Don’t tailor a role to me, says Aubrey Plaza. ‘Just let me act.’
When Aubrey Plaza read the script for “Emily the Criminal,” an electric Los Angeles-set thriller about a young woman with a criminal record, a mountain of student debt and few job prospects, she knew she wanted to take on the role — in large part because it was something different, something she hadn’t tackled before.
“A lot of times,” she says, “I’ll be talking about a project with someone, and they’ll go, ‘We’ll tailor it just for you! We’ll rewrite it just for you!’ And that’s my nightmare. I’m like, ‘I don’t want you to do that. You don’t know who I am — you think you know, but you don’t.’ I’m an actor — just let me act.”
The 38-year-old star got her wish, resulting in one of 2022’s most startling performances. Although best known for her sardonic turns on “Parks and Recreation” and in idiosyncratic indies such as “Black Bear,” Plaza found a steelier, more desperate gear as the financially strapped Emily, who gets sucked into the black-market world of “dummy shopping,” where stolen credit card numbers are used to purchase high-end goods. Also serving as a producer, which she’s done on several of her recent pictures, Plaza is both rawer and more vulnerable in “Emily the Criminal” than she’s ever been, earning acting nominations for the Gotham and Independent Spirit awards.
“I didn’t really think about how I was going to play it,” she says. “I just knew that I wanted to be her.” Eventually, she and writer-director John Patton Ford also realized that Theo Rossi, who plays Youcef, the head of this criminal operation, whose interest in Emily blossoms from a business partnership into a romance, would be the perfect co-star.
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“John called me after he met Theo and was like, ‘This is our guy,’” she says during a mid-December video call. “When I got on a Zoom with Theo, he started giving me s— and busting my b—. It just felt like we knew each other — we were super comfortable sparring immediately.”
Rossi, who received a Spirit nomination as well, smiles as Plaza relates that anecdote, adding, “The second we got on [the call], it was like, ‘OK, we need to do this. I don’t know if anyone will ever see it, but we’re going to make something cool.’”
But to get to the point of casting Rossi, Plaza first had to spend years trying to secure “Emily the Criminal’s” financing. Partly, the difficulty was first-time feature filmmaker Ford’s lack of a track record. But, as Plaza notes, “I think it was [also] a me problem. It’s always interesting what position you’re in as an actor, what number you can greenlight a movie at — it changes all the time. And I think it was a script problem: It’s an action movie, there’s car-chase sequences, and I basically said, ‘I want to make this movie for $5 million or more.’ I wanted it to look good. It was just hard — the independent film business is rough, and it’s been rough out there for a while.”
The movie examines the criminal underworld with clear-eyed bluntness as the seemingly unassuming Emily discovers, to her shock, that she can acquit herself nicely around dangerous individuals. But for Rossi, whose Youcef has gotten involved in dummy shopping because he’s an immigrant seeking a piece of the American dream, the character’s struggles resonated with his own upbringing.
“I’ve grown up around every level of criminal, from white-collar to petty thieves to full-blown lock-up, life-in-prison criminals,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to be in criminal situations. Some of the best people I’ve ever met have been in the criminal element — they have dreams and they have hopes, but they’re in a bad position. What I loved so much was that [Youcef] doesn’t want to be in this life — he just wants a better life for his mom, which is so admirable.”
The disarming sweetness Rossi brings to Youcef is juxtaposed with the rattling, barely concealed anxiety Plaza lends to Emily, who must navigate several frightening situations, from stealing a car to being assaulted by crooks in her apartment, never once allowing herself to lose her cool. Asked how she harnessed such a white-knuckle performance, Plaza says, “I think the nature of the production came into play,” an acknowledgment that “Emily the Criminal,” now streaming on Netflix, was filmed in just three weeks. “Every day was really hard. We were in all the real locations — the actors that we had were so great that I felt transported. Craig Stark, a brilliant actor who breaks into my apartment, when I saw him, I immediately knew, ‘This is going to be a really long night for me, this is going to be tough, this feels really real.’ I allowed myself to just surrender to the circumstances.”
Just as surprising as Emily’s embrace of the criminal life is her growing attraction to Youcef, who starts off as her prickly boss but soon reveals his sensitive side. The characters’ palpable sexual chemistry seems to be a byproduct of the ribbing the actors gave each other in their initial Zoom meeting, but what adds spark is the question of whether Emily and Youcef’s courtship is actually true love — or if they’re just two opportunists both longing to break free of financial hardships.
“I’m such a romantic, I always want to root for the love story,” Plaza offers. “[What] was the most appealing thing about this movie is this unexpected love story. That’s why people go to the movies — they want to watch people fall in love. I think it was a real love story.”
Rossi doesn’t entirely agree. “It’s a complicated thing,” he replies. “Some people who are married for 30 years, there’s something they need from each other. And I think that there is a need that [Emily and Youcef] had for each other. I think that she represented hope for him — she really is the leader of that relationship; she’s his cheerleader. I’m a deep romantic at heart, and I think he just absolutely loved her. But I also think she’s a survivalist.”
The ambiguity of their romance — and the movie’s refusal to resolve itself tidily — is emblematic of a bygone age of risk-taking American cinema, one that Plaza and Rossi clearly adore, considering how admiringly they discuss John Cassavetes and the New Hollywood era. Appropriately for a film featuring characters fighting to find something lasting in a world that seems to have little room for them, the actors who brought Emily and Youcef to life want to make a mark in an industry that’s systematically squeezing out smart, low-budget movies like theirs.
“I mean, that’s what I love about [‘Emily the Criminal’]: It feels old-school,” Plaza says. “Not to brag, but I was just talking to Kevin Bacon. I’m not going to put words in his mouth, but he loved the movie, and we were nerding out about it. He was saying, ‘Yeah, it reminds me of movies from the ‘70s and how movies used to feel.’ You’re dropped into a really interesting character’s world and you just spend some time with them. Movies used to be like that — there’s not a lot of original stories like that anymore.”
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