She's got Elizabeth Taylor eyes, an I Love Lucy madcap spirit and a voice that'll melt hearts and minds. What's not to like about Zooey Deschanel?
The "She" in the pop-folk duo She & Him is now the New Girl in town, at least in TV land. And if the pilot that premieres tonight (September 20) on Fox (9-9:30 p.m. ET/PT) is any indication, they'll have to worry about changing the title to Not So New Girl when it starts heading into syndication.
That is, of course, as long as Deschanel is committed to staying with the series grind while putting her indie film career on pause as she endures 14- to 16-hour days on a TV set.
Bringing acting and comedic chops to a half-hour TV series, Deschanel is wacky and wonderful as Jess Day, the Girl Who Got Dumped and moved into an apartment with three single guys after answering an ad on Craigslist.
The latest member of the Fox family (her older sister Emily has had a co-starring role on Bones since 2005), Zooey said during a conference call last week that the kooky character created by Liz Meriwether wasn't written for her initially.
"But it was sort of a perfect fit, you know," she added. "You go to a store and there's a dress that just looks like it was made for you, but it wasn't. That's sort of like what it was like."
As Jess, Deschanel (left) charms and confounds her new roommates, letting them know what's in store only minutes after the opening credits.
"Full disclosure, I'm kind of emotional right now because of the breakup so I'll be watching Dirty Dancing at least six or seven times ... a day. I'm a teacher, so I bring home a lot of Popsicle sticks, stuff like that. Also, I like to sing to myself a lot (sings) ... a lot. I'm tired of living with my friend -- she's a model. All our friends are models."
That last statement convinces them to bring her in, even if Jess seems burdened by a lot of excess baggage. Yet, like Zooey herself, Jess has a lot of appealing qualities and knows how to make the quirk work for her. She sometimes views the world through unfashionably goofy horn-rimmed glasses. No wonder Fox has branded this new girl "adorkable."
"I really love that she's totally herself, even though she's awkward at times and kind of nerdy at times," said Deschanel, who considers herself an underdog type.
"She's not afraid of being herself, whether it comes out as being a little bit naive or something else, or just a really strong sense of self. She's totally herself. I think that's really nice to see in female characters, because a lot of times female characters are just reacting to the men. Especially in comedies, I think a lot of time the female characters are there to provide a balance for guys.
"And I really don't feel that's true with this character. I really feel like she's equal to all the guys. I really, really love that. She's a real true modern woman."
The roommates, all of whom have issues revealed in fast-paced flashbacks, are played in the pilot by Max Greenfield (womanizing Schmidt), Jake Johnson (sensible Nick) and Damon Wayans Jr. (loose cannon Coach), who departed (replaced by Lamorne Morris) when Happy Endings was brought back by ABC.
They discover that this modern woman delivers Lord of the Rings references, makes up theme songs about herself at the drop of a hat (playing off the show's actual theme song, which Deschanel co-wrote and sings) and weeps uncontrollably while watching (for the umpteenth time) Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey slink through "(I've Had) The Time of My Life."
The show might miss Wayans, the funniest of the three men in the pilot, but there still appears to be a nice chemistry among the others in the ensemble cast that also includes Hannah Simone as Jess' voice of reason/model friend. Deschanel said being a part of the casting process was not only a plus but also "eye-opening for me as an actress."
"I read with all those guys from the beginning," she added. "Really, we just cast the people who were the best actors. Obviously, you want the best comedic actors. But I find that the best actors also tend to be really funny because the comedy's coming out of the situation rather than just the ability to deliver jokes."
The show, which follows the Glee juggernaut on a powerful Fox Tuesday night lineup, "plays more like a romantic comedy than a sitcom, per se, even though it has some of the physical comedy that some of the classic sitcoms have," Deschanel said. "I really believe that you end up caring about these characters. I think that for me that's what has brought me into loving shows. But, obviously, I just think that if I like it, then probably, hopefully somebody else will."
While Deschanel doesn't hesitate to compare herself to her character ("There's a lot of Jess that is very much like me"), it's doubtful the New Girl who likes "to sing to myself a lot" will be performing professionally any time soon. She & Him, Deschanel's successfully offbeat collaboration with M. Ward continues (they're releasing the full-length A Very She & Him Christmas on October 25), but don't expect Jess to make any cross-promotional appearances on Glee or American Idol.
"I felt like Jess should be -- her singing comes out of pure self-expression. I just didn't want her to be like Maria Callas or, whatever, Beyoncé," Deschanel said, laughing. "I just didn't want her to be a really great singer.
"I thought she should be whatever manner she tries to sing in should match her mood at the time, and that she's not really singing out of showing off her vocal togs as much as trying to express something she can't express, and to express a certain awkwardness. Yeah, she sings a lot. That's one of her character quirks. So, you will definitely hear a lot more weird ... random ... singing."
For Deschanel, who wrote a theme song for herself at age 7 ("My parents still sing it to me"), that's certainly easy to pull off. Trying to keep her role and the story lines in New Girl refreshing might be the greater challenge.
"I'm a person who has a lot of energy," said the accomplished actress who made her mark in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, had shining turns in TV's Weeds and Tin Man, then became a bona fide sweetheart-breaker with (500) Days of Summer. "I just keep going. I figure that if you don't stop, then you'll never notice how tired you are."
For someone who reveals she wasn't "the coolest kid in my class," the former Northwestern University coed and dropout is proud to represent "middle-schoolers all around" by bringing her endearing inner dork to TV.
Keeping that in mind, let's just hope this funny New Girl never gets old.
Publicity photos by Isabella Vosmikova/FOX
See a clip from tonight's pilot episode of New Girl: