Rashida Jones’ indelible contributions to the small screen have been off-camera of late, producing series such as “Claws” and doing voice work on the animated “Duncanville.” But with “#BlackAF,” Kenya Barris’ first project under his Netflix deal, Jones is back with a more 360-touch. She executive produces the single-camera family comedy alongside Barris, directs a pivotal episode, and also stars as Joya, his onscreen wife.
How collaborative was the process with Kenya to find who Joya was, given that she’s based on a real person?
There are so many similarities between this show and Kenya’s life, including his name and how many children he has, and so in that regard there are things thematically that Kenya wanted to make sure rang true — like dynamics in his family. But, like everything, we had to make Joya her own person who lives onscreen and can live with this family in a way that’s different from his life. So we talked about what he finds funny in his relationship that we could bring to the character and what kind of things we could change about her that could support those dynamics. So she’s a lawyer but now a stay-at-home mom. She’s obsessed with social media, which gives us an opportunity to get into an arena that I’m really obsessed with, which is dancing all of the time.
OK so you’re taking credit for the stories around dancing?
Yeah! The dancing part, for sure, and my mentor Hip-Hop Dave and the priority she puts on dance. I would say it’s really closely related to Rashida, but I think the obsession is different; hopefully I’m not dropping other important things in my life to go to hip-hop classes. But I don’t know that I wouldn’t. At the end of the day, we all wanted to make sure the character served the dysfunctional family unit.
How did you want to make sure your sitcom mom character was evolved beyond what we have seen from those characters in the past or even your own past characters?
I think what’s nice about this character for me is that I get to play something different. I’ve played a lot of very supportive, sane, thoughtful, generous, unconditional friends and girlfriends and wives. And I kind of get to be selfish on this show. It’s fun to know who I am in a way that I’m not willing to compromise for anybody else. I’ve been very lucky to have a whole career of people who sort of exist in relation to other people, but Joya, on the show, is trying to figure out who she is — and she’s making some mistakes along the way. For me, career-wise, it’s nice to play somebody who’s doing that kind of searching in a way that is unapologetic.
What went into how you and Kenya built the onscreen relationship for your characters, especially given this is his first time acting?
We have a really good working relationship where he tries not to bulls— me and I try not to bulls— him, and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He was incredibly deferential and easy to work with as an actor; he was looking for support there and looking to me, which was really nice. I tried not to let those lines cross too much because he’s so funny and charming and he’s a natural. He’s whip-smart and his ability to improv, he’s got that going for him. It just made it very fun to act with him because he’s thinking about things in an end-result type of way. He wants to say the improv thing that’s going to end up in the cut, and that’s a great person to work with — because he’s always trying to do the home run joke.
Were there any stories around the family that you felt were really personal to you?
The episode I got to direct — the third episode — is about sexuality and the sexualization of young black girls. There’s a specific race issue to that story, but I also think it’s a universal topic, and I think mothers struggle to be supportive of their daughters and not body-shame them and let them be who they are — but then also feel protective of them, because of the way they’re being projected upon by the outside world. We talked a lot about the complexities of this issue and we wanted to make sure to represent both sides because we didn’t want it to feel like there’s one right answer; it’s a tricky, tricky subject. But that was of personal interest to me, for sure, because I think it’s something that all women want to talk about and struggle with — especially with young women.
So did you ask to direct that specific episode because of that strong opinion?
I did. I was going to be a part of the story because I was acting, but I wanted to help tell that story through the imagery, and try to do it with a gentle touch in a way that felt like you could see both sides — you could see why Joya’s confused. We had to be surgical about what to show, what not to show, what her daughters’ reactions are like with her reacting to them, and vice versa. It was tricky territory and I felt like it needed some consortium of women to talk it through.
In a more general sense, what goes into when you choose to just produce or direct, versus when you also want to act in it?
I’m not going to lie, I find it very, very, very difficult to switch between the two! You’re thinking about the full picture when you’re directing, and when you’re acting, you really have to not think about the whole picture and just be in your character. So to go back and forth is difficult for me. Directing is so technical — to make sure you have all of the pieces to tell the story in a way that feels funny and real and respectful of the script, and to make sure the storytelling feels consistent with the episodes before and after and all that. I prefer to just direct and not act, but if it need be, I have to have somebody direct me when I’m onscreen. Sometimes I’ll look at playback, but that holds up everybody. I did do that in between scenes, but luckily we had a great team between Kenya and the writers; I could get feedback and just try and be in the scene.
Looking at the meta Hollywood side to the story, the talking heads part of the show looks more cinematic than usual. How did that element of the show affect our overall experience?
We used this thing that Errol Morris created — the Interrotron. It’s a camera inside the monitors, so Iman [Benson] would look at the camera, and we would look at our camera, and we’d be looking at each other. On “Parks [and Recreation]” and “The Office,” there was always a person off-camera that was the interviewer, but in this we’re looking directly at the camera. It’s actually more relaxed because it feels like you’re doing a scene with somebody. You don’t have to pretend to be talking to somebody, so it makes it more personal. And also, we spent a lot of time in that room — in the garage room — where we would just let it be a little bit loose. I think a lot of what was cool about that set-up was we had an overhead CCTV camera, and we have camera people who were in the room, and then we also had one roving camera so there was a lot of footage we could cut away to so you could see the action in the room without having to just watch the interviews.
What were some specific topics or issues in Hollywood that you felt strongly the show take on?
The show is absolutely a commentary of one specific person’s life and his experience in Hollywood, but obviously I grew up in Hollywood and I have my own experience, and Kenya and I have talked a lot about first and second generation black wealth and how it intersects in Hollywood and what that means and what that feels like — the pressure and the dysfunction that can come from that. So hopefully we’re portraying that in a way that’s interesting and relatable for people who are not just in Hollywood because I do think generational wealth is a universal theme.
Where did the discussion around black artists supporting each other, even when they didn’t like the content, come in?
I think it’s really real for Kenya and it’s obviously real for the people who participated. It gave them an opportunity, under the guise of the show, to be like, “Well, I don’t know about that thing.” It’s great to have a community of people holding each other accountable. I think it lives in the place where people want to feel supportive of their peers; they don’t want to be critical of their peers because they believe the damage that can be done by people seeing disconnection is much larger than the benefit that could be gained by criticizing the person. In my opinion it feels like there has to be another way to respectfully respond to people’s work that’s not always totally positive. You can be supportive of somebody’s work but maybe it’s not necessarily what you would do or what you would watch first. I think it’s a more a comment of that there’s no room to respectfully disagree right now.
All that being said, how much did you want Joya’s opinions on or experiences with such topics to align with your own?
To be honest, I think if the show can represent some part of what I feel, great, but I actually enjoyed the fact that I didn’t always agree with Joya. I haven’t had that opportunity too much. She really does things I would never do, and there is a fun fantasy fulfillment there. There’s a luxuriousness of her being on the phone all day, talking to her friends all day, being glam and in hair and makeup, and making up reasons to be in the public eye. I wouldn’t say we had exactly the same value system, and that’s nice.
Things you didn’t know about Rashida Jones:
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Last show she binge-watched: “Tiger King”
Project she’d want to revive: “I Love You, Man”
Surprised she’s still recognized for: “The Office”
Cause she cares most about: Healthcare workers