Makeup by Kaela Dobson, hair styling by Alicia Zavarella, styling by Jenny Capano
It’s a warm, overcast fall afternoon in Cobble Hill, a laid-back Brooklyn neighborhood lined with turn-of-the-century brownstones and hip cafés where Aubrey Plaza has just wrapped filming the pilot of a new Hulu series called Olga Dies Dreaming.
Draped in a silky emerald dress and gold-buckle Jimmy Choos, Plaza strolls over to greet us in true uninhibited form— cackling like a witch with her fingers outstretched like claws. It’s hard to decide whether she’s introducing a new character or just her usual mischievous humor, or maybe a bit of both.
She’s joined by fellow writer, producer and Wilmingtonian Dan Murphy, her business partner in—fittingly—Evil Hag Productions, which the pair founded in 2016.
Despite over a decade of success in Los Angeles, where Plaza relocated from New York to film the Parks and Recreation series from 2009 through 2015, she’s never forgotten where she came from. “I love Delaware,” she says, reminiscing about the state’s historic architecture, not-palm trees and people. In fact, the First State even serves as a backdrop in a few of their current projects.
“We’ve always had a dream since film school to start our own production company and make our own movies,” shares Plaza, who attended the New York University Tisch School of the Arts with Murphy. While juggling multiple projects for the screen— “I’m a very busy, work-oriented person,” Plaza says—neither she nor Murphy could resist adding one more title to their IMDb profile: Author.
In November, they released a new children’s book, The Legend of the Christmas Witch (Viking Press)— “the first in the Christmas Witch series,” Plaza hints, alluding to future chapters set in Delaware.
Christmas and Halloween have always been “a thing” for the friends since they were 16. After moving to Los Feliz (one of L.A.’s creative enclaves), Plaza would dress as a witch each October 31 and invite the neighborhood kids to her “haunted yard,” she says.
“One year, for some reason, I decided to do it on Christmas instead.” Changing into the character of a Christmas witch, she showed up at the homes of colleagues and friends, throwing presents for their kids from the bushes where she was hiding.
“The parents knew about it,” she assures. “It’s the same idea as Santa Claus coming over, but, you know, more confusing for the children.”One year around the holidays, Plaza suggested to Murphy they write a movie about the Christmas Witch character. “The next fall, we were in Montreal where Aubrey was shooting…in the old part of the city, where it felt very European, and this idea of a fairy tale came up again,” says Murphy, who spent many a day during childhood camped out in Wilmington libraries, especially around Christmas. “We thought, forget about the movie for now and write a book. That way, kids can read about the character first.”
The modern fairy tale, illustrated by Vancouver-based Julia Iredale, begins in Europe in the Middle Ages and tells the story of Santa Claus’s long-lost twin sister, Kristtörn, who is “forgotten to time,” Plaza reveals. “She somehow ended up on the South Pole. Obviously, we all know what Santa’s story is, but it’s the first time we’re hearing about his sister.” Mistaken for a witch, Kristtörn is shunned by society and never spoken about again—until now.
While the book is edited and whimsically illustrated with children ages 5 to 8 in mind, its authors think that older kids and adults will equally enjoy the story. “Because it’s a fairy tale, it lends itself to all ages,” Murphy says.
Plaza will perform a reading from her new book at the Brandywine Library at 10:30 a.m. December 22. (Visit newcastlede.gov for details.)
In addition to the book, the pair was recently greenlit by FX for an animated comedy called Little Demon starring Plaza, Danny DeVito and his daughter, Lucy. Co-created by Seth Kirschner, who Aubrey attended the Wilmington Drama League with as a child and teen, the show is set in Middletown. “Except, it’s not really Middletown,” Murphy clarifies. “You’ll see.”
Over the summer, Evil Hag also made its first film, a psychological thriller titled Emily the Criminal, which stars Plaza as an L.A. transplant from New Jersey who pulls off a credit card scam to escape her debts but soon finds herself “tumbling into a rabbit hole of underground criminal activity,” Plaza explains. Once edited, she and Murphy hope it will be picked up by the Sundance Film Festival.
As often happens, Plaza’s fans assume the deadpan characters they’ve seen in several screen adaptations are the same as the real-life person—after all, the role of April Ludgate on Parks and Rec was written for her. “It’s me, but it’s a heightened version of me,” she says, noting that viewers sometimes even overlooked Ludgate’s character dimensions by fixating on her dry façade.
Not wanting to be typecast or pigeonholed, Plaza, 37, has more recently broken away from this particular persona, challenging herself not just with books but also by taking on new and different roles in both television and film, as well as scriptwriting and producing through Evil Hag.
“I’m drawn to roles that scare me and take me out of my comfort zone,” Plaza says. “I don’t like to play the same [type of character] over and over again. …I love producing, because I can choose the roles that will launch me into a different zone.”
In the upcoming Hulu drama Olga Dies Dreaming, we see a darker side of Plaza, who plays a perfectionist wedding planner named Olga whose insatiable desire for success is at the forefront. The series, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is based on Xóchitl Gonzalez’s book of the same name and is set to be released next month.
Earlier this year, the actress also co-starred with Michael Caine in Best Sellers as a struggling editor who inherits her father’s publishing house. Guy Ritchie’s action-comedy Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre also hits theaters next month, in which Plaza portrays an international government spy opposite English actor Jason Statham.
“I created what I felt was a female James Bond character,” Plaza explains, excitement emanating from her voice. “It’s the first big studio movie I’ve done in a while”—another new direction for Hollywood’s indie darling.
Growing up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Pike Creek and Hockessin, “We moved around a lot,” says Plaza, whose parents are both professionals; her mother is an attorney at Goldfein & Joseph and her father works for Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor.
Creative genes run in her DNA. “My great-grandmother was a salsa dancer, and I have an uncle and cousin who are both actors in Philadelphia,” says Plaza, whose youngest sister Renee also attended film school. While she describes herself as “shy” growing up, those closest to her remember that spark early on.
“Aubrey was always doing something [eccentric],” says Corinne Cowen Pomeroy, Plaza’s close friend since middle school. They’d met through softball as kids, but when Pomeroy—now a visual artist—shadowed Plaza at Ursuline Academy in fifth grade, the two instantly connected. Equally drawn to Plaza’s sensitive qualities as her unabashed pranks, Pomeroy points out, “We’re kindred spirits.”
In eighth grade, Plaza was Pomeroy’s catcher on the softball team. “She would always give the most absurd signs on purpose,” she recalls. “Other times she’d come to games dressed as a cheerleader with a cape, because we didn’t have a real mascot…and she always thought it was hilarious to pretend that it was my birthday when we’d hang out at Bennigan’s or one of those [now defunct] restaurants with the sombreros that made a big deal over birthdays. She just didn’t care what people thought—and that was refreshing.”
On dress-down days at Ursuline (the occasional reprieve from the school uniform, when most students wore jeans), classmates remember Plaza dressing “up” in 1980s tracksuits with her mom’s pumps. But one of her most memorable antics was stalking the principal from inside a cardboard box.
“Mrs. Little and I had a special friendship,” Plaza says. “I loved to make her laugh. I thought it would be funny to follow her home one day after school—she lived in an apartment building at the end of the street. I didn’t want her to see me, so I got in a very large box and followed her.…Every time she’d turn around, I would get back into the box. It was kind of like a performance art piece.”
In awe of celebrity before she became one, Plaza also once followed Parker Posey and stalked Sigourney Weaver and her daughter around a three-story Urban Outfitters.
In a twist of stardom karma, Plaza noticed a group of young girls trailing her recently as she strolled around Brooklyn. “I would turn around, and they would stop too—but I could see their reflection in the store glass window,” she says. “It was cute.”
Referring back to Posey and Weaver, Plaza adds: “Neither of them noticed me, though. I was much more stealth.”
Plaza credits her early involvement with a local drama group for setting her on the present course. “I think growing up [in a small city], I always had a big imagination and was always trying to disrupt…that really started once I got involved with the Wilmington Drama League and found all the crazy people that I felt were just like me. I came out of my shell.”
A pivotal moment was when she was cast in Cinderella. “I was the ugly stepsister,” Plaza says with a chuckle of self-deprecation and that familiar eye roll. “That was the first time I got laughs onstage, and remember being like, oh, this is fun. I like this.”
Her cousin Lindsay Armstrong, who encouraged Plaza to join the drama league, says, “She was always writing songs and making up skits, which my uncle (Plaza’s dad) would record on his tape recorder when were little.” She also recalls another memorable performance at The Grand Opera House.
“My friends and I were directing Hansel and Gretel, and Aubrey was a gingerbread chorus girl,” she says, noting that only Plaza’s age at the time precluded her from a more prominent role.
“She was wearing her hair in braids, and one got caught in the gingerbread house and tore a big chunk of the house off.…Aubrey just danced off the stage…I took the pieces out of her hair…and then she danced right back onstage like nothing happened. She totally played it off. …Now, it seems like something she would do on purpose,” Armstrong says. “I think that time [at the drama league] really defined her as a comedienne [and] that aspect of her personality that we see now.”
Plaza further came into her own during college, doing improv and comedy sketches at the Upright Citizens Brigade and scoring an internship doing set design at SNL, where she says she was only “pretending to work but really spying on the cast members.”
Suffering a stroke at age 20, which temporarily affected her speech, proved only a minor setback for Plaza, though it did pull things into focus: “I realized, Oh, we can just drop dead at any moment—great. I had PTSD for a while,” she says. “Any time I felt weird at all, I would think, Oomph—this is the big one!”
At UCB, a fortuitous meeting with a junior agent “who was actually there to watch one of the other performers,” Plaza concedes, led to an audition for Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and she got the part. “While I was in L.A. for that, I had the meeting for Parks and Rec.”
As one part fed the next, her parents— always supportive while still encouraging a “backup plan”—were “really psyched.” Her mom, a movie buff, has enjoyed getting to be on set.
One event that no one enjoyed, however: “My dad held a screening [back home] at Theatre N for The To Do List and invited our family and all my teachers,” Plaza recalls. “He obviously didn’t know it was a raunchy sex comedy and that I was in all of these scenes. …They were all horrified, and I was too. Now he knows to ask first. Everyone learned a lesson that day.”
Learning early on that thick skin is a prerequisite for success in the film industry, Plaza says that rejection has always fueled her. “I can’t take it so seriously and have my happiness depend on other people’s approval of me, because it will never end well,” she explains. “Success to me is very slippery. …I am not sure I know what it even means to me yet. But I think, for me, it’s getting to work with the people I like on projects that make me really happy.”
While those happy projects will keep Plaza in L.A. for now, she maintains what she’s been saying for years, according to Murphy. “I’m not there for good. I’ll eventually come back to the East Coast.”
Her Delaware friends eagerly await the day. “Growing up, we had this running joke because any time we would go anywhere, Aubrey would pretend she forgot her wallet, so we always paid for her,” Pomeroy says, then jokingly adds: “But now when she comes home and we all go out, she’s paying us back.”
Related: Aubrey Plaza of NBC’s Parks and Recreation Is a Wilmington Native