Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Rashida Jones Wonders What Makes Us Human

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For someone who used to ride a school bus with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, Rashida Jones is remarkably earthbound. Growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of the “Mod Squad” actor Peggy Lipton and the legendary music producer Quincy Jones, she was so ensconced in the world of mega-celebrity that it took a while for her to realize that the people surrounding her—Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, Michael Jackson—were as iconic as they were. That heady milieu would cause most young people (say, her bus-mates) to lose themselves in the fame bubble. Instead, Jones did her homework and got into Harvard, where she studied religion and philosophy, before finding fame on her own, on the sitcoms “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” In many of her roles, as in her life, she projects a dry, discerning intelligence that cuts through the absurdity surrounding her. She is a very good guide to the world of the famous.

That same sane-in-the-midst-of-insanity quality is on display in her latest project, “Sunny,” a sci-fi series that premières this week, on Apple TV+. Based on a novel by Colin O’Sullivan, the series, which was created by Katie Robbins, follows an American woman named Suzie (Jones) living in Kyoto. After her husband and son are presumed dead in a plane crash, she receives a plucky, eager-to-please homebot named Sunny, who insists on helping her clean up the mess of her life. Suzie begins to realize that her husband wasn’t the simple refrigerator engineer he claimed to be, and Sunny may be the key to finding out who he really was. In the vein of “The Flight Attendant,” the show flings Suzie into a strange, perilous puzzle box, involving artificial intelligence, yakuza assassins, and a condescending Japanese mother-in-law.

“I’ve never gotten the chance to play this kind of role before, somebody who’s propelling a mystery forward and has her own baggage that she’s taking with her,” Jones told me recently. She was Zooming from her home office in Los Angeles, where she lives with her longtime partner, the Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, and their son. She wore a pink Hasty Pudding hat and aviator frames, and sat in front of bright-green cabinets decorated with hand-painted birds and flora. “I’m in my kooky, middle-aged era, where I’ve decided I want everything to have color, after years of minimalism and mid-century Scandinavian sparseness,” she explained. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about robots, the state of Hollywood, eleventh-century Indian theology, and the time that Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles, bit her on the hand.

You have a lot of scenes with Sunny. How was it to act across from a robot?

The robot was very high-maintenance. It took a lot of people to make it come alive. There was somebody controlling the bigger spatial movements. There was somebody dealing with the software for the screen on the face. Sometimes we had an actor who just had the hands, so they could do more articulation with the fingers. And then we had the great Joanna Sotomura, who plays Sunny. She was in a tent with a giant helmet and a bright light on her face, and she was making all of Sunny’s expressions and saying all the words. So it was translating her expressions, but it meant that I never was in a room with Joanna.

You’ve acted across from Muppets, in the 2011 movie “The Muppets.” Did that give you any experience to draw on?

Yes! I loved working with the Muppets, and I remember having a feeling, like, the fifth day of shooting, that I was having a full-blown conversation with Kermit. I wasn’t looking at his Muppet performer; I was just talking to the hand in the felt puppet. And I was, like, Oh, this is what it’s going to feel like when A.I. becomes a reality. I remember having that thought all those years ago. It doesn’t take much to engage your senses: a little turn of the mouth, a voice, a personality. We’re so simple in that way. So, yes, it was a great training ground, and there were times I really felt the essence of Sunny.

It’s interesting that this show, which is about our relationship with technology, is on Apple TV+. Of course, Apple is the company most intimately involved with most of our lives. I’ve also read that, on Apple shows, the villains can’t use iPhones. Did you have any directives like that?

No, but I had heard that, too. You can’t vilify the phone. You can’t have a broken phone. But it’s funny, because with shows like this and “Severance,” it feels like Apple is working out its own feelings about what they are: “Wait, are we the big, onerous, scary tech overlord? Or are we the ones who have the good intentions, and somebody else comes in and changes the course of the good thing we were supposed to do?” At least they’re in therapy about it, is how I feel. To me, the irony’s not lost about Sunny being this shiny, round, white thing that’s taking over my house and permeating my life. I have one of those—it’s called an iPhone. Obviously, this story is its own thing, because it’s set in the near future and there are villains who aren’t necessarily technology. But there is some coming to terms with the fact that technology is expanding and learning much faster than we had ever imagined, and we’re forced to reckon with this existential question: What does it mean to be human?

It’s a very timely topic, especially in Hollywood. A.I. was at the center of the actors’ and writers’ strikes last year. There’s this Scarlett Johansson dispute with OpenAI. What are your feelings about the role that A.I. might have in entertainment?

I’ve heard people say, “This is so scary. We have no idea how destructive this is going to be to many industries.” And I’ve heard people say, “That’s what they said about every new piece of technology, including the printing press.” But the printing press never learned stuff that we didn’t teach it. That’s the part that I think is scary. Much like the Internet, it’s going to be the Wild West, and at some point it’s going to be destructive enough that it’s going to have to be pulled back into some sort of consent-based operation. I don’t know how they’ll do that. It does feel like the darkest people are in charge of the Internet now—everything from biowarfare to the dark Web. I have always been obsessed with stories about growing technology and the fear of technology.

Well, I would count “The Social Network,” about the birth of Facebook, in which you played one of Mark Zuckerberg’s lawyers. Is that something that drew you to that project, too?

Yes, but specifically because the script took a point of view. We didn’t even know how much [social media] would permeate our lives at the time the movie came out. But all of this stuff had an origin story. This person had a reason, a determination to do something because of his own circumstance. He was rejected. “Let me fix that by controlling the forces that rejected me.” You understand that person. You relate to that person. You might have compassion for that person. And that’s exactly the kind of person who made these things that spiral out of control.

“Sunny” has a lot of elements besides robots: yakuza mobsters, grief. What drew you to it?

I’ve never really played a lead in a series like this, where the story is being told through this one person’s searching. I felt like, I’m old enough, I’m ready for the challenge. I love the sense that this character, unlike me, is isolated. She’s a bit misanthropic. She came to Japan and found her own people, her family—and then she lost that very suddenly. It does feel like a show about figuring out where you belong. And the grief part is interesting to me. Grief has very much shaped my life in the past five years, because I lost my mother five years ago. I became a mother, and then seven months later I lost my mother. That squeeze in both directions forever changed me.

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