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Aubrey Plaza Takes Quite A Trip In 'Safety Not Guaranteed'

Aubrey Plaza in <em>Safety Not Guaranteed.</em>
Benjamin Kasul
Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed.

If you're unfamiliar with the actress Aubrey Plaza, you'll get a chance to see her in no fewer than four movies coming out over the next year. The first is Safety Not Guaranteed, opening this weekend. If you're not planning any trips to the theater, you can turn on the NBC comedy Parks And Recreation, where she plays a cranky, unhelpful office assistant. At 27 years old, Plaza's a specialist in playing sarcastic, disaffected young women.

But in the new film, she takes her character to a dramatically different place.

I met Aubrey Plaza over sugary drinks at a Los Angeles diner, where she even narrated our orders. "I've just ordered a Coke float," she said, "and Neda has just ordered a chocolate milkshake." In fact, in real life, she's milkshake-sweet and chatty, pointing out that they shot a scene in Safety Not Guaranteed in a very similar diner.

Plaza's character in Safety starts off a lot like April Ludgate, the ostensible crank she plays on Parks and Rec. April is snarky, depressive, deadpan. She delights her libertarian boss, the extravagantly mustachioed Ron Swanson, by creatively putting off his meetings at his city government office by, for instance, bumping his meetings to June 50th. Or to 2:65.

Plaza didn't audition to play April. She'd just gotten to Hollywood and took a meeting — just a meeting — with the guys who were then developing the show. They told her about the April character, who was originally conceived as someone very different. "It was gonna be someone that was kinda blonde, and not the brightest," Plaza says. "And I pitched to them, like, what if it was someone smart but really didn't want to be there, like a college student that just kind of needed the credits and just kind of happened upon it — 'Fine, I'll intern with the Parks Department.'"

As she later developed, April will slyly undermine her boss with a purposely mangled translation to foreign dignitaries. She sleeps at work, texts at work, ignores directions, and mocks her colleagues all while remaining studiously blank-faced. (Although the character has been known to cite her mother's Puerto Rican heritage for making her, as she puts it, "so lively and colorful.")

In real life, Plaza's father is, in fact, Puerto Rican, and her mother is white. She grew up in Delaware, studied acting at New York University, and was beginning to explore improv comedy when she had a stroke. "My two friends that were with me at the room at the time thought I was doing a bit with them. And they kept saying 'stop it,' like they thought I was joking or something."

The stroke was caused by a clot in left temporal lobe of her brain. Plaza says she's completely recovered, and the stroke, she says, at least puts Hollywood's indignities and absurdites in perspective.

Aubrey Plaza was first noticed in a web series called The Jeannie Tate Show, where she played a rebellious teenaged stepdaughter to a preening soccer mom. That led to more roles as loveably sardonic girls in movies like Funny People and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. But Plaza says she keeps getting picked for those characters because she brings nuance, and even joy, to the roles, not just a deliciously rotten attitude. "If I was playing people who hated everything and everyone, I think that would get old really fast."

For instance, on one episode of Parks And Rec, set on a night when the small town of Pawnee, Indiana was waiting for a local man's latest "End Of The World" prediction not to come true, April and her husband took a road trip that took April out of her comfort zone by making it hard for her to be irritated.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, she plays an all-too familiar millennial stereotype: a snotty intern at a alternative weekly newspaper. Just to get a story, she answers a bizarre personal ad by someone claiming he knows how to time travel and needs a companion. But when she answers the ad, she's only pretending to believe he can go back in time. The movie was actually written with Aubrey Plaza in mind.

"She's kind of perfect for it," says film critic Sam Adams, who says Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming summer romantic comedy distinguished by more than the science fiction elements. "More than having just to do with time travel," he says, "it's about having this kind of faith or belief in another person."

That's the opposite of what Aubrey Plaza has displayed in the past. She's usually making fun of faith and belief. Adams says watching her character in this movie move from cynicism to conviction is lot like watching an actress move from one kind of career to another.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.