Rashida Jones: ‘I didn’t know if I was coming or going’


In On the Rocks, a new movie by Sofia Coppola starring Rashida Jones and Bill Murray, the city of New York appears in what was until recently its customary guise. The bars and restaurants are full, the streets are crowded, and in every scene, New Yorkers breathe on one another with outlandish abandon. “It’s a weird time to celebrate anything,” says Jones, down the line from LA, but there is something about the movie, in which she plays a thirtysomething woman whose life is in freefall, that feels like a tribute to a vanished world. “I had a child and lost my mom in the same period [as filming], and was in very amorphous emotional shape,” she says. That sense of limbo imbues every frame.

The film unspools with the dreamlike pace of a Michael Cunningham novel, while Murray’s sardonic wit saves it – as in his previous collaboration with Coppola, Lost in Translation – from ponderousness. The surprise, to the uninitiated, is Jones, who at 44 is at the height of her professional powers, an actor who after years of playing supporting roles in shows such as Parks and Recreation and The Office, assumes the lead with a frank, amused intelligence that reminds us she is a writer as much as an actor.

As Laura, she plays a mother of young children who becomes convinced her husband is having an affair, moving between shades of despair, panic and incredulous disapproval, brought on largely by the efforts of her rakish dad – Murray’s Felix – to prove her husband’s villainy. Felix is a charming chauvinist, the kind of formerly lovable rogue who these days would wind up on a word-of-mouth spreadsheet circulating among women who have worked with him. “Those long monologues about why men are attracted to young women?” says Jones. “It’s very hard to pull off in a way that makes you not want to vomit. That’s precisely why it could only be Bill.”

Jones knows a few things about charming fathers with outsized personalities. Her dad is the songwriting legend Quincy Jones; her mother was the actor Peggy Lipton, who died in May last year, less than a year after the birth of Jones’s son with Vampire Weekend musician Ezra Koenig. It was a strange experience, says Jones, trying to focus on acting through all this, although in an odd way she found it suited her state of mind. In the case of both grief and new motherhood, “it takes so long before you remember who you are”, that you inhabit an indeterminacy “that is probably good for acting? Maybe not for other jobs, and definitely not for writing. But I didn’t know if I was coming or going, which was the perfect place for me to be, with filming.”

Jones in The Office, 2011.
Jones in The Office, 2011. Photograph: NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

This is, perhaps, a mark of the fact she cares less about acting than writing, or rather sees the latter as a refuge from and rebuke to the frustrations and inadequacies of the former. As a child, Jones never wanted to be an actor. Her parents raised her and Kidada, her older sister, in California, in what she now thinks of as a halcyon period in which they were encouraged to follow their own interests.

“I never felt pushed in one direction in terms of career, or subjects in school, or friend groups, or anything. I felt they were just kind of amused by me and happy to have me around,” she says. “I probably have a bit of a golden wash over my childhood, but my parents did a good job of really creating this little micro-universe for me to thrive in.” The result was that Jones went to Harvard to study philosophy and religion, and wanted to be a lawyer before she joined various student theatrical societies and discovered a love of performing.

What she did not love, however, was the world of professional acting after graduation, which entailed more time spent “making sure you get to the audition place without sweating off your face on the subway” than delivering lines, and partly due to the inevitable years of grinding through bad material. “You have to do a good job with lines that are not all that great, for a part that you may not want. It’s a long time before you get to do something like work with Sofia, or write something for yourself, or work with David Fincher.” In 2010, Jones appeared in The Social Network, the Fincher-directed biopic of Mark Zuckerberg, but it would be another two years before she won a lead role – in the comedy-drama Celeste and Jesse Forever – and that was in a movie she had written herself.

Writing was always a refuge, she says, a way to claw control back from an industry in which young female actors have little say over how they appear. “Acting is hard because you’re being told ‘no’ all the time, which is so demoralising, and then, God forbid you should have any standards about the kind of work you should be doing. You’re not saying yes; people are saying yes to you and you’re at somebody else’s whim all the time.”

It was lovely, she says, to be at Coppola’s whim, but early on in her acting career, Jones realised it wasn’t for her, at least not full-time. “There are actors who love the craft of it so much that the other stuff disappears for them. Those are the people who are perfectly suited for the job. But if you can’t feel satisfied with just that, then you are going to end up feeling a bit lost.”

Jones with her mother, Peggy Lipton, 2016.
Jones with her mother, Peggy Lipton, 2016. Photograph: Donato Sardella/Getty Images for Revlon

Not that writing isn’t without its frustrations. Celeste and Jesse Forever was the first screenplay Jones and her writing partner, Will McCormack, had ever finished, a pitch-perfect comedy that, after an initial bidding war over the script, took two years to get made after three successive companies that bought it went bust. In 2016, Jones wrote an episode of season three of Black Mirror. (It was Nosedive, the brilliant episode directed by Joe Wright in which a woman called Lacie loses her temper and triggers a terrifying domino-run of bad personal ratings online that eventually ruins her life.) A year later, Jones and McCormack joined the writing team for Toy Story 4, both leaving the project before completion, citing a culture at Pixar where “where women and people of colour do not have an equal creative voice”.

It was a brave move, echoed two years later when Emma Thompson wrote an open letter explaining her resignation from the animated movie Luck, after the production hired John Lasseter, a former head of Pixar who is dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct. “Her letter was brilliant,” says Jones, who found herself able to speak out in similar terms because of what she calls her “good sense of self” and an upbringing in which politics were important.

“My parents were an interracial couple living in California in the 70s. Loving v Virginia passed in 1967, before which it was illegal for a black and white person to get married – six years before they had my sister.” Her parents had an idea of the value of raising kids in a diverse community and “had friends of all different backgrounds, and ethnicities, and the thing they had in common was the love of being creative”.

It still took a while for her to find her voice. “I think, like so many women in Hollywood, you grow to accept a level of discomfort around work, and especially with men, that is not OK. We just accept that that’s the way the business is and that there is something inherently sexist in Hollywood going back to Fatty Arbuckle. I think every actress would say there’s been a time or moment when they didn’t quite feel comfortable. Earlier in my career, I wouldn’t have said anything and I didn’t say anything.” As she got older, however, she felt increasingly that “it’s important for me to challenge my assumptions around authority, and equality, and where I’m ‘allowed’ to speak up and admit that I’m not comfortable in situations”.

One of these was working for Pixar, a company that suffered “from deep, systemic intolerance, or top-heavy patriarchy, or top-heavy whiteness, in a way that has informed the things that they’ve made, and the way they hire and promote people. It looks like Pixar is trying to promote more female directors and to have more directors of colour. But at the same time it’s appalling that, out of 20-odd movies, one was directed by a woman – and she was fired! [Brenda Chapman, halfway through making Brave.] That’s not a mistake; it happens through complacency, and I felt the need to plainly state that. I didn’t want to condone it.”

Rashida Jones with her father Quincy Jones in 2019.
‘My dad was around a lot for me’: Rashida Jones with her father Quincy Jones in 2019. Photograph: Arnold Turner/Getty Images for Freedom Road Productions

If she found her voice, says Jones, it was thanks to a self-confidence that came from her parents. She was lucky; she got the best of her dad, who had been married twice before he met her mother and had five other children. “And my dad was a different parent to each one of them. I think my older sister would say he was never around. He would admit that. I have siblings who grew up in Sweden, when my dad and their mom got divorced, and they came to live with us eventually, but my dad was around a lot [more] for me, and I feel very grateful for that. And it’s just circumstantial; it was dumb luck. He happened to be at that place in his life, and I happened to be born. I do think that shaped who I am.”

On the Rocks features a tender depiction of a father-daughter relationship, but in spite of its sweetness it’s not a film without politics. In one scene, a cop pulls over Jones and Murray, who sweet-talks him out of issuing a ticket. It was a scene Jones and Coppola discussed at length before shooting. A wealthy old white man charming a cop after a traffic stop lands differently these days from how it might have done a year ago and both women felt it was important to acknowledge the shift. Turning to her father, Jones’ character says drily: “It must be really nice to be you.”

On the Rocks is in cinemas from Oct 2 and on Apple TV+ from Oct 23



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