From A to Zooey
Poised between scene-stealer and star, Zooey Deschanel keeps charting her own path in the film 'All the Real Girls'
Zooey Deschanel has been here before, on the cusp between character actress and unconventional ingenue, between supporting player and star. She's been assured more than once that her face would soon be recognizably familiar. She's still waiting.
Deschanel's fattest, juiciest part to date won't likely end the wait, and the 23-year-old insists she isn't concerned. As Noel, an educated but inexperienced teenager who falls in love with the local lothario in a small North Carolina mill town in All the Real Girls, she's subverted her own looks once again. But her quirky style shines through. Panting reviewers have used words such as "radiant" and "astonishing" to describe her performance in Girls, David Gordon Green's follow-up to George Washington, his acclaimed 2000 debut.
Deschanel says she knew halfway through reading the moody script that the part had to be hers. She says she was struck by how real the relationship between Noel, 18, and her 22-year-old beau felt, with its ups and downs and inevitable heartache. At the Sundance Film Festival, All the Real Girls was even awarded a special jury prize for "emotional truth," whatever that means.
"It felt like people really making mistakes in an authentic way, and it wasn't sugarcoated. And it was just a beautiful story," said Deschanel, who could easily pass for a teenager in real life, once the false eyelashes and face paint she's wearing for a photo shoot are removed. "They made the movie they set out to make, and there's a lot to be said for that."
So far in her relatively young career, Deschanel hasn't had too many missteps. She made her movie debut in 1999 in Mumford. She was the smart-talking older sister in Almost Famous, in which, buried under teased hair and eyeliner, she embodied a 1960s stewardess. In The Good Girl, her sarcastic PA announcements at the dime store where she worked won her laughs. The serial scene-stealer did it again in last year's Abandon.
Born into the movie business, Deschanel grew up in Los Angeles and on film locations around the world, from New York to London to Yugoslavia and beyond, which may account for her twangy but otherwise unidentifiable accent. No one else in her family has it.
"Somebody told me the other day that I take strange pauses and that I'll draw out certain words," she said. "It doesn't make any sense why I sound like this. I don't do it on purpose. My parents have much less of an accent than I do."
Deschanel is the daughter of actress Mary Jo Deschanel (The Right Stuff) and Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home). They named her after Zooey Glass of Franny & Zooey, J. D. Salinger's story about the bohemian Glass family. In the book, Franny is a girl, Zooey a boy. Deschanel suspects the moniker (pronounced ZOO-ey DE-shanel) set her off on an unusual and arty path. But in childhood, she longed most for meatloaf and middle-class normalcy.
"I hated all the traveling," Deschanel said. "I'm really happy now that I had the experience, but at the time I was just so miserable to have to leave my friends in Los Angeles and go to places where they didn't have any food I liked or things I was used to."
Deschanel knew early on that she wanted to follow her parents into the film world. Until age 6 or 7, she thought that the children she saw on television were small adults. But once she realized they were kids, she wanted to be one of them. Her parents said no, at least not until she was old enough to drive herself to auditions. "As soon as I got my license, I started acting," Deschanel recalled with a satisfied smile. She was so certain of her destiny that she dropped out of Northwestern University after seven months to return to Hollywood.
In Deschanel's children-of-celebrities circle, that wasn't unusual. Today, she says, she prefers to hang with creative types such as her musician boyfriend, whom she won't name in an attempt to maintain her privacy. She says he's "a sweetheart," and nervous about seeing all the kissing and touching in All the Real Girls.
"It wasn't embarrassing to do because you have like a billion people watching," she said. "I will say with complete confidence that love scenes are the least authentic things in movies." But she has promised to sit beside her boyfriend when he sees the film.
Deschanel is much happier to talk about her own music, her other passion. Her taste in music is the same as in clothes: vintage. (The clunky multicolored handbag she's carrying would be matronly were it not so funky and retro.) When she's not off making movies, Deschanel appears around town with an eight-piece band named If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies after a 1920s dance tune. Deschanel belts out old-time jazz standards and, no joke, plays the ukulele. Of course she'd love to make a musical, maybe a remake of Meet Me in St. Louis or The Boyfriend, about three young women searching for dates to a dance.
"It's the other thing I do," Deschanel said of making music.
Whatever she does, Deschanel insists it's never about the money, not even the Gap commercial she made last year. Her filmography tends to back up her claim. It's filled with independent films that probably paid next to nothing. Next to come out, though, is the comedy Elf, starring Will Ferrell of Saturday Night Live fame. That's no microbudget baby.
"You have to keep reminding yourself it's not about money, because there is a lot of money to be made in this business if you're willing to do whatever," Deschanel said. "But that's not what I'm thinking about. I continue only to take movies because I love the script and because I really want to do it."
Sounding even more un-Hollywood, Deschanel insists that her onscreen looks are unimportant. Her beauty is unconventional by traditional movie standards, and she has rarely had the chance to be as attractive on celluloid as she is in the flesh, with her huge blue eyes, pale white skin, and ever-changing hair color, a reddish blond at the moment. There's also nothing small-town about her, although she has often played small-town girls. Her own outfit on this day consists of frayed jeans, a glittery red belt, high heels, and a gray overcoat.
"I don't want to be a babe," Deschanel said. "I don't want vanity to ever get in the way, because I think to maintain that, you have to be aware of yourself all the time, and that gets in the way of acting. My job's not to be the beautiful person. My job is to be the best actor I can be.
"I don't think I'm very much like anyone else, really. I'm sure there are aspects of other actors that I share, but I don't see anybody else and go, `Damn, they stole my thing.' I'm me, and I like that there are people who have an appreciation for that."
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