Rashida Jones didn’t really have to do anything with her life: The daughter of mega-producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton, she was born into Hollywood royalty, and easily could have become just another club-hopping socialite. Instead, she learned classical piano at age 5, graduated near the top of her high-school class, and studied law, religion, and philosophy at Harvard. As if that weren’t enough, she’s been a Gap model, sung backing vocals for Maroon 5, and even dabbled in journalism. (Her phone interview with Tupac Shakur, sparked by an open letter she wrote to him after he blasted biracial marriages, is one of the more insightful he ever gave, and it indirectly led to Shakur becoming engaged to her sister Kidada.)
Oh, yeah: She’s also an actress, best known for playing the effortlessly cool Karen Filippelli on The Office and taking on the thankless role of derailing television’s most anxiety-inducing unrequited love story. These days, Jones can be seen patiently enduring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel’s quirks in I Love You, Man and co-starring in Parks And Recreation, the highly anticipated (and closely guarded) new series from the creators of The Office. Before the show’s première, Jones spoke with The A.V. Club about why her new character is nothing like Karen, her own experiences with working inside the bureaucratic system, how her parents kept her from turning into another Nicole Richie, and whether we’ve seen the last of her on The Office.
The A.V. Club: We know that Parks And Recreation isn’t an Office spin-off, but your presence makes that even more confusing. Do you realize how confusing you’re making things?
Rashida Jones: We’re going for a subtle sci-fi element, like a parallel universe… No, I’m just kidding. Yes, I completely and utterly empathize with the confusion. I had the same level of confusion myself at the beginning. But I feel like once the first episode airs, it’ll all be cleared up.
AVC: This project seemed like it was shrouded in mystery forever. How long was it before you found out exactly what it was all about?
RJ: On many levels, it was a mystery for me, too. I was on hold for this for six months, and I didn’t know much about it. I just really trust these guys, so I was like, “Whatever, when you figure it out, let me know.” But I didn’t really know anything about it until November.
AVC: So you agreed to do it before you even knew what you were agreeing to?
RJ: Kind of, yeah. Some would say that’s insane. I would say that I’m also insane. Obviously, it’s a lot to trust in. But those guys are really smart and really funny, and they’ve done such a great job with The Office. If you’re gonna trust anything to anybody, I would say I’m happy to trust my career with them. That’s a huge statement. [Laughs.]
AVC: And now it’s on record, for whenever this show tanks your career.
RJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, you can pull that up.
AVC: How is your character Ann different from The Office’s Karen?
RJ: I play a nurse, and I‘m not in a love triangle. Personality-wise, I’m more of a concerned citizen and caretaker—perhaps too much of a caretaker. I have a boyfriend played by Chris Pratt, and he’s fallen into a pit and broken both his legs. He’s kind of a big baby. That’s the first sign that I’m a caretaker beyond what might actually be good for me: I have this big baby in two casts sitting on my couch, and I feed and clothe and take care of him all day long. Karen didn’t really have that problem. She knew how to look out for herself, first and foremost.
AVC: Karen always seemed quietly convinced that she was the smartest person in the room. Did you change that approach for Ann?
RJ: Absolutely. Especially because the dynamic between Amy [Poehler]’s character Leslie and my character isn’t like the relationship between Michael Scott and everybody else in The Office. There’s a certain level of derision for Michael’s stupidity on The Office, and even though I think Leslie’s a little bit goosey and perhaps naïve or overly excited, I still really like her and want to be friends with her. There’s no sense that I think I’m smarter than her. I actually respect her enthusiasm and drive.
AVC: Even though her ambitions seem self-serving—such as her desire to be the first female president—you’re legitimately friends, not just because you both need something from each other?
RJ: We both have an agenda to fill, but her wanting to be the first female president is very far from where she actually is in her life, so that level of hope is appealing to me. And yeah, we do become friends. There’s a connection there that isn’t about our agendas.
AVC: How does Ann relate to Aziz Ansari’s character?
RJ: She’s not that into him at all. [Laughs.] He really comes to her with the heat, all the time. He likes the ladies, but he’s probably the worst person in the world at doing anything to flatter them, or pick them up, or flirt with them. He’s just blatantly inept at that, and Ann is not into that at all.
AVC: With people like Amy and Aziz involved, is the level of improv about the same as it was on The Office?
RJ: There is a really nice collaborative thing going on, where we’ll talk about a scene and what feels right, and the writers have really let us be a part of the process of figuring out who the characters are. You know, we’re only on the fourth episode of the show, so we’re still figuring it out, and they’re letting us do that together. In that way, there is improv, and suggestions for how a scene plays out and what’s funny. And we’re listened to, which is nice.
AVC: It seems like you could become spoiled by that after a while. Do you think you could go back to a less collaborative working situation?
RJ: Definitely. Actually, I was terrified of improv forever, and I had so much respect for people who were able to do it. The past two jobs I’ve had—I Love You, Man and this—are kind of the first time I’ve been a part of the process, and I’m slowly gaining confidence in it, because I’m surrounded by people who are really good at it. But I spent 10 years not doing that. [Laughs.] If the director’s good and the script is good, I trust that more than anything.
AVC: Parks And Recreation’s initial premise seems like it can only sustain things for so long. Have there been any hints as to where they’d take the show once your character gets her park built, and whether you’d still be involved after that?
RJ: Well, the writers went and did some research at a couple of departments of parks and recreation locally, and one department showed them this park that—from the time they decided to build it to the time it was actually done—took 18 years. Part of the comedy is that there’s so much red tape and so much bureaucracy to battle that it does take a long time. But I don’t think it will be all about that.
AVC: So you’re not going to spend 18 seasons getting one park built.
RJ: [Laughs.] I think I can safely say not for 18 seasons, no. I don’t think the show’s gonna be on for 18 seasons. Is that bad to say?
AVC: NBC might appreciate it if you were more optimistic.
RJ: In the 18th season, we’re gonna be building a park in space.
AVC: Both this show and The Office are about people trapped by bureaucracy. What’s funny about bureaucracy to you?
RJ: I think the minutiae on a city level is pretty funny, because the way things are done is not the most effective way. You have people who want to bust through that and get things done, and then you have a people who kind of like how slowly things go. Seeing the clash between those two types of personalities is funny.
AVC: What’s the closest you’ve ever come to working a bureaucratic, “regular person” job?
RJ: In high school, I was on the youth advisory council for the mayor’s office of Los Angeles, and that was kind of my first experience in the bureaucratic system. We tried to get things done, and nobody was really interested in getting anything done. I was still naïve, 15 or 16, thinking you could change the world, and realizing that there’s a way to do things, and a strict format, and it takes forever, and not a lot of innovation is accepted.
AVC: Was there anything you accomplished during those years that you’re proud of?
RJ: [Laughs.] No. Does that say anything?
AVC: You still do a lot of community-oriented work, particularly with International Peace Games. Given your dad’s record of humanitarianism, did you feel pressure or responsibility to do that yourself?
RJ: Pressure, no. Responsibility, yes. But only in the sense that I think everybody’s in a position where citizenship should be at the forefront, especially with the way things are in this country right now. I think it’s incredibly important to exercise that freedom just as much as freedom of speech, to try to be a part of something and make things happen, as difficult as that may seem and as much bureaucracy as there is. Having somebody like my dad to lead the way is exciting, not daunting.
AVC: So we can assume you agree with Obama’s idea that civil service should pick up the slack where bureaucracy has failed?
RJ: Absolutely. I think that’s something that’s really been lost in this country. There’s a sense of entitlement and isolationism that I think is really dangerous, and the way globalization and technology have been used isn’t really for the best. It hasn’t brought us closer together. I think it’s actually drawn us apart. There’s no sense that you can knock on your neighbor’s door or be part of a local community group, and that’s part of your responsibility as a human being. I think that’s been lost a little bit. I feel like Obama being voted into office is the first step in showing that people actually do want that. They just don’t know how to do it.
AVC: You grew up attending school with Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Kim Kardashian… How did you avoid becoming just another Hollywood brat?
RJ: My parents. The nurture thing can take you through anything, and I was lucky enough to have parents whose focus was never about being famous, or just being famous for no reason. They were both incredibly hardworking and loving, and that was never really an option for us, to just get spoiled and hang out. It was always instilled in me and all of my siblings that you’re never gonna really appreciate what you’ve accomplished unless you work hard for it. It’s never gonna feel good.
AVC: You actually left Hollywood for Harvard to study law, comparative religion, and philosophy. Was that a form of rebellion for you?
RJ: It absolutely was. [Laughs.] Most kids are all, “I wanna fuckin’ be a rock star and rebel against the system!” But for me, my system was kind-of-hippie parents—anything goes, really open and supportive. I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna go be legitimate and academic, and maybe work in the legal or political system.” But the truth is, my heart was in acting when I was in college, and I decided to try it. By the time I realized it was really hard, it was too late. [Laughs.] I liked it too much.
AVC: Rumor has it that you abandoned your lawyer ambitions because of the O.J. Simpson trial.
RJ: That’s correct. It was just one of those moments where you’re a young adult and you believe anything is possible, and then you watch the justice system fail so grossly. It was really disappointing. I thought, “I’m gonna spend seven more years in school trying to make a difference, and at the end of the day, it’s possible that I could be met with the same nonsense, where justice is not served.” I think that’s another problem in this country. Not to say that people who are fighting the good fight and who are interested in serving justice shouldn’t. They definitely should. But for me and my career goals, I had a flash of my future and I thought, “No, I’m okay. Thanks.”
AVC: Do you think you would have made a good lawyer?
RJ: I do! I can be pretty persuasive if I believe in something strongly enough. But the truth is, in that job, sometimes you have to do things you don’t believe in. I’ve been really lucky thus far with acting, in that I can do things I believe in and feel good about, and feel good about myself. If for some reason one day that ends, I won’t do it anymore. If I feel like I have to compromise myself to continue to be in this industry, I don’t want to do that.
AVC: What’s your definition of compromising yourself?
RJ: Porn. If my only options left are a reality show and porn, I’m done.
AVC: Sort of the same thing, no?
RJ: [Laughs.] Kind of, yeah.
AVC: Something you bring to the roles you play—and something that might have served you well as a lawyer—is your sense of unflappable cool. Where do you think that comes from?
RJ: I definitely work pretty hard to stay present and focused. I’ve also tried to create a life for myself where I’m surrounded by honest, loyal, and funny people, because I like to laugh. But again—I hate to be a broken record—my parents have a lot to do with that too, because that’s how they live their lives. My parents are the coolest of the cool on every single level, and it’s because they have a deep appreciation for every moment of their lives.
AVC: You’ve said before that your mom helps you with your auditions. Is that still the case?
RJ: Definitely. She’s the best acting coach. She knows me so well, and we work so well together. I always go to her first.
AVC: Do you think you’ll ever reach the point where you’ve learned everything you can from her?
RJ: Absolutely not, because she has a lot more experience than I do. But also, there’s always something to learn from somebody who knows you well and can be more objective about you than you can. The minute you feel like there’s nothing left to learn, whether it’s with your career or life, you’re done. You’re asking for your own demise.
AVC: Is she a harsh critic?
RJ: No, she’s incredibly supportive. She’s fine-tuned to me. She just gets me. She can kind of help chisel out what works and what doesn’t.
AVC: What was the audition process like for I Love You, Man?
RJ: I was the very first person on the very first day of auditioning—which was so stupid, because then you have to sit and wait around until they’re finished making all their decisions. I went in and read on tape with the director, and then they went out and looked for people and came back to me. Which was awesome, because I really, really wanted it, which was why I was the first person in the room. But I’ll never do that again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did it help that you already had chemistry with Jason Segel, since you once yelled at him on Freaks And Geeks?
RJ: [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve known both Jason and Paul [Rudd] for several years, and working with Paul for the first time, because we’ve been friends for so long, was exciting for me, and working with Jason again was really exciting too. But it definitely helped that we were all friends already. It was a great place to start from. In the movie, Jason and I don’t have much chemistry. [Laughs.] It’s sort of the whole plot of the movie. But when you’re on set all day, it’s good to really like each other, which we do.
AVC: How was it playing the female lead in a—this term is awful—“bromantic comedy,” where the real romance is between the guys?
RJ: It was great, particularly because [director] John Hamburg really respects women, and he likes to create these multifaceted characters. If John wasn’t involved, it might not have been as fun. He was actually concerned with creating a character that was dynamic and had an opinion and was involved in the story, and that made it really, really fun. Also, I’m kind of a dude. It wasn’t like, “Oh God, I just want to go brush my hair and cry.” [Laughs.] I like to hang out with guys.
AVC: You do kind of have a reputation as a “guy’s girl.”
RJ: Yeah, and I know that’s kind of a lame, cliché thing to say, but I do. I have a lot of girlfriends too, but there’s something that’s so easy for me about hanging out with guys. It’s fun, because I feel like they accept me right back, which is really nice. It speaks highly of them, honestly, because not all guys are cool with hanging out with girls, and being as relaxed with girls as they are with guys.
Those guys are confident enough in themselves that it’s not a big deal to them.
AVC: Are you sick of the word “bromance” yet?
RJ: Completely, yeah. It’s annoying. It came up before we even started doing press for the movie. I was like, “I will actually not be saying that word.”
AVC: Apologies for saying it to you.
RJ: Well, you have to say it. It’s your job.
AVC: Here’s the last time I’ll say it: This has been pegged as the “age of the bromance,” and Esquire even recently said that I Love You, Man might be “the last great buddy comedy.” Where would you like to see comedy go from here?
RJ: I actually like the direction it’s going in, in the sense that it seems like comedy is being pulled from reality. Judd Apatow obviously has had a ton to do with that. But I want the ladies to have their moment. I think it’s time. I want to see more interesting depictions of women than just shopping for shoes.
AVC: You’re not a big Sex And The City fan?
RJ: It has its place. I think the show was great, but it’s one version of being a woman. Women can do anything, and I want to see that. I want them to make more movies for girls, and just for girls. I want studios to start doing that.
AVC: Can we assume that the screenplay you just sold, Celeste And Jesse Forever, is another romantic comedy that’s not quite a romantic comedy?
RJ: Yes, it is. It has more of the flavor of an ’80s romantic comedy, in the sense that it’s hopefully as sad as it is funny. And hopefully you care enough about the people to think about it after you laugh. It definitely has a strong, very flawed female character, which I also really want to see. I feel like until you show every side, you’re not doing the gender justice.
AVC: The story involves a couple who have broken up but maintain a solid friendship, so it’s tempting to read some of your personal life into it, like your relationship with John Krasinski. Did that enter into it at all?
RJ: I don’t love to talk about my personal life, but you know, I think it’s a relatable concept—when you have a long-term relationship or marriage, and you want to try to be friends with that person, because you kind of grew up with that person and they know you better than anyone, and how it’s just impossible to make that transition seamlessly.
AVC: You’ve managed to associate yourself primarily with very smart
projects, but would you ever chuck it all for the chance to star in something broad and crappy like, say, Bride Wars?
RJ: You know, I love broad comedy. It has its place. If I were to do that, I’d love to do physical comedy. I’d love to do something like Airplane!, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s the jam. They just don’t make movies like that anymore. But I love satire, parodies. I love slapstick and broad comedies. My gauge is kind of like that famous Supreme Court ruling about porn: “I know it when I see it.” If it can be something great, then I’m down to do it, whether it’s comedy or drama.
AVC: You’ve worked with so many different types of comedians, even turning up on stuff like Chappelle’s Show and Stella. Do you think you’re a naturally funny person?
RJ: I think I’m a natural appreciator of comedy. I was definitely not the girl in junior high that all the guys wanted to date. They wanted to date my friends—which was great, because I had to be funny. That was how I made people want to hang around me, by trying to be the funniest one. But I’m a sponge. I’m obsessed with comedy. I’m obsessed with the idea that you can make somebody laugh, and I love to be around people who can make other people laugh. There’s something godly about that to me. If for some reason some of that’s rubbed off on me, and I happen to do that too, then I’m happy to accept that.
AVC: Something else that’s rubbed off on you is music: You started out as a child piano prodigy, you’ve dabbled in composing, you’ve sung on Maroon 5’s albums. When will you finally cut Rashida Comes Alive?
RJ: [Laughs.] Drops in the fall! No, that’s definitely something I want to do at some point in my life, but I have no idea when. I have a deep respect for musicians, and I feel like I would want to be so prepared and so well-educated and deep in the process before I ever release anything. I also would want to make my dad proud, because everything comes back to that.
AVC: I think I know a good producer you could work with.
RJ: [Laughs.] For sure! You could work that out for me. Thanks for offering.
AVC: Now that you’re busy with Parks and it seems like Karen’s had a somewhat tidy resolution to her story, does that mean we’ve seen the last of you on The Office?
RJ: At the moment, yes. I mean, you never know. I didn’t think I would ever come back, so it was great to have that sense of completion. But for the moment, I think the focus for me has turned to 8:30 and not 8 on Thursday nights.
AVC: Are you happy with where Karen ended up?
RJ: I am! I think it’s really nice that she got an opportunity to be happy and end up with somebody she loves and have a baby. She deserved that. She unwittingly got in the middle of something that I don’t think she was prepared for. It’s nice to see that she has her own life.
AVC: Maybe this is reading too much into it, but it seemed like there was some hint that Karen sort of settled, and maybe she wasn’t really as happy as she let on.
RJ: Maybe she’s faking her pregnancy! No, I think she grew up and moved on and paid more attention to herself, and that’s reflected in her finding somebody who’s better to her than Jim. Jim kind of was shitty to her, you know?
AVC: True. So we’ve established that you’re funny, you’re hyper-intelligent, you can sing, you can act, you can write screenplays, you’re deeply involved in politics and humanitarian work, you have your own eco-friendly clothesline, you’re a model… Has anybody ever said to you, “Hey, Rashida, could you maybe leave some for the rest of us?”
RJ: [Laughs.] Um, no. Nobody’s ever asked me that. But if they do, I’m not gonna give it up. There’s room for everything in everybody. I feel like if I can just keep myself busy and be a part of a bunch of different things, maybe it will make room for more black-Jewish-Irish girls to do shit.
AVC: Do you and your fellow black-Jewish-Irish girls keep in contact? Do you have a Facebook group or something?
RJ: [Laughs.]I do have a lot of biracial friends who are also Jewish, weirdly, because there weren’t a lot of us growing up, so my real friends I’ve known since the day I was born—like Sidney Poitier’s kids. There weren’t a lot of us then, and there are a little bit more now, but we definitely stand by each other.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re something of a symbol for this new “post-racial age” we’re supposedly living in?
RJ: Kinda! I remember doing an article like six years age where I was like, “You watch. All the questions about, ‘What are you? Why don’t you look like this?’ are gonna start to fade away.” And more and more, every single day you’re seeing it.
AVC: Thanks to you. And Barack Obama.
RJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, me and Barack Obama. Deal with that!