Sunny star Rashida Jones on acting with tennis balls and how it felt to film a show in Japan as a Black woman

Sunny star Rashida Jones on acting with tennis balls and how it felt to film a show in Japan as a Black woman
  • PublishedJuly 9, 2024

Rashida Jones has two things in common with the character she plays in the dark comedy-meets-technological thriller series, Sunny.

Like Suzie Sakamoto, the actor feels fatigued by the identity politics that overshadow her everyday life back home in the US, she tells ABC RN’s The Screen Show.

And Jones is about as resistant to inviting a digital assistant into her home as Suzie is. When Sunny, an equal parts annoying and unnerving domestic robot, is foisted on her for comfort following the presumed deaths of her husband Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima; Drive My Car) and son in a mysterious plane crash, she becomes fixated on finding a way to switch her off for good.

In a near-future Kyoto, Japan, supposedly helpful homebots like Sunny are as commonplace as the virtual assistants we use today. (Of the likes of Siri, Alexa, et al, Jones says: “I don’t like having a thing at the ready where the minute I talk it will do something at my command.”)

Like Jones, Suzie is “deliberately the outsider” in this world for her refusal to use assistive technology — but that isn’t the only reason she exists on the periphery of society.

A jaded American whose “personality sucks”, Suzie doesn’t speak Japanese and will not conform to the country’s social script, despite having lived there for years.

“She’s chosen very intentionally to move to a country that is very different from her own,” Jones says.

“She feels freed by the fact that the politics [of Japan], whether it be race or gender or class or anything, they’re not her politics … She’s not even thinking about it, which is interesting because America is in a very fraught moment culturally.”

Like Suzie, Jones found it ‘relaxing not to be subject to that every day’ while filming in Japan

As a Black actor whose Blackness has been routinely questioned and scrutinised over the course of a decades-long Hollywood career in which she has repeatedly played racially ambiguous characters on the likes of Parks and Recreation and The Office, this is unsurprising.

Based on the technological thriller novel The Dark Manual by Colin O’Sullivan and produced by A24, Sunny offers a meditation on the exhausting experience of belonging to marginalised communities by depicting a Black woman whose everyday life isn’t plagued by race or gender. In Kyoto, neither Suzie’s race nor her gender identity are of consequence to herself or anyone else.

A woman stand in line at a grocery story in front of a white robot and other humans
Jones thinks Sunny is more about a person “struggling with her own loneliness” than identity politics.(Supplied: Apple TV+)

Here, she’s still the outsider, but not for her Blackness or the fact she’s a woman. She exists on the periphery of Japanese society because of her unwillingness to conform to cultural expectations, and because the acute grief she’s experiencing exacerbates her long-held hermit tendencies.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s any identity politics in the show,” Jones says.

“This is more about a person who’s struggling with her own loneliness and then trying to externalise that in her own life, but keeps being confronted by having to connect with other people because she’s [trying to solve the mystery of what happened to her husband and their son] and she’s desperate for answers, truth and connection, ultimately.”

The series also brilliantly skewers Japanese office culture and offers up a worst-case AI scenario

Suzie’s attempt to determine the truth about her husband and son’s disappearance and turn Sunny off completely (awkwardly, with the help of the ever-bubbly Sunny herself) sees her caught up in a dark corporate war. It’s a war with an AI conspiracy at the centre of it, where robots have gained dangerous levels of sentience.

The information she gleans — which is intrinsically linked to her family’s whereabouts — could get her killed.

The near-future world of Sunny, featuring the real temples and tight streets of Kyoto, is as aesthetically pleasing as the dark narrative — and the show’s fittingly uneasy score — is unsettling.

Every element in this 10-part series feels painstakingly developed, from the elevated costume design to the Sakamotos’ avant-garde refrigerator. But no detail feels more carefully considered than the robot the show is named after.

A large white robot stands in front of a house
Sunny, voiced by Joanna Sotomura, provides much-needed support for Suzie despite Suzie’s dislike for her.(Supplied: Apple TV+)

Sunny is so much more than a tennis ball on a stick: It took six people to run her on set.

Jones explains that Joanna Sotomura, who voices Sunny, was based in a tent off-stage for much of filming, wearing a helmet with a bright light emanating from it. A cameraperson would pick up the expressions Sotomura made, and those expressions were then transmitted to the screen on the face of the robot Jones acted alongside.

A third person was tasked with rolling that robot back and forth, a fourth with making her gesticulate, a fifth with updating her software as needed and sometimes a sixth person would be called on to don a Sunny suit so more could be done with her hands and head movements.

“It was a complicated endeavour, but it was designed to help us feel connected to her, which I really appreciated, because I am not a green screen actor,” Jones says.

“I’m not good at that. I can’t act with tennis balls, I’m just not good at it. Some people are … I’m not.”

Fans of Black Mirror — and of books that tackle the phenomenon of the Japanese workplace including the works of Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Woman), Mieko Kawakami (Breasts and Eggs) and Haruki Murakami (Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki) — will want to devour Sunny.

Episodes are unfortunately only dropping weekly from July 10. But don’t let that dissuade you; this show is up to appointment viewing standards.


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