Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: If there’s one quality even casual fans of Zoey Deutch would recognize about her work, it’s a willingness to, as she puts it, “go big or go home.” She’s one of those actors who can crank a character’s absurdity up to 11 without sacrificing believability. Deutch brings to every role a commitment that matches her charisma, whether she’s earnestly delivering Madison’s ditzy positivity in Zombieland: Double Tap or screaming hard enough to lose her voice as a rising kingpin in Buffaloed.
The daughter of director Howard Deutch and director-star Lea Thompson, Zoey Deutch has steadily made a name for herself by appearing in critically acclaimed independent films. And after roles in the breakout drama Before I Fall, the Ryan Murphy fever dream The Politician, and Netflix’s landmark original rom-com Set It Up, the days of audiences asking “Who’s that girl?” are well behind her.
In the new film Not Okay from writer-director Quinn Shephard, Deutch plays a friendless girl whose fabricated trip to Paris snowballs into social media stardom. The role continues a recent trend by Deutch portraying anti-heroic scammers. And she delivers a deceptively cunning take on the shallow Danni, harnessing her own actorly need for affection to toy with the notion of—gasp!—unlikeability. After all these dark satires though, Deutch promises, the holiday rom-com Something From Tiffany’s will provide a palette cleanser later this year.
Not Okay (2022)— Danni Sanders
The A.V. Club: We should definitely start with your most recent role, because she’s a fascinating character to dig into. How did you get involved with Not Okay as both star and producer, and what were your first impressions of Danni?
Zoey Deutch: My first impressions of Danni were that I had to play her. I didn’t know it at the time—I’ve now become aware of it—but I have had a real interest, maybe obsession, with playing quote unquote, “unlikable scammers.” I did it in Flower, Buffaloed, The Politician, and now Not Okay. All very different people but there is a through-line of that there. You know, every review labels them as an unlikable female protagonist and scammers. I’m not sure exactly what it is that makes me so drawn to these people! But for Danni, I never saw her as the hero or the villain. I always saw her as this amalgamation, this foil for all these different things happening in our culture. So in that way, I wasn’t breaking her down. As you know, her arc is an atypical arc for a lead character or for the person moving the story forward. I really saw [Mia Isaac’s] character Rowan as the hero, the protagonist … And [Danni] wishes it was her.
AVC: I found most of this movie extremely plausible, like there are absolutely real-life Dannis who would turn fake trauma into Internet fame.
ZD: Totally. It’s so funny to hear the reactions, like when you’re doing a junket. One person will get on Zoom and go, “She is the most despicable person I’ve ever seen.” And then the next person will be like, “I relate entirely to where she’s coming from.” “She’s not that bad.” “She deserves to die.” Everybody has very different reactions—and all valid. She elicits a certain reaction from people.
The Politician (2019–2020) — Infinity Jackson
Flower (2017) — Erica Vandross
AVC: Have you played other roles that have had such varied responses?
ZD: Yeah, I think Flower and Buffaloed. I mean, The Politician less so just because it was so wild [Laughs]. People were more distracted by how wild and bizarre it was, Infinity Jackson’s lie [about having cancer]. The lie is what’s fun to play. As an actor, if you don’t have a secret, you make one up. You gotta have something there, everyone has a secret. Everyone has something that they don’t want people to know about. That’s what makes an interesting role.
AVC: As for the “unlikeable” label, how much does that factor into choosing which roles to pursue? Are you ever signing up for a job with an intent to play into that?
ZD: No, that is never a factor for me. I don’t even think about that. In my everyday life, I’m entirely consumed with wanting to be liked. Obviously! I’m an actor! And a lot of people, I’m sure don’t like me, which fucking sucks. But in my work, I really am not overly concerned or even factoring in likability. I am concerned and factoring in relatability. And I find the part of Danni that’s relatable is her loneliness, her desire to be a part of something. Though misguided at times, she feels alone and isolated and like everybody’s getting something that she’s not. And there’s more nuance, right? You could take that to a really entitled, privileged place. And you can also take that to a really vulnerable and humble place.
AVC: You began working as a producer on your films starting in 2017. What was behind that?
ZD: I’ve been acting for 10 years and was like, “I think I can be useful here. I think I could use my knowledge for good.” It was definitely a conscious decision. And I am not interested in only doing things that I produce, by any means. But I was very grateful that Quinn invited me into this process [for Not Okay] and wanted me as a partner in every decision, be it the script, be it one of the character’s accessories, be it the location that we chose for her office, everything. She really wanted me as a partner, and I’m very grateful to have been invited into that process.
AVC: What was it about The Year Of Spectacular Men that kind of kicked off your move into producing?
ZD: Well, it was a family affair. My sister [Madelyn Deutch] wrote it and we read it and were like, “This is amazing.” She was like, “Mom, you should direct this. And you and dad, we should produce this.” I have always had a very producorial mind from a business standpoint. From a creative standpoint, I’m a shitty writer, but I love to work with writers. I have, I hope, helpful ideas, but I have no interest in writing. So anyway, I think she saw that in me and she invited me into that process. And then we made that movie together. And it sparked this new part of my life.
AVC: So then how did Buffaloed come about?
ZD: I read Buffaloed, which wasn’t financed. There was a different director attached. We started working on the script a little bit, and the director had to do a show, so we hired Tanya [Wexler] and found money. And it was a wild shoot, we shot it in Toronto. I have so much love for that movie and for Tanya and for Brian [Sacca], the writer. Yeah, I loved making that movie and wearing polyester in 100-degree heat in Toronto.
AVC: And talk about relatability! That would be a guiding force with playing a character climbing out of debt. Anybody can relate to financial desperation, right?
ZD: Yeah, I think so. [Peg is] very intense, though. I mean, she’s a lot. She was a lot. I loved playing her. I lost my voice three times, shooting that. I was always screaming.
AVC: So every film we’ve mentioned can be considered independent. How much do you consciously think about small- versus big-budget films in navigating your career?
ZD: It’s not calculated in any way. I gravitate towards great parts, that’s what drives me. So that’s the crux of it, right? I’m just looking for parts that I connect to. It’s not to say that I’m not auditioning constantly for these bigger movies that I do want. I would love to be in those big, monster-budget movies—if there are great parts in it.
AVC: Would you want to play a superhero?
ZD: Yeah, I would. I think it would be fun. Or a villain [Laughs].
AVC: Totally! I know the answer to this, but are you ever making career choices based on genre? It’s never as simple as “I’m going to do a comedy then do a drama,” right?
ZD: No, it’s definitely not that simple. But sometimes naturally—like after this movie, Not Okay, I was so uncomfortable. Because I was playing someone that was so uncomfortable all the time. I just felt so insecure and scared—I know it sounds pretentious and it sounds like overly sensitive actor bullshit, but when you’re playing someone who’s that uncomfortable in their own skin for 14 hours a day for 25 days, it really does affect you. So I just really wanted to feel good and happy and back in my body, and so I’ve produced a movie with Hello Sunshine called Something From Tiffany’s. It’s the total opposite of this movie. It’s a holiday rom-com. No, that wasn’t calculated. It was a feeling rather than a conscious thought, maybe.
Vampire Academy (2014) — Rose Hathaway
AVC: Do certain characters ever come back to inform a later role? When you’re preparing a character, are you ever going, “This reminds me of something from years ago?”
ZD: Often for auditions, yes! You put a lot of work into auditions and creating characters and sometimes you get really far down the line and you know this person. And maybe it doesn’t happen but it’s never for naught. I think it’s always insightful. It’s always useful to exercise that muscle. That’s why I like auditioning. Sometimes there is a moment when you go, “Oh, I can use that. This feels like that person.” And those are always the moments I really try my hardest to be aware and grateful for. Because [an actor’s] moments of glory are few and far between, even though it looks like, on the outside, it’s a lot of glory. It’s mostly embarrassment.
I did a movie that, box office-wise, was not a success. I was 18, it was called Vampire Academy, and I’m so grateful for it. I did stunt training and flight training and extensive Krav Maga, all these things. And it made me feel that much more prepared and capable for if I had the opportunity to audition for a superhero movie. I’m not particularly athletic. Had I not had that experience with Vampire Academy, I don’t know if I would have the confidence to be like, Yeah, I want to do this. So you never know.
AVC: Let’s talk about The Outfit. What is this strange coincidence where you end up co-starring opposite Dylan O’Brien in two films this year?
ZD: The Outfit, I read many years ago. I was actually the first actor that [writer-director] Graham Moore met with. He was so gracious and he kept me on [the project] for the years, through the pandemic, through everything. Dylan was cast, I don’t remember exactly when. So we shot this movie together, and Dylan and I became friends very quickly. He had no choice—we had to become friends quickly because we weren’t allowed to hang out with anyone due to the pandemic, we were in a bubble. There’s like five people in the cast, and our only other co-star is Mark Rylance, who’s not going to want to hang out with us [Laughs]. And Johnny Flynn, he has kids. Anyway, the only person Dylan had to hang out with was me. So we became very close. And I was working with Quinn at the time on Not Okay, and with Searchlight. We were deep in discussions about changing a few things in the script and the ending and casting. And so Dylan was familiar with the script and how excited I was about it. And Quinn really loved the idea of him. It was a very organic, natural way. And I’ve never made two movies back to back with somebody. It was great.
Set It Up (2018) — Harper Moore
AVC: We have to touch on one of your most important roles, Harper Moore in Set It Up. It’s such a wonderful, modern romantic comedy, and you and Glen Powell seem like such a natural fit. How did you create such wonderful chemistry together?
ZD: Thank you. That is all Katie Silberman, the writer, 100 percent, pure Katie Silberman genius. I think she’s the best romantic comedy writer since Nora Ephron. She’s really gifted and scarily funny and kind. Glen and I had made a movie called Everybody Wants Some!! together, a Richard Linklater movie. So we had been dear friends and were looking to do something together—because, honestly, a lot of people would always say, “You guys have such great chemistry, you should date. Or make a movie.” So we were like, “Let’s make a movie together.” [Laughs] He was attached, actually. And I auditioned once when the movie was at MGM and they didn’t cast me. I think they cast Emilia Clarke and then she couldn’t do it. MGM dropped it, Netflix took it over. I auditioned again, and they still didn’t want me! But I think Katie pushed hard for me, and maybe Glen, I wasn’t in the room. But I was definitely not the first choice, or probably even the second. Which was funny because I felt like the words were written for me. I’d never experienced that in my life. And [Silberman and I] have another movie together that we’re doing. I’d never met anyone where I felt like, “These words are literally meant to come out of my mouth,” which made Set It Up so special. We shot it here in New York City and Claire Scanlon, our director, was so amazing. She was nine months pregnant while shooting that movie, in the summer in New York City, on location. It was tough. And we did not anticipate or expect the reaction to be what it was, we honestly didn’t know until weeks after it was released. I remember I passed by Times Square and Set It Up was [advertised] everywhere. And that’s when we got the numbers and that’s when Netflix started making 9,000 rom-coms after that [Laughs].
AVC: Would you say your most iconic role is Madison from Zombieland: Double Tap? I think of it as a great example of how you swing for the fences, how you’re not afraid to commit to an absurd character.
ZD: Yeah, I go big or go home for sure. Not sure what that’s about! That was the most fun I’ve ever had. And I know it’s not about fun. It’s a job, so who cares if I had fun or not? But Ruben Fleischer, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, and Abigail Breslin—to be back with those people, I would do anything. I just felt, really for the first time in my life, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. And these are exactly the people I’m supposed to be with. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And it was so rewarding and gratifying. And I just love Ruben and I just had the best time. And it’s so silly because obviously it’s such a funny character and a ridiculous person. So you would never think I have this, like, emotional attachment to playing such a bizarre cartoon character. But I do. We just played and improv-ed, and I learned a lot.
AVC: Are you thinking about “types?” Like with Madison, are you playing with the Hollywood trope of a ditzy blonde?
ZD: I grew up in the Valley, so she’s this heightened version of a Valley girl. But mostly what she was was positive. So you can look at it and go, “Oh, she’s a ditz.” But really, she’s not a ditz, she’s just positive. Anyone says anything negative and she reacts with positivity. I think that’s why people liked her so much, because she was just happy to be there. And that’s appealing. You want to be around someone who turns a negative into a positive. That’s a person you want to be around. So that was more of what I focused on than possibly her, let’s say, perceived lack of intelligence.
AVC: Yeah. You as an actor never want to judge your characters?
ZD: No, never. Yeah.
NCIS, “One Last Score” (2011) — Lauren
The Suite Life On Deck (2010–2011) — Maya Bennett
AVC: In terms of eras, let’s touch on your very first. You studied acting for years before appearing on a set. What do you remember about your episode of NCIS, which is your first credit? And then what do you remember about Disney’s The Suite Life On Deck?
ZD: I’m still studying, to be clear! I’m still in classes. I feel like I know less now than I did when I started, to be totally transparent with you.
AVC: Oh, cool.
ZD: Is it cool? [Laughs] Like, where was that blind confidence? Where was that crazy ambition where failure wasn’t even an option? I don’t know where it went. NCIS, what I remember is how much money I made from the residuals. I’ve never made more money in my life. I was shocked. I bought my car that I still drive with those residuals, from a cold open. I remember I just couldn’t believe that. And then the Zack & Cody [sequel], what I learned from that was how you’ve got to be really aware of the style of acting you’re doing, the genre or style. It was very specific and it was also just cutthroat. Sitcoms with a live audience are cutthroat. Like, if you don’t get a laugh in the table read, that joke is out. If you can’t get a laugh in the first take or two while you’re shooting it, the writer will come up and just give the joke to somebody else. It’s very cutthroat. So even though it’s a kid’s show, it was a live, ever-changing play. And I remember I had never shot [a live sitcom], I wasn’t even hitting my marks, I didn’t know what was going on. I’d love to do a sitcom again one day, many years down the line. I love the medium, but it was definitely an intense first go.
Before I Fall (2017) — Samantha Kingston
AVC: Lastly, the Groundhog’s Day-esque Before I Fall. Was that a breakout role or turning point in your career?
ZD: I love that movie, I’m really proud of that movie. The feeling I have when people bring up that movie is—when the premiere ended in Sundance and I was a wreck, I hadn’t slept in four days, I was so nervous. I was attributing it to altitude sickness in Sundance, but it was definitely just insane nerves. And I got out of the premiere and this guy grabbed my arm and he was crying. And he was like, “This movie made me want to call my mom and tell her I love her and thank her and say I’m sorry for being a dick.” And I’m even brought to tears right now thinking about it. Whenever anyone brings up Before I Fall, I just remember being like, Wow, you can do something that changes a person’s life with this job. And that’s all you want. People just want to feel like they can affect change and do something that matters. And in that moment, I felt like maybe if I could do that for one person, then maybe that would be worth it. And it was really special. So I have a lot of love for Ry Russo-Young, the director, she’s the best.
AVC: That’s beautiful. And it beautifully ties this right back to your notion of relatability as part of your character-building process.
ZD: And that’s why I played Madison in Zombieland—to really change the world! [Laughs.]