The wickedly deadpan star of ''Parks and Recreation'' tries sincerity on for size as a type-A high school valedictorian in her wild new movie, ''The To Do List''

By Josh Rottenberg
July 19, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here are a few of the things on Aubrey Plaza’s to-do list at the moment: Call her grandparents. Put wiper fluid in her car. (”I don’t know car stuff,” she says. ”I’ve been taking bottles of water I find on the floor of my car and pouring them on my windshield.”) Learn how to poach an egg perfectly. And a couple of weeks from this bright early-July afternoon in L.A., she needs to attend the premiere of her outrageous new comedy — which, as it happens, is called The To Do List (rated R, out July 26). You’d think this last item on the checklist would be the most exciting, but the prospect of sitting and watching the movie with an audience fills Plaza with dread. ”What if they don’t laugh?” she says. ”We’ll see what happens. I’m probably going to go in the bathroom and cry.”

The To Do List marks Plaza’s first leading role in a major comedy, but that’s not the only reason she’s jittery about it. The 29-year-old actress — best known as the deadpan assistant April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation — stars in the over-the-top raunchfest as Brandy Klark, a tightly wound, overachieving high school valedictorian who tries to systematically learn the ins and outs of sex (so to speak) before heading off to college. A female-centric answer to horny-teen-guy comedies like Superbad and American Pie, the movie required Plaza to put herself in a wide range of compromising positions — almost none of which can be described here. ”All the scenes where there’s a lot of heavy breathing that comes out of me — that’s a nightmare,” she says. The worst, she adds, was one scene in which Brandy pleasures herself while dressed only in a Hillary Clinton T-shirt and underwear. ”It’s just awkward to pretend that you’re having an orgasm,” she explains. ”That sucks.”

As mortifying as shooting certain scenes may have been, Plaza was drawn to taking on a character far removed from April Ludgate and the similarly jaded characters she’s played in such films as Funny People, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and last year’s Safety Not Guaranteed. ”I hadn’t really played someone who was really sincere and driven and had no sense of irony about anything before,” she says. Still, The To Do List writer-director Maggie Carey says Plaza’s performance bears her unmistakable stamp: ”There’s always a layer of ‘That’s a very Aubrey Plaza moment.’ That will always be there in any character she plays. She just has this unique ability to make awkward silences very funny, even in a social setting.”

Or in an interview. In person, as on screen, Plaza is a black belt in sarcasm, a master of the uncomfortable pause and the poker-faced stare. She’ll tell you that she poisoned your sandwich (not true), that she recently lost a role to Nicki Minaj (true), that she routinely takes off her shirt in Hollywood meetings (not true), that she suffered a stroke when she was 20 (true), and that she will have another one if smooth jazz comes on the radio (not true) — and she’ll deliver all of these statements in the same flat, slightly bemused tone. ”Aubrey is very mysterious,” says Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur, who wrote April specifically for Plaza after she made him ”incredibly uncomfortable” in their first meeting. ”You don’t know what she’s thinking, which is a key component of any compelling actor,” he says. ”She’s a very special kind of odd five-legged chair of a performer. I’ve worked with her for five years, and I don’t think I understand her any better than I did that first time she sat down in my office.”

Plaza grew up in Delaware (”a hotbed of comedy,” she says), where her dad is a financial adviser and her mom an attorney, and she honed her improv chops at NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Though she moved west for Parks and Rec in 2008, she still feels like a stranger in L.A. ”I don’t trust it,” she says. ”It doesn’t totally feel like reality to me.” Faced with the sometimes superficial demands of celebrity — photo shoots, red carpets, talk-show chitchat — she tries to hide behind a smoke screen of absurdism. ”People sometimes say, ‘Hey, maybe smile a bit more.’ But I try to have the attitude of ‘How can I make this fun or interesting for myself?”’ she says. ”And that usually ends up with me f—ing with everyone.”

Case in point: Plaza’s appearance at April’s MTV Movie Awards, where she awkwardly crashed the stage, Kanye West-style, and tried to wrest an award from Will Ferrell’s hands during his acceptance speech. (”I think she wanted to tell me something important, but there was no message,” Ferrell said afterward. ”It was just a lot of hot liquor breath.”) Was it a publicity stunt for The To Do List? (Plaza, who was ejected from the show, had the title scrawled on her chest.) A subversive act of Andy Kaufman-esque comedy? Or just a weird drunken moment? ”That must remain a mystery,” Plaza says. ”It’s better that way. Doesn’t it feel like things like that used to happen more? Interesting things? I feel like everyone got so boring or something.” Asked about any fallout from the incident, she says, ”The only thing I remember from the next day is that my mother called me and said, ‘I was watching Good Morning America and I saw you on there.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, I made Good Morning America. That’s really weird. They have nothing better to talk about.”’

The more Plaza holds Hollywood at an ironic distance, the more it comes calling. She is currently shooting the big-screen zombie comedy Life After Beth, written and directed by her boyfriend, Jeff Baena, and recently wrapped the Big Chill-like drama About Alex and the comedy A Many Splintered Thing. At the end of the summer, she starts shooting the sixth season of Parks. Her deepest hope is that April will have a baby with her exuberantly dim-witted husband, Andy, played by Chris Pratt: ”Twins or triplets — how fun would that be?” Plaza told the producers that if they let April get pregnant on the show, she’ll get pregnant in real life. ”Might as well,” she says with a shrug.

The path of least resistance for Plaza would be to stick to snarky-friend roles in formulaic rom-coms. ”I’ve been offered plenty of those,” she says. ”I know I can do that.” But she is determined to chart a riskier, more distinctive course, even — or maybe especially — if it means putting herself in awkward situations like pretending to masturbate while wearing a Hillary Clinton T-shirt. ”I don’t give a f— about what people want from me,” Plaza says. ”I’m just going to do what I want.” She pauses. ”But I want everyone to love me and never stop loving me.” She pauses again. ”But just get off my back.” Then she smiles. Sort of.

  • Movie
  • R
  • 104 minutes
  • CBS Films
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