Rashida Jones shakes your hand. No, wait, she hugs you. No, wait…she’s shaking your hand again. She dumps her huge purse on the table, slides off a pair of nerdy black glasses, and starts chattering about crossword puzzles, Boggle, pop music, underground comedy, and the distinguishing characteristics of transvestite prostitutes in Manhattan’s West Village. She pauses just long enough to fire off a freckled grin. Then she steals your pen.
How could anyone hate this girl?
And yet they do. Oh boy, do they ever. It’s not her fault, of course, just the unavoidable consequence of taking on the most thankless role in sitcomdom as The Office’s other woman — a femme not-so-fatale who has, for the moment at least, come between TV’s sweetest, will-they/won’t-they romance. But despite vocal protests from the actress behind The Office’s Karen Filippelli — that noted admirer of Call of Duty, Herr’s potato chips, and, of course, one Mr. Jim Halpert — winning over fans of NBC’s buzzy comedy has proved tricky.
”I mean, Karen really is smitten by Jim — she has no other design, she’s not trying to break them up….She didn’t even know about Pam!” Jones says with increasing insistence, before giving up with a crooked smile. ”Well, nobody has thrown anything at me at least.”
Well, not yet. But the threat of flying debris has been a small price to pay for the slyly hilarious L.A. native, who has seen The Office function as a superb career launching pad. It’s a sweet victory, particularly for someone who has been better known for her sexy family history — she’s the daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones and The Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton — than her television and movie work.
”People always ask, ‘What’s it like having those parents?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what’s it like not to have those parents?”’ says Jones, 30, who spent weekdays with her mother and weekends with her father after their 1986 divorce. ”I mean, Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg came over all the time, and I can understand from the outside it seems really weird, but I didn’t know any other way…. I love my parents, but I’ve been chugging along [on my own] for 10 years now, you know?”
And, in fact, sitting in this small Beverly Hills tea emporium, you do know. Jones is nothing like her Hollywood-bred contemporaries. She’s level. Gorgeous, sure — but blessed with a goofball wit and green eyes that flash when she gets excited. While her siblings rebelled — sister Kidada was engaged to Tupac Shakur when he was shot in Las Vegas in 1996 — and her peers like Nicole Richie struggled with the pre-scripted child-of-fame story line, she finished first in her class in high school, was voted most likely to succeed, and went to Harvard aiming for a law degree.
”It’s pretty obvious why Rashida is where she is,” says John Krasinski, her ex-boyfriend and longtime buddy, who plays Jim. ”I walk into a room and I’m always the 34th person to say hi to her. Everyone falls in love with her. And she paid her dues.”
”Oh yeah, the beginning [of my career] was brutal. The first thing I booked was a pilot called, hrm…” she pauses, struggling for the name before giving up. (We’ll help you, Rashida — it was called Second Opinion.) ”Anyway, it was with Rip Torn. And I played a crackhead. Not just that: a crackhead who shoves crack up her na-na to avoid the cops. [Torn] had to pull it out and then perform CPR on me. But then he got fired and they hired Robert Loggia, so I had to do that romantic duo of scenes all over again. I was like: Hollywood. Is. Awesome.”
That first sweet dalliance with the small screen was followed by a memorable guest spot as a bully on the revered Freaks and Geeks, a series of bizarre Gap commercials (YouTube can refresh your memory), and finally, a two-season stint as an office assistant on David E. Kelley’s Boston Public. But after succumbing to what she describes as her ”triannual thoughts of definitely not acting anymore,” Jones moved to New York and tried…well, everything. She took a gig as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue, worked on music for an animation company, appeared in bit parts on Chappelle’s Show, and became a fixture on the emerging downtown comedy scene. (As a result, Jones is friends with folks like Wet Hot American Summer’s David Wain and Michael Showalter, and co-produced their new movie The Ten, which sold to THINKFilm at Sundance.) When one of her old Harvard pals, Mike Schur, announced that he was headed out to Hollywood to write for an Americanized version of The Office, Jones was outraged.
”I was like, ‘Don’t ever talk to me again,”’ she laughs. ”I was such a fan of the original, I was insulted that they were doing it. I thought there was no way it was going to work.” She and everyone else. It was only after The Office hit the air that people realized what a remarkable job executive producer Greg Daniels and his team had done taking the classic Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant BBC comedy and making it uniquely American…and leagues funnier than Coupling, the last British sitcom that NBC imported. So when Jones got the chance to visit her buddies on the set and later meet the creative team for an audition, she jumped at it.
”When we were looking for Karen and I saw Rashida’s name on the audition list, I [thought], ‘This is a friend of people who work here, so let’s be nice, but it’s just not going to be her,”’ says Daniels. ”But the thing that’s great about her is that she’s very beautiful but doesn’t seem aware of her beauty. She leads with her intelligence. And she felt like a good contrast to Pam. When she read scenes with Jenna [Fischer], that’s when we said, ‘This is cool.”’
”The first day on set I was terrified,” says Jones, her color rising. ”I kept saying to Ed Helms [who plays the dim-witted rageaholic Andy], I felt like I had won some radio contest and they had thrown me into my favorite show. How is this possible? What am I going to do?”
The memory makes her so nervous she accidentally kicks her tea companion under the table. Then her hands spasm and a tape recorder goes flying. She blushes. Smiles. And by way of apology, sheepishly returns the pilfered pen, shakes hands, hugs, and shakes hands again.
Can you really hate her now?