Hollywood can make you ‘miserable.’ ‘White Lotus’ star Aubrey Plaza just laughs it off

Aubrey Plaza.

(Maiwenn Raoult / For The Times)

In the second season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” Aubrey Plaza plays Harper Spiller, a lawyer with a penchant for sarcasm who is vacationing in Italy with her husband and his friends. She’d rather read Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” than talk about “Ted Lasso.” And she’d rather not associate with people who don’t follow the news.

Plaza is paired with Will Sharpe, who plays her husband, Ethan — newly wealthy after selling his tech company — as well as Theo James, as Ethan’s old college friend Cameron, and Meghann Fahy as his cheerful wife Daphne, who kicks off the season’s mystery when she discovers a limp body floating at sea.

Plaza brings an all-too-relatable cynicism to the judgmental, pragmatic Harper, which will come as no surprise to those familiar with the cutting deadpan that defined Plaza’s breakout role as intern-turned-assistant April Ludgate in “Parks and Recreation.”

It was recently announced that Plaza would join the cast of “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” Marvel’s upcoming “WandaVision” spinoff series featuring Kathryn Hahn as the titular witch.

Fresh from a day of shooting the new Francis Ford Coppola film “Megalopolis” in Atlanta, the 38-year-old actress discussed the thrilling discomfort in Mike White’s writing, expertly playing a Debbie Downer and gearing up for the Marvel universe.

How did “White Lotus” find its way to you?

My entryway, I think, was very different than some other people’s because Mike and I had a relationship before. We’ve been friends for a long time. We were going to do a movie together — something that we had been developing together for a couple years — and we were supposed to shoot it right when the pandemic hit. And then the movie fell apart because of the pandemic, and he kind of switched gears to “The White Lotus.” So, when Season 2 came around, he called me very, very early on and just said, “Don’t take a job in the winter because I’m going to write you in the show.”

Are there plans to resurrect that film script at some point?

I’m not sure if the movie gods have it in them. I don’t know, we’ll see. I’ve talked about it before. It’s a movie that’s kind of based on an idea that I pitched to Mike years ago about me traveling to Sweden to reconnect with my Swedish exchange student high-school boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in 10 years. Mike loved the idea of that, but then we started traveling in Scandinavia together working on this idea. And then the idea kind of evolved and it became almost kind of a movie about Mike and I traveling in Sweden together.

I think we need this movie. But let’s talk about “The White Lotus.” I feel like I am Harper, she is me. And I love how people on Twitter are like, “Is this how I sound to other people?” What was your first impression of Harper and her penchant for cynicism when you first read the script?

I found her very sympathetic. I really relate to her in a lot of ways. Because you know early on that she’s not really from this world of the ultra, ultra rich, even though she’s a little bit uptight and closed off, in the beginning anyway, you kind of feel for her. She’s our way into that world, in some ways, and all the other characters are slightly less aware. And she’s just very aware. And she’s a lawyer. So I think there’s an element of her kind of constantly criticizing and analyzing every situation that’s almost more of a personality quirk. It’s just instinctually, that’s what she does. My fear in the beginning was, I don’t want her to come off as just a Debbie Downer. … I never thought of her like that. I think of it as, you’re catching someone in a moment where they’re not that happy. And her marriage isn’t going that great. But they just happen to be in the most beautiful place in the world. And that happens. That’s life. I find her more sad than bitchy.

Could you relate to that? How do you view the dynamic between Harper and Ethan?

I think a lot of married couples can relate to the peaks and valleys of a marriage. You’re kind of catching them in a dip. They’re in a rut. I totally relate to that. I’ve been married for — I mean, I haven’t been married that long, actually, but we’ve been together in a relationship for a really long time. I’ve had a lot of long-term relationships. So I understand feeling like you’re trying to find your way, especially when you’re confronted with another couple who seems to have it all. It’s hard not to compare yourself to them. Every couple does that; you start to just judge yourself and your relationship, like, “Am I as happy as them?”

A lot of people know you from your time on “Parks and Recreation,” but since then you’ve shown different sides of yourself as a performer with projects like “Ingrid Goes West” and “Legion.” Your 2020 film “Black Bear” was a real mind trip. Did you find it a challenge to get Hollywood to see beyond your deadpan abilities?

I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. And I think that when you’re in Hollywood, and you have played a character on television for years and years and years, people kind of want the same thing, or they assume that’s your thing or whatever. A lot of actors go through that. It’s hard not to be pigeonholed. I’ve always felt a drive to break out of that box; I never want to feel complacent. I want to do things that I haven’t done before. Like, with “Black Bear,” that was so hyperbolic. There’s descriptions in that script that are ridiculous. I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but towards the end of the movie, when Allison is acting in the movie within the movie, there’s a sentence in the script that’s like, “she gives the best, most heartbreaking performance that anyone has ever seen” or something insane. And I’m like, “Well, uh, OK, I guess I can’t wait for that day of shooting when I have to give the best performance.” That’s scary to me to, but it’s fun. I always joke when I’m shooting a movie — like, I joked about it to Francis Ford Coppola the other day, I’m like, “the real thing is to play a character in the film, and then create another character to play while you’re shooting the film for the off-camera stuff.” The more characters the better.

We’re always performing. And that gets at this season of “The White Lotus.” It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and money and its influence, but it’s also about men and women and sex and romance. What strikes you about Mike’s writing and the way he infuses it with social commentary?

He loves writing things that make the audience a little bit off-kilter — like, people don’t know who the villain is because everybody has these qualities that are slightly despicable. But, then, everybody’s relatable. He’s a tricky bastard. I don’t know how to describe him. He’s like the Pied Piper, you know? That’s really what he is. He’s the Pied f— Piper and he gets all the little children and all the little rats to come follow him into the f— water by playing the f— “White Lotus” theme. Picture him with a little hat with a little feather, with like knickers, and he’s just, you know, dancing around while everybody else f— bares their soul.

A woman glares while clutching a coffee cup.

Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller in “The White Lotus” Season 2.

(Fabio Lovino / HBO)

He’s so good at the discomfort. It can be so uncomfortable to watch what’s happening.

“Chuck & Buck,” which is his first film that he wrote and starred in, was uncomfortable and excruciating. And I think that we really connect on that level. That uncomfortable, kind of awkward area is what I’m drawn to with his writing. He makes you squirm. And he likes doing it. He enjoys watching you squirm.

Some of your most dynamic scenes are obviously with Will Sharpe, Theo James and Meghann Fahy. Off-set, did everyone sort of stay in their group bubble?

No, we all were in one big bubble together because we were all living together. We all became super close. That was the fun part of it, too, that I became really close with people I had no lines of dialogue with. We were all in some kind of weird, bizarro acting camp or whatever. We had countless group dinners because that’s what you do in Italy. You just eat, you drink, you eat, you drink again.

Were there a lot of cast excursions and, like, wine tastings and all that stuff?

We lived the excursion, we were at the excursion. But Meghann, I don’t think she would care if I said it, had her birthday party at the winery that we shot at, actually. So, before we shot there, we had celebrated Meghann’s birthday there with a big group dinner. It was awesome. We were all each other had.

Were you able to, like, speak Italian by the end? Or were you already good at that?

I got pretty good at it, actually, which is fun because on the movie I’m on now, there’s a ton of Italian. I’m pretty good; I’m not that good. Even when I got back, I was still kind of using the vernacular, little words. It’s seeped into my brain for sure.

You had another project this year that offered some social commentary — “Emily the Criminal,” which you starred in and produced. The character you play is a woman who is desperate to pay off her student loans and trying to get her life on track and sort of turns to a dangerous life of crime. Why did you feel like this was a vital film to make right now?

I’ve been trying to make that movie for years. It just so happens to still be relevant. There’s an entire generation of young people that will feel seen by this movie — people who are drowning in student debt. So it felt like, why not make a movie so people can have some kind of catharsis?

Growing up, what was your grasp on money and its importance in navigating the world? I read that your dad was a financial advisor — did it get instilled in you early on what money could do and not do for you?

Yeah, because my parents didn’t grow up with money. When I was born, we didn’t have money. My parents worked real hard when I was growing up to get to where they are now. My dad, when I was growing up, was a door-to-door salesman, selling books. He was a taxi driver in Philadelphia — he worked many jobs and, then, eventually, got into the finance world and worked his way up. So my parents didn’t come from privileged backgrounds. My mom put herself through night school. It was always instilled in me, that drive, that ambition, and how hard work really can pay off. I just feel grateful that I got to experience both parts of it. I understand both worlds.

How has Evil Hag Productions shifted your goals in the industry? Like, how has wearing the producer hat sort of changed your outlook on the acting element, and vice versa? How have they informed each other?

Evil Hag has always been a dream of mine since I was in film school. It’s about control and freedom — the freedom to make what I want to make and work with who I want to work with. The idea of having a production company where I can take risks on people that I believe in just seems like the ultimate goal. I love acting and I want to act until I’m dead. I don’t think I’ll ever stop acting. But I’m also really determined to make great movies. Movies changed my life and to be in a position where I can take risks on other filmmakers and prop other people up makes me happy. It’s really hard to to know what the endgame is when you’re in an industry like Hollywood because you can get all the things you think you wanted, and then just be miserable. Evil Hag Productions is a way for me to be happy.

Aubrey Plaza sitting in a pink chair at a wooden table.

“I didn’t mean to be on television, I was trying to be in movies,” said Plaza of landing her breakout role on “Parks and Recreation.” And then they called me and told me I was gonna be on a television show. And I’m like, ‘Well, I didn’t even want that, but I’ll do it!’”

(Maiwenn Raoult / For The Times)

I want to talk about “Parks and Recreation” for a moment. Because I know Yvonne Villarreal Mike [Schur] has shared the story about having the most awkward meeting with you, which in turn prompted the creation of April Ludgate. How do you remember this meeting?

I feel like I have false memories now of this meeting. All I can say about it is that I know that, at that time, I was not aware of how important this meeting was. I was very distracted about being on a set of “The Office” because I was a really big fan. And so it was my first time in Hollywood. I didn’t know what was going on. So, I was probably just distracted and I probably wasn’t throwing myself at him like I should have been. So maybe he thought “this girl’s weird; does she even want to be here?” I don’t know what I did. I think everything to me is funny. If I really want to psychoanalyze myself, it could be, like, just a defense mechanism; I prefer to just kind of live my life like I’m gonna die any minute or something. I don’t want to take anything too seriously. I just basically make a joke out of everything so that I don’t have to, like, deal with the consequences. Sometimes it really works out just like that. I didn’t mean to be on television, I was trying to be in movies. And then they called me and told me I was gonna be on a television show. And I’m like, “Well, I didn’t even want that, but I’ll do it!” And then it went on for seven years. The joke was on me, I guess.

Did you at least get a tour of “The Office” set out of that meeting?

No, they didn’t even give me a goddamn tour. All I could do was look out the doorway and see the different actors walking by — Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak. I just remember going like, “Oh my God. Those are the actors on ‘The Office.’”

Well, the announcement of your next TV project got a big response. You’ll be starring alongside Kathryn Hahn in the “WandaVision” spin-off, “Agatha: Coven of Chaos.”

The Marvel thing is like a foreign thing to me. I’m suspicious of it, I don’t understand it.

You’ve worked with Elizabeth Olsen before in “Ingrid Goes West.” And Kathryn did something on “Parks and Rec,” right? But this is the first time working with them under the Marvel umbrella. What do you think it’s going to be like? Who will make you break the most?

I’m scared to talk about it at all because they’ve, like, instilled this, like, fear in me. To be honest, Kathryn and I haven’t really worked together; I think we were in, like, a couple group scenes together in “Parks and Rec,” maybe there was, like, one interaction between April Ludgate and her character, but that was so long ago. I know her more as a friend. I’m just so excited to work with her. She’s the absolute best. I think me and Hahn are gonna crack each other up. I’m gonna try to make her break. But nobody can take me down. Nobody.

We know that Harper doesn’t watch “Ted Lasso,” but do you think she would watch “Coven of Chaos”?

I don’t think so. I think Harper likes “Mare of Easttown.” And secretly she watched “The Kominsky Method.”

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