The craft of being an actor is often described as being this glamorous gig where parts are falling from the skies and and life goes on between a pilates class and a big bright smile on the red carpet. Too bad, because it’s much more interesting than that.
I’ve always been awed by good actors. And because I’ve found myself having to mimic an emotion in front of the camera once or twice, I realized it’s a real talent and a real job.
And I am a big fan of Rashida Jones.
For her work of course, in The Office, Parks & Rec, The Social Network and I Love You Man for example, but even more since I’ve seen her movie, Celeste & Jesse Forever, that she co-wrote, produced and in which she plays along with Andy Samberg.
But also for everything else, her sense of humor, her style, her coolitude, her political engagement… A real modern woman!
When she told us she’d be happy to talk about her career with us, I jumped with joy (does that sound stupid in English ? It works fine in French :)
I knew she would be open and honest and that we were going to be able to talk about everything.
Then I met her for real and totally fell in love, but that is another story…
What is your profession?
Writer/ actress would be the right thing for now.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always thought I would be President of the United States! I wanted to be a judge.
But I did find something from when I was 8 that said I wanted to write movies. I must have blocked that out because I don’t remember that.
What did you study in school? Where did you study?
I think every kid wants to rebel against their parents and my parents are cool, artistic, creative people. [Rashida’s parents are Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton] So my way to rebel was to take the academic route.
I always wanted to go to college and go to law school, but I always did all of the plays and was in the choir and any extra curricular performing things from a young age. Then when I went to Harvard I studied religion and philosophy, and did plays on the side and was in a cappella.
At some point in college I thought, “why does that have to be an extra curricular?” So I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for a summer course in London, and then I did an independent film that my friend was making in New York. I think those two things showed me I wanted to do this as a job.
After graduation from Harvard what was the next move for you? To come to New York?
Yes, I moved to New York and I got an agent and started auditioning. Since my friend cast me in that first movie I was really excited and thought I could do this. When I got to New York the reality of how difficult it is to get a job set in. I was pounding the pavement, running around town auditioning and not getting any jobs.
What’s the auditioning process like?
It was hard-core. It’s still hardcore. You prepare everything, you get on the subway, you’re sweating, and you have allergies. I would show up to an audition, my face totally puffy from allergies. Everything I did for my hair and makeup: gone. It’s like America’s Next Top Model when you have to find the casting call.
Do you feel like your parents had an influence on your career choice?
Yes. Originally I wanted to rebel, and then ultimately I had no choice. And it’s great to do the same thing your parents do because they have so much good advice.
I grew up around people who were successful and did well and then they failed, and what does that look like? How do you handle the failure? My parents are very supportive and realistic. When I told them I wanted to be an actress, my dad said, “why did you go to Harvard to then end up waiting on line for a job with 80 thousand people?” But he also taught me to be good at two things. Like doing music and acting.
What is the best advice they have given you?
I would say it’s not particularly career advice but life advice. My mom was all about following your heart and instinct. As I have gotten older, I have connected more with my instinct, which is good. And my dad always said to make decisions based on love, not fear. It’s so good. Why am I making this decision? Is it because I’m afraid I’m not going to get a job again? Well that’s fear. Or I love this thing so much I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. That’s still a huge thing that guides me in my life.
So what would you consider to be your big break in the industry?
You know, really The Office. I was 30 when I got The Office. At the time I was thinking about maybe going back to school.
Before The Office you did some dramas, like Wanted and Boston Public. How did you transition from drama to comedy? Was it something you had always wanted?
I always wanted to do comedy. When I first moved to LA it was really hard to get auditions for comedy because it was just multi-camera sitcoms [like Friends] at the time. The Office didn’t exist yet. There was no middle ground where you use dramatic acting and comedic acting with a punch line. There was a certain type of person to fill comedy and I wasn’t one of them. I wanted to do comedy the whole time but drama was the only thing I had access to.
And now how do you choose the roles you take?
There’s a Supreme Court ruling that said, “I’ll know it when I see it” and that’s kind of how I feel about jobs. At this point in my life I am really lucky to have any choice at all. So now if I’m going to take a job it’s more about if it moves me. Does it challenge me in a way that scares me and excites me? Does it make me feel right?
This summer I did a movie and it was a comedy, but what made me want to do it was that I wanted to learn how to dance. If I find something that challenges and moves me and speaks to me on a deeper level I will do it.
What is the importance of an agent when it comes to your work, as an actress and as a writer?
Agents are essential. They are the gatekeepers; they know where all the jobs are. It’s important. It’s about quantity. You want to get as many auditions as possible. So many times when I was younger I would do something and think it’s a waste of time, but then ten years later that casting director will call me for something because they remember me from the audition.
I want to talk about your writing, I loved Celeste & Jesse Forever!!! It was so good. What got you writing?
I was talking about writing for a long time and not doing it. Eventually I had this idea based on people I’m close to and relationships I’ve seen. There’s this new phenomenon where people now have a choice. Twenty years ago, if you met a guy in college and got married, you had kids and you stuck together even if you didn’t like each other. Now you have a choice.
I wanted to write a story about a couple that loved each other and grew up together but didn’t know how to be together. They didn’t want to lose each other and they thought they could outsmart the pain of the break up by just going from being married to being friends.
You wrote the movie with your writing partner, Will McCormack. What is working with a partner like?
I come from a big family, so I love being with a group of people and collaborating. Everything is all about teamwork to make it funny and good. Will is like my sibling, we’re best friends. We’re like the same person, so it was like writing with myself.
I think because we were both very nervous about writing our first film it was nice to have another voice of someone you really trust. We needed each other to bounce ideas off of.
What do you like most about writing with someone?
We’re both actors so when we write a scene we can act it out. I read so many scripts and think, “did anyone even read this out loud?”
And what’s challenging about it?
We are still different people. Sometimes we get into disagreements about what we think something should be.
You also produced the film. I think it’s so cool you had your hands in so many parts of it. What was the role of being a producer like for you?
I ended up producing out of necessity because it took so long to get the movie made. It went through different stages of budget and I had to call in a lot of favors and ask for help. There’s also making it run day to day. That’s what producing is. We had a big hand in the casting. I used my own car and clothes. I asked friends if we could use their houses!
Now that you have done all these different roles, the acting, the writing, the producing, what do you like doing the most?
They all satisfy such different parts. I think writing is so satisfying at the end; you have this thing you’ve written in your hands. It’s a thing you can show other people. It’s been so fulfilling when I get a compliment on my writing more so than a compliment for my acting.
I also love being on Parks and Recreation and making each other laugh. It’s a lot of fun and it’s less active. Writing is very work intensive. With acting I forget I’m working. That doesn’t happen with writing.
I don’t like producing. I’ll do it again, but it’s hard!!! You’re basically asking people to do stuff for you all day long. That’s hard for me; I don’t know how people do it.
The industry is really competitive. How do you deal with that and keep your mind at ease?
It’s probably part of the reason why I started writing because acting is so competitive. There are so few jobs and so many people who are desperate to do them. I am so aware of how lucky I am to do what I do and I don’t take it for granted at all, but also I’m sure there will be a time because everything has a journey. It’s not something I want to fight for. I don’t like the idea that I have to see myself physically in the way that other people see me and make decisions about my life and how I looked based on what other people think of me.
Writing is a little less competitive because you’re creating original material. Sometimes there are plots that are like mine, but it’s really hard to write a movie. Hollywood respects that. And if you write a script they like, they respect you a lot more than actors. It lasts longer and you will get better as you get older. It’s not the same with acting. You have your moment and then your moment is kind of over, or you make a different moment. But you have to work really hard to make that happen.
Is that how you envision yourself transitioning in the industry? Doing more writing than acting? I can’t imagine that sort of pressure of growing older in Hollywood.
It’s really tough. I have to say, there’s very few examples of growing older in an intelligent way.
Because of that I’ve always told myself that if I look at myself the way other people look at me, I’m done and I’m going to quit acting. I can’t afford to do that for my own well being and sanity.
Is there something you do to stay connected to yourself?
I grew up going to a meditation ashram so I try to practice mediation regularly. I also love to dance, whether it’s in a class or at a party, it forces me to be present and I love it!
Actresses also play a big role in fashion today as both models and spokeswomen for some of the biggest brands. What’s your feeling about that and how do you handle it personally?
I have a hard time with being the model, it’s a little difficult for me but it is part of the job. Clothes have to look good on you. I love fashion, I like the expression of fashion and playing with it, and wearing things that make me feel good.
With acting you have to look a certain way because people acknowledge you a certain way and expect certain things of you. I find that a little difficult. But as I get older I care less about what people think about me and so I start dressing more for myself. I have to continue to try and be myself.
I read something that said we used to feel such a connection to celebrities and people who held these large roles in media, but now that social media has become our primary source of information the people who become the stars in your life are people you know because those are the people you follow on Twitter and Instagram. What do you think about the role of social media in your career?
Yeah, it’s weird. It used to be that stars were these wonderful mysterious people and you got a little taste of their personal lives and you were so excited by it, and now you learn so much about people or you expect to know so much more about people. That’s hard for me because what I choose to do in my personal life should have no reflection on how I’m perceived in the real world. But I would be stupid to think that that’s not true because that’s just the way it is.
How do you handle that? Do you try to exert more control in what you share versus what you keep private?
For me it’s more about trying to expose it than trying to expose myself. I’ve struggled with that for so long that I cared so much about what people thought about me. But I deserve to have my own life that no one knows about me. I mean look at Kate Moss, we don’t know anything about her really and that’s why she is so appealing.
What’s next for you and your career?
I want to write, I want to direct. Maybe Will and I will co-direct something we both write, a short or a feature. I would love to write a novel. Not now, but sometime.
What would your best advice be for someone looking to break into the industry?
There are so many great ways to make your own thing because of technology and the digital age. So make your own thing, don’t rely on other people. Learn as much as you can about what you do. Younger people now have a lot of confidence. But confidence backed up with actual skill, there is still learning to be done when it comes to acting and directing. I feel totally humbled. I read scripts I love, books I enjoy. Learn as much as you can.
Check out the other career posts here!