Rashida Jones wanted to tell a certain story, play a specific character, and truly challenge herself. So she did what most actors can't: She wrote her own movie.
Along with close friend/ fellow actor Will McCormack, Jones penned a story based on their own relationship: The two dated briefly before deciding they were better off as friends, and then became as close as could be. The result is "Celeste and Jesse Forever," a funny, heartfelt film about a divorced couple intent on remaining BFFs, with Jones co-starring alongside Andy Samberg in the title roles.
The Harvard-educated daughter of legendary music producer Quincy Jones and comedic actress best known for TV's "Parks and Recreation" got candid with us about baring her soul in "Celeste" and the internet's ridiculous obsession with her race.
So is it safe to say "Celeste and Jesse" is the most personal project you've worked on thus far?
Definitely. It's funny, I didn't even think about how much I was exposing myself until we got to Sundance, because in writing it, it felt really good to exorcise all that pain and enacting it, it felt really good. And when you get in front of 1,300 people, it doesn't feel really good.
But ultimately it's awesome because people come up to me, and we have real conversations about relationships, and that's incited by something I helped create, which is way cooler. Even though my career has been so cool, that's by far the coolest thing that's ever happened to me, because you're like helping create some sort of discourse, which is awesome.
Were there specific scenes that you were especially nervous about showing off to the world?
Two of them [were the hardest]. One was when I breakdown when [Jesse] tells me the news about the other girl. That was super-hard because it was just me — and I was in the bathroom — it was just me and the DP and the director, and I broke down. And when I watch it, I'm not that psyched. And the second was fighting on the street with Andy. It was really, really hard. I was kind of like hyperventilating, and even when I was done with my coverage, Andy was breaking my heart. It felt really real because we've been friends for a long time, and when somebody you know and care about is yelling at you, your body doesn't know that you're acting, so it was tough. We had to hug it out afterwards.
It sounds like there were certain moments where you actually felt like you were playing yourself. You wrote it for yourself.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, hopefully, her flaws are slightly more enhanced than mine. But yeah, for sure, this was a fully selfish pursuit. We wrote it for me to act in … I didn't actually know if I could play the levels of this character, but I wanted to find out if I could.
Did you guys write the role of Jesse with Andy in mind?
Originally, Will and I really wrote for us. And weirdly, throughout the course of trying to get the movie made … One, Hollywood's a super-tough place to get a movie made, so it took three years, and you know, they're all about financibility and bankability. And also, Will kind of became so manly while we were going through this process, it made more sense to cast Andy, who has this boyish quality. And he's never done anything like this before, so it's really interesting and exciting to watch him do something dramatic because it's so fresh to him, and it felt so honest, and it was cool.
In the writing process, were there other romantic films that you guys were influenced by?
That we stole from? Yes, lots of stealing … Literally, any time we got writer's block or couldn't figure out the structure … we'd watch "When Harry Met Sally," "Broadcast News," "Annie Hall" over and over and over again. There are no better movies in the genre, in my opinion. There are so many things in ["Celeste and Jesse"] that are just little side-steals or an homage to certain things in those movies.
Do you think you'll write more after going through this experience?
Yeah, we're writing a lot. I don't think there's gonna be any more romantic comedies. I'm not sure I have anything more interesting to say on the subject … But I co-wrote a comic book a couple years ago called "Frenemy of the State" and Will and I adapted it as a movie for Imagine and Universal, so we'll see if they make it.
The music in this movie is so good, full of original samples to classic hip-hop tracks. Did you have a hand in picking it?
It was hugely important to me that the music be right. My nephew, Sunny Levine, who's a genius … Will and I had written the movie to his album "Love Rhino," which is a great break-up album. He did the score, he and his partner Zach Cowie curated all that stuff, like the Brenda Russell song ["A Little Bit of Love"] that's the original sample from the Big Pun song ["Still Not a Player"]. They got it so right, and it was so important to me that they did, but I felt completely 100 percent safe in their hands, because Zach is like a musical library and Sunny is a musical genius, and they fully worked it out … They had these subtle references to music that Celeste and Jesse would have listened to in the '90s, like the original samples of that, plus this original score that had a little hip-hop flavor. It's probably my favorite thing about the movie.
How did growing up with a musical great like Quincy Jones as a father help shape your musical tastes?
Well, first of all it's great because it's endless. You can never stop discovering music. My dad always did that to me, like we used to do this thing where — I took a music theory class in my 20s — and he would sit down at the piano with me and talk me through voicings and orchestration and transposing and all that stuff. He said to me, "This never gets old for me." And you know, my dad is 79, and he still finds it exciting. And there's not that many things you can feel that way about. Music is hugely important to me.
I know everybody feels that way, and I don't feel any more special for that. But I do feel like having really early exposure to such good music really helped to evolve my musical tastes, so the things that I'm looking for, even if I don't know it, are kind of like subtly complex. You know, I got to be around the making of some of the greatest albums of all time. And it wasn't just like a great song and a great melody. It was like crazy dope orchestration and arrangements and the best musicians in the business, like the full collaborative process. It's hugely influential.
Oftentimes actors are restricted to certain roles because of their race. As a biracial actor, have you felt free of any of those restrictions, or are those just unavoidable?
Those are unavoidable, I think, for every actor. Sure, being good at your job is really important, but in acting, so much of the decision's already made the minute you walk in the room because they're like, "His hair's good or she's got the right skin color" or whatever. It's so random, but it's so physically oriented.
Early in my career, it was a bit of an impediment, I thought, because it wasn't the standard. There was no norm for biracial actors. There were a few of us coming up, but now, the standard of beauty is a little bit browner than it used to be. It's J.Lo and Eva Mendes and Jessica Alba and Halle Berry, and there's more color. It wasn't like that 15 years ago. I would try out for women of color and white girls, and I was always kind of in the middle like, "You're too light for this. You're too exotic for this." And then it is that way until it's not anymore. I think any actor would say that, anybody who feels in the middle. Sometimes it's race-related and sometimes it's not.
There are heated debates over your ethnic makeup on certain message boards. Do you feel like people get a little too hung up on your race?
I do, because I mean, my parents are hippies … Look, my mom was a white Jewish woman. My dad a black man, in the early '70s. It was definitely not that cool yet. They had to push through some stuff to be together, and their whole thing was predicated on love. And that's all they've ever taught me … love what you do, love who you're with, who gives a shite about race, who gives a s**t about what anyone else thinks, just make decisions based on love, that's it. So for people to impose all these weird, cultural, socio arguments on the way I look is really kind of an out-of-body experience because I don't relate to it at all.
I identify with being white … Well, white, I don't even know what that means, but I identify with the Jewish culture, I identify with black culture. The fact that I am Eastern European way far back, there's so many things that I am. I feel like it's so silly to have to pick one and to have to only identify with one and to look like one. There's still a lot of ignorance that comes my way when people go, "You don't look black." But I mean, mixed race genetics are like that. I have six brothers and sisters. We all look totally different: blonde hair, curly hair, green eyes, dark eyes, dark skin, light skin. It's just how it is.
And by the way, it's gonna continue to become that way in the next 20 years. Everybody's gonna be so mixed up. You're not gonna be able to make snap judgments based on the way people look anymore. It's gonna have to be something else, you know? So, it's kind of up to other people to figure out how to educate themselves to deal with that more than me, because I'm just who I am. I have no issues about it. It's other people's problem.
I have to ask you about "Parks and Rec." Is it hard not to get mesmerized by Nick Offerman's (Ron Swanson's) mustache on a daily basis?
It's hard. I'm not gonna lie to you, it's hard. He does this thing where he shaves at the end of every season. He shaves his head and he shaves his mustache, and then he sends a picture to the whole cast, looking like a little boy … And it freaks me out, because the mustache is the flagpole, the tent pole, the flagship of the show in my heart. So when that anchor is lifted after the season, it's really alarming to me, so I look forward to having that back.