Zooey Deschanel: ‘Manic pixie dream girl? I’m not a girl. I’m a woman’

As her duo She & Him release a Beach Boys covers album, the actor-musician answers your questions on duetting with Prince, crying to Björk and raging at the US supreme court

What’s the philosophy behind She & Him’s new Beach Boys tribute album? Why revisit a musical era very different from today? eamonnmcc

All the more reason to, right? I started out doing 1920s and 1930s cabaret, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and learned so much from how those songs were structured. I’m interested in combining those old things with a modern take. Melt Away was our pandemic project. While stuck at home, we decided the Beach Boys songs would be most fun to do. Neither of us wanted to sing lead on Do It Again and when Matt [Ward] suggested a guest singer, I said: “Well, I know the best person.” I had sung with Brian Wilson many times, but it was awesome when he said yes.

What is your favourite Beach Boys album and how did you narrow down which songs you covered? Sweetdarlin44

Pet Sounds is a masterpiece, but I really love later albums such as Surf’s Up or Sunflower, which get less attention but have really interesting songs. We narrowed it down by sending songs back and forth and digging into the melancholy side, which is such a wonderful contrast to how people perceive the Beach Boys.

With the film 500 Days of Summer, people often cast [Deschanel’s character] Summer as almost villainous for her (understandable) rejection of Tom. Is this indicative of a wider societal attitude, where any strong female character attracts negativity? Crouchymg10

I got that take from day one. It’s a very emotional response. People want the characters to be together, but that not happening makes the movie interesting. She is upfront that she doesn’t want a relationship, but he ignores her. The most telling scene is when she tells him: “I’ve never told anybody that before,” and he makes it about himself. He is fixated on external details – such as her liking the Smiths – that has nothing to do with who she is as a person. To anyone who thinks Summer is the villain, I say: think a little deeper.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.
‘People want the characters to be together’ … Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. Photograph: FoxSearch/Everett/Rex Featur

How do you feel about being labelled as the manic pixie dream girl? Callummcfadden

I don’t feel it’s accurate. I’m not a girl. I’m a woman. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it’s a way of making a woman one-dimensional and I’m not one-dimensional.

Are you getting fewer roles as a manic pixie dream girl – and have positive changes such as #MeToo shifted Hollywood away from female tropes? Njord

I think the tendency is still to make women one-dimensional, so you have to add dimension, if you can. The more screen time a female character gets, the more space there is to show complexities, but there has been a shift, so I’m optimistic.

New Girl was fantastic, with a great cast. Was most of it improvised? bandofhorses

No. We had such great writers, but we had freedom and there were a lot of improvised moments. As an actor, it helps to open up the dialogue and often, even though you’re saying words on a page, you’re improvising around them. The nice thing about that cast was that everyone could do it.

Deschanel as Jess in New Girl.
‘There were a lot of improvised moments’ … Deschanel as Jess in New Girl. Photograph: Fox

Given his enigmatic ways, it still seems amazing that Prince contacted you to make a guest appearance on New Girl. You performed Fallinlove2nite with him in the

episode, but was he aware of She & Him?

Oh my God. I don’t know. I know he watched New Girl on the tour bus. When he contacted me through his manager, I thought someone was pranking me and I asked my agents: “Can you find out if this is really Prince’s manager?” I recorded the song for the show, but when he said they would put it out I was like: “What? A single with Prince?!” It was a pinch-myself moment.

Your dad is the celebrated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, so I’m guessing that you grew up on the sets of famous movies. Were the films as magical behind the scenes? MarkFilmgoer

If you’re not working on them, it’s not that exciting watching the same thing happening over and over. When he was doing It Could Happen to You, Bridget Fonda was very nice and talked to me, but when I was little I wouldn’t know who anyone was, unless it was Mickey Mouse. It was fun looking through the camera, but I was more excited about going for a doughnut.

Were you disappointed that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy never got further than the first film? Did you enjoy playing Trillian? AWS19

I did, but the character was supposed to be part-alien and for some reason they cut that out. As an actor, I was heartbroken, but I loved the movie and the people. Douglas Adams [its creator] passed away before his time [at 49, in 2001], which was so sad. He never saw the finished movie, but people from his camp made sure it stayed true to his vision. I would have loved to have made more.

Deschanel in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
‘As an actor, I was heartbroken’ … Deschanel in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Photograph: Disney/Sportsphoto/Allstar

I watched you in Bridge to Terabithia on a train surrounded by strangers. Expecting a happy film, I was embarrassed when I started crying near the end. What film has unexpectedly made you cry? Toffeegreg

Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk. I cried in the theatre, composed myself during the credits, walked home crying and couldn’t stop. I can never watch it again. It’s so good, but so traumatising.

When did you realise that [the 2008 thriller] The Happening wasn’t really “happening”? Obo1971

[She laughs.] That film was pretty universally not loved! The director, M Night Shyamalan – Night – had a strong vision and we were all trying to do what he wanted. I trusted him, because he’s a great film-maker. I didn’t know until I saw the film, but I think he was going for a stylised horror, like The Birds, and maybe people didn’t get that. I had a blast working with Night and Mark Wahlberg, but while I’ve done serious drama, I’m not sure I fit with thrillers. I find most joy in doing comedy.

Would you and your actor sister Emily ever put out a song together? You guys did so well on Carpool Karaoke.


She doesn’t have much interest in singing professionally and I would never want it to get in the way of our relationship. When we were growing up, I used to make her sing melody so I could sing harmony, but she would always start laughing. I’d be like: “Emily, stop laughing!”

Zooey Deschanel: ‘I’m not sure I fit with thrillers. I find most joy in doing comedy.’
Zooey Deschanel: ‘I’m not sure I fit with thrillers. I find most joy in doing comedy.’ Photograph: Chantal Anderson

Your renditions of Dream a Little Dream of Me and I Put a Spell on You are among my favourite things in this world. Which singers do you like listening to? squeezycakes

Judy Garland was my favourite singer growing up. Then Linda Ronstadt, Karen Carpenter, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Astrud Gilberto, Sarah Vaughan. For guy singers: John Sebastian, Sam Cooke, Al Green. I like the old stuff. Like Summer, I do love the Smiths. Morrissey is an amazing songwriter. There’s definitely Smiths songs I would love to cover, but I want to concentrate on our own songs.

You’re about to star in Dreamin’ Wild [about the rediscovered 70s singing duo Donnie and Joe Emerson], by the Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad. Did joining the project have anything to do with said Brian Wilson biopic? HelenaCA

It was completely coincidental and came up just as we were finishing the record. I had always been scared to watch Love & Mercy, because biopics can be cringey, but I loved it, so I knew he would do right by the Emersons.

She & Him have largely focused on covers lately, but as someone who loves your songwriting, I was wondering if you would consider a Volume 4 [She & Him Volume 3 came out in 2013]? AnnieandtheNorth

There absolutely will be a Volume 4. I love writing. I actually wrote most of the first album in London when I was making a movie and had no friends. I was in this apartment, bored out of my mind. I’m not saying you have to be bored to write songs, but sometimes it’s really great to be by yourself.

You seem to radiate good feeling, but what recently made you rage (apart from a certain supreme court decision)? MatthewMcKinnon

That did make me rage! People will suffer and have complications in childbirth and maternal deaths will rise, although I’m more sad than angry that people won’t get the care they need. Rights were taken away without the support of the people, but hopefully it will be rescinded. I’m a pretty optimistic person.

• She & Him’s album Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson is released on 22 July


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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