Aubrey Plaza on why her new thriller Emily the Criminal felt like pulling off a scam

·9 min read

If Aubrey Plaza's Hollywood career doesn't work out, she might have a future in credit-card fraud.

Thanks to her new film Emily the Criminal (now in theaters), Plaza says she got really good with an embossing machine. "I know how to work that thing," she tells EW, adding with her trademark deadpan wit, "so if my career doesn't pan out, I know how to make a fake credit card, and I'll carry that with me until the end."

In the darkly comic crime feature from debuting writer-director John Patton Ford, Plaza plays Emily, a young woman loaded with student debt (but no degree to show for it), who is locked out of the job market due to a criminal record. Her life changes forever when she gets involved in a credit-card scam as a "dummy shopper," buying goods with stolen credit cards supplied by charismatic middleman Youcef (Theo Rossi).

The indie, well-received out of Sundance earlier this year, was shot in just 20 days on a tiny budget, and the "down and dirty style," as Plaza puts it, enabled her to do a lot of the stunts, driving, and fight scenes herself. She says the experience reminded her why she loves making movies. "The entire movie felt like we pulled off a scam," she says. "All independent films in some ways feel like some kind of heist. Like, 'Wow. I can't believe we got away with that.'"

Ahead of Emily's debut in theaters, EW spoke with Plaza about prepping to play a fraudster, her own bad job experiences, and how she channeled her character's rage.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is such a ride — I can only imagine the journey it took you on as you read the script for the first time. Walk me through what that was like for you.

AUBREY PLAZA: The script is an incredible read. John Patton Ford is such a talented writer. I loved it. Couldn't put it down. I was reading it really for recreational purposes. I read a lot of scripts, and this one was given to me by a friend, and man, I just couldn't get it out of my head. I loved the character. I felt that it was touching on something that was relevant, that really had something to say but also was entertaining. And I just love the energy of it, the momentum of it. You start the film and you don't stop. There's no pandering to the audience. There's no random scene of exposition. There's just nothing unnecessary. It just feels lean and fun, and I became obsessed with it immediately after I read it.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL
EMILY THE CRIMINAL

Roadside Attractions/Vertical Entertainment Aubrey Plaza in 'Emily the Criminal'

As Emily goes further and further into this dark world, we as the audience get to see her change a lot. Did your feelings about her change as you went through the script?

Yes. I think that's what's so interesting about her character is that you discover these things about her along the way. You see all of these micro-decisions that she makes from the beginning of the movie until the end, and you see how her brain works. And I agree, it's like she's surviving. She's doing what she's got to do to get by. But there is an element of thrill there for her, maybe on an unconscious leve, where you start to understand: Oh, she likes this. She likes what she's doing. She's good at it. It starts off to be about money and survival. But then there is something else going on where you're like, This is also a character study on someone that is a thrill-seeker, has a kind of sketchy past, has made questionable decisions, and keeps making them because she can't help it.

Right, and even when we're not in love with some of the decisions she makes, there is an element of her coming into her own and taking control of a situation because she knows no one else is going to help her.

I think she says the things that most people want to say but don't. And we get to watch her do that. We get to watch her live out these fantasies that most people have. A lot of us have been in those kinds of job interview situations that Emily finds herself in, those unfair situations. You know, being asked to work in an internship and not get paid, or whatever it is. And I think there's something cathartic about watching her character go, "You know what? Forget this. I'm not going to put up with it anymore. I'm going to do what I want to do." Most people don't get to do that. They don't make those choices.

Were you familiar with dummy shoppers before signing on?

No, definitely not. That was something that John discovered when he was living in L.A. and researching the film. But no, it's a real thing. I definitely didn't know about it. Of course, I know about credit-card fraud and I think everybody does, but it's a world that I was not privy to until I started working on this movie.

Did you get to speak to anyone who had done this, or had this particular scam happen to them?

I didn't. But John was my resource, and he had. I think he's done more of a deep dive and had more personal connections to it for writing the movie. I didn't go down that path and talk to any real dummy shoppers, but I did work that embossing machine, and I know how to work that thing. So if my career doesn't pan out, I know how to make a fake credit card, and I'll carry that with me until the end.

You're set. Emily is at times relatable, and at other times does some pretty terrible things. Did you feel you need to empathize with her in order to play her?

Definitely. I don't judge the characters that I play, ever. It's not helpful to do that. You have to understand why they're doing something, and then you have to empathize with it. And I found her to be incredibly sympathetic because she's just surviving and she's up against a system that is broken. I drew on my own experiences, the times that I've been in jobs like that, or internships or whatever grinding it out, and I know that feeling. So I felt like it was easy for me to relate to her. And I liked how unapologetic she is in the film. I think that it's rare to have a female character like that. We're used to seeing male characters that we're watching and we don't question whether they're likable or not. So yeah, I think it's cool to have a female character that doesn't really care if people like her or not. She's doing what she's got to do.

There are several instances in the film — like during the job interviews — where you can just feel the rage coming off of her. How did you channel Emily's rage in those moments? Did you pull from your own experiences there?

I've never had an experience that's specifically like that, but I think it's all about getting your power back. I think I pulled from experiences in my personal life where I felt gaslit by someone, or just up against a system that is broken, that is unfair. It's easy for me to conjure the rage for that. I mean I won't give specific details about it, but definitely that's the way I work. I have to use my own personal experiences and people in my life that I feel the rage toward. I just slot them right in there and just go for it, get it all out there.

We talked earlier about how lean the film is, but there's a lot in there. You've got car chases and fight scenes and tasers and all kinds of things going on.

Well, you know, this is my second tasing scene. I tased someone in the opening scene of Ingrid Goes West, which I think was my first tasing experience, but I hope to have many more. I love tasing. But no, there were so many things. This movie's so cool because it's a small movie but it has set pieces and it's kind of written like a thriller. So there were sequences that I got to do, and especially because it's an indie film and we kind of had to do it down-and-dirty style, I got to do my own driving a lot. I got to really get in there with some of the stunts and things like that, which normally the safety protocols and all that stuff are… You know, the larger the movie gets there's more people weighing in, and rules, and all those kinds of things. So it felt kind of fun to really get my hands dirty and get to do some action stuff. There were a couple days on set when we're shooting the car-chase scene and some of the fight scenes and stuff where I felt like: Wow. We're shooting an action movie. That stuff was really fun.

Along those lines, what did you either personally or professionally take away from the experience of making Emily the Criminal?

The entire movie felt like we pulled off a scam. All independent films in some ways feel like some kind of heist. Like, "Wow. I can't believe we got away with that." You know, we tried to finance this movie and put it together for years, and we finally got it together, and we made it through the skin of our own teeth. And I walked away feeling satisfied, and feeling like we did not compromise the script. I felt like this whole experience is why I love making movies.

It doesn't always work out that way. Really, it comes down to the script. The script is just undeniably good. So the lesson learned for me is: script, script, script. Like, don't make a movie if the script's not good, or if the script's okay — it's not going to work out. But if the script is good, if the script is great, you have a chance.

Related content: