Rashida Jones is best known for her work as a regular on NBC's Parks and Recreation and as a long-term guest star in twenty-six episodes of The Office. She has also appeared prominently on film, in movies like I Love You, Man, The Social Network, The Muppets, Our Idiot Brother, The Big Year, and Cop Out. Other TV work includes twenty-six episodes of David E. Kelley's Boston Public and guest shots on Wilfred, Web Therapy and Freaks and Geeks. Will McCormack has logged fifteen episodes of Dirt, six episodes each of Brothers and Sisters and In Plain Sight, four episodes of The Sopranos, and guest spots on Alphas, The Shield, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and CSI: NY. Film credits include Syriana, Prime, Elf and Boiler Room. Together, Jones and McCormack co-wrote and appear in the indie romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, which they came to San Francisco to promote. We spoke at the Clift Hotel.
Groucho: You two are first-time screenwriters on this picture. What got you both to make that leap?
Rashida Jones: I think—we were actors and we’ve been acting for many, many, many years. And you read a lot of screenplays, and you read some that are pretty damn good and then you read some that are not so good. And you wonder if anybody’s even heard it out loud.
Groucho: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
RJ: And I think you think, you know, "I can do this," but you actually have to do it—
RJ: Which is the hard part. So we thought, "we might as well try." We wanted to write for a long time and [were] intimidated by the process and just the label of being a “writer”—didn’t feel like I was worthy of it. So it took some time to get there.
G: Who kicked whose butt to get started?
Will McCormack: It was pretty mutual. We had both talked about writing for a long time and had been sort of scared and lazy—
RJ: And drunk.
WM: And drunk. Yeah. And then we were—Rashida had this idea for a film, and she pitched it to me and I loved it, and I had some things to say about it, and it really just sort of happened simultaneously. We both felt it was the right time and the right story to tell, and we were either gonna continue talking about it forever and regret not doing it or do it. And luckily, we did it, and someone bought it and they shot it and it’s coming out. I can’t believe it.
G: Yeah. Well, it’s part of the mythology of the film that you two dated once for a few weeks. Describe that period for me. What was your dating life like for three weeks there?
RJ: Umm, there was a lot of drinking.
RJ: There was a lot of drinking.
G: Also a theme here.
RJ: Yes. But we had a crew of friends, you know. And that’s kind of nice actually because we still are friends with those people, and Will’s sister, Mary—who’s the greatest—I met her and wanted to be her, and she she said, "My brother—you guys are going to be soul mates—I’m going to introduce you guys." And she was kind of right about that.
RJ: But we just—there was a lot of egg salad sandwiches and talking about life and drinking.
WM: And Waiting for Guffman. We watched that fifty times. But it was intense. We had an intense connection. (To Rashida:) Wasn’t it intense?
WM: It was intense. But it wasn’t –we weren’t meant to be husband and wife. But we were meant to be in each others lives, and we’re more like brother and sister now. But it was so long ago—we were so young. But we have a great relationship, and obviously it was a strong connection when we met, and luckily we don’t have to get divorced.
RJ: How weird would it have been if, during that time, I had some kind of weird psychic premonition that was like "One day you and I are going to write a movie, and we’re going to make it, and then we’re going to be writing partners"?
WM: That would have been so weird and cool.
G: Maybe there’s a time travel movie in this.
G: I think you two, then, are kind of the answer to the question that’s asked in the director’s statement: "Can you love someone to the world and back but still not be right for each other?"
RJ: Sort of. But I think, you know, we never tried. You know, we never got married, we never tried to have that intimacy in a real way. I think the question becomes more complicated—when you love somebody to the moon and back and you marry them and you are intimate with them—and then you realize you are not right for each other.
G: It’s a good situation here, I think, to write the script where we have a male perspective and a female perspective. Do you think it’s harder for guys to get over that hump—you know, because guys tend to be led by their pride—to go beyond, or to go, I guess, around the intimate relationship to friendship?
WM: I feel like women are hurt more initially—
WM: But guys are hurt more eventually.
RJ: I think a lot of guys I know still have regret about the way they handled a relationship.
RJ: Or a girl they let get away. Girls don’t. Girls tend to process things as they’re happening. Because they can’t help it. It just happens to them. And so they’re over it faster. But I think guys—guys can hold onto something forever and never deal with it.
WM: Yeah. And I think women are ice. They’re like "I’m done. I’m not doing that."
RJ: Oh yeah. Don’t ever come back.
WM: Once they’re done, they’re done! I think men are like dogs a little bit, right? They’re not sure and they’re confused and they feel like maybe they made a mistake and—
RJ: And need guidance.
WM: They need guidance.
G: And completely housebroken too.
G: I read a quote from an interview you did where I think Rashida said, "Every single day until we started shooting was mayhem, bedlam, chaos."
G: Can’t you explain what that’s all about--
G: In terms of, like, securing the financing?
RJ: Yeah. It’s so hard to make a movie. There’s so many moving pieces. And the biggest moving piece is obviously carrying the financing. But then there’s all these like people’s schedules, casting, locations, securing a director, hiring a crew—all that stuff, but really, it was the financing and how would you go about making the movie? Originally we sold it to a subsidiary of a studio—and it was going to be, you know, a pretty big budget. It shrank and it shrank and it shrank and it shrank. And then we dealt with what we had. But, you know, it was hard. It was definitely hard.
G: To the point where you said, "This is not the movie we want to make anymore." Right?
RJ: You know, weirdly—really, it is the movie we wanted to make.
G: Well, I mean, with the studio.
RJ: Oh, yes. No, they folded.
G: Oh, I see.
RJ: The studio folded. We had no choice in the matter.
G: I see.
RJ: It was a long learning process. But it’s that thing you hope you say and maybe everybody says it even if they don’t feel it, which is "It ended up exactly how it should have been."
WM: Yeah, the movie that we made feels more like the movie that we wanted to make probably than if it had been made at a bigger budget. It was harder, but it felt more, I don’t know—it felt truer to what we wrote.
RJ: I think at the beginning of the process I was still interested in the validation of the movie studio process.
RJ: That was still something I felt like I needed. And realizing it—forcibly realizing it. You know? It’s not.
RJ: Who cares?
G: But you’ll get that on the next one, right?
RJ: Well, whatever. (Laughs.)
WM: We’ll see.
RJ: That has its own challenges.
G: So, in developing the story—well, I guess this really started when you were confident this was the story you wanted to tell. Were there any rejected concepts you kicked around that went into the recycle bin?
RJ: No. I mean we’d been talking about writing together for years before we actually did. And we kicked around ideas. And there are actually ideas that have come back. But this was the one idea we had, and we wanted to sit down and write it.
WM: Yeah. I mean there were a couple characters that came in and out—we have a place called "Character Island," where—who are like the characters that—
RJ: A place!
WM: No, it is. They’re there right now. I Skyped with them earlier. Yeah. Yeah.
G: Like the Island of Misfit Toys.
WM: (Laughs.) Yeah. So there’s some characters there that hang out but mainly this movie—we felt pretty confident about the story and the characters and the tone right from the beginning. The last movie we wrote together was not the same. It was harder. But this—Celeste and Jesse Forever—we felt pretty confident about the tone and the story right from the get-go.
G: Well, I love the way that this just—it almost pretends like the 2000s never happened—in terms of rom coms, which were all pretty much so bad.
G: I think your producer summed it up pretty well in the notes when she says if this were a studio rom com, she would have to be tripping over her high heels and that sort of thing. All those horrible clichés where, in particular, the woman seems to be this kind of punching bad where you can’t take her seriously.
G: So certainly this character is flawed, but in a very believable human way. Can you talk about, I guess, sort of avoiding those pitfalls or how you went about crafting her as a real person?
RJ: I love romantic comedies. I have no problem with that. And anytime one comes on, I’ll watch it. And if it’s good, if it’s bad—I’ll watch it. The movies that we adore, though, and look up to and try to emulate—Annie Hall, Broadcast News, When Harry Met Sally, Husbands and Wives—those films are romantic comedy by genre but meaningful by life standards. And you’re left with so much. I mean, thematically—and it’s a journey—you can be sad and you can be happy and that was more what we were trying to go for. And yes, it’s hard because there are these clichés. But we tried to maybe take what was probably in us cliché-wise—there’s something that you just connect with—the conventions—take them and maybe create like a little bit of a surprise—
RJ: With that cliché.
WM: Yeah, and just sort of like stay the course, and being really honest about the heartbreak of it. You know, to never sort of pull punches and to make the painful parts really painful and not make them ironic or adorable. But make the pain actually really painful—like it is in a breakup. And then try to make it funny along the way, but it was really just staying connected to "What does this actually really feel like?," you know. And the truth is always the most interesting thing. So we just try to be honest about it.
G: Yeah. You know, her job in the film is a trend forecaster. And it sort of dovetails a little bit with her personality being maybe a little judge-y.
G: I wonder how you happened on that or why you chose to make her a trend forecaster.
RJ: It’s a job I’ve always wanted to have because it’s such a cool job. And I had a friend who’s a trend analyst in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. And we met with Jane Buckingham, who does this for a living and just the way that that kind of person thinks so interesting to us. But it did—it was so helpful to tell the story. And I think that "movie jobs" are so hard. We talk about this all the time. We have such hard movie jobs—because you don’t want to make it so different from the A-plot that people don’t even care about it. So we wanted to find a way to tie it with her personality so that when stakes happened, you felt like it was happening to her and not just to her job—because, you know—whatever. But yeah, I think it just served our plot well in the sense that she felt rewarded for being judgmental—
RJ: And so when she could no longer control even that, you knew that it was tough times.
G: Yeah. A little bit of the movie was shot here in San Francisco.
G: Can you talk about that a little bit?
WM: We came up for a day with a tiny, tiny crew. There was just four of us really—five of us. And we shot down by the water and along the trolley and at the W in the hotel room. And it was just a tiny crew. We came up from L.A. for the day, and you know, our director was really adamant about shooting a day in San Fran and shooting a day in Rhode Island just to open the movie up and give it a bigger feel. And it really helps, I think—
RJ: Thank God!
WM: And the San Francisco footage is beautiful.
WM: So it was cool. I love it here. I wish we could spend more time here.
G: Now Will, was there ever a thought of you playing Jesse, or did you write Skillz thinking you might play that part, or how’d that go?
WM: It was I think, possibly in her backyard for, like a week, I wanted the part. When we wrote the movie, we wrote the movie in her backyard. I don’t just hang out there—although sometimes I do. (Laughs.) But then, you know, I’ve been—I’m a character actor and I’m proud to be one and I always wanted to be one and Skillz—if I could get parts like Skillz in movies forever, I would gladly accept them and play them. Andy felt like such an original fresh choice, and I’ve known him for years and liked him so much and pairing him with Rashida—they’ve known each other for so long, they sort of have this built-in chemistry. And it just felt natural for Andy to play the part, and it was exciting for me to watch, and I think it’s been exciting for other people to watch him do this thing the first time that he’s never done before, so maybe like for a week I wanted the part then I was like "I’m cool." Yeah. And it’s harder to sell with me.
G: Rashida, I always tell everyone that the best comedy on TV is Parks and Recreation; I love that show. Was that role written for you since you had come off of The Office, and [Office co-executive producer and Parks and Recreation co-creator] Michael Schur was developing that?
RJ: Yeah, Mike Schur and I have been friends since freshman year of college. And I auditioned many, many times for The Office. He did not give me that part! And then I was—actually, when we were writing this movie, I was in this weird, nebulous holding deal with NBC where Mike and Greg were like "We’re writing a show—we don’t know whether there’s a part in it, we don’t know what it is yet, we haven’t written it, we don’t know who’s going to be in it, but do you want to maybe do it?" And I was like "Okay, sure." And then it developed—then Amy signed on and then, yeah, they then wrote for me, which is cool; that’s never happened to me before! I just realized that. It’s so cool!
WM: You just wrote a part for yourself.
RJ: So yeah, it worked out. It was kind of touch and go there for a minute, but it ended up working out.
G: It seems like you’re equally talented at playing tart and sweet. And Karen on The Office is very much the tart character and Ann is quite sweet.
G: Maybe not as sweet as Leslie Knope, but pretty close. Do you think those are equal parts of you? Or are you more one or the other?
WM: (to Rashida:) You’re kind of a sweet tart.
RJ: I’m a sweet tart, for sure.
RJ: I can come with some spike—spikiness.
G: I won’t take that out of context.
RJ: Oh, I have some spikiness but generally I think I’m probably a probably a pretty good person. (To Will:) Right?
G: Now, tell me a little bit about—you’ve got two projects in development together, right?—that you’re both working and writing together?
WM: Yeah, we have two.
G: One being Frenemy of the State, which is a feature film set up at Universal, right?
G: And then the other being We Are Puppets, is that right?
WM: Yeah. Yes.
RJ: I don’t know if we’re supposed to talk about it.
RJ: It’s not real yet.
G: It’s not real yet? But it’s in development.
RJ: In development.
WM: It’s in development at Showtime.
G: Uh huh.
WM: We can say that--
RJ: You did.
WM: I guess. (Laughs.)
G: Can you say anything about—tease the premise of that?
RJ: I don’t think we should.
WM: I don’t think we should. It a love—sort of a different kind of love story.
RJ: There you go.
G: Is the title at all literal?
WM: Yeah. It has to do with—it’s set at a Sesame Street kind of place. And, um—
RJ: That’s all we should say.
WM: That’s all we should say. But it has to do with free will and desire and choice. And it’s a sort of a different kind of love story. It’s a dark half-hour comedy.
G: That’s a good tease right there, yeah.
G: I kind of asked, too, because you had recently done The Muppets, and I wondered if—
G: What that experience was like.
RJ: It was pretty surreal. I mean—
G: You had to be a little mean to Kermit, right?
RJ: I did. I manhandled him—threw him across a room.
G: Or froghandled him.
RJ: Froghandled him, as I recall. Is the manhandling handling the man, or the man handling the thing?
RJ: Hmm. Ponder.
G: Good question.
RJ: Uh, it was really great. It was pretty crazy. I would say it was probably the maximum wish fulfillment that my small child brain and my adult brain could imagine in one day. The first day I worked, I was sitting in an office with every single muppet—45, 50 muppets. And I cried—which, it was good that I was off-camera. But I cried. It was so cool. It was so—the people who—the Muppet performers are geniuses. They infuse life and humor and meaning into these like tiny very basic felt puppets.
RJ: You know? And you do—I started to talk to them like they were people. And don’t tell me that they’re not, because they are to me. (Chuckles.)
G: Now, will either one of you confess to having smoked out, eating Cheetos analyzing Bob Ross?
RJ: Autobiographical. Maybe. Yeah. We live in California. We can say that.
WM: Yeah, we live in L.A..
G: I’m sure the statute of limitations would protect you anyway.
G: There’s also an unbilled Chris Pine cameo in this movie, right? Did I—I didn’t imagine that, did I?
WM: Chris Pine plays a little cameo. And he has one line, I think.
WM: Yeah. And he’s our friend and he came fully in character. His character’s name was Rory Shenandoah—
RJ: He just—all he wanted to do was wear tons of turquoise. He had a little—like a fishtail—like a man fishtail.
WM: If there—we have to include some of those takes on the DVD extras because we were laughing so hard—he did the greatest exit ever where he falls off this skateboard. (To Rashida:) Do you remember that?
RJ: Yes. So funny.
WM: But he likes us and liked the script and was like "I wanna come hang out for a day," and we’re like "You can come whenever you want and do anything you want. Especially if it’s named Rory Shenandoah."
G: That’s cool. I would love to see the prequel to 10,000 B.C..
G: Maybe you two could get working on that.
RJ: It gets so confusing, right?, with the numbers and the BC and the 20,000—because "5,000 B.C." could also be kind of a sequel.
RJ: But that’s confusing.
WM: And was there even language then? Would it be like a silent film?
G: Now we’re roughly the same age. And I wanted to ask you about—I saw an interview where—people inevitably ask about your parents [Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton]. And they asked about what it was like living with celebrities as parents, and it was like "Well, I wasn’t really that aware they were celebrities."
G: But your mom came back in a big way when you were a teenager, in Twin Peaks.
G: I wonder if you kind of got—
RJ: I was totally obsessed with Twin Peaks. Like unhealthily obsessed. And I had like the diaries. Do you remember the diaries? I had everything that you could possibly have that had to do with Twin Peaks. And I was seven—I think sixteen, seventeen when that show was on. I was terrified by Bob. And I would check my bed—under my bed every night to see if he was there, which is so dumb for a seventeen-year-old. And I finally had to introduce myself to him—because I would see him on set and he would walk by, and it [got] all slow-mo for me, and his hair would kind of like flap in the wind. He was so scary but he was so nice.
G: Yeah. Yeah.
RJ: He ended up being so nice that it made me feel better. But it made me really happy when my mom was on the show. I feel like that show didn’t reach its cult status until way after the fact.
RJ: So I felt alone in my love until way later. And Mike Schur—that’s how we first bonded in college: Twin Peaks.
G: So I also wanted to ask, Rashida—you did both a film and a TV series in England. Is that right?
RJ: I did, yeah.
G: You had sort of a following in England as well as here, I guess, or how—
G: How did that happen?
RJ: I don’t know. No, I’m a little bit of an Anglophile, and I look for excuses to go there and I have some friends there—I have a godchild there. And the first time around, you know, it was my first lead in a show [Ed.: NY-LON]. I had to do it. It had to happen. Also, the script was really good. (To Will:) Remember?
WM: It was really good. I auditioned for it. Didn’t get the part.
RJ: And [Cuban Fury]—I loved Nick Frost and Simon Pegg and would die to work with them. I didn’t have to die. I just went and worked with Nick.
RJ: So I didn’t die. And also, it was a salsa dancing movie. And I wanted to learn how to dance, so it was kind of a perfect storm of things I wanted to do and it just happened to be in England.
G: Yeah. Will, what do you have coming up on the acting side?
WM: I am acting in a little movie next month in Idaho. And it’s just a really small sort of dark comedy. I think Josh Leonard’s in it and Amy Smart and some other cool people. I’m gonna do that in August.
RJ: That’s tomorrow.
WM: I know. Ain’t it? In a couple weeks, I leave. So it’s just a little cool indie script. And then—see what happens. But try to do both. Act and write.
G: It seems like you two as a writing team have some sort of momentum here—some kind of heat in your career as writers. Are there ambitions for things that you would really get somebody to green light?
WM: Spider-Man. (Laughs.)
RJ: Oh, they did that already.
WM: Oohh! Shoot!
RJ: I have to say—there’s this thing right where you—especially as actors, you get told "no" so much that you get so excited when people tell you "yes"—even as writers. So "Yes, you want us! It’s so cool!" And I think we’re just—because we wrote this film three and a half years ago, and we did get a little bit of opportunity based on people just reading the script, I think now we’re settling into this idea that we want to just think of what we want to do next and be really—take our time with it and be careful about it, and the filmmakers that I like the most do that. They take their time. They make a movie every six years, you know? And I think we’re gonna kind of go back to that. Maybe we’re going to direct the next one, perhaps.
G: Yeah. That would be the next evolutionary step, right?
WM: Yeah. It would be fun.
RJ: I feel a little old to use "heat"—
RJ: You know, as a momentum to move forward. Maybe I still do as an actress. It’s like I need to get more jobs before people think I’m old. But as a writer, I think we should just—we do it because we really like it—and I think we want to stay doing that.
WM: Yeah. We want to do something to evolve organically. But it is flattering. People call you, and they're like "What do you got? Let’s work together." And then we’re like "We don’t have that much right now. We’re just trying to have this movie come out, and work on something." Yeah. So I think we’re going to take our time.
G: I’m almost out of time, but I wanted to ask Rashida if, again, if you could tease, perhaps, where Ann Perkins might go in the next season of Parks and Recreation. Have you done a table read yet for the new season?
RJ: We did one table read and we’re doing another one next week but I don’t, you know—it’s—it wasn’t really my storyline in the episode that we read. I don’t really know. My hope is—we’ve talked about it over the hiatus—that, you know, Ann Perkins has done a lot of searching for herself, and she does that often through relationships. So maybe she’s going to do that in some other ways this season. Maybe not through a relationship. Maybe through some other interesting things.
G: All right. Very good. Well, it was a pleasure to talk to you both.
RJ: Nice to speak with you.
WM: Thank you so much.
G: Great luck with the film.
RJ: Thank you.
WM: Thank you.