Interview: ‘New Girl’ star Zooey Deschanel

(Reminder: I’m on vacation this week, but transcribed a few press tour interviews to keep the blog from going totally dark while I’m gone. I’ll be back after Labor Day.)

“I kind of happen to like press conferences,” Zooey Deschanel told me mid-way through an interview at FOX’s press tour party.

Of course she would say that, not 12 hours after she had been the centerpiece of a press conference that was less a Q&A than an unapologetic lovefest.

Deschanel is the star of FOX’s upcoming new sitcom “New Girl,” in which she plays Jess, a quirky but lovable young woman who’s prone to singing to herself (she wrote her own theme song) and dissolving into a tear-stained mess from watching “Dirty Dancing.” In other words, she’s a slightly fictionalized version of the persona many people already project on the indie film actress and one half of the retro pop duo She & Him.

In what seems like a problematic year for new comedies, “New Girl” – about Jess moving in with three male roommates who don’t understand this magical creature in their midst (and are shocked when she puts on a little black dress and is suddenly gorgeous) – is one of the few genuinely promising ones. But because it leans so heavily on Deschanel, and an audience’s preconceptions of Deschanel, it’s going to succeed or fail based on how much people like her.

At that press tour press conference, the bulk of the room, really really liked her. Put it this way: one of the questions was, quote, “When did you first know you were adorable?” (Deschanel’s reaction, which involved covering her ears and blushing furiously, only increased the adorability levels coming from the stage.)

So when I sat down with Deschanel at FOX’s party, I had to ask about her about that strange press conference, but also about her musical career (and the many movies in which she’s been asked to sing), about the benefits and challenges of playing a character so close to herself, and more.

Was that musical number in “Elf” where you sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” the first time you sang on screen?

Yeah, on-screen. But I’d been a singer and a musician all my life.

Because since then, it seems like in many of your roles, including this one, you get to sing. Do you think that was because of “Elf”?

I think in a lot of them, it was. But in this one, I’m not singing out of showing off or being a good singer. It’s just, she sings because she loves music and that’s how she expresses herself.

Is it more fun for you in a role when you get to show that side, or are you okay with just plain dialogue?

I really don’t think about that. It just happened that so much stuff that I ended up doing had that as a part of it. Like anything, if you have a skill, that’s going to be part of what they think of when they cast you.

Watching you at the panel this morning, I thought to myself, “This is either a fantastic confluence of actress and character, or she is attending this panel in character and giving us a great performance,” and everyone insists to me, “No, that’s Zooey.”

(Laughs) Jess, my character, is a part of myself. There are other parts to me, but she is a really distinct part. So when I see the scripts, it’s like I completely understand who she is and how to do this character in the way that I feel she’s meant to be played. I feel like she is me when I was 13.

But there are some actors who are fine with playing some version of themselves, and there are some who say, “No, I want to keep those two parts distinct.”

Well, I’ve played so many different characters in my career, and it’s funny, because for a long time in my career, people thought I was a whole other person. A lot of times, I’ll play an aspect of myself, but it’s not all of myself. Part of being an actor is relating to a character. But most of the time, I’m not playing myself. Most of the movies I’ve done, I can find something I relate to, but I’m not playing myself. I just have to be able to see their point of view. I’ve taken the parts I’ve taken for different reasons. This one, I think is a little more similar. I’m kind of a sincere person, you know? I played a lot of sarcastic, wisecracking characters for a long time, and people would think that was me. And it’s very much not me, and then people would think I was being sarcastic when I wasn’t: “Oh, you’re making fun of me right now.” And I wasn’t! So it’s just interesting how you get tied in with the characters you play. It’s just inevitable. But I don’t see a problem with it. Part of being an actor is having a persona to begin with. Some people play more with it, or have more or less range, but you have certain things that you will successfully play, and other things that I couldn’t successfully play. Knowing your limits is a good thing.

So what is something you think you couldn’t play?

One of those Angelina Jolie, in a bodysuit, running around with a machine gun? Everyone would laugh. For some reason, people look at me and laugh. I don’t know why. But I’ve noticed when I’ve done things that are slightly outside – sometimes you try something and it doesn’t work. And It think, “That wasn’t the right decision.” I love doing comedy, and I can see the humor in things, and I think I unfortunately can see the humor in things that maybe shouldn’t be funny. I become the satellite for the humor in something that shouldn’t have that. Unless there was a fair amount of comedy to an action movie, I probably don’t see myself as an action star.

But getting back to what you said before about how people just assumed you were sarcastic, I guess if they’re going to extrapolate your personality out of those roles, it might as well be a role that’s a more positive version of you.

Exactly. It’s really interesting how people will react to you based on the characters you play. After I did “500 Days of Summer,” a lot of people connected to that movie, but because of what Summer does in the end, a lot of people really projected that on me. It was a very upsetting feeling, I have to say. But it’s interesting how that works.

I’m curious: how much, if at all, did the “New Girl” script change from when you read it to when the pilot was shot?

There were jokes, but the heart of it stayed the same.

So what I guess we’ll call the Zooey-ness of the character was always there?

Yeah. When they offered me the part and I accepted it, I really wanted to be a part of the casting process for the other characters. So I went in and I read with pretty much everyone who was called back for any of the roles. So I really got a chance, in that time when we were casting, to really experiment with the character, in a way that you don’t necessarily have time to do on your feet. That was a very fortunate thing, and we could see what worked and didn’t.

You’re doing a comedy, your sister (“Bones” star Emily Deschanel) does a drama, so the workloads aren’t exactly the same. But I have to imagine that the schedule is going to be somewhat easier than film. What has she told you about the schedule of TV versus movies?

I know it’s really fast. But I started out doing indie movies, so I feel like it’s an indie movie, but you’re doing it for a long time. And you get to play the same character for a long time. I feel excited to be able to play a character I can get to know.

You did that stint on “Weeds.”

That was really fun.

Was that the same kind of quick pace?

It was quick. But it was an ensemble, so I had less that I had to do. You get, like, three takes. I’m happy with three takes. I don’t need to endlessly explore every option. Especially since I had a chance to experiment and see what levels worked. Jake Kasdan, our director, is really instrumental in helping me dial those in. I wasn’t sure exactly what levels would work.

That was a really unusual press conference this morning.


You don’t usually see the entire room kind of falling in love with the star of the show. The question, “How long have you known you’re adorable?” is somewhat unusual in the TCA annals.


Having not done this before for a show, what was that like: eight questions in a row about your adorability?

(laughs) I couldn’t believe how nice everybody was. It was lovely. It was really touching. I’ve been an actress for a long time, and this has been such a great experience all around, working on this show. I kind of happen to like press conferences. I know that sounds weird. But I started out doing theater, and I play a lot of live shows, so being up on a stage feels really fun to me. So, a press conference is fun, and I get to interact with people. I also really like being up on stage with a lot of people. That feels comfortable to me. I don’t know why I like them, but I was kind of excited to be up there.

You definitely had a good one. After it was over, one of the critics joked on Twitter that FOX needed to have you come out on stage for every other panel so we’d be nice to them.

(laughs) I would’ve done it! I woulda.

I want to get back to the music. With She & Him, you’ve been doing it long enough that it’s no longer a novelty: “Ooh, an actress who sings.” It’s just part of what you do. Because of that, does it ever make you more reticent to sing in an acting role at all?

It actually does, because it’s not something I need to do. I actually like that this wasn’t, like, “She’s a singer.” It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do that, but I felt like this character loves music, and I connected with the fact that she loves music.

What’s cool about what you do is that it’s not this “American Idol thing where, “Oh, I’m going to strip the paint off the wall.” It’s about tone and phrasing.

I feel there are tone singers, and there are more vocal gymnastics singers. And I think that’s amazing when people can do that, but I think there’s room for the tone singers. And there aren’t a lot of them. Karen Carpenter is one of my favorite singers, and Judy Garland had amazing tone. Or even somebody like Stevie Nicks. So I always feel like that’s what I aim for as a singer: the truth of the emotion, and tone.

And do you see any parallels between that position for yourself in music and what you do as an actress?

It’s interesting, because as a musician, I don’t feel like I need to be on the top of the pop charts. We’ve been successful in the indie world and it’s been amazing, but it’s really satisfying that I get to sing. It’s more about self-expression than about the business of it. And I’ve seen more and more that what’s mainstream has nothing to do with something pre-fab, it’s just about something that everybody begins to like. When I started out, I think people were very, like, “I don’t know who this person is.” But I think that maybe, as time has passed, I have just been able to become a little bit more mainstream. People are less freaked out by this weird girl standing before them. They’ve gotten used to me.

Cameron Crowe was here at press tour earlier to talk about his Pearl Jam documentary, and some of us got to talking afterwards about “Almost Famous,” and how Kate Hudson originally had your part, and then Sarah Polley left, Kate got promoted and you were brought in. How much did that change your career?

Completely. I had the most amazing first two movies. I got to work with Lawrence Kasdan on my first movie (“Mumford”). Nicest guy, amazing actor’s director, loves actors, loves rehearsing, so great. My second movie was Cameron Crowe – another one of those guys who’s the nicest guy on the planet, great director, loves actors, same thing. And I was like, “Every movie’s gonna be this fun!” It was pretty crazy. I actually dropped out of school to do “Almost Famous.” I was in my first year at Northwestern. It was pivotal, because I was going to go back to school and store my stuff, but at the last minute I shipped my stuff home and was like, “I’m taking on this thing. I’m actually going to do this.” I auditioned on my winter break and got a callback on my spring break. It happened to completely coincide. That changed the whole course of my life – not just my career, but my personal life.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at