Aubrey Plaza is the Low-Key Movie Star for Our Times

9 minute read

Aubrey Plaza is the stealth-weapon actress of our era, one whose name plenty of people know but whose presence somehow feels like a surprise every time she shows up. Even if you were to argue that there’s a typical Plaza character—let’s call her an offbeat, loopy loner with zero patience for idiots—when you look closely, no two Plaza performances are alike. One minute she’s a temptress with sultry, hungry eyes; the next she’s a smart-ass Kewpie doll, but not the overly cute kind—more like one you’d win at a Nightmare Alley-style carnival. With her dry-martini timing, she’d have fit in perfectly with the classic comedic actresses of the 1930s like Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, though you also wonder what she might have done with a ‘70s-era Robert Altman role—she even looks a little like Shelley Duvall, and she’s capable of the same wistful vulnerability. In a world where everyone seems to be clamoring desperately for attention, Plaza is the ultimate low-key movie star.

It’s not that she couldn’t be glamourous if she wanted to. But why take a star-making role when you could play a delusional stalker, a thief with the balls to hold a boxcutter to a man’s throat, a medieval nun perpetually at the end of her fuse? Plaza favors movies that don’t hand over easy answers, and whose comedy—if there’s any at all—is the uneasy kind, a mode of thinking that’s reflected in two movies hitting almost simultaneously this summer. In writer-director John Patton Ford’s drama Emily the Criminal, Plaza plays a young woman who resorts to credit-card fraud to pay off her student-loan debt. And in the enjoyably out-there comedy Spin Me Round, directed by Jeff Baena, who also cowrote the script with the movie’s star, Alison Brie, Plaza plays the assistant of a sleazy-flirty restaurant-chain owner (Alessandro Nivola) with headquarters in a luxe villa in the Italian countryside—her job includes recruiting playmates for him. Spin Me Round is one of those comedies that keeps you guessing where it’s headed, and though Plaza’s role is small, her trademark eyeroll is key to its nutty spirit. But in Emily the Criminal, beyond the occasional line or two, Plaza’s turn isn’t funny at all. All comic performers hide to some degree behind their comedy, but here, Plaza drops the veil completely. It’s an unnervingly naked and beautiful performance, one that taps straight into the stressful tremors of everyday life, the anxieties most of us feel every day but rarely dare to acknowledge.

Read more: Aubrey Plaza’s Status Update

Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza in the new thriller 'Emily the Criminal'Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment

As disparate as these two roles are, it’s not hard to trace their roots in Plaza’s other work. The chatter surrounding Emily the Criminal has suggested that this is her first “serious” role, but the seeds for it were planted at least five years ago, in Matt Spicer’s unruly satire Ingrid Goes West. Plaza plays Ingrid Thorburn, a deeply unstable young woman who becomes so obsessed with an Instagram influencer, Elizabeth Olsen’s Taylor Sloane, that she moves across the country to Los Angeles to infiltrate her idol’s life. The movie walks the balance beam between comedy and drama uneasily: Ingrid is so delusional that it’s hard to laugh at her schemes and missteps, as the material often asks us to. But the movie wouldn’t work at all without Plaza. Her genius physical-comedy moves inform the whole movie: After she purchases the exact same clutch bag that Taylor carries so casually, she just can’t pull off the trick of keeping it tucked chicly under her arm—it sags away from her like a half-filled flour sack, a symbol of her own sorry, unmanageable life. When she’s finally invited to dinner at Taylor’s home (after returning Taylor’s dog, which she herself had stolen earlier), she wastes little time in seeking out opportunities to snoop. “Can I use your bathrooooom?” she asks, with hyper-millennial exaggeration, her already wide eyes flaring just the tiniest bit, like a poker player’s almost imperceptible tell.

Plaza in 2017's Ingrid Goes WestNeon

Sign up for More to the Story, TIME’s weekly entertainment newsletter, to get the context you need for the pop culture you love.

But what really sticks with you after watching Ingrid Goes West is Plaza’s prickly openness, her ability to scare us with Ingrid’s unhinged motives even as she draws out a fierce protectiveness in us. Ingrid’s social awkwardness is the opposite of what we want from social media, and Plaza works from that raw truth. Even as she stalks Taylor outright, we can practically see her loneliness, hovering around her like a vaporous aura. That sense of sometimes ungovernable individuality is part of Plaza’s comedy, too. She’s always just a little apart from everyone else. In Maggie Carey’s glorious 2013 comedy The To-Do List, Plaza plays a sexually naïve young woman who prepares for her freshman year at college by drawing up a list designed to help her take charge of her sexuality. That’s the totally wrong way to go about figuring out how to be, but Plaza makes it both believable and wickedly funny. And her first starring performance, opposite Mark Duplass in Colin Trevorrow’s 2012 time-travel romance Safety Not Guaranteed, is a marvel: as Darius, a magazine intern who can’t find her place in life, she turns a young person’s uncertainty into something that’s almost a state of grace—a kind of X-ray vision into the things that really matter, as opposed to those we’ve been conditioned to value.

The single biggest frustration in trying to trace the threads of Plaza’s career is that she seems to work all the time: On the soon-to-debut animated TV series Little Demon, she provides the voice of a woman who’s the mom of the Antichrist. (Danny DeVito is the dad, aka Satan.) And the 2022 portion of Plaza’s resume is just one section of a long trail. Even before her TV breakthrough on Parks and Recreation, she’d had small roles in Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009) and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). (All of that was after her involvement with the improv-comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade.) Her more recent film roles aren’t particularly easy to categorize: In Lawrence Michael Levine’s semi-comedic psychological thriller Black Bear (2020), she plays dual roles—or perhaps it’s just one role—as a filmmaker who’s booked a stay at a rustic-luxe lakeside house and an insecure actress starring in a film being shot in and around that same house. The film doesn’t fully work, but Plaza knows exactly how to bridge the blurred lines between reality and performance. And in 2017’s underappreciated work of brilliance The Little Hours, adapted from Bocaccio’s Decameron—written and directed by Baena, Plaza’s longtime partner and now husband—Plaza is dazzling as an ill-tempered nun, an unhinged hellion in a wimple.

Franco and Plaza: delightful nunsense in 'The Little Hours'Gunpowder and Sky

Plaza isn’t the star of The Little Hours: that title goes to Alison Brie, a gifted writer and performer herself, and also the star of Spin Me Round. (Brie, Plaza and Baena have worked together frequently, one of those rare unions of like-minded souls who are all in on the same jokes, even as they invite the audience in on them too.) Spin Me Round may be slightly disappointing to Plaza fans: her character, Kat, drops out of the movie a little too soon, but her scenes with Brie, as naïve restaurant manager Amber, are terrific. In one of these, the two dash through the streets of a small Italian town after Kat has cadged a free meal from a dirtbag chef—together, in their sparkly, shiny evening wear, they’re the picture of girls-night-out freedom. Moments later, there’s a confused moment of seduction, and while Kat is the instigator, she also ends up being the one who suffers from it: the look on her face when she’s rebuffed is a heady mix of wounded pride and tough-gal denial. It’s enough to make you wish there could be a whole movie about just these two.

Plaza’s role in Emily the Criminal has less oddball buoyancy than most of her others. It’s also more haunting than anything she’s done. Emily is living in Los Angeles, working a stultifying catering job to pay off her hopeless art-school debt. A colleague hooks her up with an outfit that pays people to buy merchandise with stolen credit cards. The money is so easy that Emily gets hooked on the gig.

The world needs comic actresses much more than it needs so-called serious dramatic ones: doing the work of comedy—of digging into all the things people are afraid to talk about outright—is serious. But then, that’s exactly the mindset Plaza appears to bring to Emily the Criminal. This is one of those social-issues films that works because the circumstances driving its characters are so easy to buy: Why should so many young people be carrying huge amounts of student-loan debt in real life? It’s only logical that a fictional character might turn to illegal and amoral means to dig herself out. In Emily the Criminal, you desperately want Emily to get away with it all, and yet your heart sinks when she does. As Plaza plays her, there’s fire in her eyes when she fears she might get caught. But as Emily racks up one unlawful success after another, that blaze gives way to numbed-out dullness. That’s not something you want to see in Plaza’s eyes—and that’s her gift to us, to show us the thing we don’t want to see, to make us feel the thing we don’t want to feel. We’re out on that limb with her, experiencing the Sensurround feeling of its cracking beneath. That’s what actors, at their best, know how to do.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at