Aubrey Plaza photographed by Vanity Fair in New York on April 8 wearing Fendi.
Aubrey Plaza, photographed by Vanity Fair in New York on April 8. Top (top layer) and skirt by Fendi; necklace by John Hardy; ear cuffs and ring by Repossi.PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN JACKSON; STYLED BY KATELYN GRAY.

Aubrey Plaza on The White Lotus, Social Anxiety, Latinx Diversity, and the Glories of “Morbid Shit”

“My first impression,” Adam Driver says of the Parks and Recreation veteran and Emmy contender, “was that she was on the run from the police.”

Aubrey Plaza just saw the Sopranos finale for the first time, and she’s beside herself. “I’m shook,” she says, having somehow avoided Tony Soprano discourse for 16 years. She coordinated her viewings with her actor friend Jake Johnson, and they’ve been texting about the ambiguous blackout ending ever since: “Yesterday I was like, ’Oh my God, what do you think happened?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know but I was crying,’ and I was like, ‘I was crying too.’” Plaza knows how odd all this sounds. “I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, that we’re going through Sopranos finale stuff.’”

Aubrey Plaza on the cover of Awards Insider wearing Miu Miu.
Aubrey Plaza’s dress, bra and briefs by Miu Miu; jewelry by Repossi.PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN JACKSON; STYLED BY KATELYN GRAY.

Plaza finally feasted on the series that birthed prestige television while making the second season of another obsession-inducing show, The White Lotus. She was starring alongside Michael Imperioli, who played the tragic Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos, and figured if she had plot questions, she could just ask him. When I ask Plaza why she’d never watched the show before—not judging, just curious—she says she doesn’t really have any streaming subscriptions and hasn’t seen her season of The White Lotus either. I offer to give her my HBO password, but she vehemently declines. She hates apps and can never figure out how to make streaming actually stream.

“I get really angry,” she says. She’s laughing but dead serious. “I was trying to watch Top Chef season 20. Couldn’t figure out how to fucking get Hulu + Live. I give up! I can’t. I just can’t. And so what I like to do is go on iTunes and buy movies that are old. Or I’ll go on iTunes and just, like, buy the whole Sopranos series, and then my husband will be like, ‘You literally can watch that for free on HBO Max.’”

If you’ve seen anything that Plaza’s ever been in, you know that her energy is beguiling and unlike anyone else’s. “She’s funny, bold, and extremely intelligent,” says Adam Driver, who stars with her in Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming movie, Megalopolis. “My first impression was that she was on the run from the police.”

In case you still need to hear it, Plaza is not April Ludgate. She started playing network television’s funniest, most acerbic intern on Parks and Recreation when she was 24 and embodied it so thoroughly that the role shadowed her for years. Audiences assumed that April and Plaza were interchangeable: the disaffection, the disdain, the dark-sidedness. But the person sitting before me in a clean-food restaurant outside Atlanta with a rather massive Americano is a sharp, grown-ass woman, thinking about an afternoon yoga class and a 5:30 a.m. call time the next morning. Plaza seems a little shy, but she carries herself with purpose. “The deadpan thing wasn’t, like, my thing. I could do it, but it wasn’t like, ‘There goes the deadpan girl.’ I like to think that I’m such a good actor that people just thought that was literally me,” she says, deadpan.

April was an avatar for millennial jadedness and skepticism. At times Plaza still plays into the image, as at the SAG Awards this year, when she and Wednesday’s Jenna Ortega did a witchy bit—which Plaza cowrote—about hexing the ceremony’s producers. The persona, she says, is a defense mechanism, particularly when it comes to late-night show appearances. “You can see all the colors of my psychological state on display in any of these interviews,” she says. “It’s a struggle for me every time. It’s a struggle to not quote-unquote ‘give people what they want,’ which is—I don’t even know what they want—and try to have fun for myself without coming off like an asshole. I think it all just stems from—I’m scared. I prefer to be a character. I mean, that’s literally what I am doing.”

Sixteen years from now, when Plaza gets around to watching season two of The White Lotus, she’ll see that she delivers a nuanced, powerhouse performance as Harper, a tightly wound, justice-minded attorney who is, relatably, annoyed by her vapid vacation companions.

I offer Plaza my unsolicited opinion on the character—that I wish she had dumped her husband, Ethan (Will Sharpe), who got to be a newly rich tech bro while Harper had to suffer through his boyish insecurity. She hears me out, intrigued, or at least faking it credibly. “There was a slight dynamic shift, I think, when we started shooting,” she says. “In the script, it felt like they both were on the same level of boredom or complacency. But I don’t know if it was Ethan’s, you know, rock-hard abs—the 16-pack that he somehow magically had while we were shooting—but I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. The dynamic is different now.’”

Series creator Mike White wrote the role specifically for Plaza. “There’s something about Harper that feels like we tapped into a kind of vulnerability people wouldn’t expect from me,” Plaza says. “There’s an element of feeling misunderstood, and I gravitate towards those kinds of characters a lot—their defenses are up and they feel out of place.”

While making The White Lotus, Plaza thought about her childhood and her parents’ own ascension through the class system: Her mother is an attorney, like Harper, and her father works in wealth management. “They’re not in that billionaire world at all,” she says, “but the idea of coming from nothing and, you know, working your way up—I think that’s why the character felt very personal to me. I grew up navigating different worlds and different communities where I was like, Oh, now all of a sudden we’re living in a bigger house and a more fancy neighborhood.’ But I always felt like an outsider.”

Plaza’s dad is Puerto Rican and her mom is Scottish and Irish. They had her when they were 19, and their home in Wilmington, Delaware, was a cultural consortium. Plaza remembers coming back from Irish dance class—“You can’t move your arms!” she laughs—and then salsa dancing in the kitchen.

Her mother, Bernadette, was a beauty pageant contestant when Plaza was a kid. “Hair out to here, blue eyeshadow, super ’80s babe,” Plaza says. “I feel very much like there’s some kind of ancestral, generational thing going on, just in my DNA. There are a lot of people in my family that are just so creative. It makes me wanna cry. And I got lucky. I have the means to somehow do it. It feels like a weight, almost. Not a bad weight, but like it was meant to be or something. I make so many of them so proud, and it feels personal, because they all had a hand in raising me.”

As the eldest of the grandkids on her Puerto Rican side, Plaza wound up assuming a lot of responsibility. “Nothing fazes me, I’m very malleable,” she says. “I grew up around a lot of people pulling me in different directions, but there was an overarching theme of family on both sides. Doesn’t matter who fucked up or what’s going on. So many crazy things were always happening, but we all have each other’s back at all times. And you know where you came from.”

Romancing the Stone was one of Plaza’s favorite movies growing up, and the fact that Michael Douglas was both a star and a producer was a revelation. Who knew you could do both? By the mid-2000s, Plaza was an NYU student and Upright Citizens Brigade regular, filming sketches and uploading them to YouTube long before that was a viable career path. In one memorable clip, she spoofs the MTV speed-dating show Next, playing a horny teen who encourages her dates to humiliate themselves for her affection.

Aubrey Plaza wearing Eterne and Chanel.
T-shirt by Eterne; belt (worn as necklace) and necklaces by Chanel. Throughout: hair products by Bumble and Bumble; makeup products by Chanel; nail enamel by Mother Nailture.PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN JACKSON; STYLED BY KATELYN GRAY.

Which is to say, before she landed roles in Parks and Recreation, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World— Edgar Wright’s beloved film adaptation of the graphic novel series—Plaza was out there grinding in the mean streets of New York comedy. “All I was doing when I was living in Queens at that time was just scheming,” she says. “I always wanted to do dramatic roles. Once I figured out, okay, I can do comedy, I’m funny, I was very calculated about my career. The people I admired most were people like Adam Sandler, who would do broad comedies and also go do Punch-Drunk Love.

The UCB scene in Plaza’s days, she says, was all about making each other laugh. “When I’m producing, or doing anything, I feel like I adopt that mentality again—forget about all the noise of success. How can I impress the people that I think are the funniest people? That’s what it was all about. Getting to perform for people that you respect and blowing their minds.”

She may live in California now, but Plaza’s look is New York–forward—black wool overcoat, Chelsea boots, an Adidas ball cap. She’s been in the Atlanta area for two projects filmed in the same studio: Coppola’s Megalopolis and Marvel’s Agatha: Coven of Chaos, a WandaVision spin-off. For two weeks, her shoot days actually overlapped. “I started doing double duty,” she tells me. “Literally, like, throw on the wig in one trailer, do whatever I’m doing in the Marvel thing—I’m contractually not allowed to say—and then go to the other trailer, have my blond platinum hair, do whatever I’m doing in that movie.” Coppola was hooked from day one. “After her Zoom audition, I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” he says. “I was fascinated and found myself laughing and wanting more. Aubrey brought herself to the character—I couldn’t separate them. She draws you in, fills you with desire and laughter. She truly has this ‘wow’ factor.”

Plaza has never relied solely on charisma. Her acting is unshowy and unpretentious, and she can alter a scene with the shift of an eyebrow. You want to see her in a remake of a film like After Hours, skulking around ’80s SoHo and doing weird shit. As it happens, Plaza’s been taking on increasingly ambitious projects. In 2017’s dark comedy Ingrid Goes West, on which Plaza was a producer, she plays a woman with an apparent mental illness who stalks an Instagram influencer played by Elizabeth Olsen. A giddy Plaza later surprised Olsen on the red carpet by showing up in the exact same Marc Jacobs outfit and pretending—“I don’t know how this happened”—that it was an accident. “There’s a potential chaos that she brings to a set that I strive to have more of in my own work,” says Olsen, now a close friend. “That was really fun—to kind of teeter on the edge with her. There’s a sense of freedom to it, where she could surprise herself even.” Olsen circles back to clarify something, and I sense their whole friendship between the lines: “To me, it’s chaos, because I’m a control freak, but it’s a sense of freedom.”

Last year—in the thriller Emily the Criminal, on which she was also a producer—Plaza went deeper still as a woman who joins a credit-card-scam underworld to pay off her massive student debt. Plaza chose the role because of the unexpected turns in John Patton Ford’s script, as well as its devotion to character development. “It felt kind of old-school,” Plaza says. “It felt like a movie, like the kind I grew up watching.” Now, on top of the WandaVision spin-off, she’s working on what she calls “a big undertaking”—a script she wants to direct, which must be a romantic comedy given the titan she invokes: “I’m going in to, like, do some Garry Marshall shit.”

“I think people are really starting to see truly how versatile and talented Aubrey is,” says Haley Lu Richardson, who played Portia on the second season of The White Lotus. “Not just with comedy but with the depths that she can go to. She’s having a moment for sure, and she deserves it. She works really hard and she cares a lot.” Like others who know Plaza well, Richardson can’t help but add a loving zinger: “And she’s nuts.”

She can summon some delicious anarchy for the camera. “I’m way more socially, like, anxious and introverted than people would expect, I think,” she tells me over coffee. “I’m just as insecure as anybody, and I’m probably way more shy than people think. But obviously the way I deal with that is, like, extreme behaviors.” Her guiding philosophy comes down to this, she adds: “I try to maintain some authenticity, for better or for worse. That’s the goal. If all else fails, at least be authentic.”

Plaza rarely reads her own press, but someone forwarded her an LA Times piece about her bit at the SAG Awards. The story, by Suzy Exposito, was entitled “In Praise of Jenna Ortega, Aubrey Plaza and Moody, Deadpan Latinas.” Plaza beams when I mention it. “I loved that,” she says. “That shit is important to me, because that’s my whole thing. Even with April Ludgate, it was like, Come on. Sofia Vergara is not the only Latina personality. There’s other ones! A lot of the characters I play, even with White Lotus—it’s important to normalize that there’s all kinds of different Latina people. I mean, all my Puerto Rican cousins are, like, morbid. Morbid shit is going on over there!”

As Plaza and I commiserate about all the ways that Latinas can and do exist, her multiplicity comes into focus: her bicultural upbringing, her public and private selves, her ability to play taut characters like Emily the criminal and Harper the lawyer, snarling perverts like Lenny on the underappreciated sci-fi drama Legion, and more. What Plaza has done, and will do again, is let all these impulses coalesce.

“She is a warm and snuggly person with people she trusts,” says Amy Poehler. “Kids love her because she doesn’t talk down to them and she isn’t afraid to be weird. She cares deeply and works really hard. She has a good sense of humor about herself. But don’t be fooled, she is a witch.”

This story has been updated.