About five years ago, Rashida Jones was seriously mulling a departure from acting. She had gone from a flourishing stage career at Harvard University to one unrewarding audition after another in New York, and she was tired of the grind. She decided to pursue a graduate degree in public policy.
"I got the application and everything," Jones said. "And then the role on 'The Office' happened."
That part, as a love interest of John Krasinski's Jim Halpert, ensured that Jones wouldn't be studying qualitative statistics and the new public health movement soon. The gig springboarded Jones to a supporting turn in the hit bromance "I Love You, Man" and in last year's Oscar-nominated drama "The Social Network" in addition to her starring role in the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation."
She can be seen in her first leading performance on the big screen in the independent film "Monogamy," a relationship drama that opened in Los Angeles this month.
"In elementary and high school, I never considered acting as a profession," Jones said, sipping green tea behind oversized black plastic frames at a West Hollywood restaurant. "I wanted to be president, or a judge, or a lawyer. In my weird, tightly wound mind, it didn't feel legitimate enough to aspire to be an actor."
It's hard to imagine the 35-year-old — the daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton — as anything other than a performer. With a manner that's at once exotic and girl next door, Jones has a natural screen presence ("relatably smart and relatably sexy," in the phrase of "Monogamy" director Dana Adam Shapiro) and a flair for comedy.
In the coming months, Jones will appear alongside Steve Martin ("The Big Year"), Paul Rudd ("My Idiot Brother"), Justin Timberlake ("Friends With Benefits") and perhaps the most experienced costar of all, Kermit the Frog ("The Muppets"). But for years, she says, she felt like an outsider even in her hometown.
"I see my parents' friends out now and they're sort of peers, and we go to the same parties, and they say, 'I'm so proud of you; I always knew you could do it.' But it's not like they were ever like 'Let me make this phone call for you.'"
She laughs. "I would have taken the handouts. But nobody gave them to me."
Although Jones is unmistakably a child of privilege, she wears it lightly, perhaps the result of spending her 20s as a struggling actress; pretty much her only roles of note during that time were on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks" and "Boston Public."
She describes her years working with Harvard's deep bench of comedy talent with more enthusiasm and prides herself now on carefully selecting the right roles, ones that allow her to work with comedy veterans.
"I am definitively qualitative about work," she said. "If you told me that if I went to Bulgaria for eight months and shot all night on a vampire-werewolf movie with four really difficult actors and a really mean director but it would set me up for the rest of my career, I probably wouldn't do it. The experience is too important."
The on-set experience was a factor in making "Monogamy," to which Chris Messina, a longtime friend, helped bring her after he was attached to star. The movie, from "Murderball" director Shapiro, is about a New York couple drifting apart (the title is both descriptor and cruel irony) and centers on what happens when Jones' amateur musician is hospitalized with a minor infection and Messina's photographer becomes obsessed with shooting a mysterious blond.
Relationships and their struggles are subjects close to Jones' heart. "I have a lot of skepticism about marriage and monogamy," said the actress, who has been romantically linked to Krasinski and presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau but is not currently known to be dating anyone.
"Marriage feels like an industry with catering and really expensive bands. I'm all for celebrating a union. But call me in 10 years, I will come and celebrate my ... off. Half the people are not going to make it, and it's silly to pretend that it's not the truth."
That sort of contrarian opinion informs much about Jones, and also prompts a restlessness, even after her recent breakthrough, toward the idea of being defined solely as an actor. Jones has published a graphic novel, has sung backup vocals with pop group Maroon 5 and also has written her first film, "Celeste & Jesse Forever," a romantic dramedy that has been set up at a number of studios and looks to go into production this year.
As for her future in front of the camera, the actress has instituted what might be called the Botox test — "If I start looking at my face and think, 'I could use a shot of something here,' then I have to quit and do something else." She then adds, "I still may change careers in my life at some point. I may go back to school and get a degree in law, or business. Or public policy."