Aubrey Plaza’s new film, Emily the Criminal, is the latest reason to take the actor best known for her sly humor seriously. As the action thriller’s titular character—an aspiring artist living in Los Angeles, who’s saddled with $70,000 in student-loan debt and an aggravated-assault conviction that prevents her from landing a decent-paying job—Plaza is riveting. Emily’s fortunes change when her dead-end food-delivery gig leads to work with small-time scammers who use stolen credit card numbers to buy high-end TVs and cars resold on the black market.
“It was very different from anything I’ve ever done,” Plaza says about the “unapologetic” and timely story of a woman “so beaten down by this broken capitalistic system that she’s lost.”
An emboldened Emily taps into her simmering rage and develops a steeliness—mace and a taser help—to take on increasingly complicated criminal endeavors, realizing that she’s got an affinity for the work.
“The story is about Emily coming into herself and getting her power back, and kind of becoming a more fully realized person,” Plaza tells V.F. Indeed, first-time feature film writer-director John Patton Ford—whose own student-loan debt and food-delivery job helped inspire the story—thought of the reinvigorated woman as a millennial Dirty Harry. (Though Emily doesn’t have a catchphrase like Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day”—“I wish she had a phrase,” Plaza says—she does have a satisfying face-off with Gina Gershon as a prospective employer.)
“What’s unique about this movie is that when it starts, she’s already well on her way to getting to her tipping point,” Plaza says. (The reason for Emily’s assault conviction is explained late in the film.) “We get to see these kind of micro decisions that [she makes] lead her on this other path. Yes, she does become a criminal. But I think it is more about her discovering who she is, and what she really wants, and what she’s willing to do to get it.” Including a questionable relationship with fellow thief Youcef (Theo Rossi). “I always want a love story,” she says, chuckling. “Even if it’s not so obvious.”
This film marks Plaza’s latest effort to show her range beyond the side-eye sarcasm that’s been the hallmark of her career since her breakout role as Parks and Recreation’s blasé intern, April Ludgate. She’s moved from raunchy characters (Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Little Hours), and unpredictable talk-show appearances (in a 2019 bit with Stephen Colbert, she acted like a cat and licked his face) to reveal her versatility: as an unhinged stalker in Ingrid Goes West; a shape-shifting persona in the hallucinatory series Legion; an unstable actor-director in Black Bear; and a disgruntled ex-girlfriend in the queer Christmas rom-com Happiest Season.
Initially attracted to the action in Emily—“I come from a pretty heavy comedy background, where it’s mostly just talking”—she ended up doing many of her own stunts. “We rehearsed with the stunt double. But when you’re doing a movie like this—when it’s so small, and we’re moving at such a pace that we really just don’t have a lot of time—my instinct was just to get in there and do it myself,” she says. “I’m pretty comfortable driving fast. In fact, I was yelled at a couple of times by the stunt coordinator because I was actually driving faster than the stunt driver, and he was like, ‘You need to slow down.’”
Plaza’s career is certainly in high gear, as evidenced by the fact that she’s barely been home for the last couple of years. There was the shoot in Turkey for Guy Ritchie’s Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, then on to Italy for her director-husband Jeff Baena’s Spin Me Round (out August 19). After a pit stop in Los Angeles to film Emily, she was on to New York to shoot the pilot for a TV series called Olga Dies Dreaming and finally, back to Italy for the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus. (She was simultaneously voicing the Jewish mother of the Antichrist for FX’s August animated comedy, Little Demon, also starring Danny and Lucy DeVito.)
Plaza spent five months in Sicily filming the much-anticipated second installment of Mike White’s series, the first season of which just earned 20 Emmy nominations. She plays Harper Spiller, on vacation with her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), and their friends the Babcocks (Theo James and Meghann Fahy). Are the Spillers happier than season one’s newlyweds, memorably brought to life by Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario? “That’s kind of the question,” Plaza replies. “On first impression, you might think [they] are the unhappy ones compared to the Babcocks. But then as things go on, things start to change. You start to realize the nuances of each of their relationships. I think that’s what Mike White loves to explore: What is happiness?”
A joyful moment for Plaza—who got her start with the improvisational Upright Citizens Brigade Theater—was a scene with ad-lib queen and Emmy nominee Jennifer Coolidge, whose Tanya is the show’s only returning character. “She’s so hilarious…. We have a very brief moment together, and there was improv, and she did go off and say some things that were hilarious. But I can’t say what because I’ll give something away. But she was in full form on that day. I was delighted to get to be on camera with her, even just for a brief moment.”
A more personal unscripted event for Plaza came in 2020, when she and Baena held an impromptu pandemic backyard wedding. “We celebrated our 10-year anniversary while we were in the lockdown,” she explains of their “very impulsive” nuptials. “We decided [that] we should do something really special. And I just said, ‘Well, why don’t we get married, then? What’s more special than that?’” A couple of hours later, an officiant from the website 1hourmarriage.com arrived, and they got hitched—without guests, video, or any pictures. “It was very romantic,” Plaza says of the ceremony, witnessed only by the couple’s two dogs.
With all of her personal and career highs—Emily is the first feature in which Plaza’s name appears above the title, and she has two other upcoming “big jobs” that haven’t been announced yet—the 38-year-old veteran is paying it forward, mentoring younger actors the way her Parks and Rec castmates Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones supported her. “I realized that I’m the Amy now, I’m the Rashida,” she says of taking Haley Lu Richardson under her wing during The White Lotus, and Amber Midthunder (Prey) when they shot Legion. “Even Zoey Deutch…. I mean, she’s doing just fine for herself now. But during Dirty Grandpa, I felt like she was my little sister. You gotta pass it down…. I have to watch out for all my little munchkin actresses.” There’s nothing criminal about that.
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