When you’re the daughter of Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones, you grow up knowing the ins and outs of Hollywood. So when Rashida Jones sits down for an interview at a Boston hotel, it’s natural for her to reference an old industry joke about the trajectory of an actor’s career.
“First they say, ‘Who’s Rashida Jones?’,” she says, acting the part of a studio executive.
“Then it’s, ‘Get me Rashida Jones.’
“Then it’s, ‘Get me a Rashida Jones type.’
“Then it’s, ‘Get me a young Rashida Jones.’
“ ‘Who’s Rashida Jones?’ ”
Of course, one way to manage that harsh trajectory is to give yourself some outs. At minimum, this is what Jones has accomplished by co-writing her latest movie, “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” which opens here on Friday. Her bittersweet romantic-comedy screenplay, penned with close friend Will McCormack, has received mostly favorable notice since the film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. Jones cast herself in the lead, opposite “Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg, a pal from high school. She ceded directing duties to Lee Toland Krieger (“The Vicious Kind”). But even McCormack will tell you it’s his coauthor (and former girlfriend, more on that later) who drove the bus.
“It was always going to be Celeste’s movie and it was written for Rashida from a female perspective,” McCormack explains. “For me, it was a great moment of seeing a pretty good part and a great actress intersect. And she’s never really gotten a chance to be flawed and not likable. She gets to be real in this movie and she nailed it.”
How real? Jones, best known for her amiable sitcom stints (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office”) and supporting roles in movies such as “The Social Network” and “Our Idiot Brother,” deals with a breakup by picking through her ex’s trash and running herself into a neurotic puddle in “Celeste and Jesse.” She plays a Type-A career woman who can’t let go of her former husband (Samberg) even after he’s moved into a happy new relationship that includes a baby. Celeste is the girl who thought she could have it all, even the things she didn’t really want anymore. She finds out otherwise. And, yeah, that part’s pretty close to autobiographical.
“I’ve spent so much of my life trying to predict, prepare, control and it doesn’t ever work out,” Jones, 36 and still single, admits. “Because whatever you think is going to happen, something else happens anyway.”
Case in point: She wasn’t intending to follow in her mother’s professional footsteps. “I never actually wanted to be an actress. Maybe a writer but definitely not an actress, not as a career,” she says.
That’s not due to any celebrity-kid scarring. While Jones was always aware of her parents’ fame, she’s quick to point out that they were hardly the Jolie-Pitts of their day. Dad was just a first rate composer-producer before he chaperoned Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album to historic levels of success. Mom was that girl from “The Mod Squad,” who took a break from acting to raise Rashida and older sister Kidada, then reclaimed her TV icon status in “Twin Peaks.”
The David Lynch cult classic was no slice of cherry pie for the Lipton-Jones children, by the way.
“I was obsessed with that show but it totally freaked me out,” the youngest Jones remembers. “I thought BOB was under my bed. I was in high school and I would check under my bed every night. Then I actually got to meet BOB [Frank Silva, who played the human-faced demon] and that really helped, ’cause he was so nice and I was like, ‘phew.’ ”
Lynchian night terrors notwithstanding, Jones grew into a smart, good-humored woman who feels lucky to have preceded today’s unbridled era of stalking celebrity offspring (“disgusting”). She credits her parents with imparting both character and cool. After she graduated in 1997 from Harvard, where she’s pretty sure she was the first woman to co-compose a score for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, she went on to play wisecracking secretary Louisa Fenn in David E. Kelley’s “Boston Public.” She’s had many other small roles in film and television, and something of a music career contributing backup vocals to albums by Maroon 5 and Tupac Shakur. (Shakur was engaged to her sister Kidada when he died.)
No achievement came easy in Hollywood, where Jones’s racial heritage tended to confuse the willfully ignorant and entrenched. She says she was deemed “too light-skinned to play the black girl” and “too exotic to play the girl next door.” Some compared her to Karen Allen in looks and screen presence. But even Allen never had so much scrutiny of her nose freckles.
If Jones wanted to define her role in movies and television, she realized she might just need to write it herself.
“I think this whole notion of biracial people being a part of entertainment, it’s relatively new,” she says. “Now it’s prevalent because we have a biracial president and this image of beauty has changed so much. You have beautiful girls like Jessica Alba and Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez, and Eva Mendes — that wasn’t the standard of beauty 20 years ago. It’s really an emerging thing.”
In what seemed at the time to be a minor aside, she dated the brother of a friend, actress Mary McCormack, for all of three weeks in 1999. That man was Will McCormack, who turned out to be not Mr. Right but Mr. Write — after their split the two tried teaming up on a screenplay, and despite some false starts they discovered that they were better collaborators than mates.
“It was great. It was intense. It was short,” McCormack , who also has a supporting role onscreen in “Celeste and Jesse,” says of the brief romance. “And we knew that we were supposed to be in each other’s lives but probably not as husband and wife.”
Besides “Celeste and Jesse,” which puts its own unconventional spin on the classic “When Harry Met Sally” question — can men and women be friends? — Jones and McCormack have penned a movie adaptation of Jones’s comic book, “Frenemy of the State,” that’s in the development queue at Universal. They plan to churn out several more scripts in the near term, and one of them (subject matter TBD) is likely to be a film they also co-direct. Even Jones is impressed at the rosy outlook taking hold. But she still can’t quite believe it’s her own career we’re talking about.
“This is way beyond what I expected. . . . I did not think I would have a movie [that I wrote and starred in] coming out. I was going to quit acting at 30. I didn’t think that I would have a level of success that people would know who I was.”
Oh, they know all right. Jones relates that a friend recently sent her a casting call for a commercial. Right there in black and white was confirmation of her Hollywood status: It asked for “a Rashida Jones type.”
“So I’m five seconds away from being the older version of myself,” Jones says with a laugh. “Which is nice because it means it’s something that’s considered. And I’m so up front about the fact that I’m black and I’m Jewish and I’m Irish and I’m all these things, and people have accepted me and that’s great. I think that anything you can do to mix it up — I’m one version of a biracial person, I’m one version of a woman, I’m one version of a kid from California, I’m one version of a famous person’s daughter — anything you can do to create the spectrum is really good.
“And, by the way, in 20 years everybody’s going to look like me plus Asian. So, good luck trying to be ignorant then.”