Somewhere between her first big Hollywood role, in David E. Kelley's drama Boston Public, and her breakout comedy role in The Office, Rashida Jones came oh so close to quitting show business.
"I felt like I was wasting my education. I had gone to college. I had studied other things that were not acting-related, and I felt like I was 30 and it seemed like a waste to spend my days auditioning or interviewing for jobs if I wasn’t going to get those jobs," the star of the new TBS comedy Angie Tribeca told Co.Create. "I had to have a little 'come to Jesus' with myself. I was thinking about going back to school and maybe going to graduate school and getting a degree in public policy or maybe going to law school. I definitely printed a couple applications and I looked at a couple websites, but I told myself I’d give myself a year and I’d audition for a couple more things and see what happens."
Luckily for comedy fans, Jones landed the Office role as Karen Fillipelli, Pam's super-chill rival for Jim's heart during the show's early seasons. It led Greg Daniels and Michael Schur to cast her in Parks and Recreation as Ann Perkins, the easygoing best friend to Amy Poehler's ulta-ambitious Lesley Knope.
Now, in her new series, Jones plays it straight as hard-nosed L.A. detective Angie Tribeca in a world that feels like a standard police procedural but full of sight gags, wordplay, and other nuttiness that is reminiscent of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker classics Airplane! and Police Squad! Her partner (Hayes MacArthur) is named Jay Geils, like the band who gave us the '80s hit "Freeze Frame." When her lieutenant (Jere Burns) screams "take a seat" to them, they pick up their chairs. Tribeca goes undercover as a ventriloquist's dummy to take down a criminal who looks a lot like Jeff Dunham.
When the show's creators, Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell, e-mailed the pilot script to Jones, she was eager to take on the role, and not just because her Office co-star was at the helm.
"I wanted to read it quickly because Steven and Nancy Carell sent me an email, and I wanted to seem like I’m a professional person, and also was ridiculously flattered they thought of me," she said. "They’re obviously incredibly funny and have really finely tuned comic sensibility. The minute I read it, I was like 'Oh no, I definitely have to do this, no question.'"
Turns out that Jones was a big fan of the ZAZ movies, calling Airplane! "a perfect movie. I would say in a lot of ways it taught me how to laugh and what to laugh at." Why does she consider it perfect? "The inherent friction between the very serious, very grave acting style and approach to the material being so ridiculous and stupid." Anyone who has repeated Leslie Nielsen's reply to the phrase "Surely you can't be serious" probably feels the same way.
Being the hardened, overworked Tribeca is in Jones' wheelhouse because she's excelled at being serious while the rest of the show around her is quickly and hilariously unraveling. "I’m sort of like the affable friend, girlfriend, wife," she said about her previous roles. "I definitely hold my own in comedy, but I’m not necessarily the centerpiece of the comedy. In a weird way, this is almost like the extreme version of that, where I am the straightest guy that was ever straight."
To Jones, the big challenge keeping Tribeca on the straight-and-narrow, even when she's doing silly things. "I think part of being like the ultra-straight man is when you’re given really goofy shit to do, to continue to be straight. But I definitely got to do a lot of really fun stuff that was probably out of what I’ve done thus far comedy-wise, so that’s been just a joy."
Viewers who tuned into the Angie Tribeca, first season marathon on January 26 (the first season is being rerun every Monday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, and the second season is already in production) found out that playing it straight is the funniest thing Jones has done, especially in scenes that are increasingly ridiculous. For instance, Tribeca chases a suspect through an endlessly long airline cabin in one episode, and rattles through a mini-monologue in another about how letting things go isn't in her DNA but things like "early-onset dementia" are.
"Those things are easy to get through in terms of not laughing because you’re just desperate to get all your lines right because the joke is so dependent on the rhythm, like the music effect of the stuff," she said, "But like there are obviously other things. Playing a straight scene with a dog driving a car or at the desk behind you making a phone call, that’s a little harder to keep a straight face."
The first season boasts a number of guest stars, including James Franco, Adam Scott, Lisa Kudrow, and Cecily Strong. But the most surprising is Bill Murray, who plays a grocery clerk Tribeca dates on her one day off from being a cop. That came together when Jones was a guest on Murray's Netflix holiday special.
"We have a friend in common, and he asked me to do that show and I asked him to do my show, and it felt like a good trade. I felt like I won on both sides of that trade."
When Jones graduated from Harvard in 1997, she wanted to do comedy for a living, but as most young actors find out, the roles you get may not be the ones you really want. "When I first moved to LA, you had two choices. You could go audition for multi-cam comedy, or you could audition for drama. There wasn’t this sort of middle ground that there is now where there there are these comedies that have heart and darkness and are mockumentary style, whatever it is. I wanted to do multi-cam studio audience but it was a club, and really I wasn’t part of that club. I remember going to a couple of auditions and I got really one pilot, but in general I wasn’t in that crew, so it was almost easier for me to get a drama.
"I don’t know if people really believe this or understand this, but the truth is we don’t have, especially at the beginning of our careers, we don’t have a ton of choice when it comes to what we book and what we go after," she continued. "You get a little bit of leverage as time goes on if you’re lucky, but the truth is I didn’t really have, it’s not like I had a ton of choices. I took what I booked and I tried my best to be a little selective about that. I tried to just go after things that I felt like a part of myself. Sometimes it was comedy. Sometimes it was drama."
Even though both her parents, legendary music producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton, were show biz vets, they were going to be supportive of their daughter whether she stuck in acting or quit to be a grad student. "My parents are purists in terms of following your heart and choosing something that you love, and if you do it with aplomb, and you do it with your entire heart, and you work really hard, that’s the best way to try to build your career," she said.
"Even when I mentioned going back to school, they said great, whatever you want, but I know that they could tell I was frustrated. Luckily, they had encouraged me to do other things and be interested in writing, and be interested in producing, and luckily I can now fold that into my career. Their thing is about being a little bit 360 in your approach to your career where you don’t just focus on one thing and become the best at it. You do that, but you leave a little room for ancillary things that might relate to your primary career so that you’re not stuck if it doesn’t work out, because there’s so much luck involved."
Jones is doing just as her parents advised; a pilot where she is the executive producer was just sold to NBC, and has a screenplay credit for the upcoming Pixar movie Toy Story 4.
Speaking of Lipton, viewers were surprised to see her starring with Jones in a series of ads for Verizon's FiOS service. In the funny series of ads, Jones also shares her high-speed Internet with real life friends like actor Joey Slotnick. "Originally their pitch was to have friends and my parents. I think my mom was their idea, but then I sort of went off to use my friends too."
Luckily, acting with her mother was just like it was when she was a struggling actor. "I’s so easy. She’s helped me with a lot of auditions along the way, so we’ve done it many times before."