How Emily the Criminal Star Aubrey Plaza Became an Amazing Dramatic Lead

I’m just going to be very blunt and say what needs to be said: we don’t talk enough about Aubrey Plaza and how incredibly dramatic she is. Frankly, it’s a travesty.

Right now, my Twitter feed should be full of praise for Plaza’s stunning performance in the newly released film Emily the criminal. That it isn’t is (ironically) criminal. Worse, this isn’t her first brilliant performance to remain so completely under the radar: Plaza has been doing an excellent job for years and has never received the praise or accolades she deserves.

I think it’s high time we acknowledged that Plaza is one of the best and most compelling actors in show business right now.

Like many others, I’ve been a fan of Plaza ever since Parks and Recreation days. As any fan who has watched this show from start to finish will agree, she was one of the greatest elements of this series. Plaza nailed every snarky comment and eye roll her alter-ego April Ludgate threw at her Pawnee buddies — and don’t even get me started on the perfection that was her dead delivery.

There was something else that brought Plaza to April: pathos. In a minute she would be staring sideways at a colleague; the next she would face a deep personal insecurity or a problem with the gravitas. April continues to be so popular parks and rec Fans because of those shifts that Plaza brought to a role that could easily have been a grade. And that in every season Parks and Recreation just retired a new shift on april and plaza’s skills.

about halfway through 2012 parks and rec‘s Run finally landed Plaza her first starring role in a film. She has previously had memorable cameos and small roles in other films and emerged as Seth Rogen’s love interest funny people and as foul-mouthed Julie Powers in Scott pilgrim vs the world. Still in Safety not guaranteeddirected by Colin Trevorrow, Plaza had to show how bright her star power burns.

In the acclaimed indie, Plaza plays Darius, an intern at Seattle Magazine. She ends up on a wild chase with two colleagues (Nick Johnson and Karan Soni) to track down Kenneth, who has placed an ad looking for a companion for his time-traveling adventure (Mark Duplass). Not only is the film funny, incredibly inventive and clever, but it’s also heartbreakingly sweet and poignant – and a big reason for that is Plaza’s performance.

One scene that really shows Plaza’s range is when she explains to Kenneth how her mother died and the guilt and responsibility she feels for that death. Every imaginable emotion plays out on Plaza’s face as she tells the horrifying story. You want to look away because it’s such a vulnerable moment. But she’s so magnetic, you have to see where she plays the scene next.

Everyone who watched Safety not guaranteed wouldn’t be surprised by Plaza’s electrical performance in FX legionwhich premiered in 2017. The Psychedelic X-Men-adjacent The drama has garnered critical acclaim over the course of its three seasons, but Plaza’s performance in particular has been celebrated – as it should always be. legion allowed Plaza to showcase everything from her hypnotic dance moves to her full range—especially when her character, Lenny Busker, switches completely to the dark side. Some people might have been shocked to see Plaza’s transformative accomplishment legionbut for fans who have known of her incredible talent for years, the praise she received for the role was just music to our ears.

Plaza had another important, formative role in 2017: Ingrid goes west, starring Elizabeth Olsen. In the scathing, chilling social media satire, Plaza plays Ingrid, a mentally unstable stalker who forms a parasocial bond with Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Olsen) — and then moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her.

While Ingrid is completely insane, manipulative, and downright dangerous, Plaza brings so much empathy and humanity to the character that you can’t help but sympathize with her, even when she absolutely takes things too far. One of Plaza’s greatest talents is her ability to make you see and feel people’s most vulnerable parts – and that’s beautifully showcased in Ingrid.

This talent is also highlighted in the criminally underrated 2020 film black bear. It was widely released just months after Plaza stole the show (and many hearts) on Hulu’s Happiest Season, the queer Christmas comedy. But there weren’t nearly enough people screaming at the top of their lungs about their amazing performance black bear. All the internet wanted to talk about for weeks was how Kristen Stewart was supposed to have ended up at Plaza Happiest Season (I won’t comment on this out of respect for Mackenzie Davis), yet one of Plaza’s greatest performances generally came and went unnoticed. Unacceptable!

In the drama, Plaza plays Allison, a former actress-turned-writer-director. She ventures alone into the Adirondacks to find inspiration for her next feature film.

I will preface this by pointing it out black bear, besides being staggeringly good and making everyone check it out, is extremely meta – in the best way. Step inside this film and know that you’ll want to watch it multiple times, only to discover a new bit of Plaza’s talent with each re-watch.

Plaza plays two versions of her character, depicting different sides of jealousy and betrayal. In the first half, Plaza seduces with her charm and wit. And in the second half, she wreaks havoc on you with a performance so good you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards. I often think the term “tour de force” is overused, but in this case it’s spot on: Plaza puts on a tour de force performance that her entire career has been working towards.

All of this brings us to Emily the criminalan instantly iconic role that confirms Plaza is one of the brightest talents of her generation.

Plaza plays Emily, a Los Angeles transplant recipient with tons of student debt and a criminal record who is just trying to make ends meet with odd jobs around town. Her world is turned upside down when she becomes entangled with a “dummy shopper” crew. The further she ventures into this underworld of credit card fraud, the more “I’m the one knocking” she becomes. The film itself is a fascinating commentary on subjects such as the crippling effects of student debt, the endless cycle of horrors of having a criminal record while trying to secure a job to pay off that debt, and of course, capitalism. And it’s thanks to Plaza’s raw performance that all of these themes have really come home.

Plaza navigates Emily’s descent into the criminal underbelly with absolute mastery. She never lets the audience see Emily as a victim; Emily is always in control – just like Plaza. We’ve seen Plaza play many roles over the years, but none quite quite like Emily. There’s a confidence in her performance that is mesmerizing. Plaza fully embodies every aspect of Emily’s personality and physicality — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and makes all of that work look effortless. As Daily Beast’s Obsessed critic Coleman Spilde pointed out in his review, watching Aubrey Plaza do the “bad guy” in this movie is so much fun.

One scene that really caught my eye is when Emily goes to an interview at her friend’s company, only to find out that it’s an unpaid internship that could potentially, maybe, lead to a paid opportunity. Plaza nails Emily’s New Jersey accent perfectly as she accuses the boss (an amazing Gina Gershon) of trying to get people to work for free. “What I don’t understand is why you feel so comfortable asking someone to work for free,” Emily says spitefully. Preach girl! It’s such a well-acted scene, but it’s also a turning point for Emily — and Plaza. It’s a very small and non-action scene in a drama that wraps around the edge of the seat, but it showcases all of Plaza’s dramatic talents and then some. With incredible nuance and presence, Plaza dominates this conversational scene without losing us. It’s absolutely gripping and we feel every emotion with her. It’s impossible not to; she is just that good.

There are many actors who can embody a character well, but there are very few who are so emotionally and physically involved with their character – Plaza is one of them. At the time the credits start Emily the criminal, you will never forget that she is one of the biggest dramatic stars in the industry. It took Hollywood a hell of a long time to stop typifying Plaza for her snarky and deadpan talents and finally let all of her incredible skills shine. But I’m so glad we’re finally here in our Plaza Peak era.

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