She's fresh off a tour for her latest album, millions flock to her Twitter feed, and the third season of her hit show New Girl premieres this month. Fringe favorite Zooey Deschanel is now part of the in crowd. Don't forget to check out the beauty and fashion inspiration behind her September cover spread.
By George Gurley
Photo Credit: Tesh
Seventh grade was not kind to Zooey Deschanel. As a chubby, freckly preteen at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California, a prep school where students had names like Willow, Echo, and Ivy, she had poor posture and a round belly. In an oft-told tale, one day a popular classmate actually spat in her face. "I was talking to her, and she didn't want me to talk to her. I honestly did nothing," Deschanel recalls. "I just remember walking over to my locker and wiping the spit off my face, so humiliated." She recently spotted her assailant in photographs at a mutual friend's wedding. "I've forgiven her," she says now. "I just don't forget."
Looking back, she thinks middle school helped build character. "A lot of people I knew who didn't struggle, who maybe came from a lot of money or were really prettythose people actually have a harder time as adults in a way. They don't even understand what it's like to not be pretty...I'm not saying it's good, I don't think people should be mean to each other, [but] I think it made me stronger."
Now the 33-year-old Deschanel is living every bullied schoolkid's revenge fantasy of success and redemption. She's the star and a producer of Fox's appealing New Girl, is half the indie band She & Him, has a film résumé of both critically acclaimed and box-office hits, and is an ambassador for Pantene. This particular spring day in New York began with brunch with her boyfriend, screenwriter Jamie Linden, whom she began dating six months after her split from Death Cab for Cutie's frontman, Ben Gibbard; their divorce was finalized in late 2012 after three years of marriage.
"Super-dark out, look!" says Deschanel, dressed in a cashmere sweater, a gray wool skirt, black tights, and rain boots, in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel. "It's so sad because we could have taken a lovely walk." Before the weather report, the plan was to take her two terrier mutts, Dot and Zeldanamed for Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald "if you're thinking highbrow" on a walk through Gramercy Park. In hatching another plan, all she knew was that she didn't want to go vintage shopping with a journalist for the millionth time. Then she read about an exhibition of 19th-century costumes at the Museum of the City of New York uptown, and she was sold.
Inside the museum, no one knows anything about 19th century costumes. "How did I get this wrong?" she says, defeated. "Maybe it's at anotheris this a modern museum? I'm more interested in seeing old stuff than new stuff." Upstairs, she peers into an elegant dollhouse with a kitchen, playroom, rocking horse, teacups, and an elevator, everything hand-painted. "I've always loved little dollhouses; they're so cool," she says. "I mean, to do all this? There's a museum of miniatures in London that I remember being fascinated with as a kid."
According to her mother, Deschanel was always a daydreamer, extremely creative, and very funny even as a very, very young child. "She was born with something unusual," says Mary Jo Deschanel, a television and film actress, over the telephone from Los Angeles. "It was almost like she could hear a different voice in her head. She would just see or think something different from everybody else. I think she had a hard time fitting in with other children, with people in general."
Her first word was "light"; one of her first sentences was "Don't you shush me!" She didn't want to be bossed around or repressed, her parents and teachers quickly realized. At age 2, she saw The Wizard of Oz and told her mother she wanted to go into the television through the cord and redo the part of Dorothy. At age 5, she made up her first song. (It was called "I'm Having Fun at the Fair.") The Deschanels lived in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of L.A. when they weren't on film locations from the Seychelles to San Francisco, where The Right Stuff was made. (Mary Jo stole scenes as the speech-impediment plagued Annie Glenn, and her husband, Caleb Deschanel, did the cinematography, earning his first of five Oscar nominations.) Deschanel and her older sister, Emily, fought a lot. "She's tall, and I'm smaller, so it was kind of unfair," Deschanel recalls. "I would have to grow out my nails so I could scratch her."
Emily stars in another Fox TV series, the 8-year-old crime comedy-drama Bones, so Deschanel "always went into [New Girl] with the thought that it could last. I never thought about doing TV, particularly because I didn't want to be signed up for something for that long. But after being frustrated with the kinds of material I was getting in the feature worldand it's very competitive I just thought, Why am I doing this in the first place? If you're an actor and you want to go where the material is, it doesn't matter the medium. All these people who used to say, 'Oh, I'll never do TV,' now want to because they see things that are successful and good on TV." (In 1999, when Deschanel dropped out of Northwestern University after seven months to appear in Almost Famous, someone told her she should do a sitcom because she was funny. "And I was like, 'That's crazy.' I remember thinking, I want to do art films.")
So the girl who wanted to make artistic films, who was reluctant to sign on to a project long-term, ends up with a seven-season contract for a popular sitcom. "I always felt like a little bit of an outsider, and now I'm an outsider who's a satellite for the outsiders? All of a sudden, I'm on the inside, and it feels weird. Because I always saw myself as sort of not mainstream."
Not that her indie cred has slid. She was costarring in a road movie called The Go-Getter in 2006 when she met Portlandbased singer-songwriter and guitarist Matt Ward (aka M. Ward), who was composing the music. The director asked them to do a duet for the soundtrack. They hit it off, and two years later She & Him's first record was released. A common misconception is their folksy band is more Him than She. "No, no, I write all the music, and then we go into the studio," she confirms. "People have assumed that either I write nothing or I just sing or that I write the lyrics but not the music."
For someone who plays piano, percussion, banjo, and ukulele, it's no surprise that the projects she pursues are musically oriented. Realizing she would never get tired of hearing the Loretta Lynn catalog, she decided she wanted to star in a Broadway musical version of the 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter starring Sissy Spacek. Someone already had those rights, so she bugged the producers until "they finally ran the idea of my playing the lead by Loretta's camp, and they were like, 'Oh, we love Zooey, we'd love her to play Loretta.'" The musical is still in development, but Deschanel breaks out a few snatches of her favorite Lynn song, "You're Looking at Country," to me. She doesn't mention that she and Lynn performed together at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville last year. "We bonded right at the beginningit's like meeting somebody and you feel like you've known them forever," says Lynn. "She's young, and she's good. She can pull it offI ain't worried one bit."