“I’m calling you from a handicap parking spot right now,” Aubrey Plaza says, and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s doing a bit or telling the truth. She delivers the line with the same flat affect we’ve come to expect from April Ludgate, the secret softie with the permanent death stare she played for seven seasons on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Though April is the persona she’s most famous for, in real life the 31-year-old Plaza is chatty, engaging, and quick to crack a joke (not at your expense). It’s unsurprising, given the range she’s shown in a relatively short career — from the outspoken Julie Powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to the sly Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed.
Her most recent role, however, might be the biggest departure to date — as the lustful college co-ed Lenore, who makes it her spring break mission to sleep with Robert De Niro’s character in the new Dirty Grandpa (10 bucks on whether she succeeds). Rather than play Lenore as just a messy Tara Reid type, though, Plaza — who has some of the film’s raunchiest lines — approached the part with a real earnestness. “Of course the appeal of the role was that it was a complete 180 for me,” says Plaza, “because who would have thought of me in a bikini acting like a drunk party girl, but I actually really wanted to portray her as someone with real motivations — in my mind, I wanted to create something like a love story, and Bob was my soul mate.” In no small part because of Plaza’s commitment, the chemistry between Plaza and De Niro somehow works. “I never get to do physical comedy, so I loved getting into that, especially in the nightclub,” Plaza says, referring to a scene in which she grinds and twerks up against De Niro. If that last sentence sounds too preposterous to believe, no one’s more surprised than Plaza herself.
The daughter of two non-entertainers (her father is a financial advisor; her mother a lawyer), Plaza was born and raised in Delaware before graduating from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2004. From there, she went on to become a sketch and improv actor at Upright Citizens Brigade and a member of Improv Everywhere (where, no joke, she once played a prank at Starbucks by hauling in an entire desktop) before landing the role of April on Parks and Recreation in 2009. The show, while never a huge ratings success, drew a sizable and devoted following before its tear-jerking finale last year, and gave Plaza a lifelong set of friends that includes Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, and Aziz Ansari. “What’s nice is that we all stay in touch in an ongoing group text chain,” Plaza says, “and someone writes to update it at least once every day.” Plaza doesn’t rule out the possibility of doing another TV show, but she’s busy on a film tear, with Dirty Grandpa, The Public (written and directed by Emilio Estevez), and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (which reunites her with Dirty Grandpa costar Zac Efron) all coming out this year.
First things first, though: Plaza’s top priority at the moment is recovering from a recent ACL tear. Turns out she wasn’t joking about the handicap parking spot at all. “I’m actually a huge basketball player,” Plaza says, “and about a month ago, I tore my ACL during a game, and the recovery has just been really, really slow.” Unlike actresses who stay fit with countless tap backs at Soul Cycle or power posing in yogalates, Plaza prefers team sports, which makes the injury particularly painful — especially because she’s missing the playoffs (she won’t be able to play basketball for nine months).
The crew she rolls with, the Pistol Shrimps, has actually earned a reputation for being the cool girl’s basketball group. “I know, it’s kind of funny — we have an Instagram and everything,” Plaza says. “One of my teammates was pitching it for some kind of pilot too, which would be hilarious.” For now, she’ll have to cheer on her teammates from the sidelines — though it’s not all bad. The injury comes with parking perks, for starters, and there are always the cool accessories. “My sister gave me a diamond-encrusted cane,” Plaza says, which actually comes in handy as a visual gag. “I’m going on Ellen on Wednesday, and I’m sure people will be thinking it’s a joke,” she says. “but the joke’s on them! No one can f*** with me now.”