Rashida Jones on Sunny and Whether the Robots Truly Have It Out for Us

Rashida Jones on Sunny and Whether the Robots Truly Have It Out for Us

Rashida Jones is the embodiment of what might once have been called a Renaissance (wo)man, but these days more often gets dubbed a multihyphenate. She’s best known as an actor—as a straight-woman in projects like the beloved Parks and Recreation and Angie Tribeca, a recurring guest on comedy series from Key and Peele to Kroll Show to Portlandia, a voice actor on Inside Out and The Simpsons, and roles in more dramatic projects like Silo and The Social Network. But she has also made a career behind the camera, as a producer (The Other Black Girl, Claws), director (Quincy, the Grammy-winning doc about her father, music producer Quincy Jones), and writer (Celeste & Jesse Forever, Black Mirror).

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In Sunny, the new Apple TV+ dark sci-fi dramedy she produced and stars in, she gets to do a few things that even she hasn’t done before. For one, she acts opposite a robot, the titular Sunny, who possesses, as her name suggests, the kind of “Hey girl!” pep that Jones’ misanthropic Suzie can hardly tolerate. For another, she’s working in two languages, as the tech-thriller mystery of Sunny’s genesis—the homebot appears as a consolation gift following the disappearance of Suzie’s family in a mysterious aviation incident—unfolds across the brightly lit neon nights of Kyoto.

Even as the series is focused on our relationships to technology, it also explores the very human experience of grief, a theme which particularly appealed to Jones in the wake of losing her own mother, the model and actor Peggy Lipton, in 2019. Playing against type, as TIME’s TV critic Judy Berman writes, Jones gives “a performance that’s worth watching on its own merits, as she locates the vulnerability within Suzie’s flatness and channels her Parks and Rec charm into making a grouchy heroine lovable.”

In the lead-up to Sunny‘s release on July 10, Jones spoke to TIME about channeling her own experiences with grief, how Sunny compared to Kermit the Frog as a scene partner, and whether she’d ever return for more Parks and Rec.

TIME: In Sunny, you play an American woman in Kyoto, reluctantly bonding with a “homebot” gifted to her by her husband’s company after he and their son disappear following a plane crash. What about grief were you hoping to explore in this story?

Jones: When you grieve, there is this sense that there’s so much left unsaid. There’s regret and confusion, this lens looking backwards at your entire relationship. Even if it’s not your husband who you’re concerned might be involved in some dark sh-t. There is something that felt really visceral and true to me, because I lost my mom a couple years ago, and it was the most complex emotional experience I’ve ever had. I had a baby, and then seven months later, my mom passed away. I had this combination that’s like in the show, of this intense love of family, and then the shock of the reality that your life has changed so much. There’s the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, but it’s not cyclical. It’s not linear. It’s just chaotic.

Was the parallel cathartic, or do you draw a line between your experience and the character you’re playing?

I’m not the kind of actor who’s like, “I want to go and leave it all on the field.” But I think there is something I wanted to process, or else I wouldn’t have picked it. It’s not the easiest thing to show up every day and scream and cry and have to access that place in real time. Like, maybe today is not the day you want to feel that feeling. But there was probably something in me that wanted to sit in it a little bit more.

What drew you to this project?

I wasn’t aware of the book. And this show kind of strays from the book. So my first exposure was a script and an absolutely beautiful deck and a playlist. The world was so well imagined already, this retro futuristic thing where a lot of the music was ‘50s and ‘60s American-style music, sung in Japanese. The look of the show, the primary colors, the glowing lights of night in Kyoto. I was attracted to the new challenge of playing someone who is so immediately in grief and shock. I really liked that Suzie was unlike me in some ways. She feels a bit isolated in her own life. Just to have the opportunity to bring all of that pathos into a mystery was really appealing.

It’s a very human story, but the themes around our relationships to technology are very timely. Your character can’t trust the intentions of Sunny, her robot. What is your relationship to technology? Are the robots out to kill us?

With so many innovations in the past, there was a sense of ownership, a person using a tool. I don’t think anybody thought the printing press was going to become sentient. I’ve always had a little bit of a nihilistic idea of the world since I was a kid. For all of humanity, as soon as our needs were met, we tried to figure out why we’re here, why we’re special. We can’t figure it out, so we’ve gone so far as creating something that’s so much like us that it might kill us, to see if we can figure out what makes us human. It’s such a weird Greek tragedy.

You’ve acted opposite Muppets. What was it like acting opposite a robot?

It was definitely challenging. Joanna Sotomura, who plays Sunny, is a wonderful actress, and she was in a tent off-set with a helmet on with a super bright light shining in her eyes, and the camera would pick up her expressions and then translate them into the very lo-fi Sunny face. It took so many people to make the robot move and have articulate digits. But when we actually got to act with Joanna on Sunny’s screen, that felt pretty real, pretty fast. I felt that way on The Muppets movie—on the second day, I wasn’t even talking to Steve [Whitmire], who plays Kermit. I was just having full, off-camera conversations with Kermit. It doesn’t take much.

Not only are you acting opposite a robot, but the show is in two languages. Suzie has this earpiece that can instantly facilitate communication, but it’s also a crutch, because she doesn’t have to learn the language, which further alienates her.

It was very different from anything I’ve experienced. The actual earpiece is not functional. So I had that and another earpiece in my other ear with the translation. So both my ears were occupied, and then sometimes the earpiece wouldn’t work. I don’t speak Japanese, so I would just have to listen to the rhythm of the scene and really watch the actor and respond in a language that I didn’t understand. Suzie is isolated, a bit of a misanthrope, and she moves to another country, in a way, to not have to talk to people. So, yes, it’s an absolute crutch, and she’s been able to check out culturally, which is kind of lazy, and then she gets thrown into this thing where she has to interface with all these people. And so it’s a little bit like her worst nightmare.

Read more: The Best Result of the Streaming Boom? America Finally Loves Foreign-Language TV

You’ve directed, produced, written, acted in every genre, worked in podcasting and animation. Is there a place where you feel creatively most at home?

When I get to write with [writing partner] Will McCormack, immediately it feels like home, because we’ve been friends for 25 years. It’s like the coziest couch that ever was. We just speak the same language and love each other and it’s really fun and funny. The last couple things I’ve done have not felt like home, and I purposely pushed myself. I also feel very at home sitting at the monitor, whether in a writing or producing or directing capacity, and seeing the thing come to life. You know when something doesn’t quite work. And when an actor really has a great moment, you’re there to see it. 

In this age of reboots, is there a project you would want to revisit?

Actually, three. Parks and Recreation was the best job that ever was. We’re still super close, and everybody would be so excited—it just has to be right, and has to come from Mike [Schur] and Amy [Poehler]. Any time, any day, you name it, I’d be there. I Love You, Man was so much fun. We talked for a while about trying to imagine [coming back to it], but we might just be too old now. People might not care.

I still say totes McGotes sometimes...

It was on tote bags! There were so many classic lines, we spent so much time improv-ing that movie. And then, Celeste & Jesse Forever. Will and I have talked about some sort of spiritual sequel because it defined an era of relationship, and now we’re in a different era we have a lot to say about—kids, marriage, staring down the barrel of your back half.

Sequels get a bad rap, but they really do justify their existence sometimes.

It’s a great joy. All you’re trying to do as a writer is get to know the characters, and you never have enough time. 

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