Aubrey Plaza takes on student debt in ‘Emily the Criminal’

Plaza, who played deadpan April Ludgate in ‘Parks and Recreation’ and most recently starred as filmmaker Allison in comedy-thriller ‘Black Bear,’ produced the film, which hits theaters next Friday, under her Evil Hag Productions.

We caught up with Zoom while she was in California.

Aubrey Plaza in “Emily” and Theo Rossi in “Youcef” in “Emily the Criminal”. Roadside Attractions/Vertical Entertainment

Q There are plenty of con stories out there right now, some based on real events (including Hulu’s “The Dropout” and Netflix’s “Inventing Anna”). At first glance, it looks like “Emily the Criminal” might fall under this umbrella, but that’s different. Emily is a character who needs money to live on and finds a way to get it.

A. For me, it’s more of a character study. And it’s more of a story about someone who stumbles upon something she’s really good at – and really loves doing. It is simply illegal and criminal activity. There’s a monologue in the movie where she says, “I just want to experience things. I just want to be free,” and I think that, for me, says it all. She has figured out who she is, for better for worse.

Q I say this as a 45 year old who only recently paid off his student loan debt, but is this movie an unexpected case of student loan forgiveness. As soon as I heard this character went to art school, I thought, “Uh oh.” Of course, her expenses and her debts are greater than what she earns with hourly jobs. So what . . . criminality.

A. That’s why I loved him so much. I’m almost 40, dear Lord of Heaven, save me (Laughs). I have two younger sisters. I saw my generation, then the generation of my younger sisters go through this system which is so broken. I love movies that tap into something that’s really happening right now. John [Patton Ford] was writing from a place of anger and frustration about his own personal journey. He really lived this life. He didn’t pull the credit card scams, but he worked like [food] delivery man in downtown Los Angeles, and he was struggling and had so much debt. He went to film school. It was like, man, that could be cathartic for some people. There is some type of revenge element.

Q You produced this film and others, including “Ingrid Goes West”. I like to assume we’re at the point where someone like you – an actress who’s been a successful producer – has a ton of agency, influence and control when it comes to making movies .

A. Well I think it depends on the [director] because some people produce more passively. But when I say I have my hands everywhere, I mean I have my hands everywhere. I’m in the editing. I’m into color correction. I am a filmmaker. I went to film school (at New York University). I want to make movies, and I think the whole process is so fascinating.

Q As a producer, how do you know when you want a movie in theaters, as opposed to streaming?

A. I feel like I’m one of the last people to romanticize movies that hit theaters. We brought the film to Sundance, and I had the same conversations and negotiations with every film I produced. It depends on who wants the movie, who’s bidding on the movie, but you have those times when you have to decide – do we want to take more money, or do we want to try in theaters and see if we can get a impact? And I just go with the theaters because there’s something about it that makes the movie feel real. Even if there isn’t a huge opening, just the idea that there’s a group of people watching it together. . . . I’m happier with that than “Oh, we’re number one on Netflix.” I think the magic about cinemas is that people watching it together is a shared experience. This is how humans connect with each other, experience things together. I lead the fight. It’s me and Spielberg (laughs).

Q What is the last movie you saw at the cinema?

A. I’ve been shooting in Italy for five months (shooting the second season of HBO’s “White Lotus”). We were shooting mostly in a city that didn’t have a movie theatre. The last film I saw at the cinema was before I left for Italy, and it was “Titanium”. But I’m going back. I’ll try to go see “No” this weekend.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at [email protected]