The star of NBC’s Parks and Recreation talks to Marlow Stern about her raunchy new comedy, The To-Do List, and surviving a stroke at 20.
Aubrey Plaza is lucky to be here. Equipped with a dazzling array of dry rejoinders and deathly stares, the 29-year-old comedian may seem ubiquitous now, with a starring role as April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, followed by a smooth transition to leading lady in films, such as the underrated and overlooked comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, and the coming-of-age sex comedy The To-Do List, out July 26. But, at 20, she suffered a debilitating stroke that caused temporary paralysis and expressive aphasia, rendering her unable to communicate. At all.
In The To-Do List, she plays Brandy—the goody-two-shoes valedictorian of her high-school class who believes she must become more sexually experienced before she heads off to college in the fall. So, the virgin creates a “to-do list” of various sexual practices and, during one raunchy summer, tries to mark off as many as she can, plowing her way through a series of awkward sexual conquests, played by Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and others.
Plaza opened up to The Daily Beast about her rise to leading lady, her health scare, filming awkward sex scenes, and more.
I just love him. He’s number one.
Fair enough. And you’ve also tweeted about your love of Nicolas Cage.
He’s number 1.2. Those two can do no wrong in my book.
There’s also, apparently, going to be an epic battle between you and Anna Kendrick.
What about it? I’m going to win. I’m tricky, and I have skills. She will never beat me. I guess it started a hundred years ago, in the depths of the ocean, where both of our evil souls were born.
I’m curious to know where your deadpan shtick came from. Do your parents have very dry senses of humor?
My mom does. She’s a quiet Irish weirdo with a very dry sense of humor. She’s a strange woman into weird things. There’s this legendary road in Wilmington, Delaware, where we grew up called “Devil’s Road,” and it’s a creepy road that’s supposedly cursed. In the middle of the night while my cousins are sleeping over, she’ll just ask us, “Do you guys want to go to Devil’s Road?” And will put everyone in the car and drive us there at 3 a.m. just to creep us out. She thinks that’s funny.
So, The To-Do List—it’s nice to see a sex comedy with a female protagonist.
When I read the script, I just thought it was funny, be it female or male, but I love that it was from a female perspective, and I’d honestly never seen anything that had explored the specifics of that time in a girl’s life when they’re experiencing all their firsts.
There are so many deflowering movies featuring guys, but very few featuring women.
I know … why is that?
Probably the dearth of female filmmakers. Thankfully, you had one here with Maggie Carey.
Maggie specifically wrote this based on her experiences, so I really got to explore her life, and she gave me a lot of her diaries when she was younger. It was incredibly important that she had her own, unique female perspective on things. That was definitely unique to … I don’t know what I’m talking about. [Laughs]
What were you like in high school, and did you enjoy it?
I was a nice girl … I don’t know. I went to an all-girls private Catholic school, Ursuline Academy [in Wilmington, Delaware], that was a very small one, so I had a very unique experience, and I’m sure that informed a lot of the things I did. I was definitely a little bit of a troublemaker—always trying to stir up trouble. I got detentions and stuff. I once got a detention for organizing a mustache protest, where I encouraged everyone to wear facial hair to school. So, I wore a mustache and refused to take it off, and I had a fight with my Spanish teacher where she was telling me to take it off but I wouldn’t do it, and I got in a lot of trouble for that. I definitely thought beards and mustaches were hilarious at a young age.
There are some pretty awkward sex scenes in The To-Do List …
Oh, really? [Laughs]
[Laughs] What was the most awkward to film? Was it dry-humping McLovin’,
That was definitely awkward! There were so many awkward things … I think masturbating was pretty awkward because I didn’t have anyone else to lean on—I just had myself. That was awkward.
At least you had a female director there as opposed to a slightly pervy male one yelling directions at you.
Yeah … although there were still 10 grown, male crew-workers standing around. I didn’t get sauced up before or anything. I didn’t really have a lot of time to think about it, to be honest. We were shooting so fast, and I was just in the zone. I felt, “Whatever has to be done, has to be done,” and I left all of my fears at the door.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Really, really young. It was definitely before middle school. I was really obsessed with movies growing up. I loved Spielberg movies, blockbuster movies, and really random movies that struck me at a young age—Bette Midler movies like For the Boys, Beaches—they made me really inspired. And I was really obsessed with Judy Garland as a young girl. There was something about certain actresses that I looked up to, and wanted to be like them.
I read that you had a pretty big health scare in your 20’s. What happened?
Yeah. I had a stroke when I was 20. There was nothing leading up to it; it was completely a freak thing. I was living in Queens, New York, at the time, it was during the summer, and I went to hang out with my friends, and mid-sentence the right side of my body became paralyzed for a couple of seconds, and then I regained my motor skills, but they had to take me to the hospital because I had expressive aphasia for two days, and I forgot language. I was so young that I recovered really quickly. To this day, my doctors aren’t really sure what caused it. There are different theories, and some of them have to do with birth control, and others have to do with stress and migraines. It’s just something that happened and doesn’t really affect me on a daily basis, but it’s definitely one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me.
Did you think you’d ever act again?
When I was in the hospital and I couldn’t talk, I definitely had nightmares about living my life and not being able to talk again. I thought, Well, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be a comedian anymore, because you have to be able to talk to make people laugh … Unless I can star in some silent films.
Ever have any odd jobs prior to making it as an actor?
I worked at a temp agency in New York, so I’d get sent on all these random jobs for different companies. I always found myself in all these really weird places. On one of them, I was working for a PR company that was representing Samba Post-its, and they were throwing a PR party for the brand, and my job was just to stand there all day and line the bathroom walls with different-colored Post-its. That was definitely a low point.
Well, as far as high points go, what would you consider your big break?
Getting cast in Funny People has really changed my life. I put myself on tape for that movie in New York thinking no one would ever see it, and the fact that it even got into Judd’s hands was kind of a miracle, and the fact that he liked it and asked me to come out to L.A. to do a chemistry read was just crazy. So, the week I went out to L.A. to do a chemistry read with Seth Rogen for Funny People, I had a couple of other meetings with people who were kind of taking a risk on me, thinking, Well, she has Judd Apatow’s attention … so I went on a couple of different meetings, and ended up booking three jobs in a row—Funny People, Scott Pilgrim, and Parks and Recreation. So it happened really fast.
Wow. That must have been a trip being cast in Parks and Rec, since you cut your teeth at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York, which was co-founded by Amy Poehler. Big full-circle moment.
Totally. I couldn’t believe the first day that I went to work with Amy Poehler. It was a total mindfuck.
I also heard a rumor that Ryan Gosling asked you out on a date, and you turned him down.
Oh, that’s not really true. [Laughs] That got turned into a different thing. He came up to me at a juice bar and complimented me, and I didn’t recognize him and had the most awkward conversation with him where I kept being like, “We know each other, right?” “We’ve worked together, haven’t we?” “You look so familiar …” And I didn’t know it was him. It was just so humiliating for me—not for him.
What do you have in the pipeline?
I just shot a movie in June called About Alex, which is sort of an updated version of The Big Chill. It’s a drama. And I’m shooting a movie right now in L.A. called Life After Death, which is a dark comedy where I kind of play a zombie, and John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon play my parents.