Don’t tailor roles to me, says Aubrey Plaza. ‘Just let me act’

When Aubrey Plaza learn the script for “Emily the Criminal,” an electrical Los Angeles-set thriller a few younger lady with a legal document, a mountain of pupil debt and few job prospects, she knew she wished to tackle the function — largely as a result of it was one thing completely different, one thing she hadn’t tackled earlier than.

“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 obtained her want, leading to one in every of 2022’s most startling performances. Though finest recognized for her sardonic activates “Parks and Recreation” and in idiosyncratic indies resembling “Black Bear,” Plaza discovered a steelier, extra determined gear because the financially strapped Emily, who will get sucked into the black-market world of “dummy shopping,” the place stolen bank card numbers are used to buy high-end items. Additionally serving as a producer, which she’s completed on a number of of her current footage, Plaza is each rawer and extra weak in “Emily the Criminal” than she’s ever been, incomes appearing nominations for the Gotham and Impartial 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.” Ultimately, she and writer-director John Patton Ford additionally realized that Theo Rossi, who performs Youcef, the pinnacle of this legal operation, whose curiosity in Emily blossoms from a enterprise partnership right into a romance, can be the proper co-star.

“John called me after he met Theo and was like, ‘This is our guy,’” she says throughout a mid-December video name. “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 acquired a Spirit nomination as properly, smiles as Plaza relates that anecdote, including, “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.’”

However to get to the purpose of casting Rossi, Plaza first needed to spend years making an attempt to safe “Emily the Criminal’s” financing. Partly, the issue was first-time function filmmaker Ford’s lack of a observe document. However, 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 film examines the legal underworld with clear-eyed bluntness because the seemingly unassuming Emily discovers, to her shock, that she will be able to acquit herself properly round harmful people. However for Rossi, whose Youcef has gotten concerned in dummy procuring as a result of he’s an immigrant in search of a chunk of the American dream, the character’s struggles resonated along with his personal 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.”

Theo Rossi and Aubrey Plaza get caught up in unlawful schemes in “Emily the Criminal.”

(Roadside Sights and Vertical Leisure)

The disarming sweetness Rossi brings to Youcef is juxtaposed with the rattling, barely hid nervousness Plaza lends to Emily, who should navigate a number of horrifying conditions, from stealing a automobile to being assaulted by crooks in her condo, by no means as soon as permitting herself to lose her cool. Requested how she harnessed such a white-knuckle efficiency, 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 simply 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 stunning as Emily’s embrace of the legal life is her rising attraction to Youcef, who begins off as her prickly boss however quickly reveals his delicate facet. The characters’ palpable sexual chemistry appears to be a byproduct of the ribbing the actors gave one another of their preliminary Zoom assembly, however what provides spark is the query of whether or not Emily and Youcef’s courtship is definitely real love — or in the event that they’re simply two opportunists each longing to interrupt free of economic hardships.

“I’m such a romantic, I always want to root for the love story,” Plaza provides. “[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 solely 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 paradox of their romance — and the film’s refusal to resolve itself tidily — is emblematic of a bygone age of risk-taking American cinema, one which Plaza and Rossi clearly adore, contemplating how admiringly they focus on John Cassavetes and the New Hollywood period. Appropriately for a movie that includes characters preventing to seek out one thing lasting in a world that appears to have little room for them, the actors who introduced Emily and Youcef to life need to make a mark in an trade that’s systematically squeezing out sensible, low-budget motion pictures 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.”