"Parks and Rec" star: D.C. feels like a big set!

As "Parks" returns with guests John McCain and Barbara Boxer, snarky Aubrey Plaza tries not to be star-struck

Published September 17, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

Aubrey Plaza    (NBC/Mitchell Haaseth)
Aubrey Plaza (NBC/Mitchell Haaseth)

On "Parks and Recreation," Aubrey Plaza plays April Ludgate-Dwyer, the laconic, snarky former intern who hides her big heart and acute intelligence very well. "Parks" returns for its fifth season this Thursday, and the 28-year-old actress spoke with us about her "weird person" persona, April and her husband Andy's sexual connection, and her love of magic.

How is it being back on “Parks”?

It’s been going well. It’s been a really different vibe for the first couple of episodes because April and Ben are in D.C., and I’ve been stuck with Adam Scott all day long, which is truly a nightmare. A living nightmare. It’s different, but I’m getting used to it. Thanks for asking.

You guys did some scenes with real politicians, like John McCain and Nancy Pelosi. How was that?

It was really hot. And fun. I got to meet Sen. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe. They were very nice to me, but I kind of stayed away from all the politicians. I can’t say I follow politics extremely closely, but I’m definitely aware of what’s going on in the world. It’s like a weird parallel universe, the politician world and the actor world. There are a lot of similarities, actually. D.C. feels like a big set or something. I can’t explain it, but it didn’t feel completely unfamiliar.

Well, you’re all public figures; you have people come up to you who know things about you.

Yeah. I think both the senators and the cast have that similar experience. So when we meet each other it’s like we’re telling each other that we both understand how that feels. So we’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s nice to meet you.” But it was really cool to meet them. It’s funny because when you’re on a show like “Parks and Rec” there’s so much pretend politics, pretend congressmen and city councilmen. And when you meet a real-life person, you’re like, “Oh, wow, they’re actually making a difference. Actually doing stuff. That’s kind of cool.” They meet me, and they’re like, “Oh, she’s actually just ... a weird person.”

It seems like in some interviews, you do maybe try to come across as the “weird person.”

I’m assuming you’re talking about talk shows and stuff like that? I can’t deny that I’m like April. She’s like me. I helped create that character, and I’m me, so of course there are a lot of similarities between us. But April is like an exaggerated version of part of myself. And when I’m in interview situations, on camera, I’m just so terrified and so insecure and I try to build a wall around myself to protect myself. It’s more of a coping mechanism than anything, but I do find it more fun to mess with people than to just tell people about what I did over the summer. Why should anyone care, anyway?

It’s always interesting to me how actors can be really shy, but totally unembarrassable when playing other people.

I’m like the most “embarrassed as myself” person I know. I’m like that person who hates going to magic shows — and I love magic, I love wizards — but going to a show where there is any possibility of audience participation is a nightmare for me. I’m like that person in the very, very back who, when they put the light on somebody in the audience, I’m hiding because I’m embarrassed.

I like that you go to magic shows often enough that you know where you like to sit.

Yeah, I go to magic shows all the time because I like to torture myself. I go and then I cry. And I enter in the back and hope to God that no one picks me.

Did you do magic when you were little?

No. Not really. I never had a magician mentor. But my mom, when she was younger, she was a magician’s assistant for a while. And I always thought that was pretty cool.

Did she do the get-sawed-in-half trick?

Yeah, she got cut in half.

That’s awesome! Are there pictures of that?

No! I think there’s like one picture of it, and you can’t even see anything. I’m so mad. I always just want her to get more pictures. My mom has really weird things in her past that sometimes come up. She’s very quiet about it, and then randomly she’s like, “I was cut in half when I was your age.” And I’m like, “What?” She’s like, “I was a magician’s assistant for a month.” And I’m like, “OK, I had no idea. You’re the weirdest person I’ve ever met.”

You were in a movie this past summer [“Safety Not Guaranteed”]. Is it nice to work on projects other than “Parks”?

I love being on “Parks,” and I hope “Parks” lasts forever. We were joking yesterday at this Google Talk thing, and someone made a joke about the show being on for 15 more years and Amy was like, “I hope to God that we’re on for 15 years.” And we all feel that way. I never want it to end. But at the same time, there’s so much other stuff I want to do. And doing movies is so much fun for me because I can totally get out of the April zone and do other stuff, learn and grow in other ways. So there’s pros and cons to everything, but I’m so happy to be on the show. I never want it to end.

You have a bunch of movies coming out in the next year, right?

I did five movies in a row last hiatus, and they’re all coming out now. The movie that is coming out on Valentine’s Day — “The To Do List” — that’s my big movie that I’m gearing up for. I have some other supporting parts coming up, but my next leading part is on Valentine’s Day.

So when you’re on hiatus you try to work as much as possible?

Yeah. I get really weird when I’m not working. I have to keep working.

What happens when you’re not working?

My brain short-circuits and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know why, I just need to always be working on something. But this hiatus, I have to say, I actually did take a little bit of time to myself and tried to do normal things like not do anything for a day.

Does it make you anxious to be on vacation?

I’m totally an anxious mess all the time. There’s a constant dialogue going on in my brain, and it’s just reminding me of all the failures that I have had, and all of the things I need to do, and all of the things I’m not doing good enough. Work is great for me because it focuses all of my weird energy into something that has an immediate purpose, so I think that’s why I like it. But that’s something I’ll get better with over time. I have no perspective on myself. In my head, I’m 17 years old and I have done nothing in my life. I forget that I’m on TV. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that. This is a really strange job, to always be feeling like you never know if the show is going to get canceled, or if you’re not going to get another movie, or if people aren’t going to like you anymore. It’s a really fucked-up job, not a good job for people who have brains like mine. But now it’s too late for that, so I’ve got to just figure it out.

But there is some part of you that knows it’s actually all going really well?

I am just a worrier. I get it from my mom. I worry constantly about everything, but I’m capable of feeling like everything is OK. I feel like this is therapy now.

Sorry. I’ll change the subject. I was going to try to ask this more politely, but I don’t really know how, so … how much do Andy and April like having sex with each other? Is that what’s underpinning their relationship?

That is one of the things, yes. We have discussed that and we try to make that obvious on the show, that they’re very physically attracted to each other. And they have a weird kind of sexual thing going. But, I think that’s just one thing.

Do you feel like April is the grown-up in that relationship?

I think that sometimes does become the dynamic. But I think that they complement each other really well. April does wear the pants in the relationship, but — at the same time — Andy is this big bear that can scoop her up and protect her, and that is also grown up. So I think it works both ways, and that’s why they’re really perfect for each other. Because April can be big in the relationship, but then she can also be really small with him. And he can take the reins, too. Even though he’s not the brightest guy, from a Neanderthal perspective he’s a “man's man." And I think that as a human being, April is smart enough to realize that he’s a good partner for her and he will provide for her in the most basic sense.

April’s intelligence and competence have both been coming through more and more.

Yeah. I think that was always the idea with her. Or that was always the idea in my head: You have a girl who is working for a place that she doesn’t even give a shit about, doesn’t care about anything, but underneath that she’s actually really intelligent and can get the job done probably better than anyone else. But she was hiding behind a mask of not caring. But now it’s kind of coming out. As the show’s gone on you’ve seen her grow up in that 19-to-25 range, which I think all girls go through. And I think that’s a really important time for girls to come out of college and become adults, and you’re watching her do that on the show.

Do you feel like by the end she’ll have ambitions that she’s willing to state publicly? Or do you think she’s always going to be a little bit too much of a hater?

I don’t know. I have no idea what will happen, but my hope is that she will have some ambitions but still hold on to her April-ness, but she’ll be channeling her energy into something really cool.

April has an a unique relationship with the camera. All the characters look at it, but the camera is sort of the only person she tells the truth to. She’ll make sweet faces to it sometimes, and have reactions just for it. Is that intentional?

I don’t think it’s a conscious thing that anyone’s doing. It’s not like, “OK, let’s keep up this April-camera relationship.” But I think that because it has happened over the years, it’s something that we continue to do. It is kind of cool that she has this weird, unspoken connection straight down the barrel of the lens. But it’s not something we’ve discussed where we’re like, “And the camera guy, eventually you’re going to know that he’s April’s brother” or something weird like that. But, I don’t know, maybe that would be cool if like April was behind the documentary the whole time and no one knew.

I read an interview a while ago now, I think with John Krasinski [of “The Office”], where he talked about how it was really hard to stop looking directly at the camera once he had gotten in the habit.

Totally, totally. I forget what the first movie I did after I shot season two of “Parks and Rec” was, but I was looking right at the camera. It was a really serious film, and I was just looking straight down the lens. Like a child. It was embarrassing. You just get used to it. It’s weird to be in a situation where you’re acting, and you can totally do whatever you want. There’s no limitations. You can look at the camera and break the fourth wall. It’s really freeing, but it definitely makes other projects different. You have to rein it in.

Do you watch other shows?

Yeah, I do! I watch TV. I watch a lot of reality TV. I watch a lot of cooking shows. I watch really bad TV and I watch really good TV. I just watched the full season of “Girls” on my iPad recently, I just finished it. I’m so late to the party, but I always watch things way later than everyone else does. I watch “Bad Girls Club,” which is the most entertaining show I’ve ever seen in my life. And I love Louis C.K.’s show. There are too many shows, I can’t keep up with them all. But I’m trying really hard.

Is it different watching TV now that you’re on TV?

Yeah, a little bit. It’s almost like I would rather not watch a comedy. I used to be such a huge fan of “The Office” and “30 Rock,” and I still am, but I tend to not watch those shows as much because … I don’t know why. You watch shows that are similar to yours and you just think about work. So I watch “Bad Girls Club” and I just turn my brain off because I’d rather not think when I’m watching TV. But that being said, I love shows that make me think.

Do you spend a lot of time on the Internet? There’s so much “Parks” stuff out there.

I think a lot of the cast is the same in that we’re not totally every night going through all the blogs and seeking out what everyone’s saying, but every now and then Amy will mass mail all of us a funny drawing someone did that she found online. Or like a funny mashup video on YouTube that fans have done. We definitely all appreciate all the fan culture. If there’s something out there that’s getting a lot of attention, we’ll probably end up seeing it eventually. But the Internet is kind of scary. There’s so many positive things out there, especially for the show. But I get a little nervous going online and seeing things and checking things out because the Internet is also negative. And I just kind of have to be careful and not get distracted by that, and focus on what’s important.

Do people approach you on the street? I could imagine that people wouldn’t bother April that much.

It doesn’t happen that often, but I’ve had some interesting interactions. I was in the airport a week or two ago and this little girl, who is like 10 years old, came up to me. And she looked like she was about to cry. And I was like, “Are you OK?” And she was like shaking like, “Um, um, um ... are you April?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And then she started crying. I mean, she broke down in tears. And I thought something was wrong. I thought she was scared of me or thought I was going to be mean to her, and I was like, “I’m really nice. Everything’s OK. I’m nice.” I was like, “Here, take my hat” and was giving her things out of my purse because I didn’t know what to do because I’m not used to that happening. It was a moment where I was like, “Oh, little girls know who I am.” But she was definitely afraid of me. I think sometimes people think that I’m going to not be nice or something.

Did one of her parents surface to explain what was happening?

Yeah, her dad came up behind her and was like, “She’s a really big fan of the show. She loves you. In the car on the way here she was doing her April impression.” And I’m just like, in my head, thinking, “What is a 10-year-old’s impression of April?” I cannot even imagine what that is. But whatever it is, it’s awesome.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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