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Rashida Jones On Becoming A Mom, Losing Her Mom, And The 'Big Chapters' Of Life

Rashida Jones says that growing up with two famous parents (Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton) gave her a "very healthy perspective on fame." She's pictured above at the 2019 Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif.
Matt Winkelmeyer
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Rashida Jones says that growing up with two famous parents (Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton) gave her a "very healthy perspective on fame." She's pictured above at the 2019 Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif.

When it comes to fame, actor Rashida Jones has seen it all. Growing up in Hollywood as the daughter of superstar music producer Quincy Jones and Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton, Jones watched as some people rose to success — and others seemed to fade away.

In her own household, Jones' mother felt uncomfortable with her quick rise to fame at such a young age and became more introverted, while her father continued to become more famous.

"It changed the dynamic of our household," Jones says. "People think [fame is] this wonderful, magical heal-all, and it's actually the opposite. It can be a poison. It can be intoxicating and destructive."

Initially, Jones wanted no part of show business or fame. Instead, she focused on academics, aiming to become a lawyer or a judge. But then, as a student at Harvard, she began doing comedy shows, and her attitude shifted.

"I had a ton of friends in college who became comedy writers," Jones says. "And I think being friends with funny, witty people at a certain age makes you want to, I don't know, do that for a living."

Jones went on to co-star in seven seasons of the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation. She currently co-stars with Kenya Barris in the Netflix series #blackAF. In the new film, On the Rocks, Jones plays a writer and mother who suspects her husband is having an affair. Her father, played by Bill Murray, gives her advice based on his own, outdated view of masculinity.

Jones filmed On the Rocks shortly after losing her mother to cancer and becoming a mother herself. It was a tumultuous time, and she nearly turned down the role, but she's glad she didn't.

"In a weird way, this movie was kind of a salvation for me because [director] Sofia [Coppola] is such a tender, present director and friend," Jones says. "To land in this world for a couple months when I was kind of going through the hardest period of my life was like a real gift."

Interview highlights

On losing her mother and becoming a mother around the same time

This has been a very emotionally intense couple of years. ... It was sort of like back-to-back-to-back-to-back, just wrenching, pulling my heart in all different directions. ... I was in grief-shock. I don't even know if that's a word, but I was just not in my body at all and just had a baby. I was doubly not in my body. ...

The thing that's the craziest about birth and death is just the utter rawness of feeling. I still feel this way, I think. It's like something cracks in you. It's very binary, both things — becoming a mother and losing my mother — like, there's my life before and there's my life after. And strangely, there's something that's not recognizable before those two things happened. And it's just this utter rawness of emotion where it doesn't matter where I am, what I'm doing. If I'm overwhelmed by that grief or that joy, that's it. I have to feel that thing. I can't suppress it. I can't run away from it. It's just there.

On searching for meaning and identity in mid-life, and developing a greater awareness of death

I do think that there's these big chapters of life. I remember feeling this way a little bit in my late 20s, really having like these deep questions about who I was and not recognizing myself. And then I feel like I've kind of returned to that a bit in the past couple of years, probably not as strongly as my 20s, because I think in your 20s, you're really not quite sure how it's all going to pan out. Now, I'm halfway through, I can't pretend that my life isn't the way that it is and it's great, and I'm very grateful for it.

But I think my relationship with the world, and how I see my life unfolding from here on out, and what's important to me and to be honest, my relationship with death, because that's something that really kicks off, I think, in the middle of your life where you're invincible until then. And then all of a sudden you lose the person you love the most who brought you here and you wouldn't be here without them. And it really incites this much larger thing, which is like, OK, how do I live my life in a way that will honor my inevitable death? ... As my dad always says, "Live every day like it's your last, and one day you'll be right."

On being a biracial actor, often considered not light enough to play white roles, and not Black enough for Black roles

Inherently, being biracial, you just live in the middle. You just do. And I'm not complaining about that at all. It is just the way that it is. The nice thing is that there is some part of that which makes you like a bridge, in a sense, because you kind of always feel like a bit of an outsider. But when I was younger, there were a lot less biracial people on TV and film. So I think people were confused whether it was because they saw me or they saw my name on the sign-in sheet, or they were kind of confused how to cast me. And I remember having panic when I would get cast in something and I had to have a family and I would have to have this discussion with the director, the writer, whatever, and say, "I want to be represented the way my ethnicity is in real life. I don't want to cover up anything, or whatever."

I think, because my hair is naturally straight and my eyes are green and I'm pretty light-skinned, the instinct is to not cast me as Black. And I think, as far as things have changed, and there's more mixed families and more interracial families ... and there's a lot more understanding of all the different ways that biracial people can look, which is great. So there's a lot more kind of understanding. And it's less of a big deal now than it was when I first started acting, which is nice. And, I think, to be able to play roles where I get to be Black and unapologetically Black, like I am in #blackAF, has been such a relief for me because it's a whole side of myself that I haven't really gotten to play very often.

On growing up in Hollywood, compared to her father who grew up poor on Chicago's South Side

I think about it every day of my life, actually, because I think about circumstance and luck. So little of what our lives are have anything to do with what we did to get here, and I am constantly aware of the luck I've been afforded because of the country I was born [in], the parents I was born to, all these things I have absolutely no control over. And then I think about my dad who created his luck, created it from nothing, worked so hard and then lived this life filled with love. And he didn't hold grudges. He didn't hold on to his anger. And he just kept making things out of love. And it is how he learned how to survive. ...

I just think about how ridiculous it is that I exist because the lineage on both sides, the probability that I would exist — a Black Jew in 2021 and succeed and thrive — is a miracle.

Beyond being grateful, I think about my family history and I think about where my dad came from. And then I think about my mom's side of the family, [which is] completely Ashkenazi Jewish. And I did that show, Who Do You Think You Are? and we went to Latvia, to the village where my mom's great grandfather was born and the whole village was devastated during the war and everybody was killed. And I just think about how ridiculous it is that I exist because the lineage on both sides, the probability that I would exist — a Black Jew in 2021 and succeed and thrive — is a miracle. And it's something I do not take for granted. I think about it constantly, every day. I don't understand why I was chosen, but I feel like I have to make good on my dad's survival and my family's survival.

On Parks and Recreation gaining traction once it went to streaming

The funny thing is it was not an incredibly popular show [while it was on TV]. Now it is. But when we were on the air, we were almost canceled, like, a half a dozen times. Not that many people watched it. And we always felt like we were on the bubble. There were several different presidents of NBC that wanted to cancel it and then [they] got talked out of it or canceled it and then changed their minds. And we were just getting like little pick ups here and there, six episodes, 12 episodes.

It didn't feel like a successful show. I mean, it did from the inside in the sense that the cast loved each other. We loved to play with each other. It was such a dynamic writing staff and cast. And every minute of shooting that show was so enjoyable, truly every minute. And I think everybody who was on it would say the same. But then Netflix happened. Streaming happened. And that show it's sort of rewritten as this enormous cult hit. But the truth is, it wasn't when we were on.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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