Whether she’s stealing scenes in movies like “Funny People” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” doing an off-color and dead-on impersonation of Sarah Silverman, delighting video game enthusiasts in a World of Warcraft commercial, or entertaining millions as April Ludgate on NBC’s hit series, “Parks and Recreation,” Aubrey Plaza is building a reputation as one of the hottest young comedic talents in Hollywood.
An ever-growing legion of fans has fallen in love with the 27-year-old actress’ dry wit and deadpan delivery—Rolling Stone featured her in its 2011 Hot Issue. Not bad for a hometown girl who learned her craft performing in Wilmington Drama League productions, along with plays and skits at Ursuline Academy, from which she graduated in 2002.
Her mother, Bernadette Plaza, a Wilmington attorney with Goldfein and Joseph, named her first daughter after the song “Aubrey,” by 1970s pop group Bread.
“It was mysterious and haunting—what was so special about this girl, one could only imagine and never really know,” says Bernadette Plaza. “It is very fitting for Aubrey. It’s hard to put into words what makes her so special, but I always knew she would be.”
Bernadette Plaza recalls Aubrey being “extremely shy” around strangers as a child—hardly the harbinger of an acting career—but her father, David, senior vice president of wealth management at The Plaza Thompson Group, affiliated with Merrill Lynch, says that even as a youngster, she was “actively doing little skits at home and creating home movies.”
“For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an actor and comedienne,” Aubrey Plaza says. “I don’t know why.”
Plaza, who is Puerto Rican through her father and Irish and English through her mother, began her stage career with small parts in Wilmington Drama League productions. After performing in “Here’s Love,” a Christmas musical, “I really started to get to know people at the Drama League and became totally obsessed with that world,” she says. “It became my second home.”
“She just really loved being involved in the whole process,” Bernadette says. “She was so alive and happy while doing a production. She would always get so close to the people she was working with.”
One of those people was Kathy Buterbaugh, who directed many of Plaza’s Drama League plays. Plaza calls Buterbaugh “my acting mother,” adding, “she had a different, awesome outlook on life that helped shape me as an actor and a person.”
Early on, Buterbaugh noticed Plaza’s talent and devotion to acting. “She wanted to learn everything,” says Buterbaugh. “She spent all of her free time at the theater—building, painting, helping in any way she could.”
One of Plaza’s first major roles came as a mean stepsister in “Cinderella.” Even in that persona, she managed to inject levity, says Buterbaugh, like doing a spontaneous Macarena during the ballroom dancing scene.
In a production of “The Ugly Duckling,” Plaza played a chicken. Buterbaugh describes how she took the cast, dressed in costume, to McDonald’s. Plaza asked the clerk if they had “People McNuggets.”
“No,” the clerk said.
“What kind of nuggets do you have?” Plaza asked.
The feathered cast members ran squawking out of the restaurant.
What makes Plaza special? “She takes her relationships with people and her art very seriously,” says Buterbaugh. “She’s a really giving, nice person to be with and work with. Also, she’s just got a lot of talent.”
“I think I realized how serious she was about acting when she auditioned for the Longwood Gardens production one year,” says Bernadette Plaza. “They put you on a stage with a lot of other kids and make you do different things, and they just sort of weed you out. As her mom, I thought she was wonderful. However, she was not chosen. I was horrified and could not believe it.”
Plaza’s reaction was different. “She told me that it was just one audition and that it really wasn’t important to her because there would be many more,” Bernadette says. “It was then that I started to realize that if she could handle the rejection and loved doing it that much, then maybe things would work out.”
Plaza has always had the deadpan sense of humor, says Buterbaugh. “She could say something absolutely serious-faced that was so bizarre. If you don’t know her well, you don’t know what to take seriously. It’s amazing that she’s now getting to use that unique talent.”
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Plaza used her sense of humor to stir things up at Ursuline Academy. “I was always interested in rocking the boat and making people laugh and doing weird things,” she says. “I think a Catholic all-girls school is a good setting for that.”
Once, when deciding that Ursuline needed a Raiders mascot, Plaza donned a red cape and mask and climbed the scaffolding in the gym during basketball games. Another time, she draped herself in a large box and followed her principal home after school. Every time the principal turned around, Plaza disappeared inside the box.
Plaza also led a “mustache protest.” Discovering that the school handbook did not prohibit facial hair, she encouraged students to wear fake mustaches to school one day. Eventually, her partners in crime removed the fake hair, leaving Plaza as the only mustachioed student. She got detention for “failure to remove mustache when asked,” says Plaza, with a chuckle. “I was just always trying to create some type of drama.”
Like most comics, Plaza has a serious side. Soon after 9/11, she helped organize a candlelight vigil to Rockford Park to commemorate the victims of the attack. The vigil ended up involving hundreds of people—mostly friends, family, and students from Ursuline and Salesianum.
Plaza ended her high school career on a funny note by orchestrating a mock swordfight.
Plaza praises her home state often, and her character actually mentions Delaware in the film “Funny People.” She remembers cruising Concord Pike as a teen, hanging out at the Golden Castle and taking family trips to Rehoboth and Bethany beaches. In high school, she’d hang in Dewey with her friends and “tried not to get arrested.”
As a teen, Plaza worked at the now-defunct Classic Video store on Delaware Avenue, where her aunt, Bonnie Armstrong, also worked. “I loved working there because I got to watch movies all day,” Plaza says. “As an aspiring actor, that was a great way to learn.
“Wilmington says it’s a place to be somebody, and that’s really true,” Plaza says. “It’s kind of cool to grow up in a small-town environment but still be close to all the big cities.”
Despite her television and filming schedule, Plaza comes home regularly to visit her parents and younger sisters, Natalie and Renee.
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Plaza graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in 2006. She honed her improv and sketch comedy chops at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
“I don’t remember ever being concerned about her pursuing acting,” says Bernadette Plaza. “I knew there was really nothing else she wanted to do and she would stop at nothing to do it (whether she became successful at it or not). She was also very levelheaded and chose to study filmmaking at NYU so that she would understand and know all aspects of what goes into making a film.”
“We told Aubrey we loved her and would always support her,” says David Plaza, “but under the surface, we were nervous, concerned we might have to support her for 20 years.”
“My parents always encouraged me,” Plaza says. “I do have them to thank. They believed in me. Now that I’m on TV and not borrowing rent money, they’re really proud.”
Plaza faced her share of setbacks. Bernadette Plaza remembers the time a potential agent told them she had too many young white female actresses. She needed young, African-American males instead.
Minor setbacks like that paled in comparison to the day in 2004 when 20-year-old Aubrey suffered a stroke. She temporarily lost movement on her right side , as well as her power of speech. She regained her speech within a couple of days, and the other symptoms subsided over a few weeks. She has no residual effects, and doctors don’t really know what caused the stroke.
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The character April Ludgate is famously droll and uninspired on NBC’s Emmy-nominated “Parks and Recreation.” Plaza draws on some of her past jobs and internships for the role. In addition to working at the video store, she did a brief stint as a hostess at Joe’s Crab Shack in Wilmington.
“They were not used to hiring someone who was so enthusiastic,” says Plaza. She was charged with being witty while announcing that tables were ready, so she came up with her own lines.
In New York, she was an intern at Post-it, worked in the design department for “Saturday Night Live,” and served as an NBC page. She claims she wasn’t a very good page, and got fired a lot in her intern days. But it’s all good. It serves as inspiration for April Ludgate.
After college, Plaza continued doing improv and seeking acting roles, ultimately moving to Los Angeles. Her big break came when she landed roles on “Parks and Recreation,” and in the movies “Funny People” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
Her other credits include the film “Mystery Team,” and appearances on “Portlandia” and the comedic sci-fi Web series “Troopers.” In 2010, she performed at “A Night of 140 Tweets: A Celebrity Tweetathon for Haiti,” along with such comedy standouts as Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman and Ashton Kutcher.
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Since her films are slightly obscure, Plaza is best known for playing Ludgate on “Parks.”
“I see parts of me in April Ludgate,” she says, “like the sarcastic sense of humor. Every character I play, I use my own experiences and the things that are true to me to make the character real. I definitely pick and choose parts of myself for April.” (Her admission in “Rolling Stone” that she snuck in and stole a poster from the set of “The Talk” is April-like.)
Plaza says that she’s “definitely very different from April in a lot of ways.” For one thing, she thinks April has far more style. “I wear sweatpants everywhere,” says Plaza. And while the eye-rolling April rarely shows emotion, Aubrey “emotes” all the time, noting that she “sobbed through the entire ‘Battlestar Galactica’ finale.”
Unlike prickly April, Plaza is “more of a people-pleaser. And a dork,” she says. “I love work and accomplishing things and making people happy.”
Plaza could make her management team happier by smiling more often than the dour April. She’d also serve them well by being more approachable. Her discomfort in certain situations is most apparent on late-night talk shows, where her interviews seem awkward. Plaza admits she finds such appearances uncomfortable, and told “Rolling Stone” that she copes by “making it uncomfortable for everyone else,” as well.
Hollywood stars are pressured to be super skinny, yet Plaza enjoys eclectic foods. “I love pears,” she says. “And Vietnamese food. Rice and beans. Any kind of burger situation. Sweet potatoes. Pumpkin anything. Coconut anything. And I love sushi. Put that all together and it’s gross. Oh, and chocolate. Oh, and coffee. I need both to survive.”
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Plaza’s career is poised for a big push in 2012. Watch for her in the comedy “Damsels in Distress,” slated for release this month. In the film “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and awaits a distribution deal, Plaza plays a journalist who writes about a man who placed a classified ad. The guy seeks a companion for time travel.
Other upcoming projects include “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charlie Swan III,” starring Charlie Sheen. Plaza plays Marnie, a producer who works at Sheen’s graphic design company.
Next year, Plaza will star in “The To Do List,” about a high school graduate who is pressured to have sex before college. The film is touted as the female version of “Superbad.”
When asked if Plaza prefers films over TV, she says she loves both. “Movies kind of feel like a camp experience,” she says, “and TV is the only kind of job stability you can have as an actor. A TV series is like a family you can grow with, and it’s always evolving and changing. You’re really developing a fully realized person.”
Success in Hollywood is tough. Staying on top is harder. Fame takes its toll. Plaza is hooked on acting anyway. “There’s something about digging deep and re-creating feelings and moments and truths about human behavior that’s hard to explain,” she says. “It makes me feel like I understand people and the world better—and myself. It’s also a great way to hide and live someone else’s life for a while. It makes me view the world differently and have better perspective on my own life. And it’s really fun.”
Plaza hopes to come full circle, back to where it all started, she says. “I would love to shoot a movie in Delaware someday.”