Girl On The Verge
With moviemaking in her blood, new roles as a leading lady, and a passion for getting political, actress Zoey Deutch is the up-and-comer we’ve been waiting for
Zoey Deutch is standing outside Art’s Deli, the Studio City, CA, establishment she’s been frequenting since she was one week old, anxiously waiting for my Lyft ride home—“Like a nice Jewish girl from the Valley, I worry about everything!” she quips. We’re coming up with titles for our memoirs. “Not Okay but Fun: A Life in Shambles,” the actress proclaims with a big smile on her face and a bag containing matzo ball soup leftovers in her hand. For what it’s worth, neither Deutch nor her life appears shambolic even when, toward the end of our chat, she fishes a couple of Altoids out of her jacket pocket and offers “Do you want a rogue mint?” with impeccable comedic timing.
Hollywood likes to play tide with its actors, pushing some forward while pulling others back, but within minutes of meeting Deutch, I realize she’s the force of nature here. With an abundance of energy she does her professional best to contain, and a confidence that ought to be at odds with her 22 years of age, she has been quietly but steadily stealing scenes this past year, in films like Richard Linklater’s dude-tastic Everybody Wants Some!! and the Christmas comedy Why Him? opposite Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Or to put it another way, the fact that her mother is Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson and her father, Howard Deutch, directed Pretty in Pink (the two met on the set of Some Kind of Wonderful, which he directed and she starred in) is the least interesting thing about her.
It’s day 10 of the Trump presidency, the morning after his administration imposed its initial travel ban, and as soon as Deutch gets home she will make signs with her sister and head to the protest at LAX. In fact, she bumped our meeting up two hours for that reason. “I think it was [activist and political commentator] Van Jones who said it: ‘Hope for the best and expect the worst,’” she says. “That’s how I feel. And particularly yesterday, I was feeling heartbroken and sort of paralyzed, which is the exact opposite reaction to what I would have wanted to have, but that’s my truth.” She didn’t stay in that state for long. Her Instagram and Twitter feeds show a young woman engaged politically and socially, from marching at the Women’s March in Park City, UT—she had two films premiering there, at the Sundance Film Festival; otherwise she would have joined her mom in Washington, D.C.—to vocally supporting Planned Parenthood and proudly posing with Hillary for a picture back when, you know, it was all so very possible. “There’s an interesting debate that circulates so often, with one side arguing that actors are not activists, Hollywood does not get to be the arbiter of what is right and wrong. And the other side, which is if you have a platform and you don’t use it for good, then what is the point?” she asks with the clarity of a debate team leader before adding more purposefully: “No, I’m not a politician, and no, I’m not a news source, but yes, I have people that are following me and I have a voice, and as long as I am doing my best to speak the truth, I’m fine with being on the right side of history! What I’m saying is, you are a part of history; you matter.”
That last sentiment happens to be a perfect tagline for Before I Fall, Deutch’s Sundance hit, which was released in March and gave her the big, meaty role she’d clearly been craving. “It’s a goood part,” she says. It tells the story of Samantha, a seemingly popular high school senior who has to relive February 12th, her last day, again and again and again. Filming the Groundhog Day–meets–YA thriller required that each scene be shot seven times, in seven different ways, during which Samantha traverses the spectrum of human emotion (oh, teenagers!). Deutch got very close to director Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks) in the process. “I joke that I hope I can be the Michael Shannon to her Jeff Nichols, and Ry’s like, ‘What about Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell?’” she says. “I’ll be whoever she wants me to be! I love her a lot.” When I ask for specifics on Deutch’s prep for the role, her eloquence disappears. “I don’t know how to answer that. I’m so sorry,” she says. I understand, and frankly, I’m a little grateful. The magic of watching an actor inhabit another person’s life tends to vanish once the curtain is pulled back. “Does it make you feel pretentious?” I ask. “Yes! It really does, because…” she says, and makes a pained face. Later she confesses that her main flaw is that she’s a “walking, talking ball of emotion and vulnerability” and offers a passionate love letter to her career choice. “The truth is, I love my job so much, and you can say whatever you will about me growing up in the business, and I totally get it—if I was on the outside, I’d have a very hard time understanding that I actually chose to be here and this is what I’m meant to do. It is 100 percent my thing, my purpose, my be-all and end-all,” she says. “It sounds dramatic, but I do love it, and I do have a really crazy process that sounds so pretentious when I talk about it. People would be like, ‘Jesus, this girl sucks!’” Needless to say, she doesn’t.
Another thing worth pointing out about Before I Fall: The screenplay is written by a woman (Maria Maggenti) based on a young-adult novel penned by a woman (Lauren Oliver), and the film has a female director and a cast full of women—the rarity and the significance of which is not lost on Deutch. “The whole movie is about a young woman discovering her voice, discovering that what she does matters, and that in one second you can change the course of your entire life and, in turn, change the course of so many other people’s lives,” she says. “To me, that’s very moving and poignant for young girls to watch, and I think it’s a really great message.”
The actress’s family comprises “superwomen,” as she calls them, who distilled that message to a young Deutch. She waxes lyrically about her mom, sister, and grandma, who manage work and family like, well, total bosses. “My mother was breastfeeding me while she was shooting the sitcom Caroline in the City, down the road from here, and people always ask me, ‘Was it hard for you that your mom was working?’ and ‘Did you ever feel abandoned?’ And I’m like, ‘No! What the fuck?’ I’m so grateful her whole universe didn’t revolve around me!” she says. “She always says, ‘Know a little bit of everything,’ and she can do everything.” Deutch’s older sister, Madelyn, is “an amazing singer and writer, she can play every instrument, she’s a great cook, she has an unbelievable interior design and fashion sense, and she’s a great actor…. I mean, it’s literally disgusting.” Her maternal grandmother Babah, however, is the real star of the show. “My grandma graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design; she had five kids and worked her ass off and still does. She’s 90 years old, she lives in Montana, she sleeps during the day and paints all night,” Deutch says. “She’s legally blind and can barely breathe—she has oxygen. She literally lives for her art. She is a rock star to me.” Lest he feel neglected, Mr. Deutch is “the funniest man I’ve ever met and so supportive of the strong, smart, and independent women around him.” Are you wondering where the trauma lies, the secret dark side of growing up Hollywood? So is Deutch. “Don’t worry, I create enough trauma inside my own life. This right here”—she scans her body with her hands—“is a walking ball of trauma,” and she says, and bursts out laughing.
The second movie Deutch was promoting at Sundance, in between inhaling oxygen from a mask to battle Park City’s notorious altitude sickness and fangirling over spotting Transparent creator Jill Soloway on Main Street, was Rebel in the Rye, starring Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger, slated for release in the fall. Deutch plays Oona O’Neill, playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, whose own life really ought to be made into a movie if Hollywood could manage to divert its focus toward the fascinating women crucial to our cultural heydays. “To me it speaks to an artist dealing with rejection and how success can be isolating and how lonely everyone, no matter who, always feels,” she says. Taking on the project was something of an education. “I didn’t end up going to college, it was a conscious decision and a sacrifice because I really liked school. So playing someone like Oona O’Neill is fun. I got to take a crash course in the ’40s and literature and that New York elite society.”
As it happens, taking classes is her thing. “I have a tutor that I study political science with just because I want to occupy my brain. I want to expand my mind rather than it just being about work,” she explains. “My work is about being able to take on other people and their feelings and make other people feel them, and if I’m only experiencing the re-enactment of it instead of actually trying to live my life, I don’t know how much I would believe it myself.” She’s an avid nonfiction reader too and eagerly pulls up a photo from her Instagram, a panoply of books that was part of her reading list for Flower, a film she shot with director Max Winkler premiering at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival, in which she plays a sexually curious teen. “I am constantly revisiting Reviving Ophelia because it makes me feel that it’s okay that I’m as crazy as I am,” she says. “I was reading a lot about borderline personality disorder and just the adolescent, hormone hell pit of being a young woman, and this book blew me away! The Ethical Slut is also unbelievable, and there’s a Taschen coffee table book called The Book of Symbols that I use to work through dreams sometimes. I’m actually reading a good book about the subconscious.” Another item on her list of extracurricular activities: She paints with her grandma, in the middle of the night, of course.
After more than an hour in her company, and many a coffee refill, it’s obvious that there’s nothing generic about Deutch. And yet, she surprises me again when I ask about her dream project. “Venus In Fur on the stage when I’m a little older,” she replies, without missing a beat, referencing the steamy, two-person play by David Ives. She’d also like to do a Western and is under the impression every actor says that. (They don’t.) I can easily see her in both. It reminds me of something she mentioned earlier, a line she quoted from Before I Fall that felt important to her: “Become who you are.” It’s an exciting time to be Zoey Deutch, and she really does have it under control, rogue mints and all.
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