Zooey Deschanel might shine in every movie she makes, but she's got no interest in acting like a star.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's December 2008/January 2009 issue.
By pedigree, Zooey Deschanel is about as Hollywood as they come. Her dad’s a five-time Academy Award–nominated cinematographer, her mom’s an actress, and her sister is Emily Deschanel, the star of the Fox crime drama Bones.1 When she was 19, Zooey dropped out of Northwestern University after seven months to work on 2000’s Almost Famous, her second movie role, and hasn’t looked back, acting in an average of three films a year since. She’s even got the requisite inside-Hollywood dating past.2
By temperament, though, Zooey’s about as far from Hollywood as you can get. She lives with said sis, doesn’t have a DUI or even a Klonopin bust (that we know of), and has yet to be photographed without her underwear (though our lens cap is always open). Her movie choices reflect a quirky and open-minded, if demure, sensibility: In 2003 she filmed a (totally chaste, thank God) shower scene with Will Ferrell in Elf and played a (regrettably chaste) small-town virgin in the indie fave All the Real Girls.3 Perhaps most anti-Hollywood of all, she released a rock album that a) was critically acclaimed, and b) didn’t feature a single Tom Waits cover or Scott Storch– or J.R. Rotem–produced track.4
So while outsiders might see her ascension to big-budget leading-lady status in 2008’s The Happening and Yes Man as some sort of Hollywood destiny, to Zooey it’s just the next thing to do. If you have to, tag her Hollywood’s indie–blockbuster–cult fave or whatever else the pigeonholers come up with. Just don’t tag her It.
First off, I’ve noticed a slight Southern accent slips out when you speak sometimes. Where does that come from?
[Laughs.] All my life people have thought I’m from every place that I’m not from. I’m from Southern California, and it has a weird accent that I had to get rid of. [Adopts robotic voice.] People talk like this where I’m from, and I was like, I am not going to talk like that.
I’ve heard so many people say that so many times: 'You’re this year’s It Girl!' And I’m like, 'You said that to me in 2001 and 2004.' You go in and out of style.
I don’t know where it comes from. We moved all over the place when I was forming my speech.
So between the album and a couple of big movies, 2008’s been a pretty busy year for you.
Yeah, I worked a year and a half straight without a day off.
Any New Year’s resolutions for 2009?
You’re talking to somebody who doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions.
Well, I stopped biting my nails.
That’s good. When did you do that?
That’s really good! I did it last year, but it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution. I’m kind of making resolutions all year long.
And how often are those successful?
Most of the time!
Damn, you should get an infomercial or something.
I’m not saying I’m conceited, but I’m that kind of person. If you say “don’t do this”—well, not you—but if I were to resolve to do something, I’d do it.
Which is why you’re successful and I cry myself to sleep. With your top-billed roles in The Happening and now Yes Man, people are looking at 2009 as the year you’re going “big” Hollywood.
The more you guess what people are going to like and dislike, to me, that is corrupting the product.
I take it you’ve been hearing that a lot lately.
I’ve been an actress for so long that I’ve heard so many people say that so many times: “You’re this year’s It Girl!” And I’m like, “You said that to me in 2001 and 2004,” you know what I mean? You go in and out of style; I’ve had years where it’s definitely like I’m not that cool this year.
You don’t buy into the hype?
My philosophy is that art should be as pure as possible, and as much as there is a separate component of audience reaction, whatever creative things I do should be unaffected. I don’t ever want to do something in anticipation of someone. The more you guess what people are going to like and dislike, to me, that is corrupting the product.
But as much as you want to be beyond the hype machine, there’s a different set of expectations between something like The Go-Getter and The Happening, right?
I don’t know. I mean, a movie is a movie is a movie. Some you’re on for longer, some experiences are better than others, but they’re all the same structure. Even when you’re working on a small movie, it’s still a lot of money. You either have a smaller or bigger trailer or no trailer, but you’re still gonna sit somewhere and wait and the AD is going to call you to set and you have a director that tells you what to do. It looks different from the outside, but it’s just…
Different catering budgets.
Looking back, which projects mean the most to you, either your role or the film in general?
You know, I really like a lot of things for different reasons. There was this movie, All the Real Girls, which was a great experience for me, and it was a time in my life where it was a fun collaborative experience, and I really loved working with the director—
David Gordon Green. With Pineapple Express, he became the It Director! And Danny McBride [who made his film debut in All the Real Girls] became the It Comedian! For a film made in 2003, All the Real Girls seems like this year’s It Movie.
It’s so cool. Danny McBride wasn’t an actor. There were like three people supposed to play that part—actors from L.A.—and they all fell out. And I remember we were in rehearsals two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting and David was all mad and was like, “I’m just gonna call my friend Danny—he’s funny as shit.” [Laughs.] After that movie, I was like, “I don’t know why he isn’t the most famous person in the world, he’s so hilarious.” And now I’m like, “Oh, it takes seven years.” But here he is, this amazing comedy star.
Speaking of comedy, what’s your approach to it? You have this great deadpan style, whereas with Jim Carrey…well, nobody’s accusing that guy of being subtle.
Jim is so electrically funny and such a huge talent. He can pull off very, very broad humor and still have it rooted in reality. I try to keep things rooted in reality and have the comedy come out of the situation. One thing I like about working with Jim is that he goes back [and looks at the playback after each take]. It’s so much of a timing thing, and you can really see it when you watch from the outside. It can be very technical in a way that’s fun and interesting to play with.
Another huge part of your year has been spent touring and promoting She & Him. You seem to be enjoying the musician’s life quite a bit.
It’s been wonderful.
There are like a hundred people involved in making the movies. With the record, most of the time it was no more than three people in the studio at once. I got to have a lot of control. That’s really satisfying.
How did the experience of making an album and going on tour change your outlook on things?
It’s actually been really nice because I’ve been able to see how much more control I can have over my creative output. As an actor, you don’t really have much control over what is actually put out into the world.
Other people get to take your thing and put their own twist on it.
Yeah, and there’s a lot of manipulation that goes on. It can be for better or for worse, but it’s just nice to put something out into the world and be like, “OK!” I was a very small part of making these movies, because there are like a hundred people involved in making the movies. With the record, I wrote all the songs and Matt [a.k.a. M. Ward] would produce them, and most of the time it was no more than three people in the studio at once. I got to have a lot of control over what was put out there, and I was able to see something through from genesis to fruition and see people’s reactions to it. That’s really satisfying.
So let’s do some musical free association. What comes to your mind when I say the following things: “This Will Be Our Year.”
Zombies. That’s one of my favorite songs.
I’d probably go with “The Duo,” but fair enough. Spirit in the Dark.
I don’t know…
That’s the name of Lindsay Lohan’s new album. No actress-singer beef?
I don’t know her!
“My Drink and My Two-Step.”
That sounds like a country-western song.
Excellent. Last one: Goonie Goo-Goos.
I have no idea what that is.
Yeah, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure anybody does.
1. Dad Caleb snagged one of his nominations for The Passion of the Christ, and mom Mary Jo had a recurring role in the cult TV series Twin Peaks. And now we will refrain from saying anything about Zooey's twin peaks. Oops! We said we'd refrain, but we didn't. [BACK]
2. Jason Schwartzman (eh...), Maroon 5's Mickey Madden (at least he's not Adam Levine) and Chris Kattan. Wait, we thought chicks dug funny guys. [BACK]
3. She also played the mistress of a galactic president (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Sarah Jessica Parker's BFF (Failure to Launch), the owner of a stolen car (The Go-Getter) and a music teacher (Bridge to Terabithia) -- and was the best part about each of those turds. [BACK]
4. Yes, we're talking about you, Par-Hil and Lilo. And yes, Volume One, Zooey's album with indie rocker M. Ward (as She & Him) is actually dope. Too bad the crowds at their shows make us want to mosh with a spiked bat. [BACK]
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Jewels for the Wall Group. (HAIR) Mara Rozack for Pantene at the MagnetAgency.com. (MAKEUP) Spencer Barnes for SoloArtists.com/Lancome. (MANICURE) Kimmie Kyees. (CLOTHING) COVER, SECOND, FIFTH, AND SIXTH IMAGE: Necklace by Made Her Think / belt by VPL. SEVENTH IMAGE: Dress by Alexander Wang. THIRD AND FOURTH IMAGES: Tank by the Row / bra by Kiki De Montparnasse.