“Emily the Criminal” is a thriller about a woman who has student loan debt and bills, and no way to get the kind of job that can cover it all. Aubrey Plaza plays Emily, an artist with a catering day job — and an assault conviction on her record that keeps her from getting hired — who joins a dangerous credit card scam operation to get the money she needs.
Is she a good criminal? A good person? Writer-director John Patton Ford keeps it complicated in his feature directorial debut, which follows Emily as she’s trained to buy large electronics via fraud. When she proves she’s good at it, the stolen objects get much bigger — as does her role on the team.
Plaza, who played deadpan April Ludgate in “Parks and Recreation” and more recently starred as filmmaker Allison in the comedy-thriller “Black Bear,” produced the movie, which opens in theaters next Friday, under her Evil Hag Productions.
We caught up over Zoom while she was in California.
Q. There are a lot of scammer stories out right now, some based on real life events (including Hulu’s “The Dropout” and Netflix’s “Inventing Anna”). At first glance, it seems “Emily the Criminal” might fall under that umbrella, but this is different. Emily is a character who needs money to live and finds a path 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 that she really likes to do. It just happens to be an illegal, criminal activity. There’s a monologue in the movie where she’s like, “I just want to experience things. I just want to be free,” and I think that, to me, says everything. She’s figured out who she is, for better for worse.
Q. I say this as someone who is 45 and only recently paid off her student loan debt, but boy does this film make an unexpected case for student loan cancellations. As soon as I heard this character went to art school, I thought, “Uh oh.” Of course, her expenses and debt are more than she makes at hourly jobs. And then . . . crime.
A. That’s why I just loved it so much. I’m almost 40, dear Lord in Heaven save me (laughs). I have two younger sisters. I’ve watched my generation and then my younger sisters’ generation come up through this system that is so broken. I love movies that tap into something that’s really going on right now. John [Patton Ford] was writing from a place of anger and frustration about his own personal journey. He really did live that life. He didn’t pull the credit card scams, but he worked as a [food] delivery guy in downtown Los Angeles, and he was struggling and had so much debt. He went to film school. It just felt like, man, this could be cathartic for some people. There’s a certain kind of revenge element to it.
Q. You produced this film and others, including “Ingrid Goes West.” I like to assume that we’re at the point where someone like you — an actress who’s been a successful producer — has a ton of agency, clout, and control when it comes to making films.
A. Well, I think it just depends on the [director] because some people produce in a more hands-off way. But when I say I have my hands all over, I mean I have my hands all over. I’m in the edit. I’m in the color-correcting. I’m a filmmaker. I went to film school (at New York University). I want to direct movies, and I think the whole process is so fascinating.
Q. As a producer, how do you know when you want a film in theaters, as opposed to streaming?
A. I feel like I’m one of the last people romanticizing movies coming out in theaters. We took the film to Sundance, and I’ve had the same conversations and negotiations with all the movies that I’ve produced. It depends on who wants the movie, who’s making offers on the film, but you have those moments where you have to decide — do we want to take more money, or do we want to give it a go in the theaters and see if we can make an impact? And I just go with the theaters because there’s something about it that makes the movie feel real. Even if it doesn’t have 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 what’s magical about movie theaters is people watching it together is a communal experience. That’s how humans connect with each other, experiencing things together. I’m fighting the fight. It’s me and Spielberg (laughs).
Q. What was the last movie you saw in theaters?
A. I’ve been filming in Italy for five months (shooting the second season of HBO’s “White Lotus”). We were shooting mostly in a town that didn’t have a movie theater. The last movie I saw in a theater was before I went to Italy, and it was “Titane.” But I’m getting back there. I’m going try to go see “Nope” this weekend.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.