When the news broke around a week ago that Parks And Recreation star Aubrey Plaza would be lending her voice to the role of internet meme Grumpy Cat in the upcoming Lifetime movie Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, it may just have confused as many people as it may have delighted.
Those who have come to know the actress and comedian only through her long-running role on NBC’s sitcom, the role of the perennially unhappy feline seems to fit like a glove. But for anyone who has been paying close attention to Plaza’s movie career outside of her day-job – where she’s been taking her performances in a slightly different direction – it’s an odder choice.
For she has seemingly been building a career on the big screen that actively topples the persona of April Ludgate. Furthermore, she’s in a strange position: she’s making bold choices with her films, and hasn’t found a dud yet. Her latest, Life After Beth, is the latest example. She’s unpredictable, funny, shocking and magnetic.
The thing about Plaza’s screen roles is this: unlike many actresses of her age, she has refused to be put into either the girlfriend or nerdy-friend box, instead blazing her own trail with a collection of smart, competent and often hilariously cynical characters. She’s not the manic pixie dream girl type, and that thankfully seems to have stopped Hollywood from making her dull by default.
Life After Beth is a great example. There, she stars opposite the similarly fascinating Dane DeHaan (get those two together in the next Spider-Man film and it’d be a potentially brilliant cocktail) as a girl who reappears after previously dying from a snake bite. It’s a zom-rom-com, but not as we know it. The film is wonderfully weird, and Plaza’s role uses her knack for playing unapologetically prickly female characters to its full potential.
So why can Plaza do this when many of her contemporaries take the far safer road? Bluntly, she’s been willing to take a gamble. To avoid the obvious choice. And to go lateral. This approach is working, and crucially, proving to others that it’s a path worth treading too.
Her position as a celebrity also works in much the same way, with her notoriously awkward and uncomfortable late night appearances playing into the thought that she only does one thing really well. She comes across as the genuinely nerdy, awkward girl that so many of her fans can relate to on a primal level. But, as the actress as protested various times, Aubrey is not necessarily interchangeable with Parks And Recreations’ April, and her socially awkward, disparaging persona masks the range and depth she has exhibited in other performances.
She’s also incredibly ambitious and driven, getting her first break as an intern on Saturday Night Live before winning a role in Funny People and riding the subsequent wave, but that same drive has manifested itself in her decisions on which roles to say yes or no to (though she has talked about having to turn some promising things down because of timing issues).
There’s the sense that she’s an actress who says no to an awful lot of projects that come her way, loving those she does end up working on and strategically avoiding those that would feel like a sidestep to the evolution of her current on-screen journey.
Her title role in Life After Beth, for example, is nothing like what we’ve seen her play before, and yet it’s still something she feels perfect for. She surprised again with millennial drama About Alex, in which she plays a 30-year-old lawyer who reunites with her old college friends, and has also branched out into voice work.
Parks And Recreation, in many ways, has been the perfect platform for her, as she’s become a star amongst the show’s ardent fanbase but has yet to break out into the mainstream in the way she probably deserves. Despite having been on screens for coming up to seven seasons, she still feels like an up-and-coming talent we haven’t quite seen the best of yet.
The biggest indication of this was with her first leading role in the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed, following smaller parts in well-received movies like Funny People and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Scott Pilgrim, to be fair, might have been the first film to really get Plaza noticed for her work outside of Parks. It’s a movie certainly that’s built one hell of a following after its disappointing initial box office run.
Plaza’s CV has other fims worht seeking out. Take The To-Do List, a comedy in the same vein as an American Pie but, crucially, with a female character at the centre. In fact, the part was written specifically with her in mind by writer-director Maggie Carey, and it shows. Praise for the film centred almost entirely on Plaza herself, with her particular brand of irony and irreverence fitting in perfectly with what the film was trying to subvert.
And that might be the best way to describe Plaza’s career thus far – subversive. She appears to choose (or get chosen for) roles based on how well she fits them, but then the results are rarely what we might have been expecting. Even comparing her to Parks and Recreation co-star Chris Pratt, it’s unlikely that her career trajectory will follow a similar pattern. There probably won’t be an equivalent to Guardians Of The Galaxy for Plaza, but instead she will likely continue to build her career on surprising choices that play to her strengths as well as overthrow preconceptions about what she can and can’t do.
And looking forwards, Plaza’s list of upcoming projects is just as eclectic and interesting as you may expect. First up is Ned Rifle, the third instalment of Hal Hartley’s trilogy, followed by Playing It Cool with Chris Evans, Mortdecai with Johnny Depp, and The Driftless Area with Zooey Deschanel and Anton Yelchin.
The final season of Parks And Recreation will air mid-season on NBC, and it’ll be interesting to see where Plaza goes from there. For now, though, you’ll be hard pushed to find a finer zombie on screen all year as Beth…
Life After Beth is out in UK cinemas on the 1st October.
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