becoming someone else; it was more about allowing her to get to the core of who she is, which isn’t the girl people know from ‘Parks and Recreation.’ Over the film, she goes from being someone who doesn’t want to be in the moment she’s in to someone who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The mix of comedy and drama suited Plaza just fine.
“People have a misconception that I was in stand-up then became an actor, but I was an actor first, and only started doing stand-up to get Judd Apatow to give me a part in ‘Funny People.’ Looking back now, I loved playing a stand-up more than I did being a stand-up.
“What helped me in this movie was my background doing improv comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, because their philosophy is truth in comedy. It’s not about going for the joke; it’s about being real and in the moment and reacting fully to people and things; then the comedy just comes from there organically.”
The daughter of an Irish-American attorney mother and a Puerto Rican American financial planner father, Plaza grew up in Wilmington, Del., where the city motto is “A place to be somebody.”
Plaza’s somebody “was a weird kid,” she recalled. “I didn’t fit in any particular group. I had a lot of friends, but not a lot of close friends.”
Her personality wasn’t overly suited to the Catholic girls’ schools she attended. “There was not a lot of diversity there. Fortunately, I became involved in community theater, meeting older people and awesome weird people from all over the place, and that influenced me a lot.”
She attempted melding her theatrical aspirations with her studies — instead of a Latin class term paper, she once turned in a video of her and friends getting thrown out of a mall for shouting Latin phrases — but she didn’t hit her stride until she went to New York University, where she studied filmmaking and screenwriting.
Along with her mainstream success, Plaza enjoys doing no-budget videos on the Internet, such as the five minutes of pure misbehaving she accomplishes in the video for the Father John Misty song “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
“I say yes to things like that a lot because it is good for my brain to jump into things, have fun, and keep it fresh; to not over-think every little thing or treat my career like a precious little baby because, you know, who knows what’s going to happen?”
Her iPhone knows: She’s headed to Romania to play Shia LaBeouf’s ex-girlfriend in “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” one of several films she is acting in this year.
Her next starring role is in the Maggie Carey film “The To Do List,” which should also be an expressive stretch for her, playing a young woman obsessed with becoming sexually experienced before heading to college.
Plaza explained, “I play a Type-A, valedictorian-of-her-high-school girl who is in no way sarcastic, weird, depressed, deadpan, or any of the things people associate me with, and I do every sexual thing you can think of. I haven’t done any sex scenes, yet in this I just do them all in one movie. My character always wants to be the best and that’s whether she’s taking a standardized test or masturbating.”
Whatever stardom may beckon, she’ll be back on TV later this year for the fifth season of “Parks and Recreation.” Since Amy Poehler’s character won her election to city council in the season just ended, Plaza said, “I have a feeling all of us are going to be getting different positions in the Parks Department, and adjusting to her becoming a city councilwoman, and hopefully April will have some more responsibility.”
Plaza recently opined that April is “on the path to becoming a fully realized adult.” She sees signs of the same in herself.
“I’ve been cooking more. Recently I’ve tried making my grandmother’s Puerto Rican recipes. I’ve made sofrito from scratch. I have a food processor and I make my own almond butter. What do you think about that? That’s pretty adult. But then I smear it all over my face and roll around in dirt.”Jim Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.