Parks & Rec's Aubrey Plaza Goes from Deadpan to Drama With Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza is taking the summer off from the Pawnee Parks Department to go back in time. In the sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed — expanding to new cities this weekend — she keeps her signature scowl (mostly) in check, playing the polar opposite of her Parks and Rec counterpart. As a Seattle Magazine intern, Darius Britt not only takes initiative, but also takes other people’s shit — with half the snark.
Given that this is her first foray into a leading dramatic role, it helped that the character was crafted specifically for her by writer Derek Connolly, much like her Parks character April, whom she helped brainstorm with co-creator Greg Daniels during her audition. But Plaza couldn't help but be skeptical when she first received the script.
"I was very excited, but I was afraid that it was going to be bad!" she said with a laugh. "I hadn't done very many things up until then, but I was very flattered. And I read it and I liked it, which made it even more awesome."
In addition to her crafted character, it was the movie magic that drew her to the script. "There's something about the movie that feels very familiar; it has this sort of magical quality that I think Back to the Future and those movies in the '80s did," Plaza said. "But it's also very unique and different — it's about time travel, but it's more about the relationships and the characters within."
In the film, Plaza trades April's dismissive intern duties for a gritty internship-turned-investigative-reporting gig, diving into the thick of it with her subject, a would-be time traveler named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), with whom she forms more than just camaraderie.
But Plaza is quick to point out the unconventional differences — this isn’t a romantic comedy. "Love stories tend to have stereotypical characters that can fit into boxes, but in this movie, you can't really place any of the characters," Plaza said. "They're all very three-dimensional and feel fully realized to me; they feel like real people. It's like these two people who both have baggage and a lot of history fall in love and have a connection in a world that makes that difficult to find."
And when it comes to her leading man, she couldn’t have hoped for a better partner in crime. “I think Mark and I just instantly had a connection. You can't really predict how two people are going to interact on a screen or plan chemistry — it just happens,” she said. “There's a realness to our getting to know each other and the trust-building dynamic, and that element helped me the most.”
As the movie progressed, Darius underwent quite a transformation, one that Plaza links with the pair’s budding romance. "For me, it's the love story of it all. I don't think I was ever able to map it out in a logical way, but I always felt every scene was a step toward the end transformation that is fueled by falling in love with Kenneth."
While Plaza notes that she's never dealt with a traumatic family tragedy like the one that drives her character, she connects with Darius on another level. "I relate to the idea of meeting someone that really changes you, because I feel like there are many people in my life that have opened me up in different ways, so that really resonated with me."
And when it came to putting this character together, Plaza (who recently received the Young Hollywood Award for Breakthrough Performance of the Year; see below) brought aspects of her own personality to the role. “I obviously bring all of my insecurities along with me to any role that I tackle," Plaza said with a laugh. "There are always parts of me that come out in the characters that I play — it's the only thing I have to work with and to draw off of."
Even though she is mostly known for her icy stares and sarcastic snark, Plaza hopes Safety will be the first of many dramatic roles. "This movie will definitely be a step — I hope — to be considered as a dramatic actor, or at least an actor that can do lots of different things," she said. That was always my hope, from when I was a kid."
With a character so specific and distinguishable as April Ludgate-Dwyer, breaking away from her deadpan roots to dramatic film won't be an easy path — but Plaza is prepared.
"I like challenges, so maybe in the long run it's actually a good thing because it makes me work a little bit harder," Plaza said. "And maybe it surprises people a little bit more; if they think of me as April and then I come out and I do something totally different, it's more interesting than if they knew I could do it all along," she added with a laugh.
With her career rapidly rising — including five movies due out in the next year, one of which is the leading “Tracy Flick-esque” role in the star-studded sexcapade comedy The To Do List — Plaza does have her reservations. "I feel like I'm peaking now — maybe I should just call it and quit!" she exclaimed with a laugh.
For now, Plaza is dreaming about her own time travels, bringing along Bill Murray and her band of 'actor-y misfit friends’ — which includes Alia Shawkat, Michael Angarano, Mae Whitman, Michael Cera, Sarah Ramos, and Jake Johnson.
“We would be like The Avengers and all have special powers and go back to the '60s or the '40s and just hang out,” she said with a laugh. “Just drink and smoke and be awesome.”
Safety Not Guaranteed is in select theaters now.
Alyse Whitney is a New York-based writer. Her work has been featured in Bon Appétit, TVLine, and a handful of other publications, and you can also find her on Twitter.