AUSTIN, TX: The cast and crew of the wonderful new film Safety Not Guaranteed (playing this week at South by Southwest, after winning many hearts — including ours — at Sundance) would very much like you to know that their film is not “a time travel movie.” Sure, it is about time travel; it concerns a maybe-crazy, maybe-not semi-survivalist (Mark Duplass, above right) who is looking for a partner to accompany him on a journey in a time traveling machine that he claims to have built. But, as co-star Jake Johnson insists, “It’s a movie about time travel, but it’s not a movie about time travel.” Duplass concurs: “This really isn’t a time travel movie. It’s a relationship movie, kind of seen through the prism of time travel.” And writer Derek Connolly is firm on the point. “The time travel was like this thing that existed,” he says, something that “was there for themes and as a second level of meaning, but I didn’t ever really consider it a time-travel movie.”
So, it’s not a time travel movie then (though director Colin Trevorrow can’t resist mentioning that, when shooting began, he and Connolly received signed original Back to the Future posters from Robert Zemekis, inscribed “Best of luck on your time travel movie”). What they can agree on is that it is a warm, relationship-driven comedy/drama — and that it is the first leading role in a feature film for Parks and Recreation favorite Aubrey Plaza.
“I felt a lot of pressure. Mostly on myself,” Plaza admits. “It was terrifying — I was really scared every day that I wasn’t gonna do the best job. It was really hard. But I learned a lot, and Colin is an amazing director with actors.” Her character, miserable magazine intern Darius Britt, requires a blending of sardonic humor and genuine vulnerability. It not only sounds like a role written for her — it was. “Aubrey started it all,” writer Connolly admits. “She sort of inspired me to write the script, period. I saw her in Funny People and probably started writing about a week later, very specifically for her. Like, I had to do a ‘find’ and ‘replace’ in the script, because I would write ‘Aubrey’ instead of ‘Darius’ so many times, it was definitely meant for her.”
That 2008 Judd Apatow film, Plaza says, was “the first big thing I ever did, and it’s the first thing that people ever saw me in, so they kind of associate me with that kind of sarcastic, deadpan kind of person that has a bleak view on the world. So I ended up just getting cast as that, like, a lot. But that wasn’t something I sought out, it just kind of happened.” But while the character of Darius has enough familiar aspects of her roles in Funny People and on Parks and Rec, the role also allows her to expand her range, seemingly as we’re watching the film.
“Darius starts out in kind of familiar territory in that way,” Plaza told me, “and for me it was kind of a metaphor, as an actor, because I felt like I wanted to break out of that. Here I have this movie where I start out kind of doing something I’m used to doing, but then I sloooowly rip the Band-Aid off. So maybe for an audience that’s used to seeing me in a certain way, maybe it would be even that more impactful, because people are going along with me for that transformation, in a way? That was kind of why I wanted to do it.”
For co-star Jake M. Johnson (above right, with co-star Karan Soni), the role of Darius’ boss Jeff is a total 180 from his most familiar role. He plays one of the nicest guys on television on New Girl, and Jeff is, well, not a nice guy — at least not in the beginning. “I’m not a guy who has to be a lead in a movie,” Johnson says. “But if I’m in a movie, I want a real journey. So if I see a real arc, and I see scenes and sequences that I really wanna do, especially in a little indie where you’re not getting paid a lot of money and you’re not living comfortably, I think, ‘that actual day, that sequence, will be really fun to shoot.’” He’s not bothered by the less charming elements of Jeff’s personality. “I’ll only play a character where, deep down, I have to think I would be okay to get a drink with this person. And Jeff, when he’s being really mean, can get to be a little bit much. But if I know Jeff’s whole story, I would be okay with Jeff.”
Plaza agrees, and admits that there is certainly an April Ludgate element to her personality. “It’s definitely a part of me,” she says. “Every character that people play is a part of them, so it’s definitely in me, of course. But there’s more to me than that.” And as proof, she offers up her next big leading role, in a sex comedy currently titled The To-Do List but initially called, gigglingly enough, The Hand Job. “Wait ’till the handjob movie comes out!” Plaza said with a grin. “In that movie, everyone will see. In your face! You don’t even know!”