As a teenager, she wanted to be seen as a leader. She once did a research project on Judy Garland and became so transfixed by the star's mysterious death that she vowed to become the foremost authority on the topic, spending hours doing research on the Internet.
Her work ethic earned her an acceptance letter to New York University, and in New York she quickly began working on a new goal: getting on "Saturday Night Live." Her plan was to follow the career trajectory of Adam Sandler, who had parlayed his "SNL" gig into film-star status. So she joined UCB, acting alongside Donald Glover, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon. The cluster later put on a showcase that served as an audition for "SNL," but Plaza didn't make the cut.
"I still have a space in my heart that's dead because I know I'll never have that experience of being on that show. But that's not my destiny," she said.
Instead, she's dedicated herself to acting, working with an instructor to prepare for every role she takes on.
"She's not one of those typical people who come to Hollywood and figure they're pretty and talented enough to make it without putting in the work," said Ivana Chubbuck, Plaza's longtime acting coach. "People haven't seen her serious chops yet, but she's got that in her. She has this nice, tragic underbelly to her."
Not that "The To Do List" didn't have its own challenges, namely: pretending to perform fellatio on Andy Samberg, simulating clothed sex with Christopher Mintz-Plasse and masturbating in a Clinton T-shirt.
"She's a trouper, dude," said Rachel Bilson, who plays Brandy's cooler older sister in the $1.5-million production. "She just went for it all. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of confidence to hump a pillow."
Plaza isn't sure how the whole thing will go over. Her mom, a lawyer who has seen only the red-band trailer, is apparently horrified. Her father, a Merrill Lynch financial advisor, has been more supportive: "He was like, 'Babe, you look hot!' Because he's like that."
Not that Plaza has much time to fret about the movie's public reception anyway. Before the sixth season of "Parks and Recreation" begins production, she's spending the month working on "Life After Beth," a zombie flick directed by her boyfriend. Still, she wants something more.
"I'm still trying to get parts that I'm getting rejected for," she admitted. "Like, I want to do a romantic comedy where I'm the lead and not a freak. That'd be good."