Though Hollywood often doesn't know what to do with women who project such strength and fierce intelligence, Deschanel has amassed an impressive résumé, combining offbeat indies, such as All the Real Girls and the recent release Gigantic, with blockbuster comedies like Elf and Yes Man. But her new film, (500) Days of Summer, might be the best use of her talents yet; she plays a savvy, no-nonsense woman wary of love. The real-life singer even gets to belt out a tune in a karaoke bar. The omniscient narrator tells us at the start of Marc Webb's feature directorial debut that this is a story of "boy meets girl—but it is not a love story." And so begins the quirky courtship of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Deschanel), as the film jumps around in time during the course of 500 days of their relationship. Shades of Harold Pinter's Betrayal—the story is not told in chronological order—color a breezy romantic comedy told from Tom's point of view. One segment of the film discusses "The Summer Effect," detailing the strange power this girl holds over men. Deschanel, as Summer, is lovingly photographed in black-and-white atop a bicycle (an homage to François Truffaut's Les Mistons) as she simply blinks. That single moment has to convince the audience why Tom falls hard and fast for Summer—and Deschanel pulls it off effortlessly.
Deschanel was the first actor cast in the film, and Webb says the choice was obvious. "It's hard to imagine any other actor in this role," he notes. "Zooey has a certain presence in the Zeitgeist. She has a unique charisma that lends itself to this creature that beguiles you. She's all her own." Webb also knew he had found an actor both genders would root for. "What's great about Zooey is women like her just as much as guys do."
Deschanel was surprised to find herself drawn to the script, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, as she isn't generally interested in today's romantic comedies. "I feel like the genre, which evolved out of a lot of really great movies, became so narrow," she muses. "I can't think of one more specific. Science fiction sounds narrow, but it encompasses tons of things. Romantic comedy is just stories about one small aspect of people. But I read the script, and it was totally refreshing."
She also embraced the opportunity to play a new kind of character: Because Summer is up front from the start about not wanting to fall in love and the audience sees Tom so heartbroken, Deschanel is aware some people don't view her character in the kindest light. "I think people aren't used to seeing men and women in these particular roles, even though gender roles are constantly changing," she says. "We're representing a new era, and I know lots of people like Summer and Tom in these situations. It's nice to represent a new archetype. But I think people aren't quite used to seeing a woman in a romantic comedy that's a self-possessed individual and not falling all over herself for a man."
The Zooey Effect
Deschanel was raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural, The Passion of the Christ) and actor Mary Jo Deschanel (best known as paraplegic Eileen Hayward on Twin Peaks). Zooey and her elder sister, Emily (now starring on the Fox drama Bones), were interested in performing, but Zooey wanted to pursue it at a young age. "One day I realized that the young kids I saw on TV were real kids, not adults playing kids," she recalls. "I thought, 'Well, I can do that!' " She was allowed to participate in theater and signed up for lessons in acting, singing, and dancing. But her mother forbade her to try acting professionally until she was 16. "She didn't want to drive me around," Deschanel recalls. "So it became my goal to get my license."
Sure enough, shortly after her 16th birthday, Deschanel was driving herself to auditions. But her first professional role came from Tony-winning actor John Rubinstein, a family friend who had attended UCLA with Deschanel's mother. Rubinstein had seen Deschanel in plays at her school, Crossroads, including productions of The Mikado and Our Town. When he was directing Interact Theatre Company's 1996-97 production of Into the Woods, he was trying to think of company members who had a young daughter who could play Little Red Riding Hood. "It was my wife at the time, Jane Lanier, who said, 'Wait a minute. Why not Zooey?' " recalls Rubinstein, who was also appearing as the Baker in the production. "She was on time and learned her lines. And when she got on stage, she killed it. She was amazing." And even then, Deschanel had begun to develop her trademark deadpan. "She had what would normally be challenging to get from a young performer, because you need a youthful exuberance and precociousness but you also need to be cynical," Rubinstein says. "She had that sweet face, then she would open her mouth and this flat, hard-edged delivery comes out."
Rubinstein's agent at the time, Sarah Jackson, currently with Seven Summits, attended the show and was instantly captivated by Deschanel. "Rarely in my career do you see somebody who has something special and you know will go all the way," Jackson says. "But you could tell with her, even at that young age. She had no professional experience at all, but she held her own with this amazing cast, and you couldn't take your eyes off her." After the show, Jackson asked Rubinstein for an introduction to Deschanel's mother; Jackson represents Deschanel to this day.
Deschanel soon began auditioning professionally, and though rejection at any age is difficult, she actually felt it was easier as a teenager. "It was hard, but I was 16. So just lump all that rejection in with all the other rejection and insecurity you're up against, and it's nothing," she says with a laugh. She compares herself to her sister, who first went to college and then New York. "She was a little older starting out," Deschanel notes. "Which I think is harder, because you have more dignity when you're older. When you're 16 and in school, you have lots of other hobbies and options…. There are a lot of humiliating aspects to the horse-and-pony show of acting that is hard when you have a better sense of self." Still, she points out that things worked out for both of them. "I think everybody follows their own path in the end," she observes. "You just have to do your thing."
Deschanel says it took her a long time to get a job and that auditioning was "terrifying" to her. "But eventually people seemed to go, 'Hey, this girl's weird. She's different,' " she says. She soon landed guest spots on Frasier and Veronica's Closet and parts in movies such as Abandon and Manic—where she first worked with Gordon-Levitt. David Gordon Green's lyrical drama All the Real Girls marked her first leading role; casting director Mali Finn had auditioned Deschanel before but never cast her. "This is one of those times where I'd been keeping an eye on somebody," Finn reveals. "I first met Zooey when she was a senior in high school. She came in and was dressed in this wild outfit—like she was from another period. I think she was 17. So I just kept watching her, and I just knew that she would be so vulnerable and accessible, especially for David, who really needed that in his movie." Jackson calls the film a major turning point for Deschanel. "That movie and performance sat and stayed with so many people long after they'd seen it," the agent recalls. "Even now, people talk about it." Deschanel was nominated for a 2004 Independent Spirit Award for her performance, and from there, she says, "it just sort of snowballed."
Deschanel quickly became an indie darling, appearing in such low-budget fare as Eulogy and Winter Passing. She's aware some people perceive her as trying to resist becoming a huge movie star. "I don't think she's interested in superstardom," Webb says. "She refuses to play any sort of celebrity game. She's very much in possession of her career and herself. I don't think she has a lack of opportunities; she's just cautious." When asked if she's wary of blockbuster success, Deschanel laughs knowingly. "My career trajectory has actually been pretty equally weighted. My first two movies, Mumford and Almost Famous, were big studio films," she points out. "But I don't make 'star moves.' For better or worse, I just do what I find to be entertaining or interesting in the moment because it's too hard to get up every day and work on a movie if you don't really like it. I have done that, and it's not fun.... And I believe that, eventually, films find their audiences."
For her, the size of a role isn't the most important aspect; perhaps unexpectedly, she is much pickier about larger parts. "I've done more leads in the last couple years, and it's tiring!" she says. "When you're fourth person on the call sheet, you get days off. You can go to the museum. When you're the lead in a movie, you have to be twice as sure, because you're going to be playing this character every day."
She says she is constantly learning new things about acting, and she rejects subscribing to one method. "I've studied with so many great teachers," she enthuses—mentioning Larry Moss, Joseph Pearlman, Warner Loughlin, and Greta Seacat as major influences. "What's so great about all of them is how different they are. I'm a person that needs to have lots of pieces of information available. I need that variety of stimuli. Because if I feel trapped, I will rebel and act out."
She, Herself, and Her
Deschanel confesses that not all of her films turn out the way she hopes and some turn out better than she expected. Jackson puts it best when she says, "Her performances are always memorable, even if the films aren't." Admits Deschanel, "It's hard as an actor, because you don't have a lot of control over the end product. So it's not always your taste that's being represented. Sometimes you're manipulated to represent someone else's taste that is totally the opposite of yours."
This is why she calls herself fortunate to not be totally satisfied as just an actor. An accomplished musician who plays several instruments, she released her well-received debut album last year, Volume One, with Matt Ward under the moniker She & Him. Deschanel penned most of the songs. "It's so satisfying to be in a room and write a melody and some words and play them on a record with Matt and put it into the world," she says. "I saw it through from the beginning to the end, and that is the most exciting thing to me."
Deschanel says she'd like to have a larger part in the creative process in her films, which is why she intends to write and direct in the future. "Songs are a whole reflection of me and my taste, and I would like to make movies that are, as well," she says. Those who know her don't doubt for a second she can do it all. "She's talented beyond the scope of just acting," Webb says. "She has a great career ahead of her as a filmmaker if she wants it." And Jackson, who has been with her since the beginning of Deschanel's career and "hopes to be there until the end," believes the actor will essentially remain the same no matter what she achieves: "With Zooey, what you see is what you get. She's the same person she was when she did the play. All the fame and attention hasn't altered her kindness and her thoughtfulness and her generosity of spirit one bit."
Click here to read a profile of 500 Days director Marc Webb.
- Other films include The Happening, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Go-Getter, on which she met her current musical collaborator Matt Ward
- Became engaged in December to Benjamin Gibbard of the band Death Cab for Cutie
- Is the only actor in (500) Days of Summer who wears the color blue; director Marc Webb had planned to have a muted palette in the film and only use primary colors in a specific way, with Summer in red, "but when we cast Zooey," he says, "blue just fit with her, because of those eyes."