Aubrey Plaza hosted the very funny Jan. 21 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” wielding the dry wit that’s long been her trademark on talk shows and social media. But one of the evening’s highlights was during the “Weekend Update” segment where she effortlessly reprised her role as April Ludgate, the sarcastic young intern from “Parks and Recreation,” the sitcom that was her breakthrough.

This wasn’t her first time playing April since “Parks” left the air in early 2015 — she was part of the show’s 2020 COVID reunion benefit — but it was striking to see her back as the iconic character, Amy Poehler’s cheery Leslie Knope by her side. The moment felt like a time warp to a bygone era, especially for Plaza.

“I was terrified to play April Ludgate again,” she admits over Zoom from New York. “I had a moment where I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I really wish I had been in therapy at the time.” To reconnect with April’s mind-set, she watched YouTube compilations of the character’s highlight moments, “but I was like, ‘I hope I can pull this off,’ which is just so ridiculous. But it felt very satisfying to put on that wig and pull that hoodie up. What made it so easy is being next to Leslie Knope — I mean, if I had to go out there alone, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to. [The show] did feel forever ago.”

It seems even longer when you consider how far Plaza has come since — which brings us to her performance in the second season of “The White Lotus.” She plays Harper, a sharp, brittle New York attorney dragged along on a luxury Italian vacation with her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), who encourages her to be nice to his college chum Cameron (Theo James) and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), both of whom strike her as rich dolts. Mired in a flailing marriage, Harper feels abandoned and trapped. It was a role Plaza’s good friend, show creator Mike White, wrote specifically for her.

“He kind of made a joke, but he said something along the lines of ‘I think it would be really funny if you played a normie,’” recalls Plaza, laughing. “There’s lots to dissect there, but I think what he meant was ‘I’m not going to cast you as a character that has some kind of extreme behaviors.’ I thought, ‘OK, well, nobody’s really a normie, are they?’”

Still, it’s easy to understand White’s point. Whether on “Parks and Rec” or in cult indies such as “Ingrid Goes West,” Plaza has cornered the market on edgy misfits who excel at making others uncomfortable. But in “The White Lotus,” despite Harper’s cutting commentary, we bear witness to a melancholy, sensitive soul ill at ease around the resort’s obscene wealth and blinkered entitlement. Plaza likes to immerse herself in her characters’ headspace.

“I’ve been called a Method actor — I don’t know how to define what I am,” she says. “But I don’t take things lightly. Whatever the scene of the day is really dictates how my day goes — it dictates my mood; it dictates how I interact with people. I have to say to people, ‘Look, don’t take it personally.’” Her process wasn’t always easy for Sharpe, a director who’s not as experienced as an actor, when they’d shoot tense scenes. As Plaza puts it, “There was a learning curve for Will, where he would go, ‘Are you mad at me? Are you OK?’ And I go, ‘No, I’m not OK.’”

But Plaza wasn’t merely trying on Harper’s loneliness — it’s a sensation she knows all too well. “I felt lonely,” she says softly about her time on set. “But I think I feel lonely a lot. I mean, I had an incredible time — I loved this cast, I wasn’t alone — but, yeah, I think I did [feel lonely]. I understand that about myself. I think it’s also a feeling of being misunderstood. I think there’s an element of that with Harper — it’s sad and exhausting when you feel like you’re constantly misunderstood.”

No doubt the actress has also been misunderstood, having to escape a pigeonhole that her beloved April put her in. Thankfully, she’s doggedly expanded Hollywood’s assumptions about what she can do, most recently with the gripping low-budget thriller “Emily the Criminal” and now with “The White Lotus,” two performances where she displays startling vulnerability and emotional nuance. Receiving Independent Spirit Award nominations for “Emily,” which she also produced, and winning a SAG ensemble prize for “Lotus,” she’s garnering more accolades than ever before. In fact, later on this day, she’ll be feted as part of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

“This year has been so interesting,” she says, taking it all in. “I’m not really doing anything different, but I have glimpses of some kind of shift in perception. It feels really good to feel that people are watching things that I’m doing. ‘Emily the Criminal’ and ‘White Lotus,’ I still am in shock just the sheer scope of how many people had eyes on both of those things — that’s rare for me. I feel seen this year in a way that I don’t think I ever have. I feel lighter, in a sense.”

Source: Los Angeles Times