A common problem for network television actors—maybe the most common problem for network television actors—is the presupposition of familiarity that comes from allowing them to enter our homes all the time. We see their faces more than those of our uncles and cousins and probably our parents, so why shouldn’t we run to embrace them when we see them on the street?
In the case of Rashida Jones, this feeling is amplified. She’s uncommonly pretty, for sure, but she has a face that seems to be arranged in a manner that maximizes sympathy: clear eyes that quirk slightly upward at the edges; a wide mouth whose default setting is a smile; a small, proud chin. The impact is deepened by her history of playing lovable, relatable characters who are passionate about being reasonable: the power-suit-clad Karen on the third season of The Office; the profoundly understanding Zooey in the 2009 film I Love You, Man; the hardworking, levelheaded junior associate Marylin Delpy in 2010’s Oscar-winning The Social Network; and, for the last four years, nurse Ann Perkins on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, who frequently serves as the show’s soulful supporting beam when the characters around her fall apart.
But playing the good egg in a carton of crazy and bad ones will frequently leave an actor relegated to secondary roles. So in 2008, Jones took matters into her own hands and wrote—with her friend Will McCormack—the film Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). It’s an inversion of a traditional romantic comedy—a love story about a couple that is divorcing but cannot seem to separate. The film is funny and heartbreaking, due primarily to Jones’s performance, which is janky, manic, and unhinged (though still lovable).
I met Rashida Jones on a Wednesday late afternoon at the Palihouse, a West Hollywood hotel where some of the scenes from her film were shot. It was a week before Obama was reelected and she was feeling jittery about the outcome. Regardless, she seemed a winning amalgam of the nicest and most flawed bits of all the characters she’s played, so it felt natural to embrace her for a good half minute on the street after we’d finished talking. —Kathryn Borel
I. YOUNG, DRUNK PEOPLE LOVE FAMOUS PEOPLE
THE BELIEVER: Were you on set today?
RASHIDA JONES: No, I had a day off.
BLVR: Are you going to order some food?
RJ: Yes. I’m going to have the beet and orange salad.
BLVR: Don’t you think beets are the most restorative vegetable?
RJ: I have a theory. There’s got to be some sort of hipster food-lobby, because don’t you see the food trends that are happening? Beets didn’t even have a place in our lives ten years ago. People were like, “Ew! Beets? Kale?”
BLVR: Remember when portobello mushrooms became a “thing”?
[Rashida orders the beet and orange salad but asks for no oranges.]
BLVR: Do you hate oranges?
RJ: I don’t like that kind of harvesty mix of nuts and fruit in my salad. I want salad.
BLVR: I’m always interested in what the new, trendy superfood is going to be. Last year it was pomegranate—
RJ: Açaí… What’s this year’s? It’s probably argan oil. [Pause] Or chia. I eat a lot of chia seeds, actually. Chia Pets are the new superfood. Chia Pets are the new brussels sprouts.
BLVR: True. [Pause] You campaigned for Obama in Iowa. Who do you find responds best to celebrity influence?
RJ: Young, drunk people. And not just in politics. In general. [Laughs] Young, drunk people love famous people, especially at night, especially when you’re hanging out in their space. I went to a tailgate with Adam Scott that was pretty hilarious. It was the middle of the biggest football game of the year. Iowa State was playing Northern Iowa. And I just looked around and thought, This is the worst idea, what the hell am I doing? People were lined up watching the game on a television that was brought outside. And so they muted the television and had us speak for a couple of minutes—it didn’t really work. But then people came over and wanted to take pictures with us. So basically what you’re doing—what everybody is complicit in—is trading pictures for some modicum of interest in the election and hopefully a vote and hopefully a vote for the candidate that you’re out campaigning for.
BLVR: Do they ask you questions? Did you feel like you were surrounded by informed young people?
RJ: That was a cynical, jokey way to say all that. There was actually a lot of good discourse. I went to one event that was for the women who were going to go out and get other women to register to vote.
BLVR: What did you say?
RJ: First and foremost, let me say that I cannot believe that we’re still having a debate about who is in control of our bodies, and that anybody would think that there was any possibility that it was OK to overturn Roe v. Wade, that anybody would think it was OK to lose Planned Parenthood. Sometimes—and this is not a collective indictment—I look at where we’ve come to, and how much technology and advancement there is, and I can’t believe that we’re not this perfectly balanced, beautiful, peaceful society, where everybody is wearing white and the machines all run very quietly and everything is done really intelligently and sensitively. I’m shocked that we’re so deeply polarized, that there are people who want progress and they feel guilty for wanting progress, because it somehow seems un-American, because being American means staying ignorant and going backward.
BLVR: That’s the scary part about social media. It allows the hateful to achieve consensus.
RJ: I’m still shocked that it doesn’t favor positivity and globalism.
BLVR: Does it make you want to engage in that dialogue less? Is there a point at which it would be prudent for you to stop because you’re so much in the public eye?
RJ: Yes, definitely. That’s the thing—I joined Twitter last year, and I did it to promote my movie, and then for the Obama campaign. But I think there is a version of my life where I should shut it all down, because it’s bad for me. There’s so much input, and people can write me all day, but if I want to find an old friend or find something nice someone might have said about my movie, I have to sift through all of this idiocy and entitlement and typos—which drive me crazy. [Pause] And hate and fear and small-mindedness.
II. NONSTOP WOODY ALLEN
BLVR: I want to talk about your movie. I actually got my hands on a copy of the screenplay so that I could re-read it and see how it was structured.
RJ: You have no idea how much that means to me!
BLVR: But I’m not the only one who liked it—it was quite well reviewed, wasn’t it?
RJ: The people who liked it really liked it. And the people who didn’t—I feel like they didn’t get it. The criticism was that we were unfocused, tonally. But we did that on purpose. Or that it meanders, which we also did on purpose. There were a couple of reviews that were scathing.
BLVR: Who? You don’t have to name names.
RJ: Oh, I can name names! [Laughs] There was a guy who wrote, “This movie will never find an audience.” And there were some that said, “Rashida Jones can star in a movie, but she shouldn’t write for herself.” And I was like, “But you guys realize that those things are really connected, right?” It’s not like I wrote a script and then suddenly thought, Ooh, I should play this! Like, How am I going to make this shitty material work? I don’t know. Oh my god, man, Sundance was hard for me.
RJ: Because I was so focused on getting this movie made and getting it to Sundance that I actually forgot that people were going to see it.
BLVR: You had a terrible time trying to get it financed and produced. The production companies that picked it up kept folding—
RJ: Companies folded, or schedules fell apart, or financiers backed out…
BLVR: Was there a point at which you wanted to throw in the towel?
RJ: No. There was a time when I let go of the reins and thought, What’s meant to happen will happen. That’s probably one of my biggest faults as a person, and something that I’ve had to work really hard on: believing in this idea that the universe will decide for me. And when you’re making a film, it kind of won’t. The universe is not going to decide in your favor.
BLVR: When you let go of a creative idea and stop trying at it, there’s a pretty good chance it will just fall into the abyss.
RJ: Yes. I learned that the movie was something that I had to be on top of every day or else it was never going to happen. The first time we sold it and the company folded one month later… that sucked, because the momentum was there. We sold it thirty-six hours after having submitted it to our agents, and we were never going to have that moment again. We got a couple of offers. One of them said, “We want to have the option of not having Rashida star in it, if we don’t feel she’s financially viable.” When a thing you love faces adversity, you start to feel more protective of it. Also, you take an inventory all the time. You ask yourself, “Is this worth all my fighting?”
BLVR: The worth of our creative projects is so subjective it can sometimes be hard to tell whether they’re worth pursuing.
RJ: Especially because our movie was not some important political rabble-rousing documentary. It’s a small movie about a relationship. But Will and I wrote this in 2008, and it was sort of based on our relationship, and those of some of the people we knew, and a relationship that I had had and one that Will had had, and it wasn’t a phenomenon that went away.
BLVR: This was the first movie you’d ever written. How did you prepare? Did you read all the required texts before you started? Robert McKee and so on?
RJ: Totally. I had actually gone to the Robert McKee intensive weekend fifteen years ago and loved it. Just to watch Casablanca for eight hours and have someone break it down that hard is so cool. But yes, I read Story and Save the Cat! [by Blake Snyder]. I became obsessed with The Writer’s Journey [a book by Christopher Vogler that is loosely based on the principles outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.] I love Joseph Campbell. It’s everything. It’s the only reason I’m able to write anything.
BLVR: What is it about that book that spoke to you?
RJ: It’s just so simple and keenly observed. He takes these huge principles and finds these really simple tropes. It’s something you can memorize. My dad [legendary music producer Quincy Jones] was fully instrumental in that. He’s obsessed with that book, and Joseph Campbell. My dad loves storytelling. He’s interested in the relationship between science and soul. So he’s always reading books that draw the connection between, say, the neural pathways and the heart.
BLVR: What about screenplays, did you read those for research?
RJ: We watched a lot of movies. Broadcast News, so many times. We watched Woody Allen movies nonstop, specifically Manhattan and Annie Hall.
BLVR: That makes sense. There’s a dialogue cadence in Celeste and Jesse Forever that cribs a little from Woody Allen.
RJ: [Laughs] A little? We just stole. The scene in our movie when Andy and I are at the wedding, jerking off the tiny corn, was a direct steal from the lobster scene in Annie Hall. It has to do with that moment when you’re like, “I’m choosing this other person, who isn’t going to understand something about the core of me, but I’m making this choice. I’m just making this choice.”
III. FEMINIST #3
BLVR: I know you sat down every day for three months in your backyard and wrote. I’m curious about the kind of routine you set for yourself, as the act of writing something must be so different from the experience of being on set, which has such a rigid schedule.
RJ: I’d wake up, then Will would come over. We’d drink coffee and talk. For a month and a half we just talked. We got a big-ass board and talked about every beat of the story and marked it out. Then we started writing some scenes. I was also on hold for Parks and Recreation—even though they didn’t know what it was going to be called yet and whether I was going to be in it—so I couldn’t really audition for any TV shows. Also, there was a looming strike, so there weren’t that many auditions. I didn’t have much to do. Sometimes I would get a burst of energy in the middle of the night and then write a scene and then send it to Will, and then we’d talk about it in the morning. But most of the time we would just sit next to each other and ask, “What do we want this scene to be about?” And then we’d ask, “What is the game on top of the scene?” And then “Can we accomplish more than one thing in this scene?”
Mike Nichols, who is a really old friend of my dad’s, and might be my favorite person in the world—every time I go to New York I kidnap him and take him to lunch so that I can ask him a ton of questions. He’s really good at story. He talks about how stories are either a negotiation, a conflict, a seduction, or all three. I have another friend who gave me a couple of good tips. He said, “Don’t write all the colloquialisms to create the rhythm.” Like uh, er, um… Those were two pieces of advice that stuck with me. We were just collecting from other people. It was great, because no one gives a shit when you’re writing a script in L.A., because everyone is writing a script in L.A.
BLVR: It’s true. Every coffee shop you walk into in this city is full of people on their laptops, staring at an open document of Final Draft. I actually find it a little intimidating.
RJ: [Laughs] I know. It can suck, but it’s also great, especially for me as an actress, because the common reaction is [sarcastically], “Oh, OK, you’re an actress and you’re writing a script? Good luck. Call me when you’re done.” It gives you a little bit of time to not have any expectations. We finished a draft in about four months. Then we gave it to our friends, like my friend Jesse, who is the titular character. We went to prom together. He lives across the street from me and works at Warner Bros. We gave it to some writer friends, some development friends, and got insanely good notes back, which was huge. Then we went to Jennifer Todd, who’s an old friend of both of ours. She gave Will his first movie job and gave me my first job in L.A.—
BLVR: Sorry, not to interrupt, but what was your first job in L.A.?
RJ: I was “Feminist #3” in If These Walls Could Talk 2. I had one line. My line was “This is exactly the kind of attitude we don’t need in here, man.”
BLVR: It’s easy to tell you were playing a feminist because of the “man.”
RJ: Anyway, we left our first notes meeting with Jennifer Todd and Debbie Liebling—who is awesome and was running Fox Atomic—and Jen said, “That was the best notes meeting I’ve ever had. It was too good to be true.” And she was completely right.
BLVR: What does it say about the filmmaking industry that your movie fell apart so many times? Because it feels as though it has less to do with the material and more to do with this moment the industry is experiencing.
RJ: I do think that if we’d made this film ten years ago, we wouldn’t have gone through so many machinations. Executives are so into their “quadrant language” that they don’t know what to do with a movie that is romantic, and has some comedy, and is also a drama. You can’t have movies like Broadcast News anymore because they’re like, “We have a romantic comedy here… and we have a drama over here… and we don’t know where to put this.”
BLVR: Noah Baumbach can write a movie that blurs the space between the quadrants, but few others.
RJ: Yes. Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, Cameron Crowe… I think comedy is going through some growing pains right now. I’d like to say that optimistically, because I’m not sure what the end result will be. Part of it is that the smaller comedies are getting smaller. I had to beg and borrow and whore myself out to get what we needed. My friend was running this place [motions to the hotel we’re in], and we filmed the furniture-store scene right there [points to the lobby]. And I begged, “Please, can we just film in here for one day? We won’t fuck it up!” There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that allowed our film to be at that budget level.
When we were on our press tour in Dallas, one of the reporters pointed out that adults used to go out and see movies and kids would watch TV. Now kids go to the movies and adults watch TV. So that’s part of the problem. Unless there’s really a reason to go—if it’s 3-D or if it’s some huge sensory experience—people will wait and watch it on their awesome TVs with surround sound, and they only have to wait two weeks. Or not! There were movies from Sundance that came out the same day on their TVs.
BLVR: Going back to your process of writing for a second—I feel this is an important question to ask of writers who were previously accustomed to going to a job outside their homes. Did you get dressed every day to write?
RJ: I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but if we felt uninspired, Will and I would put on funny outfits… with a weird hat and lots of layers. It gets you out of your own way for a second.
BLVR: I asked because I read an interview with Susan Orlean about how she makes sure to shower and put on just a little makeup to simulate preparing for a day at the office.
RJ: Yes. This is actually something I’ve been working on: to not leave my house looking like a total slob. I shower and put on a proper outfit because I don’t feel like I’m young enough to get away with being in my own dirt. I have a nineteen-year-old sister, and she’s gorgeous and so beautiful and she doesn’t have to do anything. But Will and I have a weird, conservative demeanor about that. We’re best friends and writing partners, but we don’t fart in front of one another. We have a level of respect. Will we masturbate vegetables? Yes. Will we talk dirty about everything? Yes. But we won’t work in our pajamas.
IV. CHUBBY LITTLE TUB-TUB
BLVR: My friend Sarah, who is a writer and editor, heard that I was interviewing you and she wrote me this: “I just want to know what the vibe in her household was like. Was it really boppy? Was growing up in her home a fun piece of boppy jazz?”
RJ: [Laughs] My sister and I have totally idealized our childhood. You know, it was the late ’70s/early ’80s, and celebrity culture wasn’t fetishized the way it is now. There was no paparazzi, no internet. Even with the kids who were on that side of wealthy and ostentatious, it didn’t really penetrate. We had this beautiful ranch-style home, and a great mixture of people coming through there. George Benson and Steven Spielberg, but also my friends from my Montessori school. We had these fun, awesome birthday parties in our front yard with a trampoline, and there was always a piñata and a birthday cake. And the soundtrack was always on point, because it was mostly my dad’s shit. My dad had these two records when I was young: The Dude and Sounds… And Stuff Like That!! They were compilation albums of all of his friends: Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers and Patti Austin and James Ingram and Luther Vandross, just in a studio having a fucking great time. So it was somewhere between R&B and jazz. And my parents would have these parties on Sunday nights where they would get this woman, Remi—this great Brazilian cook—to come and make collard greens and traditional Brazilian food and soul food. All their friends would come over and sit outside and drink wine. It was so awesome. These film and music legends who felt that being around each other made them more artistic. And their kids were friends. There weren’t that many mixed-race kids at the time, so it was the Poitiers, Maya Rudolph, the Lumets, and us. We all knew each other and my dad would ask for advice about raising biracial kids.
BLVR: It sounds like the best of California. The idealized California. Drenched in sun, liberal and groovy.
RJ: Yes! Lots of avocado trees and shade.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned that you were an awkward child…
RJ: I was a chubby, chubby little tub-tub. At the times when it mattered: twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. I’m so happy I was. If you’re beautiful young, you really miss out on developing parts of yourself.
BLVR: The age of twelve is the time when girls should be locked up and reading books.
RJ: [Conspiratorially] I want to, like, fatten up my kid. I want to put them in glasses and braces and tell them, “Eat whatever you want!”
BLVR: So they can have their “big reveal” at twenty-seven.
RJ: Or forty. Or never!
BLVR: I have this terrible theory—a theory that’s been disproven a million times—that artists should be better at relationships because they understand, on a more fundamental level, the benefit of creative collaboration.
RJ: But think of what else artists are good at! They’re good at being fickle, they’re good at chasing inspiration. As much as I love artists, if they’re feeling dull or numb, they’ll be like, “I need to shake that off. I need to find something else to make me feel inspired.” And that might mean another relationship.
BLVR: Do you think you’ll end up with an artist?
RJ: I think so. But I don’t think it’s going to be an actor. No. I know it’s not going to be an actor. It might be a writer, or a visual artist, someone who understands the creative process but doesn’t wear makeup for a living. Male actors have to go put on makeup and get touched up. There’s a built-in vanity there. [Pause] Listen. I feel there’s people who have no choice in the matter because they’re so gifted. What was Daniel Day-Lewis going to do? He had to become an actor. What was Michael Shannon going to do? Work in a bank? And I get that. But the thing with acting is that you’re making a shitload of money, which you feel guilty about making, because you don’t feel you deserve it. And you’re still taking orders from everybody else. You’re still waiting for other people to give you jobs.
BLVR: Then at any point the industry can decide to take it all away.
RJ: Because they don’t like the way you look. It’s not even about the way you act! I don’t put myself in that Michael Shannon category—that there’s something inside me that has to be expressed in that way. There’s a bunch of other stuff that I’m OK at, and I do want to feel challenged and curious. I want to feel humbled. But with acting, the stark reality for women is that it’s nearly impossible to get older in an elegant fashion as an actress. Either you’re fighting your age, or you’re having to own it in a way that feels inelegant, or you’re Meryl Streep and you’re an angel from God. She doesn’t count. She doesn’t count! She’s not a category. I don’t want my self-esteem to come from the way other people are looking at me.
V. WHEN YOU’RE READY
BLVR: You’ve said that you augmented the worst parts of your personality to create the Celeste character. What are those parts?
RJ: I have a need to be right. I am obsessed with a sense of justice in the world. Also, I’m positive that I know who somebody is by thin-slicing them immediately—just positive that I have a read on the entire package. [Sarcastically] My intuition is, like, sooo fine-tuned. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised! But sometimes I’m not so pleasantly surprised. My intuition has gotten better, but what stands in the way of it are early declarations of what that intuition is telling me. [Pause] This is a little bit of my younger self, but the relationship I have with the character of Jesse in the movie, and that I’ve had with guys in real life—kind of bossy, disrespectful—
BLVR: Celeste looks down on Jesse.
BLVR: In the movie you toggle between this incredible friendship chemistry with Andy, and then some sexual chemistry, and then an inversion of that chemistry when you’re almost disgusted by what he represents.
RJ: As fans of romantic comedies, Will and I wondered how you can do any kind of new justice to a genre. There were a couple of things we thought we could do. Breakups in movies usually consist of two people getting into a huge fight, then they throw a plate, then they leave, then they cry a lot, then they miss each other and call each other and end up back together. We wanted to show what a real breakup looks like. There are so many stages to a breakup. I mean, it takes forever to break up with someone.
BLVR: Sometimes you wish they would just be murdered. Sometimes you wish a piano would just fall on their head.
RJ: [Laughs] I’ve definitely had those thoughts about my ex-boyfriends. That thing Elijah Wood’s character annoyingly says to my character—“You’re ready when you’re ready”—somebody once said that to me when I was in the fifth round of getting back together with an ex. And I was like, “Don’t fucking say that to me, because that’s presupposing there’s going to be an ending to this!” You know when a doctor does surgery, and they have to cut all those layers of tendons and around veins and muscle, and there’s layers and layers and layers, and it doesn’t all separate until you get to the organ? It’s kind of like that. Your heart is still attached. Or your brain is still attached.
BLVR: I feel as though we have to redefine what “working out” means when people say, “I’m so sorry it didn’t work out.” But maybe it did work out for the period of time it was supposed to.
RJ: Totally. I’m reading a book right now called The Future of Love by Daphne Rose Kingma, and she has this idea that every moment is a relationship. You walk by a person in the street, and you think they’re attractive, and you have a relationship with them. So maybe there’s just a perfect version of every relationship, and sometimes the perfect version is six months of fucking, and sometimes it’s ten years of friendship.