Aubrey Plaza Quietly Became One of Today’s Best Actors

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Handout

I am just going to be very blunt and say what needs to be said: We are not talking enough about Aubrey Plaza and how incredible of a dramatic performer she is. Frankly, it’s a travesty.

Right now, my Twitter feed should be full of praise over Plaza’s stunning performance in the freshly released film Emily The Criminal. That it isn’t is (ironically) criminal. Worse is that this is not her first brilliant performance to fall so completely under the radar: Plaza has been doing show-stopping work for years and has never fully received the praise or accolades she deserves.

So I think it’s high time we acknowledge that Plaza is one of the best and most captivating actors in show business right now.

Like many, I have been a fan of Plaza’s since the Parks and Recreation days. As any fan who watched that show from beginning to end will agree upon, she was one of the greatest elements of that series. Plaza nailed every snarky comment and eye-roll that her alter-ego April Ludgate threw at her Pawnee pals—and don’t even get me started on the perfection that was her deadpan delivery.

There was something else that Plaza brought to April: pathos. One minute, she’d be shooting some side-eye at a colleague; the next, she’d be facing a deep personal insecurity or problem with gravitas. April continues to be so beloved by Parks and Rec fans because of these layers that Plaza brought to a role that easily could have been one note. And every season of Parks and Recreation just peeled back a new layer to April and to Plaza’s abilities.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Roadside Attractions</div>
Roadside Attractions

In 2012, about halfway through Parks and Rec’s run, Plaza finally landed her first starring role in a film. She had memorable cameos and small roles in other films before, popping up as Seth Rogen’s love interest in Funny People and as foul-mouthed Julie Powers in Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Yet in Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow, Plaza got to show just how bright her star power burns.

In the acclaimed indie, Plaza plays Darius, an intern at Seattle Magazine. She, along with two colleagues (Nick Johnson and Karan Soni), ends up on a wild goose chase to track down Kenneth, who placed an ad looking for a companion on his time-traveling adventure (Mark Duplass). Not only is the film funny, wildly inventive and smart, but it is also heart-breakingly sweet and poignant—and a big reason why is because of Plaza’s performance.

One scene that really showcases Plaza’s range is when she’s explaining to Kenneth how her mother died and the guilt and responsibility she feels over said death. Every emotion you could possibly think of plays out on Plaza’s face as she recounts the horrifying story. You want to look away, because it's just such a vulnerable moment. But she is so magnetic, you have to see where she takes the scene next.

Anyone who watched Safety Not Guaranteed wouldn’t be surprised by Plaza’s electric performance in FX’s Legion, which premiered in 2017. The psychedelic X-Men-adjacent drama earned high praise over the course of its three seasons, but Plaza’s performance in particular was hailed—as it should always be. Legion allowed Plaza to show off everything from her hypnotic dance moves to the full scope of her range—especially when her character Lenny Busker shifts completely to the dark side. Some people may have been shocked to see Plaza’s transformative performance in Legion, but for fans who’d been acutely aware of her incredible talent for years, the praise she got for the role was just music to our ears.

‘Emily the Criminal’: It’s Really Fun to Watch Aubrey Plaza Breaking Bad

Plaza had another major, defining role in 2017: Ingrid Goes West, co-starring Elizabeth Olsen. In the scathing, terrifying social media satire, Plaza plays Ingrid, a mentally unstable stalker that forms a parasocial bond with Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Olsen)—then moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her.

While Ingrid is completely unhinged, manipulative and down-right dangerous, Plaza brings so much empathy and humanity to the character, you can’t help but feel for her even when she absolutely takes things too far. One of Plaza’s greatest talents is her ability to make you see and feel the most vulnerable parts of people—and this is beautifully on display in Ingrid.

This talent is also highlighted in the criminally underrated 2020 film Black Bear. It was widely released mere months after Plaza stole the show (and many hearts) in Hulu’s Happiest Season, the queer Christmas rom-com. Yet there were nowhere near enough people screaming at the top of their lungs about her astonishing performance in Black Bear. All the internet wanted to talk about for weeks was how Kristen Stewart should have ended up with Plaza at the end of Happiest Season (out of respect to Mackenzie Davis, I will not comment on this), yet one of Plaza’s greatest performances ever still came and went generally unnoticed. Unacceptable!

In the drama, Plaza plays Allison, a former actress-turned-writer/director She ventures off alone to the Adirondacks to find inspiration for her next feature.

I’ll preface this by noting that Black Bear, other than being mind-bendingly good and that everyone needs to go watch it, is extremely meta—in the best way. Go into this movie knowing you will want to watch it several more times, just to discover a new morsel of Plaza’s talent with every rewatch.

Plaza plays two versions of her character acting out different sides of jealousy and betrayal. In the first half, Plaza seduces you with her charm and wit. And in the second half, she devastates you with a performance so good, you will be thinking about it for days afterward. I often think the phrase “tour-de-force” is overused, but in this instance, it is entirely accurate: Plaza gives a tour-de-force performance, the kind her entire career was leading up to.

All of this brings us to Emily The Criminal, an instantly iconic role that affirms Plaza is one of the biggest talents of her generation.

Plaza stars as Emily, a Los Angeles transplant with tons of student debt and a criminal record, who is just trying to make ends meet by doing odd jobs around the city. Her world gets turned upside down when she finds herself entangled with a “dummy shopper” crew. The further she ventures into this credit card fraud underworld, the more “I am the one who knocks”-esque she becomes. The film itself is a fascinating commentary on issues such as the crippling effects of student debt, the never-ending horror cycle of having a criminal record while trying to secure a job to pay off said debt, and, of course, capitalism. And it’s thanks to Plaza’s raw performance that all these themes really hit home.

Aubrey Plaza on Her Shocking ‘Legion’ Transformation: ‘I’m a Completely New Character Now’

Plaza navigates Emily’s descent into the criminal underbelly with absolute mastery. She never lets the audience see Emily as a victim; Emily’s always in control—just like Plaza. We have seen Plaza play a lot of roles over the years, but none quite like Emily. There is a confidence to her performance that is mesmerizing. Plaza completely embodies every aspect of Emily’s personality and physicality—the good, the bad and the ugly—and makes all that work look effortless. As the Daily Beast’s Obsessed critic Coleman Spilde pointed out in his review, it is so very fun to watch Aubrey Plaza “break bad” in this film.

One scene that really stood out to me is when Emily goes for a job interview at her friend's company, only to find out it’s an unpaid internship that could possibly, maybe, lead to a paying opportunity. Plaza absolutely nails Emily’s New Jersey accent, as she lays into the boss (a wonderful Gina Gershon) for trying to get people to work for free. “What I don’t understand is how you feel so comfortable asking someone to work without pay,” Emily says with venom. Preach, girl! It is such a well-acted scene, but it is also a turning point for Emily—and Plaza. It’s a very small and non-action-packed scene in an edge-of-your-seat drama, yet it showcases all of Plaza’s dramatic talents and then more. With incredible nuance and presence, Plaza commandeers this talk-heavy scene without losing us. It’s utterly gripping, and we feel every emotion with her. It’s impossible not to; she’s just that good.

There are a lot of performers that can embody a character well, but there are very few who are so emotionally and physically tapped into their character—Plaza is one of them. By the time credits roll on Emily The Criminal, you’ll never again forget that she’s one of the greatest dramatic stars in the business. It took Hollywood too damn long to stop type-casting Plaza for her snark and deadpan talents and finally let all her incredible abilities shine. But I am so glad we are finally here in our peak Plaza era.

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