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Aubrey Plaza goes from art school to fraudster in 'Emily The Criminal'

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Actor Aubrey Plaza has a knack for playing brooding characters with deadpan comedy, like her big breakout role, April in the NBC sitcom "Parks And Recreation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

AUBREY PLAZA: (As April Ludgate) I think I may have found a project I'd actually enjoy doing - helping these cats and dogs. They should be rewarded for not being people. I hate people.

ESTRIN: Her newest film, though, is all brooding and no comedy. It's called "Emily The Criminal," and Aubrey Plaza plays Emily, an art school dropout who turns to credit card fraud. Aubrey Plaza, welcome.

PLAZA: Thank you for having me, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thank you for being here. Who is Emily? She's a very compelling character. Talk about Emily.

PLAZA: OK. Emily Benetto is a woman from New Jersey who finds herself in Los Angeles after attending art school and taking out all kinds of student loans - also, after having a criminal record. So she finds herself in Los Angeles kind of trying to navigate the world of trying to get a job as someone with a criminal record and someone that's drowning in debt. And she's, you know, having a really hard time. And she gets tipped off by a co-worker about a very, very kind of small, petty crime operation involving credit card fraud.

ESTRIN: What drew you to her character when you read the script?

PLAZA: Well, first of all, the script is an awesome read. I love the character because she is an unapologetic antihero, which is a protagonist that we don't get to see females play that much in films - we see a lot of male antiheroes - and I love how flawed she is, and I love the grind that she's in and how she - the movie starts off, and she's already had enough.

ESTRIN: There's this great moment in the film where Emily is finally being interviewed for a job at an ad agency. It's finally a legit job. She has a chance at it. And then she realizes it's not quite what she expected. It's actually an unpaid internship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMILY THE CRIMINAL")

GINA GERSHON: (As Alice) You do realize this is a very competitive position?

PLAZA: (As Emily Benetto) Yeah, sure. I understand that. What I don't understand is how you feel so comfortable asking someone to work without pay.

GERSHON: (As Alice) You know, when I was your age, they told me all I could be was a secretary.

PLAZA: (As Emily Benetto) OK, but secretaries get paid.

GERSHON: (As Alice) That's not the point.

PLAZA: (As Emily Benetto) Well, when you were my age, did you have $60,000 of debt?

GERSHON: (As Alice) How about this? When I was your age, I was the only woman in a room full of men.

PLAZA: (As Emily Benetto) But you had a job.

ESTRIN: Talk to me about that scene. It's - she doesn't let anyone push her around. What is it about that moment that speaks to you?

PLAZA: OK. Well, this scene in the film is one of the reasons why I wanted to do this movie because it's such a great scene. It's so nuanced. There's so many left turns that you don't expect, you know? And it's kind of in the middle of the film, and it's a real turning point for her character because she's confronted by this businesswoman, this boss. She can see herself in this woman, and she can see that this woman has played the game and made it up the corporate ladder and has found herself in a powerful position. And I think it's just - for me, it's cathartic to watch someone actually ask the questions and air out their frustrations that we all have about how insane it is that so many people coming out of college are just so overqualified and so underpaid, and it's just so hard to navigate this economy and this broken system that we have found ourselves in.

ESTRIN: I mean, it seems like there's a message that can appeal to a young generation today - people in their 20s after college trying to get a job in the thing that they studied and the thing that they love, but they're saddled with student debt. Do you have friends who have faced that? Is that something that resonates with you?

PLAZA: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the writer/director, John Patton Ford, I mean, he's writing from his own personal experience. And yeah, I mean, I went to film school. So, you know, so many of my friends are in that position. And yeah, I mean, it's an entire generation - young people that are in that position.

ESTRIN: Yeah. You know, a lot of the characters you portray - tell me if I'm right - are grounded in this kind of subdued rage across a lot of the film and TV that you've done. Sometimes there's comedy there. Sometimes there's not, like in this film. Most of the time, there is comedy. Where does that come from you?

PLAZA: Subdued rage - you know, that's something that I'm going to talk to my therapist about in an hour. I'm going to write that down.

ESTRIN: Good. Good.

PLAZA: I think definitely there are times when my characters have subdued rage, for sure. I wonder if it's a different feeling that's being subdued - something is being subdued. I don't know. I think I am drawn to characters that have a real high-stakes need and want in the film. And I think most of the stories that I end up finding myself in, it's about a character trying to get their power back. And I think, you know, for me to access that feeling and that drive and be able to kind of try out, you know, how a character would attempt to do that, I think that it does - yeah, you need to have an underlying rage or whatever you want to call it.

ESTRIN: Maybe it's more like self-indignation or just that feeling of unfairness in the world.

PLAZA: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I feel misunderstood. I really relate to that feeling. And I think a lot of the characters that I play are misunderstood, and they want to be loved or they want to be understood or they want to not have people walk all over them. I relate to that.

ESTRIN: A lot of high-stakes scenes we see in this movie involving you, your character, Emily, going into stores with a fake credit card or a credit card with a stolen number, trying to buy a TV. Maybe it'll work. Maybe it won't. While I'm on the line of probing questions, have you ever stolen anything?

PLAZA: No, I don't think so - not on purpose. I have too much Catholic guilt, and I grew up, you know, with the wrath of God kind of floating around in my psyche, so no.

ESTRIN: Actor and producer Aubrey Plaza - her new film, "Emily The Criminal," is in theaters now. Thanks for being here.

PLAZA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.