If you’re an actor, and not getting the kind of roles you want (or indeed, any roles at all), the best way out is to create your own material. From Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to Brit Marling, legions of actors over the years have turned screenwriters, and seen their careers skyrocket as a result. And so it is with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack.
Both are successful actors, but while Jones has made her name thanks to TV roles like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” she’s never quite made the leap to a leading lady on screen, while McCormack was best known for a regular role on Courtney Cox cable show “Dirt.” But that should all change, after the two got together to write “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend to generally positive word.
Starring Jones opposite “Saturday Night Live” vet Andy Samberg, with McCormack in a supporting role, and “The Vicious Kind” director Lee Toland Krieger at the helm, the comedy-drama follows the titular couple as they try to prove that there’s life after divorce. We caught up with Jones and McCormack yesterday to get the lowdown on their film, which already seems to have opened a host of doors for them. “Celeste and Jesse Forever” hasn’t yet been picked up, but we’re sure it’ll only be a matter of time, and we’ll likely see it in theaters before the end of 2012. Warning: some mild spoilers lie ahead.
While Jones’ character is the focus, Samberg’s part grew as the script was developed to be on a more equal footing.
Most romantic comedies, for better or worse, have a subjective viewpoint, watching the dating game from the side of one gender or another, with only the rare exception, (“When Harry Met Sally” stands out) taking it from both sides. Jones admits that “Celeste and Jesse Forever” started out more conventionally, telling us, “At the beginning when we first wrote it, it was evern more her film, and her journey and whatever.”
But over time, her ex-husband became less of a plot device, and more of a pivotal character. “It was clear that the thing that was most reflective of her change,” Jones continued, “would be this prominent relationship. And so we started to write Jesse in more and more. And actually, if we’d had more time we’d have written more.” Her writing partner, Will McCormack adds “It was never a total two hander but at first it was probably like 80/20, then 70/30 and now I feel it’s probably like 60/40.”
It might look like a romantic comedy, but the writers delighted in subverting expectations.
‘Celeste and Jesse’ is an example of a burgeoning sub-genre, the post-modern-romantic-comedy (or po-mo-rom-com, a term we may have just invented), one where the characters and the audience are both aware of the tropes of the form. *SPOILER* Jones explains: “When we started writing we knew two things. We knew how it was going to end and we knew that, at the points when it seemed like they were definitely inevitably going to get back together, we wanted to try to surprise people. Because I think like in a weird way Celeste, that character, grew up on rom-coms, and her brain kind of thinks in that way which is like ‘Oh, that happens, you realize that the guy you know is the guy you’re supposed to be with and you ask for him to take you back.’ And that’s not the life for everybody, and you know life’s going to deal you what it’s going to deal you, and then you have to adjust. I think she gets so side-swiped that it forces her to change this tiny bit. Like it’s completely shocking for her and hopefully you know it will be for the audience.”
The pair are mainly keen to stay true to themselves, and resist any temptation to be pigeonholed, or become a “brand.”
Acting is no longer simply a question of getting up in front of a camera and saying your lines. In the era of omnipresent celebrity gossip and social networking, when actors are more connected to their audience than ever before, maintaining an image is an important part of the job. We asked the pair how they balance their own desires and the need to establish a “brand,” as it were.
Jones responded, “That’s a good question. This is going to sound super cheesy, but I feel like I can get swept away in the notion of that as a ‘cultural element,’ that I somehow need to be a part of, and I have to work really hard for myself to not be a part of that. Like I know that that’s part of what it is now to be alive in modern times, but I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Facebook. I get that you have to brand yourself in a certain way, but I’m also trying to keep my brand to be about whatever my truth is and not about what people think I should be. Because that’s hard for me anyway. It’s going to put me into therapy!”
McCormack added, “I’m just trying to get jobs. It’s so easy to acquire show business barnacles daily. You can easily forget why you did it in the first place. the reason why I did all of this in the first place was because I fell in love with it, and I was blinded by love for movies and plays. If I can always go back to the heart of it, then I’ll be fine. I think sometimes it’s hard to get back there, but that’s what I always want to go back to. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but if I can get to the heart of it, then I’m straight.”
The hardest thing about being in demand? Finding the time.
The duo were already lining up projects even before “Celeste and Jesse Forever” debuted, but with both involved in regular acting work, including Jones’ full-time gig on “Parks and Recreation,” they admit it’s going to be tough to find the time to write. “We’re freaking out and we’re screwed,” McCormack joked, before adding, “I think we’re trying to find the right balance, we have good days and bad days. It’s starting to make more sense but it was pretty overwhelming because we wrote ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’ and it was on the Black List, and people around town really liked it, and all of a sudden we had all of these meetings and opportunities.”
Jones adds, “Of course you’re not going to say no, but then you’re like ‘Oh my God, I can’t.’ ” But whatever happens, they won’t rush into the next project. “I think we just want to take our time,” McCormack said, “and write something that we really connect to, that’s sort of our only goal.”
And their next project? The action-comedy “Frenemy Of The State,” based on Jones’ comic book.
Announced even before ‘Celeste and Jesse’ rolled, the pair are well into their follow-up. Jones explains, “Right now we’re working on an adaptation. I wrote a comic book series, ‘Fremeny of the State‘ and we’re adapting it as a movie…we’re doing the adaptation for Universal.” McCormack adds “I’m excited about it, we’ve finished one draft and we’ve started the second draft. It needs some work but it’s a really fun sort of action comedy. A socialite becomes a spy. it was a great concept that Rashida created, so I’m riding her coat tails on this one.” But don’t expect them to take every rewrite gig that comes along. “I don’t feel like I’m very good with writing assignments,” Jones told us, “it’s hard for me to connect.”
“Celeste and Jesse Forever” continues playing at the Sundance Film Festival this week, and will hopefully hit theaters later in the year. —
Interview by Simon Abrams