It is a warm early spring day in Los Angeles and the rest of the city is already in flip-flops and too-short Abercrombie minis. But 28-year-old Zooey Deschanel arrives for tea dressed in stylish, high-waisted jeans, a pretty white blouse, and a soft, tweedy jacket. She wears pinkish socks with her sandals and no makeup. The effect is that of a student at the Sorbonne rather than of an actress who is on the verge of her major breakthrough, an image that is only reinforced when she begins to speak.
Does she mind sitting outside? “Not as long as I’m not in the sun,” she says sweetly, assessing the shade on her side of the table. Her skin is pale, a rare commodity in a city of human Slim Jims. This June, however, Deschanel will be exposed to a lot more glare than the Los Angeles sun can beam onto her. Her role in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, The Happening, is her first bid for major box office. The blockbuster potential isn’t on her mind. Instead, she says she chose the project, her first big-budget thriller, because she liked the people. The film is centered around a major eco-disaster that sends her and a band of survivors on a life-or-death journey to outrun it. Of her director, a man most audiences have reason to think is part-warlock, all Rod Serling, she says, “He’s not at all mysterious. He’s gregarious and fun—the life of the party!” Co-star Mark Wahlberg—Deschanel plays his wife—comes off as the gravitas of that set. “Mark’s a very natural actor, and very giving. He’s really smart and clear about his choices.” So, the Lord of the Night is the guy with a lampshade on his head and the former leader of the Funky Bunch is Lee Strasberg’s student in wire-rimmed glasses.
Custom black Antoinette swimsuit by Ashley Paige, all jewelry by Cartier.
But Deschanel is just as surprising in person. “They have the most wonderful fresh mint tea here. Would you like some?” She is polite, thoughtful, and self-sufficient. These qualities are also prized in the rough and tumble grab for great roles that marks the lot of many younger actresses. “Zooey has a translucent intelligence,” says Todd Komarnicki, producer of the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf, which co-starred Deschanel, “as if she’s both keeping and sharing a secret with everyone she meets.” Today, it’s more the former than the latter. The usual questions about her life in Los Angeles are met with brief replies: She keeps a place here and is rarely in it; she has friends scattered across the globe; no, she doesn’t get out much and when she’s working, which is all the time, she won’t even go out to dinner. Deschanel’s shyness extends, naturally, to her personal life, which can’t help but be discussed anyway. She has been linked to actors such as “Saturday Night Live” alum Chris Kattan and musician Mickey Madden, the bassist for Maroon 5. But anyone looking for this member of young Hollywood on the cover of a tabloid had better just stay happy with Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag.
“I don’t like talking about myself,” she says shyly. Rather than merely answer questions, she is happier to engage in a true dialogue. As becomes clear, Deschanel is continually processing ideas about art, music, and life, and belongs to no single time period. One of her favorite movies is the 1938 Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn comedy, Bringing Up Baby. She adores Nina Simone, the Everly Brothers, and vintage fashion. With a finger in every decade—the Twenties, Forties, Sixties, Seventies—Zooey is a cultural Zelig, borrowing from the past to make a present all her own.
Though today she is enjoying a slower pace, waiting for her pot of tea to steep and pausing to appreciate its naturally bright green color, her gifts and career choices indicate a fierce work ethic that is not centered on a single objective. Beginning with a guest role on the implausible lingerie sitcom “Veronica’s Closet,” Deschanel has moved steadily back and forth across formats. Attentive audiences picked up on her delicate beauty and unselfconscious sincerity in indie fare such as All the Real Girls, The Good Girl, and her first film part, Mumford. No one could miss those eyes, and in person they seem even bigger than they do on the screen. They are as round and clear as Wedgwood blue salad plates—that’s right, salad plates.
It was as Will Ferrell’s tender-hearted romantic foil in Elf that Deschanel began to be noticed for her other automatic weapon: her voice. The film’s soundtrack featured a duet of the standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” between the soft chimes of Deschanel’s singing voice and gravelly Leon Redbone. The combination was pure magic. Not surprisingly, Deschanel now shows up regularly on soundtracks and in voiceover on animated projects such as Surf’s Up. Of her musical bent she says, “I love doing one thing and then the other because they each provide a break. It is nice to have variety.”
Mixing it up and keeping things fresh has now become a genuine second career in music, which at the moment is competing heavily with her on-screen work for the public’s attention. Traveling with a guitar and mini-keyboard, Deschanel writes music in hotel rooms and mixes demos on her laptop created by nothing but layers of her voice, making what she calls, “instrument-like noises.” Currently she is one half of She & Him, a duo she has formed with moody indie sensation M. Ward. Their first album, Volume One, is a living testament to her tastes and influences. Tracks like “Got Me” and “Change is Hard” are country heartbreakers that recall Patsy Cline. “I Was Made for You” rings with the Ronettes’ wall of sound. And an inspired cover of the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” offers up Liverpool by way of Buck Owens’s Bakersfield. “Zooey is a natural talent,” says M. Ward. “She is honest about who she is and who she wants to be, both inside and outside of her music.”
Deschanel with She & Him partner M. Ward.
When asked about her musical process, Deschanel says, “It’s a personal thing to write music. I had stage fright about my own stuff, and when you are generating the work, it is all you.” But for the Los Angeles-born actress, facing fears is what “it” is all about. “People who have the most courage are actually the people with the most fear. One way of getting control of the fear is to face it head on. The transition into music was a little frightening for me, but it’s more exciting [than acting] because it’s scarier.” But it is impossible to imagine Deschanel ever giving up the screen. And, as she says, she may have felt anxious about performing her own compositions in public, but make no mistake, Deschanel does not need job retraining. How does someone as private as she is make acting look so natural? She says, laughing, “I’ve always been more comfortable on stage than I am in real life.”
So, if music is the yin to her acting yang, then it makes sense that it was a soulful pairing of the two that led to Deschanel’s name-making turn as Anita Miller, the runaway teen stewardess in 2000’s rock travelogue, Almost Famous. It is Anita who possesses a collection of history’s most influential rock records, passes them on to brother William, and who first hits the road. Even after Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane overtakes the movie, it is Deschanel who suffuses the piece with late-’60s want and turmoil.
Her innate comprehension of that decade and, it seems, every other, began as a child of the film industry. She was raised amongst artists. Her father is The Passion of the Christ cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and her mother is actress Mary Jo Deschanel, who played Eileen Hayward on “Twin Peaks.” Her only sibling, sister Emily, plays the title role on the hit television series “Bones.” In other words, the Deschanels are one hard-working Hollywood family. And just as New York has its art and intellectual crowd, so does Los Angeles. Even Deschanel’s name—she is named for J.D. Salinger’s story collection Franny and Zooey—speaks more to the cul-de-sacs of the mind than to the beaches of Malibu.
Deschanel in The Happening.
At her core, Deschanel evinces an iconoclasm that guides her hand in the choices she makes. “I have no interest in participating in pop cultural phenomena,” she says. After all, style and voguishness are not the same thing. “For whatever reason, when I am faced with what everyone is peddling, I have the strongest desire to book it in the opposite direction,” Deschanel says, laughing. What then, to say about The Happening and her next film, Yes Man, alongside Jim Carrey, neither of which aspire to be shrinking violets? “I’m not prejudiced as far as what type of movie I do. It’s more about who I’m working with and what story we are telling.” And she doesn’t mind making mistakes, not that there are any one can point to. “There is something valuable about mistakes,” she says. “You want things to be precious and not everything can be.”
To bolster this attitude she admits that she often writes by hand—a form without a delete key—and says dryly: “I have a typewriter.” She is also happy to talk at length about the subject of paper stock. Her favorite is a Moleskine notebook with cream-colored pages and a black cover, all secured by a black elastic strap. Again, even though she studied at Northwestern University, that image of the Sorbonne étudiante remains.
Not giving in to a hyper-paced Hollywood life on fast-forward is working for Deschanel. Time is definitely on her side. Patience is part of her credo. Working for what you get and for the understanding you can only gain through experience mean more to her than a top spot on the A-list, or any list. “It’s like waiting in line for a roller coaster,” she says.
“When you do get on it, you appreciate it more. I don’t want to get on a roller coaster without waiting for it. That’s part of the fun.” We are happy to be patient too, but very glad that the wait looks like it is over.
See Zooey Deschanel on the cover of BlackBook June-July 2008.
Photography by Gitte Meldgaard Styling by B