Aubrey Plaza Goes From Art School To Fraudster In ‘Emily The Criminal’: NPR

NPR’s Daniel Estrin talks with actor Aubrey Plaza about his new thriller, “Emily The Criminal,” which revolves around a woman who turns to crime to pay off her student debt.



DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Actor Aubrey Plaza has a knack for playing brooding characters with deadpan comedy, like his big breakout role, April on the NBC sitcom “Parks And Recreation.”

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM THE TV SHOW, “PARKS AND RECREATION”)

AUBREY PLAZA: (As April Ludgate) I think maybe I’ve found a project that I’d really like to do – helping these cats and dogs. They should be rewarded for not being people. I hate people.

ESTRIN: His latest film, however, 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 inviting me, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thanks for being here. Who is Emilie? He’s a very endearing character. Talk about Emily.

PLAZA: Alright. Emily Benetto is a woman from New Jersey who finds herself in Los Angeles after attending art school and taking out all sorts of student loans – also, after having a criminal record. So she finds herself in Los Angeles trying to navigate the world trying to find a job as someone with a criminal record and someone drowning in debt. And she, you know, is really struggling. And she’s tipped off by a co-worker about a very, very minor criminal operation involving credit card fraud.

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

PLAZA: Well, first of all, the script is an awesome read. I like the character because she’s a shameless anti-hero, who’s a protagonist that we don’t see a lot of women playing in movies – we see a lot of male anti-heroes – and I like how point she’s imperfect, and I love the grind that she’s in and how she – the movie starts, and she’s had enough already.

ESTRIN: There’s this big moment in the movie where Emily is finally interviewed for a job at an ad agency. It’s finally a legitimate job. She has a chance. And then she realizes that it’s not quite what she expected. This is actually an unpaid internship.

(SOUND EXTRACTION FROM THE FILM, “CRIMINAL EMILY”)

GINA GERSHON: (As Alice) Do you realize that this is a very competitive position?

PLAZA: (As Emily Benetto) Yes, of course. 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 in debt?

GERSHON: (As Alice) How about that? 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: Tell me about this scene. That’s – she doesn’t let anyone push her around. What speaks to you in this moment?

PLAZA: Alright. Well, this scene from the movie is one of the reasons I wanted to do this movie because it’s such a beautiful scene. It’s so nuanced. There are so many left turns that you don’t expect, you know? And it’s a bit in the middle of the film, and it’s a real turning point for her character because she is confronted with this businesswoman, this boss. She can see herself in this woman, and she can see that this woman has played the game and worked her way up the corporate ladder and found herself in a powerful position. And I think that’s just – for me, it’s cathartic to see someone asking the questions and venting their frustrations that we all have about the craziness that so many people coming out of college are so overqualified and so underpaid, and it’s so hard to navigate this economy and this broken system that we’ve found ourselves in.

ESTRIN: I mean, there seems to be a message that might appeal to a younger generation today – people in their twenties after college are trying to get jobs in the thing they studied and the something they love, but they’re struggling with student debt. Do you have any friends who have faced this? Is this something that resonates with you?

PLAZA: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the writer/director, John Patton Ford, I mean, he writes from his own personal experience. And yeah, I mean, I went to film school. So, you know, a lot of my friends are in that position. And yes, I mean, it’s a whole generation – young people who are in this position.

ESTRIN: Yes. You know, a lot of the characters that you portray – tell me if I’m right – are rooted in that kind of subdued rage through a lot of the film and TV that you’ve done. Sometimes there is comedy. Sometimes there isn’t, like in this movie. Most of the time there is comedy. Where does it come from you?

PLAZA: Contained rage – you know, that’s something I’m going to talk to my therapist about in an hour. I will write this.

ESTRIN: Fine. Good.

PLAZA: I think there are definitely times when my characters have moderate rage, that’s for sure. I wonder if it’s a different feeling that’s being mastered – something is being mastered. I do not know. I think I’m drawn to characters who have a very strong need and want in the film. And I think most of the stories I get into are about a character trying to get their power back. And I think, you know, for me to access that feeling and that drive and kind of try, you know, how a character would try to do that, I think that’s – yeah, you have to have underlying rage or whatever you want to call it.

ESTRIN: Maybe it’s more like self-outrage or just this feeling of injustice in the world.

PLAZA: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I feel misunderstood. I really identify with that feeling. And I think a lot of the characters that I play are misunderstood, and they want to be liked or they want to be understood or they don’t want people stepping on them. I relate to that.

ESTRIN: A lot of the high-stakes scenes we see in this movie involving you, your character, Emily, walking into stores with a fake credit card or a credit card with a stolen number, trying to buy a television. Maybe it will work. Maybe not. While I’m asking 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 floating around in my psyche, so no.

ESTRIN: Actor and producer Aubrey Plaza – his new film, ‘Emily The Criminal’, is in theaters now. Thanks to be here.

PLAZA: Thank you for inviting me.

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Kayleen C. Rice