Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Rashida Jones: A Rare and Delicate Balance
Interviewed by Mike Einziger (guitarist from Incubus) and photographed by Mike Piscitelli
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Rashida Jones is a bona fide movie star. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. When I first met her, Rashida was a bright-eyed Harvard grad having a tough time finding a job, unsure whether she wanted to pursue acting, music, politics or law. But, that was 13 years ago — long before being anointed one of the ‘World’s Most Beautiful People,’ by People magazine, campaigning for Barack Obama, graduating from Harvard or accepting starring roles in The Social Network, I love You Man, The Office and Parks and Recreation.
Rashida and I originally met through her brother, music producer QD3 (he’s worked with Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube and LL Cool J, among others). QD3 was aware of my band, Incubus, and had become a fan of my guitar playing, so he regularly invited me to come up and play on his recording sessions. One day, I walked into his studio and saw Rashida sitting there. QD3 introduced her as his little sister. I was immediately mesmerized and intimidated by her. Rashida was intellectually superior to me in every way, frighteningly talented, the daughter of Quincy Jones and stunningly gorgeous. I’d never even seen a girl like her before let alone worked with one. She was way out of my league, but we quickly became friends. I was completely in awe.
The story of Rashida’s life reads like something out of a Hollywood screenplay. Born to music super-producer Quincy Jones (the man has won 27 Grammys!), and Mod-Squad actress Peggy Lipton, she was raised in the opulent community of Bel-Air, surrounded by many of the world’s most famous and powerful people. But unlike so many celebrity children eager to ride the coattails of their famous parents, Rashida shunned the spotlight and hit the books. And it is that inherent drive, that fierce and unwavering determination that has paved the way for her current wave of success.
But when we sat down at her Los Angeles home to conduct this interview, I only had one thing on my mind:
ME: Do you have any crazy stories about Michael Jackson?
RJ: I remember Michael would take us to the mall to get toys, which was the most exciting thing ever. But he was always wearing a surgical mask, and I was so embarrassed to be seen with him! It just was not cool to be roaming around the mall with a dude wearing a surgical mask. But he was always so sweet to us, and so fun, just like a big kid, — like a really big kid. I feel so horrible for him. I feel so sad for his soul. He came into this world with so much talent, but he just didn’t know how to protect himself. Michael was exceedingly aware of the fact that he didn’t have a childhood, and he wanted to try to create a world in which he could try to make up for everything he had lost.
ME: So, taking you guys shopping for toys was something he would do to make him feel in touch with his own youth?
RJ: Yes, exactly.
ME: So what were some of the dreams that you carried with you from your childhood into your teen years?
RJ: When I was young, I had all these dreams of being a judge or a lawyer or a politician. I always figured I would somehow end up in the federal system. I always found it exciting to think that you could actually change things in the world. I always had a bit of that precocious, self-righteous dread from the time I was really little. I mean, I would write letters to presidents and magazines, and I would express my frustrations and complain about things.
Rashida certainly did have that self-righteous, precocious, letter-writing personality. In 1992, she famously wrote a scathing open letter to Tupac Shakur in response to comments he had made about her father during an interview for The Source magazine. Tupac had lashed out at Quincy Jones for having an interracial marriage. Rashida, however, wasn’t having it and openly challenged him — a bold move for anyone, let alone someone so short.
RJ: I was 15 or 16 when I wrote the letter to Tupac after reading this interview where he was talking about interracial, mixed families and how it was destroying the black community. I was really upset by it, so I wrote an open letter to The Source magazine. I handwrote it, which people did back then (laughter), and I cursed a lot in it, because I could, and I basically confronted Tupac for making a really foul comment about my dad. I basically said he wouldn’t be anywhere if my dad hadn’t paved the way for artists like him. And then he saw my sister (Kidada) out one night and went up to talk to her, thinking she was me.
ME: How’d that go down?
RJ: Funny enough, they started dating. At first, she didn’t tell me because she knew I would be upset. And then soon after that — I was actually with my dad — we ran into them together, believe it or not!
ME: Where else in the world but in L.A. would something like that ever happen?
RJ: I know, I know! But after that, the whole thing just sort of faded, and I ended up really loving Tupac. I ended up interviewing him for a paper that I wrote in college. I did a sociology paper on him. He was such an interesting, confused, complex person … and I feel so lucky that I got a chance to know him. We were clearly intertwined, my family and him; we were clearly supposed to know each other .
One thing Rashida and I share in common is that we’re both Harvard students. She’s long since graduated, and I have only just finished my second year. Harvard is the most fascinating place I’ve ever been to, and anyone who has gone to school there will tell you it’s a world unto its own.
ME: So after you finished high school, you went off to Harvard. What did you study there?
RJ: I was originally studying religion and philosophy, and then I dropped the philosophy part because the philosophy department didn’t acknowledge Eastern philosophy the way that I had wanted it to.
ME: Why religion?
RJ: I had come from a diverse religious background. My mom is Jewish, and I grew up practicing Judaism, but she met a meditation teacher when I was 10, and I started going to a meditation ashram every summer from the time I was 10 through age 16. I actually lived in India for a little bit in the ninth grade. I love the ritual of it. The history of it, but it was also hard for me to understand how religions fit into each other and how they didn’t fit into each other and why they didn’t fit into each other.
ME: Do you mean as far as the doctrines and scriptures are concerned?
RJ: Or why the doctrines had to be either right or wrong as compared to everything else. Or why they had to exclude for them to be right. I always loved tradition; I loved ritual, the relationship of an individual with one’s own higher power or higher spirit. That, to me, was always really fascinating. I was less concerned with the political nature of religion. By the time I was in high school, I was going to synagogue, I was singing in a church choir, going to a meditation ashram and going to a Buddhist temple. I just wanted to absorb as much spirituality as I could, and in school I wanted to see if there was a way to make that yearning “academic.”
ME: I’ve never studied religion in an academic setting. I’m just wondering if you were interested in studying the religions themselves or if you were embarking upon your own personal quest to answer some of your aching questions about the nature of life?
RJ: That’s a good question. I could never say that wasn’t the basis of why I chose it. I definitely wanted to try to answer some questions for myself. Everyone grows up with his or her own traditions, and for me it was Judaism, but it was also this little offshoot of Hinduism. I wanted to know where it came from and why it was considered true to those people. And in an academic setting, you’re more likely to study it that way rather than by attempting to answer any questions for yourself. The philosophy behind the comparative study of religion at Harvard was that there are these two levels: There’s the individualistic experience, and then there’s the ritualistic communal experience, and that’s kind of how they break down those studies.
ME: Yes, music is very much like that as well. There’s the communal part of it, and then there’s the personal side of it, the part you do by yourself. For me that’s a very important distinction to make since the two are so vastly different from one another. One thing that I’ve always had an issue with, as a fellow Jew — and I’m wondering how you feel about it — is the idea of “the chosen people.” I have a hard time reconciling that idea with how I see other races and cultures in this world.
RJ: I hear you. Look at the history of Jews in this world. They have been killed, persecuted, shut down so many times, and yet anti-Semitism is still so alive and well. I think it’s a way of saying, “Listen everyone, there’s a reason for all of this. Keep your head down, we’re going to be fine, we’re going to get through this.” It’s amazing Jews are actually still around. I believe it’s because of how highly they value themselves; they know that they are important, that they need to be here.
ME: Have you been writing any music recently?
RJ: No I haven’t been writing music, but I have been playing piano, which makes me really happy because it’s the best thing for me to do. I’ve definitely been keeping that up, but I haven’t been writing, which makes me kind of sad. I really want to do what you did, just leave everything behind and go back to school.
ME: Can we talk about The Social Network? I didn’t see it until just recently, but I thought it was excellent. I was really amused at how they portrayed Harvard. I was there at school during production, and everyone on campus was really worked up about seeing it. How do you think they did with portraying life at Harvard?
RJ: They did pretty well! When I was a student, I spent a lot of time at final clubs because there aren’t that many choices for socializing. And at Harvard you’re either in a final club, or you’re around a final club, or you don’t do that at all, or you’re in The Pudding, or whatever other thing you’re into. But the film was obviously way sexier and glossier than the real thing. But then again, I don’t really know, because I wasn’t on the Wellesley bus. There were things that guys would always say at Harvard, “Wellesley to wed, BC (Boston College) to bed, and Harvard girls to talk to.” So … I was “talked to.” Nobody shipped me in on a bus and played strip poker with me, so I don’t really know about that, but I’m going to say categorically that it was definitely sexier and cooler than [reality]. But it’s a movie, so it should be.
ME: I’ve definitely seen busloads of girls getting off in front of The Spee (final club).
RJ: I spent a lot of time at The Spee. I remember in my senior year of college, my roommate was a music concentrator and was friends with Rivers Cuomo [singer of the rock band Weezer]. One day, the three of us were just walking around trying to figure out something to do, and we went by The Spee, and they wouldn’t let us in the front door. It was a weeknight right before graduation, and we just stopped by there to see who was hanging out. It was hilarious because normally there’s nowhere that dude [Rivers] wouldn’t be welcome — except at Harvard. There’s always some place where somebody isn’t welcome (laughter).
ME: I’ve experienced that firsthand. My first weekend at Harvard, I was meeting some of my newfound friends at a party at The Phoenix, which seemed to be one of the more athletic-based clubs, and I couldn’t get past the front door.
RJ: Yeah, Harvard feeds off of the idea of exclusivity, and that’s why people don’t like it, but that’s also why everyone wants to be there. People are fascinated by it, they resent it, they want it.
ME: This has been brought up to me a million times about The Social Network, but the portrayal of Harvard women in the film was not very positive. In fact, you were pretty much the only female character who wasn’t portrayed as a gold-digging opportunist.
RJ: Yes, I agree with that, but I believe it was done on purpose. David Fincher is a very smart person. Aaron Sorkin is a very smart person. They were crafting a narrative through a very particular set of eyes. And in those sets of eyes, women were treated as prizes.
ME: Well, especially for this group of dork guys who couldn’t get a girl to save their own lives, and then all of a sudden they have all this incredible access in this “rock-star-ish” type of way. I can actually relate to them in a funny way, only girls still won’t talk to me.
RJ: Oh, shut up, Mikey!
ME: Well, now that you’ve achieved all this success, how have you been handling all the pressure? I imagine you must be tired of talking to press people at this point.
RJ: These past couple weeks I was doing press for a film I did called Monogamy that came out last month, and I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for the truth and such a blatant, desperate reach for headlines, for these little sound bites. I was talking to these reporters, and I thought we were kind of mutually waxing philosophical about marriage and relationships and monogamy, and then, it’s like, syndicated headline: “Rashida Jones; I’m never getting married.” which is totally not what I said. I was questioning the institution of marriage in a kind of armchair philosopher sort of way. It’s sort of irritating, but I guess the good news is that people seem to care about what I’m saying.
ME: What else do you have going on?
RJ: I have a couple movies coming out that are slightly different for me: In Our Idiot Brother with Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel and Elizabeth Banks I play a lawyer who’s a lesbian. I mean, I still have that same … reliable, dependable “thing” going on, but character-wise it’s little a bit different. I also co-wrote a movie with a friend of mine. We’ve been trying to make it for like two years, and it finally looks like we’ll be making it soon. We wrote this part for me in it, and it’s going to be really challenging, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to do that.
ME: Will you have to audition for yourself?
RJ: (Laughter) That would be amazing, right? That would be so meta!
ME: It would be even more amazing if you didn’t get the part.
RJ: I know! That’s happened to friends of mine before. Producers will ask for a “Rashida Jones-type,” and then they go in and audition, and they don’t get the part. They say that’s the trajectory of a career: It starts with “Who’s Rashida Jones?” 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,” and then, “Who’s Rashida Jones?”
Suddenly Rashida looks at the clock…
RJ: Mikey I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to get out of here, I’m gonna be late for my shoot.
It had been a while since I’d spent time with Rashida, but despite her explosive career trajectory, she is still that kind and inquisitive little academic I remember meeting back in 1998; campy and demure one moment, gregarious and direct the next. She strikes that rare and delicate balance between being a funny, lighthearted beauty and a hard-nosed intellect. That unique disposition may be threatening to some but to most (and certainly to me), Rashida Jones is a refreshing departure from the vapid talent pool currently clogging the arteries of our cultural consciousness. Rashida makes being smart cool. I suspect that’s what Sorkin and Fincher saw when they brought her into The Social Network and made her the only respectable female character among the cast of alpha males. We need more of that. America, in particular, needs more of that. And I sincerely doubt we’ll ever hear the question, “Who is Rashida Jones?” It seems we need her a lot more than she needs us.
She's so right about stupid and misleading headlines on some of her recent interviews. But it's e! online y'know? That kind of thing *is* their thing.
Anyway, a good interview. Thanks again to Jen for passing it on to us.