There is a pinpoint moment in the acclaimed indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed when its newcomer star Aubrey Plaza announces her arrival on the big screen.
It comes about two-thirds into the low-budget film, in which Plaza plays a shy, awkward magazine intern who poses as a potential candidate to go back in time with a time-travel nutter (Mark Duplass) in order to get his story. Instead, Plaza's nerdy loner Darius finds herself bonding with her equally oddball mark, who may just be a genius. It's then that Plaza does something totally unexpected. Something she's held back until now. Something that announces her official arrival as a bona-fide star.
It's a quiet, secret smile she keeps to herself - knowing she's falling in love - and it lights up the screen.
The plucky 28-year-old admits the breakthrough role is a big step forward.
"This is the first lead role in a movie I've done," says Plaza, who spent four seasons as the sulky receptionist April Ludgate on the cult TV sitcom Parks and Recreation. "And, yes, I see it as a big stride towards the big screen. At least I hope it is. I love being on Parks and Recreation but I have always wanted to be in movies. That was my dream for as long as I can remember, so I hope to be leaping all over the big screen and stuffing it up properly."
Not that she's been a complete unknown. The Delaware native performed sketch comedy after film school, and it led to guest roles on the odd TV episode and stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, where she was noticed by comedy king Judd Apatow. He gave her a small role - as a struggling comedian - in his film Funny People. It was that performance that stunned Derek Connolly, who was inspired to write Safety Not Guaranteed by the following real-life classified ad:
" _WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I've only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED." _
Seeing a star in the making, Connolly rewrote the script as an offbeat romance with Plaza in mind.
"I was very flattered when I heard a movie had been written for me," Plaza admits. "But to be honest, my expectations were low because I don't read many great scripts . . . but I was totally surprised by how good it was. It felt like an honest portrayal of two broken people finding each other and falling in love.
"I guess I could have said no, but that thought never entered my mind."
Shot in just 24 days in and around Seattle, Safety Not Guaranteed is produced by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine and co-stars Jake Johnson as Plaza's lazy reporter- boss and Karan Soni as a virginal intern. The real-life ad that inspired it had already become an internet sensation and featured on several talk shows when Connolly stumbled across it in 2007. Revealing more would spoil the movie, but Google "time travel ad" for more about it.
Plaza, whose big brown eyes and nut-brown skin come from a Puerto Rican father and Irish- English mother, drew on some real-life experiences of her own for the role.
"Dramatic parts are scary for me, so this was an extremely important learning process. In the beginning, Darius is depressed and cynical and lost. There have been many times in my life that I have experienced all of these things. I had to use that. I've never had traumatic death in my family, like Darius, but I explored some hard times in my life that have caused me anxiety and held me back from being happy. So I tapped in to all of that.
While in college, Plaza suffered a stroke, but fully recovered. "I wanted her sadness and sarcasm to come from a real place and not a joking place. That was important to me. So I did draw on my own life experiences. I learnt a lot and want to keep doing more dramatic roles."
Finding roles isn't a problem for the petite, doe-eyed actress these days. With the acclaim from this breakthrough performance, her dance card has quickly filled up. Besides "finishing up season 5 of Parks and Recreation at the moment," she co-stars with Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. And she's already shot her second film as lead actress. It's being touted as a female Superbad and is bound to cause a ruckus.
"It's called The To-Do List. I play an obnoxious high school graduate who decides to lose her virginity before college and writes a to-do sex list."