Being dangerously funny

From soaps to films

Being dangerously funny

“If anyone asks,” Aubrey Plaza said, “you’re my cousin Nina.” “You’re from Philadelphia,” she went on, supplying more back story.

The fiction was necessary because Plaza, a Parks and Recreation star, was working nearby, on a movie with a closed set. It was the second-to-last day of production, and Plaza was feeling a little loopy.

“We’re playing hooky,” she said. “My character’s a loser, and I’m in character right now,” she explained, straight-faced.

Having studied comedy since she was a teenager, Plaza knows how far to take a bit. At 29, she is reaching new career heights, less than a decade after she got a foothold in television as an intern on Saturday Night Live.

She worked in the art department, despite — or perhaps because of — her clear lack of interest in it. After five seasons as the similarly disaffected one-time intern April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, Plaza has several high-profile films on the horizon, in which she stretches from drama to zombie.

And for her first leading role, in The To Do List, out July 26, she creates what might be a new screen archetype: the randy, brainy, politically-savvy teenage girl. She plays a strait-laced high school valedictorian determined to lose her virginity in the summer before college, drafting a YouPorn-worthy sexual checklist in the process. Set in 1993 but presented with a 21st-century feminist point of view, the raunchy coming-of-age comedy is the feature debut of writer-director Maggie Carey.

“The character of Brandy Klark is sort of Aubrey Plaza’s version of Tracy Flick from Election,” Carey said, especially if Tracy Flick wore skorts and had groping fantasies. She knew Plaza could handle the R-rated and awkward-teen situations. “You see her in a room or onstage or on set, and she’s not afraid of making someone else uncomfortable,” Carey said. “But the tension is comedic, and it works.

It’s a very specific Aubrey quality.”They met when both were taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea, the comedy theatre co-founded by Amy Poehler, star and a producer on I. Poehler was on SNL when Plaza worked there, but heard of her first through Upright Citizens channels, where Plaza made a name for herself quickly.

Plaza was hired to play April after a whirlwind week of meetings on her first professional trip to Los Angeles, which also landed her roles in the films Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with Michael Cera, and Funny People, from Judd Apatow. She had just turned 24.

“I remember, I wore jean shorts to a lot of my meetings,” Plaza said. “And I was sleeping on the couch of one of my friends from college.” But she was already an ambitious performer. To get the part in Funny People, she began doing stand-up. “The third show I ever did, I followed Adam Sandler in front of a paying audience,” she recalled. She had a Sarah Silverman impression and a bit about what tails celebrities would have if they were animals. “Ben Affleck’s tail, he would have, like, a badger tail,” she mused. “I remember Bill Clinton had a polar bear’s nub.” She considered this for a minute. “That is the worst thing I’ve ever said.”

Her deadpan sensibility made an immediate impression. Apatow shaped the Funny People role around her. Ditto for Parks and Recreation. “In our first script, the character was named Aubrey,” said Greg Daniels, who created the show with Michael Schur. Plaza has a mature take on comedy, he said, geared toward honing small, writerly moments. She’s “a real perfectionist, like Sydney Pollack or something,” he said.

The oldest of three sisters, Plaza was raised in Delaware, where her father is a financial adviser, and she watched SNL with her mother, a lawyer. “Still, today, she’ll call me after the episodes, telling me what she thought about the sketches,” Plaza said.

She first got the attention of the broader comedy world as a petulant teenager on The Jeannie Tate Show, a Web series written and directed by Carey; it also guest-starred Bill Hader of SNL, Carey’s husband. Pregnant with their first child and underemployed after a network series she was writing for was cancelled, Carey came up with The To Do List, basing it on her own perspective as a high-achieving teenager in Boise, Idaho.

“I was in all the AP classes,” she said. “I used to iron my T-shirts for soccer camp. I was doing all these things, but then my diary is just all about boys. For two seconds, I would talk about camp, and then the whole diary would be about some boy I saw across the way, and did he notice me when I was juggling the ball.”

Carey, 37, showed Plaza her diary for inspiration, as well as old photos of her with friends. But some ‘90s stylistic choices did not translate. “She kept trying to get the costume designer to take things in or get them more fitted,” Carey said. “And I was like: ‘Aubrey, look at my high school yearbook.

We shopped at the boys’ section of the Gap.’ ” Carey and Plaza also gave Brandy a political point of view: she wears a “Pro-Choice/Pro-Clinton” T-shirt and — shades of Poehler’s Leslie Knope — has a framed photo of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her bedroom. The movie’s message is that for thinking ladies, too, sex can sometimes be taken lightly. “It wasn’t about love, she wasn’t looking to get married, she was just like, ‘He is hot,’ and she wants him,” Carey said.

“Women have those feelings as much as men. You don’t see it a lot in this genre of movie, so that was important to me; I was so adamant about. This is not a romantic comedy, this is a comedy-comedy,” she added.

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