When I met Zoey Deutch just off Main Street In Park City, Utah in the midst of the Sundance Film Festival, it was a warm and cordial affair – which is pretty rare at this festival. Journalists and talent are usually piecemealed together inside a large tent for maximum time management efficiency. But this was nice, with a beautiful view of a snow-covered Utah street. This was kind of how I always imagined a Sundance interview going before I ever came here. It finally happened.
I had met Deutch once before when I sat at the Everybody Wants Some!! table at the Gotham Independent Film Awards back in November. Even then, Deutch was talking about Before I Fall, her new starring vehicle here at Sundance. (In November, she had mentioned we should do something for this movie when we were in Utah. I agreed, knowing full well these informal agreements never work out. Anyway, here we are.)
Based on Lauren Oliver’s 2010 book and directed by Ry Russo-Young, in Before I Fall we meet Samantha, a popular high school student who, like most human beings, doesn’t always think through how her actions affect other people. After a party in which an unpopular student is publicly embarrassed, Sam and her three friends are involved in a terrible auto accident. The next morning Sam wakes up and repeats the same day. And this keeps happening. Yes, there are elements of Groundhog Day, but the film goes down some very dark paths.
Though, if there’s one thing you should take away from this interview, Zoey Deutch does not want to be your “It Girl” or your “It” anything. She’s here to act and you can kindly keep your labels to yourself. But first we decide if we should play the fancy game of tic-tac-toe that’s sitting on the coffee table in front of us.
There’s a Tic-tac-toe game here.
We could do that instead.
With no video. I’ll just write the play by play.
I used to be very good at this. [Laughs.] It’s an extremely complicated game…
Can you be good at Tic-tac-toe? Didn’t WarGames teach us?
Well, when you’re five, or four. And I missed that one.
Nuclear war is avoided because the computer figures out Tic-tac-toe.
Now I’ve got to put that on my list.
Before I Fall starts goofy with a Groundhog Day vibe, then becomes something kind of dark…
I think, initially, you’re watching the movie and you think the entire film revolves around this time loop idea. And then by the end, you realize that that structure takes a backseat to something much bigger.
This is true.
Which is, I’m so pleased that it’s coming out right now. It’s about understanding that what you do matters: for anyone, at any age, at any time, it’s important to be reminded of. We all feel small, we all feel unimportant. We all question our purpose and our mortality and what it means to only be here for a short period of time. And what’s the point, and et cetera, et cetera? It brings up these really big, beautiful, deep concepts in the setting of a high school. I really do love that it’s intentionally not belittling the high school experience, the adolescent mind. Because the truth is, at that age, you are really deep and you are experiencing so many things and so many emotions, and you are faced with, I don’t know…
You were about to say something profound and stopped.
And then I realized I’m hungry.
Well, we’re all hungry. That was a metaphor, right?
[Laughs.] Yeah, of course it was a metaphor. And Ry Russo-Young, she’s a force of nature. She’s like this serious leader. She’s extremely talented, but I am way more impressed with how hard she worked and because she worked hard, because she knows that she has her shit together. She has this confidence about her.
Has this been the your most satisfying acting experience? A lot of your other roles were in ensembles…
I don’t know how to measure those experiences from best to worst. I can’t conceptualize that. But I can tell you that I’m really pleased and grateful with how people are responding to it. Because I know it sounds kind of silly, but it’s hard to do something that personal. I mean, to me, it’s a very small movie. It had a very small budget.
I think some people have preconceived notions when they hear, “Based on a YA novel.”
One hundred percent.
The fact that it’s at Sundance should tell you, okay, this is going to be something a little bit different. But people need to get that out of their head.
I totally agree with you. And I think they will. I think this is a movie that explores things that everybody does.
The Twitter reactions to your performance were very positive.
I deleted Twitter, I haven’t seen anything.
You’re not on Twitter right now?
No, I deleted Twitter for Sundance.
Oh, just off your phone.
Yes. But I think there’s this weird thing that I personally don’t find useful, which is likability. As an artist, actor, as a performer – I don’t think you think about. All I want to do is honor the character, do the best work that I can do, because I literally fucking love my job.
I can tell.
I can do this until the day I die, I’m fine. But my biggest point is it sounds annoying, it sounds like I’m trying to be preachy about it, but here was never a world where I thought that I want to be in a place where I have five of my faces on one poster. That was never the intention. It was just to play interesting people in interesting places and interesting situations. You know, really, that’s all I wanted, and it happened this way, and that’s fine. And whatever journey I’m meant to go on, it’s cool. And I’m not one of those people that’s in it to go, “I want to be a movie star.”
That’s a good thing.
I just don’t care. That is not what I care about. It just doesn’t mean anything. What does that even mean? Anyway.
Does that attitude come from having a mother [Lea Thompson] who is an actor?
I’m sure. My mom is an amazing artist. She has not stopped acting and directing and working and she’s an amazing mother. And I have a whole family of artists. My grandma’s a painter. She’s 90 years old. We just had an art show for her. She’s blind and can barely breathe and she’s still painting and writing – and she’s lived and breathes and dies her art. So I am really lucky to be surrounded by people who are doing what they love and working really fucking hard. And knowing that there’s a lot of luck involved, but if you do what you love and you work hard and you are nice to people, sometimes that means you can be ready to be lucky.
But at the same time, your profile is rising, and I’m sure you’re getting more options than you had just two weeks ago.
Well, I have a bad memory, but I wish I could quote Ethan Hawke’s speech at the Gotham Awards, because that’s the exact attitude. If I am lucky enough to be the “it” girl, to be the rising star, then the falling star, then the rising star, then the falling star – if I’m able to continue being nobody and then whatever.
What are you looking when the script comes? What do you want to see at this point?
I guess I’m in a place where I’m fortunate and lucky enough to be a little pickier. That’s all I’ll say. And I want to make movies that move people. And I also wish I could just quote Meryl Streep, what she said at the Oscars when she was like, “All my job is to inhabit people and their feelings and make people feel what it must feel like to be that other person.” That’s, by the way, the dumbed-down version of Meryl Streep by someone who is really, actually, like I said, dumb.
You are very self-deprecating.
Well, I don’t know.
As someone who is also self-deprecating, I find that to be a good trait.
You get it. Yeah, I’m really happy to be here and I feel lucky. Because there’s so many huge, big movies and big premieres and this and that. So many of my favorite movies came from Sundance and to be in an environment where you’re doing press where you get to have conversations with people that you like and you get to look outside and it’s beautiful. You’re not holed up in some freaky little room for 14 hours. I mean, it’s such an exciting thing and I feel lucky.
Are there headlines about to that you dislike?
Oh my god, I hate anything “It Girl.“ Do you know what I hate? I hate “It Girl.” And I hate, “On the rise.” But I hate those two things because there’s like a connotation behind it. All I care about: I want to work, I want longevity. It’s like, whatever, just leave me alone and just watch the movie.
How about, ”Zoey Deutch Probably Hates The Titles That You’ve Made About Her Career”?
“Zoey Deutch Just Wants To Make Movies.”
Has someone actually written the title, “on the rise”? Is that a real thing?
Yeah. More “It Girl,” which to me is so condescending. ”It Girl” means that it’s like right now and, aw, she’s so cute. She’s going to be gone and no one’s going to know her in three months. And it’s like, can you guys leave me alone? I’m not going away. I’m going to be here, whether I have one line or not. And do you ever see “it boy”? I never in my whole fucking life have seen “It Boy.” And I’m sorry to do this. I’m sorry to always bring it back there, but I’ve never seen “It Boy” and I’ve never seen “It Guy.” That is not a thing you see. There’s no, oh, the “It Guy” issue of X magazine. That doesn’t exist.
There is the sexiest man alive. There’s that.
Fine. I’m happy to objectify Channing Tatum. [Laughs.] No. “It,” in general, is bad. How nonspecific is that? That’s just lazy journalism.
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