It seemed like a good idea in theory. In honor of Aubrey Plaza’s first lead movie role, in the low-budget time-travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, we decide to revisit her past. Specifically, by taking a trip to the downtown bowling alley where the 27-year-old waited tables as an NYU undergrad (before she found steadier work as sullen Parks Department staffer April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation). The flashbacks are immediate and traumatic. “This is kind of freaking me out,” she says.
The waitresses wear the same uniform Plaza wore years ago: fishnets and “a slutty version of a bowling jersey turned into a dress.” Even the Coke tastes like she remembers—a little off. “Someone needs to clean those syrup pipes,” she mumbles. “Not me.” She quit when she got sick of being “treated like a stripper” by inebriated Wall Street types who came in for bachelor parties. “I got thrown up on multiple times. Enough was enough.”
Still, she says, “It was a lot of fun. I got drunk while I was working.” On a good night, she’d make $400, owing in part to her generosity with free drinks. “I’d say, ‘I wouldn’t do this for anybody but you guys,’ when I was literally giving free shit to everyone, and then they’d give me extra tips.” She looks around to make sure no one in a slutty bowling uniform is listening. “I’m going to be put in jail after this article.”
That seems unlikely, since no one recognizes Plaza, as either a former employee or a “hilarious network-television star,” as she jokingly refers to herself. We can’t even get anyone to let us bowl—every lane is occupied. As we leave, Plaza scowls at the photos of celebrity customers outside the elevators. “Daniel Radcliffe obviously didn’t get the same treatment,” she says. “What the fuck? I should be on this fucking wall.”
Plaza’s constant riffing is probably a result of her improv-comedy training. As a kid in Delaware, she dreamed of starring on Saturday Night Live, so at 15, she persuaded her mom to enroll her at ComedySportz in Philadelphia. “It was me and a bunch of librarians trying to find themselves,” she says. She went to NYU in part to be able to take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. “I was very delusional,” she says. “Growing up, I really believed it was going to happen for me. They say what you put out into the universe comes back to you. Also, I’m just a crazy person.”
No one goes into comedy without having some deep dark void in need of filling. Plaza can’t quite identify hers, but her mother told her that she cried for an entire year after she was born. “I was a terrible baby. Something might have happened to me,” she says. “When I was coming out of my mom’s vagina I, like, saw a clown or something.” She describes her upbringing as “chaotic,” bouncing among relatives in her big Puerto Rican paternal family and her Irish-Catholic maternal one while her parents worked their way up from convenience-store employees to finance (her dad) and law (her mom). Plaza’s mother was 20 when she had her; her parents met when her father was delivering pizzas to Westchester College and “he delivered more than a pizza,” says Plaza. “I was a very big mistake.”
Her role on Parks and Recreation happened by chance, too. She was just out of college when her gung-ho agent arranged a bunch of meetings in L.A., the importance of which Plaza hadn’t quite grasped. “I was wearing jean shorts and wishing I could get out of there,” says Plaza. When Parks co-creator Greg Daniels told her he’d planned to give Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope a dumb-blonde assistant, “I was like, ‘Your idea is stupid,’” she says. She suggested he make the character a smart intern who couldn’t care less about her job. Daniels took her advice and created April. (That week she was also cast in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Judd Apatow’s Funny People.)
It’s weird that “deadpan is, like, my thing,” says Plaza. “I was never sarcastic or petulant. In high school, my superlative wasn’t Most Likely to Hate the World.” She hopes Safety Not Guaranteed will convince people she’s capable of more than just eye-rolling. Her character begins as a cynical magazine intern, writing a gotcha story about a man (Mark Duplass) who places a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel, but she gradually falls for him despite his questionable sanity. “There’s definitely an ironic culture that emerged in the past couple of years, and I’m very much a part of that, maybe even a face of it,” she says. “So it’s interesting that I’m in a movie that’s combating sarcasm and how everyone’s making fun of everything.”