Plenty of performers take an interest in writing in order to help better craft roles in which they can then star. An excellent example is Rashida Jones, whose screenwriting debut, the Sundance Film Festival-minted “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” finds her starring opposite Andy Samberg, as one half of a married couple attempting to gracefully transition from coupledom to amicable divorce. With Will McCormack, however, Jones’ writing partner on the project, it’s almost the exact opposite. He’s an actor (he even has a part in the movie, as quirky pot dealer Skillz) comfortably transitioning to life away from the camera. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to talk to McCormack one-on-one recently, about working with his ex-girlfriend, mock-masturbating tiny cylindrical objects, and his next collaboration with Jones, “Frenemy of the State.” The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: I asked Rashida about the movie’s mock-masturbation of mini-corn and other tiny objects, and she said that stemmed from your real-life relationship. Did that come from the brief time the two of you dated?

Will McCormack: That evolved during severe writer’s block. We want to write a how-to screenwriter’s book. Because with writer’s block, you can masturbate any small vegetable or a Chapstick, and (then) you can’t take yourself too seriously for the rest of the day, which opens one up as a writer. For me, taking myself too seriously means I’m in trouble. But if there’s a small cucumber around, you can, you know, help it out. And then your writing opens up.

ShockYa: In writing this, she also said you mostly shared one computer, passing it back and forth to type. I’m less interested in specifics of striking a right tone than that sort of shared creative process, and exactly how many twists and turns your story took in writing that way.

WM: It was hard, in some respects. But we wrote it really fast, and I felt like this story was always in us and that we just had to sit down and write. From the draft that we wrote at four months to the one that we sold at six it was pretty similar. There are inexorably characters that get cut along the way because you don’t need [them], but I think the biggest hurdle was that it was originally Celeste like 80 percent (of the story), because we knew her voice so well. So [the work] was building Jesse more and more. And it was never a total two-hander, or intended to be, but throughout the writing process I think we were really working on building Jesse up more and more. That was probably the biggest development or change.

ShockYa: It’s interesting that you say it was never intended to be a two-hander, because [based on] the title that might surprise some people. Since you had Rashida in mind for Celeste, did you ever want to play Jesse?

WM: I guess originally, for a second, I thought about it, because I’m just reading it. But then I thought, “What’s the best possibility of this movie getting made — is it with me as Jesse?” And I love the part of Skillz so much. The acting work that I do is really character-y stuff, so for me Andy felt so right for the part (of Jesse). I quickly let it go, and was so happy to play Skillz, which feels so much more aligned with what I do as an actor. … I want to do more films and I love acting, but it’s not my desire to be a leading man. I’m a character actor. My favorite actors are David Straithairn and Harry Dean Stanton and guys like that. Those are my role models.

ShockYa: What was the real-life support structure that you and Rashida had for one another? Because this film took quite a while to get made.

WM: Yeah, we sold it with her attached to Fox Atomic, and then they went out of business. And a couple people were interested in it with her attached loosely, originally even. We were pretty adamant about having her attached to (star in) the film. At that point, they want to get the biggest stars ever. I mean, you should see the list of people they give you for Jesse. And you think, “Well, that’s great, but he’s so wrong for the part.” So I think that the movie was originally a much bigger film. But finally having made it at this smaller budget really gave it an organic, homegrown feel that comes through. We were always committed to having Rashida, and I think that anyone who didn’t think about casting her in the part will regret it when they see it. For me, I’m really proud of her, because she’s obviously super-talented, but she’s never gotten the opportunity to do this. People will say, “Oh God, she’s not just funny and sweet and all those things that she’s great at, but she also can really, really act.” I think people under-estimate her. It’s hard for women, you get a lot of wife parts. You’re relegated to fill-in-and-smile. This we always wrote for her, and to be a movie for women. And men too, but it’s a woman’s story.

ShockYa: I can understand the desires of someone like Rashida or Brit Marling, where they want to have a hand in writing and producing material in which they’re going to star. But where do you strike a balance between acting and writing, since, as you say, you don’t have designs on being a leading man?

WM: I would say that I’m probably more of a writer now than an actor, and I can’t believe that I would ever feel that way. I want to do both, but I have to say that writing a movie and selling it and having it get made was like getting 20 acting jobs at once. It was just so fulfilling. And the process of it I really like — I like the solitude, I like that it takes time. Acting is really hard, too. I went into an audition yesterday, in a folding chair in Burbank, and you get very little respect. It’s tough. They see you for a couple minutes, and a lot of it comes down to what you look like. I feel like as a writer I have a lot more control, and the older I get the more creatively fulfilling it is.

ShockYa: [Director Lee Toland Krieger] talked some about having you and Rashida available to defend his choices. What choices do you think he was talking about — in post-production, and stuff like that like?

WM: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, in collaboration we’re all going to agree and disagree, but I felt like we were all on the same page as far as what the tenor of the movie should be. We hired Lee, and were so grateful that he agreed to do the film, [because] he really was so effective dramatically for us. We didn’t want just a straight comedy director, because we wanted the movie to be funny but also have the dramatic elements work. So I think he’s mostly talking about that — that we wanted… it to resonate for people who’d been through a heartbreak.

ShockYa: And now you’re working on “Frenemy of the State,” which sounds a bit more expansive than this little indie film.

WM: Yeah, it’s a comic book that Rashida created with a couple other people, and it’s about a socialite who becomes a spy. It’s sort of a coming-of-age comedy, and we’re writing it for Imagine Entertainment. We just handed in the second draft, and we’ll see (what happens). Stuff blows up, and there’s car chases and horse chases.

ShockYa: When you’re doing a movie like “Celeste and Jesse,” it necessarily incorporates certain boundaries and limitations. Was that your first chance to really open up your imagination in that way?

WM: Yeah, it’s been like, “How do they get out of a helicopter now?,” instead of, “How do they get out of this cafe?” I feel like I’ve stretched as a writer, but it’s been good for me.

Written by: Brent Simon

Celeste and Jesse Forever, Frenemy of the State

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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