Retta Remembers: How I Got to Know the Parks and Recreation Cast

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by NBC

Donna Meagle and her real-life counterpart Retta didn’t have much to do (or say) when Parks and Recreation began its run back in 2009. “That was part of the pitch to me for the show,” the actress explains. “It was going to be a lot like The Office, where there wouldn’t be a lot in the beginning.” Creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels promised that would likely change as the show took shape — and they were true to their word. Retta has been a series regular since season three, and Donna is easily one of the show’s most beloved (and meme-friendly) characters. (Two words: Treat yo'self.) “I personally see her as the voice of the audience,” Retta says of her on-air alter-ego. “She sees the ridiculous stuff everyone does, and she kinda says to the audience, ‘I get it. I know they’re crazy, too. But they’re family.’” With Parks headed for the great TV beyond tonight, Vulture asked Retta to recount how she got to know (and sometimes love) the other main actors on the show, as well as their respective characters. Her stories confirm what we’ve long suspected: Like Pawnee, the set of Parks and Recreation was a pretty great place to live. 

Amy Poehler (Leslie Knope)
My very first interaction with Amy was in the pilot. Leslie was showing the cameras around the office. I had no dialogue in the script; I was glorified background at the time. I remember Leslie coming out of the office, pointing out different things in the office, and she walks over to my desk. All I could think was, Oh my God — I hope she doesn’t say anything to me, because I have no idea what will come out of my mouth. I wasn’t an improv person. I mean, I improv now — but that’s after having spent years with great improv-ers. So anyway, Amy walks over to me and says, as Leslie, “This is Donna. And this is Donna’s board.” There were things pinned to the board, including a leaf.  Leslie turns to me and says, “Donna, where’s this from?” And I said, “Outside.” After they yelled "Cut," Amy died laughing. She was like, “Oh my God — outside? I did not see that coming.” I don’t think any of that made the episode. But that was the first dialogue between Donna and Leslie. 

Paul Schneider (Mark Brendanawicz)
Paul was one of the more exciting co-stars for me, because I loved him as an actor. I always thought he was super, super talented, and I was surprised he was doing TV. So on my first day, I remember I was sitting at my desk, filling up space as an extra. And I remember him coming into the bull pen — and I super was nervous. Because as far as I was concerned, he was famous. I remember him walking over to my desk, sitting at my desk, and saying, “Hi! I’m Paul. What’s your name?” And I was like, “Whaa?!” He was super charming, super funny, super inclusive of me. And we talked about Raleigh (because I went to college in North Carolina), and we became friends and hung out a couple of times before left. We talked a bit after he left. But I remember the last phone call I had with him, he said to me, “I just got a message from my agent. I’m supposed to go meet with Woody Allen.” And I said, “Shut the fuck up.” He also booked a movie with Jane Campion, and he was super excited about that.  

Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins)
My first encounter with Rashida was in the same exact spot as with Paul  — my desk, which is where I usually was. I remember we’d gotten into a conversation about the word irregardless, and how it had actually gotten into the dictionary. Rashida went to Harvard; I went to Duke. And Duke students have a bit of a chip on their shoulders with Harvard students, because they don’t feel they get the respect that Harvard students get. So we were having this conversation about irregardless, and she said, “It’s sad but it’s true; it’s in the dictionary.” And  I was like, “No, there’s no way it’s in the dictionary.” So I started looking it up on my phone — and they had actually included it. And I was like, “Goddammit, Harvard!” So, as if I didn’t already have enough of a chip on my shoulder, my first conversation with Rashida, who was a Harvard graduate, was her being right about something. Now one of my favorite parties to go to is her birthday party. Usually it’s at her dad’s house, and it’s so much fun. It’s very casual, but she grew up with every star in the world — so you have these huge stars walking around. Last year I was like, “I can’t believe I’m at a party with Katy Perry.” 

A scene with Rashida is also where I got my first improv line into the show. It was the episode where were trying to get Pawneeans to stop putting their mouths on the water-fountain nozzle. Ann was heading that task force, and she was trying to get suggestions from us. And she said to Donna, “Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “Do I look like I drink water?” 

Treat Yo Self. Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by NBC

Aziz Ansari (Tom Haverford)
I did not know Aziz when were first started working together. I knew of him because I knew Paul Scheer, and I knew that they did Human Giant together. But I didn’t know his stand-up or anything about him. Aziz was kind of in his head a lot. He thinks a lot. Unless he’s engaged in a conversation, he doesn’t necessarily engage in a conversation. And he was so popular and in-demand and forever getting emails from agents; he was always working. But because of the way they wrote our friendship, Aziz and I became friends. Now we’ll text each other things we find out about Tom and Donna. The show made us friends. But that Pawnee Rangers episode, where we did Treat Yo’Self — we spent a lot of time together. I feel like that was my first full story line. And I just remember we had so much fun doing the fashion montage … and the scenes in Donna’s Benz. We just hung out all day together. I got to find out how funny Aziz was as a person. 

Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson)
Nick is super sweet, and the loveliest guy ever. But Nick was the first person who clued me in to how blue our actors could work. He would improv stuff that was so filthy. Every scene, we do a take, the last take, that’s called the “fun run.” It’s where you can do whatever you want as long as you take the story where it’s supposed to go. One day, we’re doing a scene in the conference room. And during the fun run — I can’t remember what Nick said, but I blushed so hard, I could feel the heat in my face. I was like, Oh. My. God. I thought he was so innocent, and this was the first time I saw who the real Nick was. When they say "fearless performers" —  I could see what they meant. That’s Nick Offerman.

Chris Pratt (Andy Dwyer)
Chris is also the loveliest, loveliest person you’ll ever meet. And I’m kind of torn between Chris and Nick, as to whom I love more. There was an episode called “The  Possum.” There’s a scene with him with the possum on his neck — I still laugh just thinking about it. But we had a scene after that, in the bull pen. The possum is in his cage. Before we were shooting, I see that Chris is talking to the possum.  And he’s talking shit to the possum. It was hilarious. I just enjoyed how he approached the possum as a person. 

Donna (foreground) and Jerry (background). Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by NBC

Jim O’Heir (Jerry Gergich)
When we first met, Jim and I were in the same boat: We were co-stars, then guest-stars in season two, then series regulars. We had the same journey on the show. One of the first conversations we had, I remember him telling me he had gotten an invitation to a gifting suite. It was for the Grammys, though. And he was like, “I don’t know how my name got on the list, but I’m going.” So Jim and I would always talk about our invites to gifting suites: “You think it’s gonna be a good one? Because I don’t walk around for a bunch of junk.” That was our conversation — we were so into the gifting suites. We’re so over it now. But before, when we were new, it was like, “They give us free shit! What?” It was very exciting for us. 

Jim is my set husband. We share a trailer. So whenever he leaves the bathroom, he bangs on the wall so I can hear it and says, “Got it!” The joke is never unfunny to him. One of my favorite scenes with Jim was a group scene. It was the episode where he split his pants and farted in front of the group. It was such a juvenile thing, with fart jokes — but we were dying. Dying. As a placeholder, they did sound effects in the room so we could react. And he was more than willing to do it over and over and over again. Our biggest moment was recently, where you saw that Donna loves Jerry. 

Aubrey Plaza (April Ludgate)
Aubrey is super sweet. She’s kind and loving. But when I first started working with her, she was a bit of an enigma to me. She was super quiet — but she also seemed to be this alternative girl. She’d say something so crazy, and it was like, Did she just say that out loud? We didn’t have very many scenes together in the beginning. But the first one I remember was when April was just starting to like Andy, but she was also mad at him. He was doing stuff for her so she wouldn’t be mad at him, and Donna got in on it. She got him to massage her feet, but she had to ask April if it was okay. I loved being able to see how much April pretended she didn’t care, but she really did care — and it was all due to Aubrey’s performance. She was so good at being able to show she was into this guy, even though she was trying not to look like it.  

Adam Scott (Ben Wyatt)
I had watched Party Down, so I knew his face, and I knew he was a character actor. And I had watched his HBO show Tell Me You Love Me, so I remember thinking this was an actor who would do anything. But when he first came on the show, I did not like Ben Wyatt. It wasn’t personal, but I kept thinking, Why is he giving Leslie a hard time? It wasn’t for a while, though, that I had any time around Adam. One day we were in the makeup trailer and I found out that, one, he watched The Bachelor, and that we kind of loved the same TV shows — except that he did not like Scandal. And I was like, “I want to love you, Adam Scott, but you can’t hate on me over Scandal.” Adam has very dry humor. And he always fools me. He’ll tell me a complete lie, but he’s so sincere when he says it that I’ll believe him. And he’ll always go, “Really? I’m not that good.” But I’m a sucker. I always buy it.  

Rob Lowe (Chris Traeger)
My first experience with Rob was in a scene where he was talking to the group, and we’re all in there. I was sitting at my desk, and he’s giving a speech next to me. The DP on the show was such a sweet guy, and for some reason, he loved me. And because I’m darker than everyone else, he put special lights on my desk so I looked like a human being. Anyway, Rob comes over, and he looks down, and he sees the lights. He says to me, “Do you have your own lighting?” And I said, “Yeah, Rob. That’s how we do it on Parks.”