january / february 2007:
The Daughter of Q
You may recognize Rashida Jones from her starring turn in NBC's The Office or her half a dozen other acting gigs in TV and movies, but it's the role she was born into- the biracial Jewish daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones- that made her famous.
Profile by Gerri Miller | Photograph by Danny Clinch
She plays Karen Filipelli on NBC's The Office, but Rashida Jones hasn't an ounce of Italian in her. The daughter of Mod Squad beauty Peggy Lipton and composer/music mogul Quincy Jones, she’s biracial and Jewish, a “double whammy” of a distinction that she has found challenging and liberating at different times in her life.
Growing up in progressive privilege in Los Angeles, Jones “didn’t have much cognizance of the fact that I was different. My parents were kind of hippies and I went to a Montessori school [where] everyone had different religions and cultural backgrounds. I had Jewish friends, I had black friends, I had Asian friends. So it didn’t really occur to me that it was odd in any way,” she explains. “The differences, or the way people related to them, didn’t really strike me until college.”
Arriving at Harvard, she became aware of the effect her uniqueness had on people, as well as her status as a daughter of the famous. “College is a time when you’re trying to individualize and distinguish yourself from others and create your own subculture, and that was hard for me because I wanted to be part of the black community. I was for a while,” Jones recalls. “Then I had kind of an alienating experience. It wasn’t really about being Jewish. It was more the way I looked. I was lighter and my hair was straighter and lighter. It was this tacit understanding that the lighter you are, the harder you have to try to be more committed to being black. That wasn’t part of my constitution as a human being. For me it was just about what I identified with. I wasn’t really in the practice of having to prove myself to anybody. I was definitely scared off because there were a couple of girls who didn’t like me and made me work really hard for friendship. [But] it was good in a sense because with every step of alienation I realized that my identity is truly my own.”
Ironically, Jones had “identified strongly with black culture” in high school and considered that criteria in her college choice, but in the end found her niche with Jewish friends. “Junior year, I started dating a guy who was Conservative and had an Orthodox brother and practiced more than I did, was more devout than I was,” she explains. “We had a group of friends who were Jewish so I naturally gravitated towards that culturally and religiously, which was cool because I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I left Hebrew school when I was 10 because the girls were kind of snotty and I hadn’t gone back to exploring it. Being biracial and Jewish, I’m kind of given permission to explore whatever culture goes along with that. If I were just black and not Jewish I wouldn’t have had that entrée.”
Jones, whose mother grew up in an observant home in Lawrence, New York, has fond memories of Jewish celebrations of her youth. “We always celebrated the High Holidays. I did fast in high school for Yom Kippur and attend services. We always went to seder for Passover. I really liked the cultural and the familial side of Judaism. It was always the most comfortable place for me, making time for family and community.”
When she was 10, Jones attended a Passover seder at Beverly Hills’ Chasen’s restaurant. “I remember I found the afikomen and I got $100, which at the time was a ridiculous amount of money. I was actually happier about the candy I got than the money,” she laughs, noting that she traditionally celebrates the holiday with good family friends, the Ostins. “My memories of Jewish holidays were associated with them and have always had that positive aspect, very comforting,” she notes.
While she sometimes regrets not having a bat mitzvah, it doesn’t diminish her faith. “In this day and age, you can choose how you practice and what is your relationship with God. I feel pretty strongly about my connection, definitely through the Jewish traditions and the things that I learned dating the guy that I dated. My boyfriends tend to be Jewish and also be practicing,” she muses. “I don’t see it as a necessity, but there’s something about it that I connect with for whatever reason. I think it probably has a lot to do with my mom, the way I grew up, and the family friends that we had and the paradigm that I saw of family life and what I would want for myself, and that was all kind of interconnected.”
These days Jones lives in New York and commutes to L.A. to work, and calls The Office “my favorite job that I’ve ever had.” She once dated co-star John Krasinski, but insists that it was “pure coincidence” that she was cast as a love interest for him, though she knew that was the plot going in.
While her credits include TV dramas like Wanted and Boston Public, Jones enjoys and gravitates toward comedy and is proudest of her work on The Office, Chappelle’s Show, and a guest spot on Freaks & Geeks, for which she’s still recognized. She’s currently spending time shooting two films in New York.
Constantly told she looks too light to play African American, and rarely cast in period pieces because, she explains, “people like me didn’t exist,” Jones admits it’s “been a bit of an uphill battle to be somewhere in the middle.” On the other hand, “it gives me a tiny bit more range, and because I don’t look like one thing or fit into one thing, the people who do cast me understand me as an individual and what I have to offer as opposed to what I look like and how it fits into their mold,” she says, noting that casting opportunities are slowly becoming more colorblind, and as society becomes more multi-cultural, Jones predicts, “More and more you will see people look like me, where you don’t know what race they are, which is nice.”
Otherwise, she enjoys being something of a chameleon. “I can immerse myself in the cultures and pick and choose what I want and then just be myself. I have all these different groups of friends. The nature of who I am and the fact that I am so many things allows me to float,” explains Jones, who feels strongly connected to both her black and Jewish cultures.
“I have a great family,” she says, “but because my grandparents passed away and my cousins live in Texas, the Jewish family element is harder to come by and I have to make more of an effort to keep in touch.” More than anything, she notes, music is what bonds her to her black heritage. “The nice thing about my dad, his connection to music is, even after 50 years, a heart process for him and it’s a really nice way for us to connect.”
Jones, who has sung backup on several albums including Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane, hopes to record an album at some point. “I can’t ignore it. It’s definitely a passion,” she says of music. She became interested in performing at a young age. “I was a really precocious child and I did everything — music and acting — and I was a very good student. I went to college thinking I wanted to be a lawyer and then was very quickly disillusioned watching the O.J. Simpson trial. I started doing theater sophomore year. I realized that if it was something that I loved why should I treat it as an extra-curricular if I could actually excel at it? And I thought I would give it a shot.”
Her parents were supportive, offering advice “both solicited and unsolicited but all incredibly helpful. My mom has pretty much helped me with every audition that I’ve ever had,” Jones reflects. Taking the reins of her career, she recently produced the indie comedy The Ten, “loosely based on the Ten Commandments. I have a really tiny part,” she notes.
Another venture is a clothing line called Laloo, so named for the way her goddaughter pronounces “I love you.” Its launch this month will start on the Internet and in several boutiques with kits of three cotton shirts: tank top and short and long sleeve tees.
A believer in giving back to the community like her role model Oprah Winfrey, Jones devotes time to Peace Games, a charity that helps prevent violence by educating kids about resolving conflicts non-physically, starting in kindergarten. As for the notion she might inspire multi-cultural youth, “I never really see myself as a role model but if I can inspire anyone to feel better about themselves or move forward in their careers,” she says, “I’m happy to do that.”
Asked what else is on her to-do list, Jones, who keeps limber with Pilates, would “love to run a marathon at some point in my life.” She also wants to have a family “some day soon,” but she’s happily unattached at the moment. “I spent so much of my life not being single that it’s actually refreshing. I find the value in my life comes from my friends and family and I feel very at peace with myself,” she reflects. “I’m not in a rush to get anywhere. That’s good for me. I feel lucky that I’ve had the opportunities that I have and that I get to travel and work. I’m kind of going with the flow right now.”
If you'd like to comment on this article, email us a Letter to the Editor.