You know the name; know it’s pronounced Zoe and not Zooooey. You’ve probably seen her in (500) Days of Summer or Elf. And she looks a little bit like Katy Perry. But you can’t quite put your finger on Zooey Deschanel.
But those days are numbered, as the 31 year old’s new show, New Girl, set to hit our screens in January, is about to send her into ‘face-on-thousands-of-billboards’ territory. Already a smash hit in the US, the show has been swiftly upgraded from E4 to C4 on our shores, where a preview screening had this Stylist correspondent in stitches. Zooey plays Jess, a broken-hearted quirk of a girl (prone to breaking into song at any time) sharing an apartment with three guys – Jake M Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Damon Wayans Jr – softy, cheesy, and sporty respectively.
There have been a few contenders to the slot vacated by Friends when it finished in 2004 leaving Channel 4’s 8.9 million Friday night viewing public bereft. But this show looks like the first real contender we’ve ever really had. The will they/won’t they between Jess and Nick (Johnson) is intriguing without being too obvious, the script is razor sharp, and Deschanel manages to be both charming and incredibly embarrassing (her favourite chat up line is ‘Hello, sailor’ – it never works) Zooey may be the next not-just-a-pretty-face of prime time but when she pitches up at Beverley Hills’ L’Ermitage Hotel, she’s obviously lost none of her indie edge.
Her hair is shoulder length and stylish rather than Hollywood blown; her clothes are vintage-looking and eclectic (with some very high heels); her make-up bold and interesting. And when she speaks, it’s not the smooth, easy charisma of a big star. It’s the funny, cheeky, obviously very intelligent patter of someone who not only has her own indie band with M. Ward– She & Him – but also her own website aimed at women who are tired of “haters”. Rather than play the Hollywood game of red carpets and reality shows, she kept her wedding to musician Ben Gibbard low-key two years ago (they recently separated) and remains completely approachable despite her rising star.
What made you want to do a TV show? Did Emily [Deschanel, her sister, star of Sky Living hit Bones] have something to do with it?
No. I mean, that’s an interesting story you’ve made up [laughs]. I love my sister very much, but it had nothing to do with her. I had considered TV before, but I had never found a character I wanted to play for a really long time. Movies are like a shorter-term thing, so if you don’t end up enjoying an experience, it’s only a few months, whereas TV could be a long time. Then I read this script and I just fell in love with it. I had actually accepted the part before I even told my sister.
What was it specifically about Jess? Is she like you at all?
I think of her as a 13 year-old version of myself. She’s sort of sweet and guileless and, at the same time, excitable and emotional. And she really means well, although sometimes she’s unaware of what she’s doing.
Are you as much of a nightmare flatmate as she is?
I think I’m pretty fun. I’m pretty much always cheerful. I go on tour with my band, and it’s 12 people on one bus. And I feel like I’m the one who’s happy in the morning. I’m not a chaotic person, but cheerful. But I might slack off on doing dishes.
Do you have any input on the fashion choices your character makes in the show?
Yes. It’s a really collaborative relationship between Debra McGuire, who’s the costume designer, [who also worked on Friends] and me. I’m very intense, because I love clothes, and I feel like it’s a big part of who I am. It’s also a big part of how you can express a character. Debra really got my sense of style and the sense of style of the character. And she’s able to get so much amazing stuff from so many different places.
You’re also producing the show; how has that changed how you approach your work?
It’s been wonderful. I love getting to help shape the show and be a part of the decisions that are made on set. I’ve always thought that I’m on set to act, but I’m also on set to help the film get made and help tell the story. And that’s always been the type of actor I wanted to be. And so I think producing is sort of like a natural progression from that.
How is it being pretty much the only girl on set with a group of men? Has it made you more feminine or have you started talking about sport and telling dirty jokes?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve always been really girlie but I think it’s definitely made me understand guy humour a little bit more. I can definitely tell a dirty joke. I mean, I won’t now. It’s not an appropriate venue.
"I’ve always been really girlie...but I can definitely tell a dirty joke."
TV work can be pretty intense – with lots of long hours and a quick turnaround. Has it changed how you live day to day?
Oh, yeah. This show is my life. I’m there all the time shooting. And most of my free time is doing stuff to prepare for the show and working on next week’s script and thinking about what we’re doing in the future and making sure that everything feels right and memorising lines and working on my character. I haven’t been to the grocery store in months.
Is this the end of movies for you?
No. I think on my hiatus I’ll probably make some movies, hopefully. We’ll see what comes along.
Someone recently referred to you as a hipster pin-up…
Sure! I’ll be a hipster pin-up!
But you do bridge that gap between the indie entertainment world and the more mainstream entertainment world. How do you manage to keep a foot in both camps?
I don’t try to curate the types of fans that I have and I’m not a snob about any of that stuff. I just feel like I do the thing I do, and then whoever likes it, watches it.
Your characters are always a bit quirky. Is that a reflection of you?
I think that’s just something I can’t shake. I always wanted to be normal. But it’s like I try so hard to be normal and people still say I’m offbeat. I guess it’s part of the thing of being an actor, you realise you have a persona and that you have to accept it. You have to know your limitations. Sometimes you’ll play a part, and it just doesn’t work, you know? But that’s part of me that I’ve learned to accept and take advantage of as an actor.
And how is it when it just doesn’t work? Do you read your own reviews?
I try not to read reviews. Some people have an ‘all or nothing’ approach. They read everything and they’re maniacs about it. Or they are off the grid and don’t read anything. I’m a little bit in between. I just sort of read the good reviews. If somebody is trashing me, I don’t really want to hear it. I like people who like me. People love having an opinion, which is great, but I don’t always need to hear it. I need to trust my own judgment about the performances I give. I’ll be very critical of myself. If I watch something and it’s not right, I’ll freely admit it to myself. I try to trust my own instincts.
You have a website hellogiggles.com. What’s the aim of it?
I co-founded it with my two friends, Molly and Sophia. We wanted to create a place that was a positive destination, where we had a lot of interesting writers, not just people who write for a living, but people with a lot of different perspectives. It’s really fun to have created a place for people to express themselves. And also, we don’t allow negative comments on the site because we don’t want our writers to feel bad about expressing themselves. We want them to feel free and happy.
Finally, your band has released A Very She & Him Christmas. Very festive…
[Laughs] I’ve just always loved Christmas music, and Matt did too. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, so we just set aside studio time in April and it took, like, a week. We wanted it to feel very intimate, like you were just sitting around the fire and making music. It was just for fun!
Words: Simon Gage
Picture credits: Rex Features and TM 20th Century Fox