The last time I interviewed Aubrey Plaza for Cosmo, the most stressful part of our day was deciding which slice of pie to order after lunch. (“Are boysenberries in season?” No. “So why do I keep hearing about them?” We got apple.) You don’t need me to tell you how much has changed since July 2019, how what “stressful” means is so dramatically different. But it’s a pleasure to report that Aubrey is still essentially, refreshingly the same: doggedly creative, perpetually risk-taking, ineffably cool—and, of course, weird in a way that reminds you, constantly, that there’s not a single thing in life that has to be boring or ordinary.
It’s this talent she has for making even the mundane feel electric that’s made her, and her career, so fascinating to watch. We first saw it with her bone-dry portrayal of bored intern April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, but she transforms the day-to-day every chance she gets, be it during a talk show appearance or while hosting an awards ceremony. Run-of-the-mill Hollywood stuff, somehow made thrilling.
Not that it’s all mundanity for Aubrey—in just the past three years, she’s directed for the first time (an episode of the experimental Showtime series Cinema Toast); married her longtime partner, director Jeff Baena; and shot a bunch of great films, including 2020’s Black Bear and student-debt thriller (yes, that’s a thing, as it kinda should be?)/Sundance favorite Emily the Criminal. She’s also casually starring opposite Jason Statham and Hugh Grant in the upcoming glitzy action movie Operation Fortune, and she’s written a truly delightful children’s book, The Legend of the Christmas Witch. Oh, yes, and she’s been cast in the second season of arguably the most talked-about show on television, The White Lotus.
And yet! She’s still hungry for the next thing that will lead her to some kind of creative transcendence. Like…theme parks? We’ll get there.
It’s been a while since we last talked—have you changed in any ways that are less outwardly obvious than all the projects you’ve been up to?
I feel like I finally gave myself some space to breathe and focus on what I really wanted to do. I tend to work so much that sometimes I can get caught up in that cycle where I’m just going, going, going on other people’s things. I was able to start writing a little bit. Directing. The pandemic was an oddly productive time. 2020 got all weird, then, for me, 2021 started off with a bang and it just didn’t stop. I think because of being quarantined for so long, I was like, Fuck it. I’m going in.
On that note, you’re Zooming with me from Italy, right?
Yes, I’m in Sicily for White Lotus and I’m so excited. We literally started today. It’s pretty wild. We’ve taken over this entire hotel.1 There’s an energy, for sure.
1. By “hotel,” she means the San Domenico Palace, a converted 14th-century convent with $1,000-per-night rooms. It has an infinity pool with panoramic views, naturally. Just so you can picture the scene.
What was the first thing you did when you got there?
Figure out the lighting system, because I’m really sensitive to lighting. You know how hotels have such weird lighting.
It’s always too bright.
It’s always too bright. In fact, I bought two lamps in town today. I think the hotel thinks I’m insane. I probably could have asked them for a lamp. I’m basically setting up an apartment in here, just trying to create an atmosphere. I saged.
I can’t wait to see what a season set in Sicily is like.
It’s cool how the location informs the show. Sicily is such a culturally rich place. I mean, there’s a literal volcano that has erupted since we’ve been here. It’s a very charged environment. It’s going to feel like that.
Do you have any scenes with Jennifer Coolidge?
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say.
I’m really asking for personal reasons—you two having a scene together would be, like, a dream come true for me.
[Clasps hands over face] I do. I do. I do. I believe I do. But most of my story is a separate story. I play a woman who’s married and we’re on vacation with another couple. Our story exists with our little foursome, but there are moments when some of the characters overlap, like in the first season.
Speaking of big moments, this issue of Cosmo is dedicated to the idea of the “holy grail”—taking major swings and really going for what you want. So let me ask about some of the shifts in your life lately. One of them was getting married. I’m always interested in creative couples and how that works—like, is a little competition good?
Maybe subconsciously, because it keeps things interesting and fiery or something. But I think collaboration is key. You have to create a really safe space to work together, because you’re the one person that can really offend your partner and you’re the one person that they want approval from the most, and then you’re also the one person that could, like, take them down so hard-core. There are weird power dynamics too when one person’s a director and one person’s an actor. There are all these unspoken rules. I don’t know. I don’t want to compete with my partner. I want to compete with everyone else.
There was a lot of chatter online after you got married—people in the bisexual community felt like they were mourning the loss of you.
Oh my god. Jeff got death threats in his DMs.
I think so. People project so much stuff onto marriage, but it wasn’t some big statement I’m trying to make where I want everybody to react to it.
You mentioned in an interview that you had a witchy wedding ceremony, with love objects displayed in your backyard, and then of course there’s The Legend of the Christmas Witch. When did you get into all this?
I’ve always loved Halloween. There was always a witchy vibe in Delaware where I grew up and my mom was always witchy. I don’t know how to explain it. It runs in our blood. I have Basque blood—like a lot of witches who were burned at the stake in the European witch trials. My mom always made me believe in magic. Not, like, rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic—she was just always operating on another wavelength. Also, in middle school, I’d go with friends into the woods and do weird spells and stuff. Somewhere along the way, I got really into herbs and mushrooms and oils and more pagan-y things. It became less “I’m doing a spell to harness the power of the wind” and more “I’m using these herbs medicinally” or something.
Do you ever still do spells as an adult?
Actually, Megan Mullally had this women’s night. Amy Poehler and I were encouraging her to have one and she invited a lot of people. It was an amazing group. She kept being like, “Aubrey, you have to do a spell. You have to do a spell.” And I was like, “I don’t know how. Don’t put me on the spot.” Kathy Griffin was there and she was like, “Don’t put a curse on me, Aubrey.” I just became, I don’t know, the chosen one to do a spell. Everyone wanted someone to do it so badly, so I was like, “Alright. Fuck it. I’ll sacrifice myself for the greater good.” I’ve looked up some rituals and stuff online, but I just made it up. I told everyone to stand in a circle and hold hands in her backyard and then I went up on her balcony. I think she even put me in one of her cloaks or something. It was ridiculous. I did a Moon spell—I think it was a Full Moon—to empower us and harness our energy. I do believe that when women gather, it’s really, really powerful. I grew up going to an all-girls school and have always been in these pockets of powerful women. But I just remember that night, I was like, “Well, I guess I am literally doing a spell.”
Amazing. This actually touches on something else that’s interesting: It seems like you have a lot of women friends who are a bit older than you, like by 10 years or so?
That is so true. Maybe it’s because I’m an older sister, so I never had my own older sister. I’m sure my therapist would have something to say about that. Parks and Rec was my introduction to acting and living in L.A., and I had Amy and Rashida [Jones] take me under their wings; they became my older sisters. I do feel like I have a lot of mentor friends and I gravitate toward powerful women. I idolize them.
On the very other end of the changes in your personal life, you’ve also made some great new movies, including Emily the Criminal and Operation Fortune. They’re both about crime but through such different lenses.2 How did it feel to go between them?
It was totally psychotic. It didn’t make any sense at all. They’re not even in the same universe, those movies. Operation Fortune was such a weird opportunity for me. I did not expect to work with Guy Ritchie and be in a huge action movie with Jason Statham. I also did my husband Jeff’s movie in Italy between them. They were all completely different and in completely different countries. It was completely and totally psychotic.
2. Operation Fortune is a classic Guy Ritchie–directed romp (in which a movie star and his operative cohorts, including Aubrey, battle a billionaire arms dealer). Emily the Criminal, in theaters on August 12, has a much more down-to-earth plot: A student-debt-saddled caterer turns to scamming to make her payments.
Emily the Criminal reminded me of Ingrid Goes West3 in that the premises (student debt and influencer culture, respectively) are just so zeitgeist-y.
That’s why I wanted to do it, because I had the same feeling after I read Ingrid Goes West. And what’s funny about Emily the Criminal is it was actually written a long time ago. But it feels so timely. I was like, “Why can’t the system be the villain?” There is a “bad guy” in the movie, but the real bad guy is this system we’re all in that is so fucked up.
3. The 2017 film in which Aubrey plays a social media stalker who confuses her online relationships with reality. We call that “parasocial” these days.
You also shot a pilot where you really get to center your Puerto Rican identity for the first time, right?
Yeah, I was really nervous. I’m half Puerto Rican and it’s such a big part of my identity as a person, but as an actress, I feel it’s never been a real focal point.4 I think a lot of people are surprised that I’m Puerto Rican. It’s always been this struggle to feel like you belong and this script was a lot about that. There were a lot of things about it that I was like, Whoa, this would be so amazing to work on, because it would, first of all, allow me time to tap into my own roots and ask my family questions that I should have probably already asked them.
4. In the past, Aubrey has encouraged writers to incorporate her Puerto Rican background into her characters’ stories—like April Ludgate’s mother being Puerto Rican on Parks and Recreation.
Did you get to do that?
Yes, and it was awesome.
What stood out to you?
My whole life, people have called my grandmother Margie, but her name is Inez. I asked her, “Wait a minute. Why are you called Margie?” She basically told me that when she was little, she went to some really Catholic school with nuns and it was a terrible situation and she got treated really badly. The nuns couldn’t pronounce her name and her middle name was Margarita, so they just said, “Well, your name is Margie now.” She couldn’t question it at all. Just said, “Okay,” and then that became her name. It’s just such a weird thing to talk to an 85-year-old woman and be like, “You’re still going by the name that these racist nuns called you when you were a child?” So many things like that, obviously, but also amazing things too. My great-grandmother was a dancer, and she and my great-grandfather had a dance act called Chico and Dolores and they danced up and down the tristate area. It was cool to dive into all that stuff but scary because I was like, I don’t know if I can pull this off.
In terms of diving into something you’re not sure you can do, you’ve said before that you’re motivated by rejection or at least that you don’t mind it as much as a lot of people do. Can you say more about that?
I remember feeling rejected at a young age. I wanted to act so badly and I had some other friends in my peer group, like John Gallagher Jr., who’s an amazing, Tony Award–winning actor, and I would watch him do auditions and get cast in plays and stuff when we were in high school. I was like, “I want to do that too,” but then I would go and get rejected. It fueled me. I just remember being like, “They don’t even know.” I was so awkward and weird. But I had this burning thing where I felt so misunderstood. Once I started doing community theater and I found my weirdo friends, I felt very emboldened to just really be myself and not care. Public pranks were a big part of my growing up and it was this addictive feeling of doing something embarrassing and not caring what anyone thinks. It feels like a superpower or something. If you don’t care, then you’re free.
Do you still feel misunderstood generally, or do you feel like that’s changed?
I don’t feel that in a macro way anymore. I mean, I think I’ve had this very slight chip on my shoulder about being a comedian versus being an actor and I want the respect of an actor, but that’s all ego stuff. I’m more often misunderstood in my everyday interactions, which still continues to make me laugh. Like all my text messages are getting misconstrued—I think people think that I’m never serious, but a lot of times I’m just saying what I actually think. I’ve heard more than once that I’m intimidating, that I’m on the offensive all the time, but I’m not. I’ve said things to certain people here on-set where they clearly thought I was fucking with them.
This guy, not going to name names, but I heard that he ordered turkey from the hotel. This is such a dumb story. But I was thinking, Oh, I wonder if that was any good, and I saw him at the bar and I was like, “Hey, how was that turkey you ate?” I meant it genuinely, like I want to know if it’s good and if I should get it. But then he looked at me and immediately started doing some weird bit. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer and just assumed that I was shaming him for ordering turkey. I was like, “Bro, I just wanted to know if it was good.”5
5. Still no word at press time re: whether the turkey was good.
Do you think it’s a holdover from April Ludgate or just how you sometimes come across?
I think it’s both. People project my characters onto me and it’s just the tone of my voice or the rhythm of how I speak that sounds like I’m being a jerk or something. I also think a lot of times people will try to out-weird me before I even say anything and I just want to be like, “Whoa, you’re coming in hot.”
Another probing personality Q: You’ve always taken risks creatively, but you’re super detail-oriented and a perfectionist too. How do you square those qualities?
I give myself some structure and parameters, and then within that, I do whatever comes to me. Organized chaos. Yes, I am a perfectionist, but I’m also extremely impulsive and able to very quickly go, “Never mind,” and then run the other way.
You finished writing a feature film during the pandemic, right? What’s going on with it now?
It doesn’t have a home yet. It’s been years in the making; it’s a bigger film than I think people would expect from me. Who knows if I’ll even get the financing. But—talking about taking big swings—it’s, like, a big swing. It’s me doing a type of film that kids could enjoy too, which I really like. Those are the movies that I grew up watching, early Tim Burton movies like Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. If I’m going to make a movie, I want to really, really go for it and make something that’s just totally out-there. Who am I to even think I can pull this off? But I’m going to try. I can’t really say what it’s about because I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s a movie. A silly movie! A silly movie that hopefully will turn into theme parks! I want it all.
Where do your ideas usually come from?
Usually from being out in the world. I don’t live a life where I’m constantly reminded that I’m an actor or that I’m famous. When I’m in L.A., there are paparazzi photos of me walking my dogs every day because they’re waiting for Brad Pitt but they get me instead.6
6. It’s true that a large percentage of pap photos of Aubrey feature her not being Brad Pitt while walking her two rescues, Frankie and Stevie.
When you’re traveling for work, do you find yourself seeking out weird experiences that might inspire you?
A little bit. It’s fun. I’d rather have weird challenges than have everything available to me all the time. Then I wouldn’t know what to do. Even these lamps that I just got—I could have asked production for a lamp, but I was like, “I want to go.” You never know what might happen—you meet this guy and he’s playing piano and then he starts talking about this thing, and then you’re in a weird dark alleyway and now what’s going to happen…? It doesn’t come naturally to me to live and just be like, “Everything’s easy.” I’m more used to doing things for myself and I just don’t think I’ll ever change. No matter how famous I am, I’ll still just be like, “I’ll get my own lamp, thank you.”
Stylist: Cassie Anderson. Hair: Mark Townsend at A-Frame Agency. Makeup: Kathy Jeung using Dior Forever Foundation. Nails: Jolene Brodeur at The Wall Group using Dior Vernis. Executive producer: Abbey Adkison. Senior producer: Liesl Lar. Associate producer: Ericka Papparella. Director of photography: Jennifer Cox. Editor: Heather Weyrick. Production: Crawford & Co Productions.
Mallory Rice is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who has contributed to publications including Cosmopolitan, Elle, The New Yorker, Nylon, The Cut, and i-D. She's currently the Executive Editor of Man Repeller. Approximately eight years ago, she found a type-written letter from Helen Gurley Brown tucked into an old book at a flea market. She remains very excited about that to this day.