As if her skyrocketing acting career, Harvard education, impeccable comic timing, exquisite beauty, and legendary lineage weren’t threatening enough, Rashida Jones comes one step closer to total world domination with the release of Celeste and Jesse Forever. In addition to being her largest film role to date, Celeste and Jesse marks Jones’ screenwriting debut; she co-wrote the film with actor Will McCormack, who also appears in the film, and whom Jones briefly dated in the late ’90s before jointly realizing they were better as friends. Sadly, that kind of relationship decision-making wisdom eludes the title characters in their film, Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), an LA couple attempting to navigate a divorce while remaining best friends. Needless to say, these good intentions merely end up paving the freeway to heartache hell in this disarmingly intelligent, emotionally honest alternative to the usual rom-com fluff.
Celeste is a high-powered media consultant and trend forecaster; she’s just published her first book and landed a major new client, insolent Miley-meets-Ke$ha pop star Riley (Emma Roberts), who is seeking Celeste’s input on rebranding. Jesse is a good-hearted slacker cartoonist who never seems to finish any of his projects, and whose ostensible haplessness has maybe led Celeste to believe he’ll always need her and never move on to anyone else. They’ve been together for their entire adult lives, and although they’ve decided to divorce, Celeste thinks she’ll always have Jesse around in whatever capacity she needs him. But as they each begin taking steps to move on with their lives, their vow to remain friends is tested by circumstances both foreseeable and unexpected.
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) and co-starring Elijah Wood and Chris Messina, Celeste and Jesse Forever is not only a solid writing debut, but also the rawest performance we’ve yet seen from the usually unflappable Ms. Jones (whom, just in case you were unaware, is the progeny of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton). Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Jones and McCormack for a spirited, wide-ranging discussion on everything from dirty drawings and Twitter frustration to Parks and Recreation‘s Emmy snub and how John Travolta just needs to come out already.
What’s it like to talk about something you created rather than just acted in?
Rashida Jones: Really great! One of the better experiences I’ve had, definitely in press. It’s so hard, you just say the same things over and over again about something you have nothing to do with, except you acted a little bit and they put makeup on you. This is great, because we wanted to make it for so long, and the more that people said no, the more we reminded ourselves that we believed in it. And there’s a lot to talk about, because it incites conversation about relationships and “forever” and friendship. Everyone’s been so smart and thoughtful and cool. It’s just been really positive.
Will McCormack: Maybe everyone’s just being really nice to us, but then they leave the room and are just like, “Aw, they think their movie might really be good!” [both laugh] But it does seem to have generated genuine discourse. We’ve had the best conversations with really thoughtful people about heartbreak and romantic comedies, and I’ve never had to do anything like this before. I’m lucky to be invited to the premiere. [laughs] I’m really excited to talk about the movie and I’m really proud of it. It’s the first movie that we wrote together and it’s coming out and we worked really, really, really hard to get it made. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally thrilled and flattered.
With this movie, you set out to invert romantic comedies and flip some of those familiar archetypes.
Jones: Right, starting with Celeste. She’s this together businesswoman who’s got it all made, a seemingly perfect relationship. And she doesn’t just deal with a breakup or a glitch or a blip in her romantic life — she’s bombarded by life forcing her to change. She gets knocked down really, really, really far, and I think I haven’t seen a romantic comedy in a while where you get to see a woman just dissolve, totally disintegrate. And the archetype of Celeste and Jesse as this really happy couple is the first one [we flip] in the movie. When you first see them you’re like, “Oh my god, I know that couple, and they are so annoying.” But then you’re like, “Oh wait, they’re not together? Okay. I’m less annoyed? Maybe? Or more annoyed. I don’t know.” [laughs]
McCormack: I think with Celeste, we wanted her descent to be ugly. I feel like a lot of times in romantic comedies, they’re losing their mind but still totally adorable.
Jones: And their jeans fit perfectly and their hair’s great.
McCormack: But heartache is ugly and we wanted to be honest about that. So that felt like the beginning of the thrust of some sort of convention shift.
Rashida, this is the most dramatic performance we’ve seen from you so far. To what extent were you writing a role to challenge yourself as an actor?
Jones: I was really lucky to have this friendship [with Will] where we understand each other really well. I think we know what each other is capable of, even if we don’t know it for ourselves. Celeste really has to run the gamut of emotion in this movie, and to be honest, I wasn’t totally sure I could do it when I started. But I did feel like it was in there somewhere. I’ve done a lot of comedy, but I was doing mainly drama until I was 28 or 29. Obviously it’s a different skill set, but for me it kinda goes hand in hand. I think it’s really hard to be funny and not have that other muscle where you can make something feel real, as opposed to just dramatic — just make it feel real and people relate to you. It was challenging, but I was happy to be challenged.
How did you guide the tone back and forth between light and heavy?
McCormack: That was really important to us. While we wanted the movie to be funny, we also wanted it to be as real as possible. And that is fully informed by our love of Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen and Jim Brooks, and the movies that we grew up on. I felt like those people continue to make movies that have both [comedy and drama], and somewhere along the way things were separated and it had to be one or the other. But also, that’s just really the way it came out. It wasn’t so much like, “We’re going to make this kind of movie.” That’s just the story we wrote, and we didn’t know how to be ironic or satirical about it. We were just like, “Heartbreak is heartbreaking. Let’s try to make it as real as possible, but also make it funny.” It really felt organic. We weren’t thinking about it too much.
I’m curious about the origin of some of the gags in the movie, such as the logo Celeste helps create for a client that unintentionally resembles a dick going into a butt. How closely did you supervise finding the right unintentional dick-in-butt?
Jones: [laughs] It was a harrowing process.
McCormack: We looked at lot of dicks and a lot of butts.
Jones: Lots of dicks and a lot of butts. Then we had to pair up the right dick with the right butt and the right logo. [laughs] Ian Phillips, who did our production design, came up with several options, and we wanted it to have, like…an industrial feel? [laughs] Actually when we were writing the movie, I’d be like, “No no no, it’s like this!” [mimes scribbling a dick-in-butt logo], and we’d just sit there drawing logos.
McCormack: [laughs] So stupid. We were doing drawings like…
Jones: “It’s too…dicky.”
McCormack: “I’m gonna need less butt, more dick.”
Jones: But the good news is the first time the audience really sees it is when Celeste sees it. I don’t think it’s so overt.
McCormack: Jobs in romantic comedies are so hard. If I’m dying tomorrow I’m probably watching When Harry Met Sally tonight, but even though I’ve watched it like six times, I have no idea what they do for a living.
Jones: They’re always architects.
McCormack: Jobs in movies are always hard. It’s really tricky because you want it to matter, but you don’t want it to matter too much.
Jones: You don’t want it to become the main thrust of the movie.
Speaking of jobs, I appreciated that Celeste was allowed to be a career-oriented woman without that being deemed a character flaw.
Jones: Celeste is definitely unapologetic about what she wants from life, and she’s certainly not lacking in confidence. She believes in herself really strongly, and I’m like that. I mean, hopefully I’m not as myopic as Celeste, but I feel like, you know, I’m 36, I’ve lived the life that I’ve lived, I have the opinions that I have, and I don’t really back down from that. I think we wanted a character who felt very comfortable in her own standing in life because it also helps our plot — we want to destroy her! We took her down so far. And the way to do that is to have somebody who’s figured out a life that works for them.
I feel like I know a lot of women like this, who have prioritized their jobs whether it’s because they’re ambitious and driven, or whether it’s out of survival, because their relationship thing was not working out for them, or it was in response to their mother not being that way — whatever it is, I know a lot of women like this, and I do think it’s a natural process of the feminist movement in a way. Hopefully there’s other representations of how that expresses itself in the world. But it was important to us for her to be strong-minded and not be the butt of a joke. It’s not there to be criticized. I mean, yes, her internal journey is she thinks everything is right and she wants to be right about everything, and you can’t be right and be happy, as the Paul character says to her. But it’s not a criticism about how she lives her life.
McCormack: One’s love life is something you have no control over. In my personal opinion, I don’t think we have control over anything. [laughs] Or it seems like we do, but how much do we really? This is a woman who’s self-made, she’s so successful, she’s driven; but I think with love, it revolves around a lot of factors we have nothing to do with, like timing and growing and missed opportunities, and I think that’s frustrating to her. It was fun to watch the way she played it, watching her grapple with that. It’s hard to have a successful career and a successful love life. It’s a lot of pressure. [laughs] It’s a lot to do in one life.
On the subject of “grappling,” Rashida, you’ve been grappling with Twitter.
Jones: [laughs] I have.
How’s that been going?
McCormack: You’re so good at it! Your tweets are so good. I’m so bad at it. I’m like, “I’m just gonna retweet whatever she says.” Plus I only have like 200 followers. But it’s so much pressure, and you’re so clever at it!
Jones: Aw, thanks. I struggle every time I tweet. It’s a thing for me.
McCormack: Do you sweat?
Jones: I sweat and I press my knuckles and I’m like, “Ooh!” I had this thing the other day where I cited Frank Ocean, and I cited the wrong Frank Ocean. I cited a fake Frank Ocean account, and I had like a panic attack! Also, people were so condescending about it. People were so condescending about me being new to Twitter! Like, “Oh, that’s adorable, you put a hashtag instead of an @ symbol!” I’m like, “You guys, the technology has only existed for like three years. Get off of it. Also it’s going to change in two month, so chill out.” It’s fine. I get what it’s for. There are things about it I enjoy. I follow some comedians who are fantastic. It is anything I wanted to devote my life to? No. Do I think there will be a new technology in three months? Yes. People are generally pretty nice and supportive, and I think it’s a great way to get people interested in our film, which is why I did it. But I don’t feel like there are all these tiny quips that I’m just dying to share with the world on a daily basis. If I do, I’ll just text my friend.
McCormack: Exactly! Most of the things I think, I’m like, “I’m not sure if I can say that…”
Jones: No, you can’t! There’s strategy with Twitter. People are strategic. Like my friend Gary Janetti–
He is so funny.
Jones: Oh, he is so funny. He’s my favorite person on Twitter. He only tweets jokes, he doesn’t retweet, he doesn’t talk about personal shit. He just tweets really funny, really mean jokes. Which is great! He figured out what he wants to do with it. I don’t care what you ate for breakfast. Don’t tweet pictures of your friend’s dog.
How’s the Frank Ocean obsession coming along?
Jones: It’s there. It’s real and it’s there. We just missed him the other day in DC while we were there for press. I just love him. He is so great.
McCormack: There needs to be, like, a professional athlete that comes out.
Jones: And a movie star! It’s time.
McCormack: Yeah, like a big one.
Jones: A movie star. Like John Travolta? Come out! Come on. How many masseurs have to come forward? Let’s do this.
Well, there was a lot of media analysis about Frank Ocean and Anderson Cooper coming out, and how they were basically non-events that no longer merit major announcements on the cover of People magazine.
Jones: Like it’s not a big deal anymore?
Jones: Sure, but let’s be honest: Anderson Cooper is a TV personality. Like Neil Patrick Harris — okay, yes, it’s great that he came out, but (A) these are both men who have lived in the gay community for a long time and I think everyone suspected, and (B) there’s something about these iconic stars, people who are almost godlike. Because with someone like Frank Ocean, yes, it’s fantastic that he did what he did and his letter was so beautiful, and he’s in such close proximity to all these rappers so he’s battling homophobia just by being honest. But big stars need to come out. Ricky Martin was huge. That was big; I was really happy about that.
Big stars only tend to be outed posthumously.
Jones: I know. People are so precious about their careers.
McCormack: Well, you work so hard.
Jones: I know. [pause] I’m gay! What just happened?
McCormack: [laughs] We’re all gay.
So Ari Graynor has a great little role in your film as a friend of the couple who gets really fed up with their dysfunctional behavior. Was she based on anyone you knew?
McCormack: I was definitely in a dysfunctional relationship with an ex, and I had a friend who was like, “What are you guys doing? Why do you go on vacation together?” I dated a girl on and off for five years, and I definitely had a moment where a friend said, “Just so you know, I know you guys think this situation is cool, but no one else does and everyone thinks it’s weird. So keep pretending, but one day it’s gonna come to a screeching halt.” And it did.
I had that conversation where I was leaning on the person emotionally. I had a problem and I called her, and she was like, “Why do you keep calling me all the time when you have problems?” And I said, “It’s because I love you.” And she said, “If you really loved me then you’ll stop calling me for a little while.” And I was like, Oh. Right. I’m young, and I’m selfish, and I’m a dick. I really need to grow up. You can’t rely on someone that heavy emotionally, but then not provide everything else — stability, friendship, loyalty, compassion, all of those things. I was young, I was immature and sort of emotionally greedy. [pause] And now I’m alone.
Whose idea was it to have Will’s character make an unsuccessful pass at Celeste?
Jones: [to McCormack] That was you! That was on set!
McCormack: That was on set. We had very little time, and I just ad-libbed all that. It seemed to play at our first screening and it was sort of funny, so we kept it. I remember before that scene I was like, “Skillz should hit on you! Why didn’t we write that?” That part wasn’t scripted, but I’d say 95% of the movie was scripted. Emma has some classic lines that she came up with, and Rashida and Andy are off-script whenever they’re masturbating stuff. [There is a running gag between Celeste and Jesse where they pretend to jerk off tiny phallic objects]
I need to know the origin of that.
Jones: We’d do that while we were writing. We’d go to the farmers market and just take all these vegetables home.
They’re all so phallic.
Jones: We’d start with really big produce, but then it just got smaller and smaller. It become funny to do really tiny ones.
McCormack: Because they need love too.
Jones: [laughs] Exactly.
You mentioned how you wanted to show Celeste dissolving, but fortunately you didn’t make her lose her job and then devour a carton of Haagen-Dazs or any of those clichés.
Jones: We played around with levels of disintegration. Like, how much does it take someone to change? How much does it take someone to learn a lesson? We were not trying to make a statement about how if you’re successful, you’ll get punished for it. It definitely wasn’t that. She’s a very specific type of person who’s decided what life is like, and she’s wrong. I think that happens a lot. It definitely happened for me, when I turned 30 and people were like, “Oh, okay, I know what this is now, I got this.” But then you’re like, “Oh, no, it’s not that at all!” And the quicker you get around to knowing that you know nothing and that everything will always change, the better off you’ll be. It was important to us that she didn’t recover from her descent too quickly, and I know sometimes that can be a little arduous to watch on screen. It was also important that she really got to the bottom, that it wasn’t just Haagen-Dazs and sniffling on the couch. That’s just not gonna do it. There’s gotta be some public humiliation, some lack of showering, some interface with the world to really make a difference.
Speaking of high-powered ladies, I share your outrage about the Emmy series snub for Parks and Recreation.
Jones: I mean…I don’t get it.
How do you think Leslie Knope would spearhead a campaign to really guarantee awards recognition?
Jones: Leslie Knope believes in meritocracy and hard work, and she doesn’t take short cuts. She’s so fair, although sometimes she has cloudy judgment. But for the most part, I think she’d just go about it the old-fashioned way. Go on a letter-writing campaign…
McCormack: Get signatures.
Jones: Get signatures and picket the Academy.
I’m curious what your writing process is like together.
McCormack: We wrote this movie totally together. Now we’re a little busier, so we write separately and together. But Celeste and Jesse Forever we wrote on one computer in Rashida’s backyward on her couch, just trading it back and forth. Having both been actors for so long, we read everything out loud hundreds of times.
Jones: Acted it out. Blocked it sometimes.
McCormack: Blocked it. This was a total two-hander on every level. I sort of have a feminine side to me, and she sort of has a masculine side to her, so I felt like even in writing Jesse and Celeste it was 50/50, because I feel comfortable writing girls and I think she feels comfortable writing boys. It was very even.
Was it fun writing this film, or did it get stressful?
Jones: It was fun! There was no stress because nobody cared. [laughs] No one knew. Once in a while we’d mention to people that we were writing something, and they’d be like, “You and everyone else. Everybody’s got a script.”
McCormack: “Welcome to Hollywood.”
Jones: Yeah, exactly. So there was no pressure. It was just for ourselves, so it was fun to turn around and suddenly have 65 pages of a script, because then you really want to finish. I was in a holding deal with NBC, so I felt a little bit like I was stuck in a prison, and I also felt like I was emotionally stuck in a prison. So to have Will and this writing process was huge for me. It really pushed me out of a very specific time in my life.
McCormack: Writing is so hard, but when you finish something it’s so gratifying. And to see it shot and come out, it’s totally a dream come true. It feels so great. But writing is so hard. There’s good days and bad days. We always say it’s like good day, bad day, good day, bad day…
Jones: And sometimes it’s more like bad day, bad day, bad day, good day, bad day, bad day, bad day.
McCormack: I’m at that point where even if I write badly for a day, I still feel great just for having written. Even if you write for a full day and you only get half a page and it’s not great, it’s still worth it because it’s about putting in the time. There’s that thing about writing where it’s sort of comforting, but also enervating at the same time? It’s just writing. For me, there’s no creative lightning bolt that’s coming. It’s just sitting down and working.
Jones: Well, sometimes you have to be doing that really basic thing to be available to the lightning bolt. We had lightning bolts on this movie all the time.
McCormack: Right, but for me, I usually have to be sitting down and working for the lightning bolt to come.
So what’s next?
McCormack: We want to write more together. We already wrote a second script, so we’re gonna take our time with the next one after that. It’s very nice, because now we get offered a lot of romantic comedy-type jobs.
Jones: But we’re not gonna take them. [laughs]
McCormack: No, we don’t take them.
Jones: We kinda already did that.
McCormack: So we’ll take our time and write another, and just try to connect to it in the same way we did with this one. We really cared about this story and these characters, and we felt like we could write a whole other movie because we know these characters so well. So hopefully we’ll get to write another movie…
Jones: Not with these characters.
McCormack: Well, that depends on how much money they want to pay us.
Jones: [laughs] That’s true.
Celeste and Jesse Forever opens today in San Francisco.