She’s what pop mastermind Phil Spector might have called a little symphony. Over the analogue confection of her country-meets-’60s bubblegum debut record, a multi-tracked Zooey Deschanel is harmonising with herself — a chorus of mini vocal personalities playing off each other to form an uncanny girl group whole. It’s the kind of sound you won’t hear on any hit radio this side of 1971, but then Deschanel’s not the kind of actress typical of modern Hollywood, either.
Like the sounds on her recently released album with folk rock musician M. Ward — She & Him’s Volume One — there are many facets to this 28-year-old actress-performer’s eccentric career. Switching between roles in offbeat independent films and mainstream studio fare, musical cabaret and retrofitted pop, Deschanel has stepped to her own peculiar beat. A distinct actress and style pin-up who describes herself as “feminine, eclectic and old fashioned” and lists her favourite designers as Erin Fetherston and Zac Posen, she’s kept her audience guessing when many stars of her age have either been chewed up by the celebrity grinder or typecast by their résumé.
“My life is pretty great right now,” Deschanel reflects, with a lack of affectation that comes from a perspective well earned. 2008 is certainly going to be a busy year. Alongside her well-received record, she’ll soon appear with Mark Wahlberg in The Happening, the latest thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.
At first glance, starring in a multiplex disaster movie from the director of The Sixth Sense appears to be a step into an entirely different world. Since her breakthrough in Almost Famous, Deschanel has varied between indie dramas such as All the Real Girls to smaller parts in the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with the female lead in one genuine smash, Elf — albeit dominated by the pratfalls of Will Ferrell. But Deschanel, who is known to be selective about projects, is thrilled to be involved. “I got a call from Night and I went to Philadelphia to meet him,” she says, “and I loved the script, which was really smart and really scary. I had a really good meeting with him and he asked me if I would do it.”
The film centres around a biological phenomenon wreaking havoc on an American city; suspected as the work of terrorists, it soon assumes what we can only speculate is a supernatural, Shyamalan dimension. Deschanel plays Wahlberg’s wife; and does a lot of running in terror. “It was really great working with a director who was just so smart and who really knows how to make thrillers,” the actress enthuses. “He’s really kinda brilliant. And has a very specific vision. So it was fun and challenging to try to help bring that vision to the screen.”
Deschanel will follow The Happening with another high profile role opposite Jim Carrey in Yes Man — returning her to her favourite genre. “I love doing comedy,” she admits. “It’s probably the hardest thing, I think. You kinda know whether something works, ’cause people laughed.”
Those laughs have led to the perception that perplexes Deschanel the most: that she’s in her comedic element as the deadpan, sarcastic best friend. “I don’t know,” she wonders. “I don’t really think that. People say that I do deadpan, but I don’t really identify with that. I’m not really a deadpan person at all — I’m actually really sincere.”
Maybe it’s that voice — a hard-to-place, hypnotic drawl that can drift between sounding languorous and sardonic, it’s a way of speaking that makes her seem older than her years. There’s almost a weariness to Deschanel’s movie banter. Or is it the deadpan thing? “You’re still showing up everyday, you’re still trying to get a bunch of things shot,” she says of experience in filmmaking, as though she were describing her day job at the mall. “It’s still the same kind of job.”
Turns out that being an actress kind of is her day job; at least at the moment. As the songwriter and one instrumental half of She & Him with M. Ward, Deschanel has realised her musical talents with an accomplished pop record. It’s no actress-turned-rocker vanity project, either: she’s been involved with music her whole life. Deschanel sang in choirs at an early age, created the musical revue If All The Stars Were Pretty Babies, and has performed with the Weimar-style cabaret act Citizens Band. The actress also sang in both Elf and Jesse James, and ironically, it was through film that She & Him came together.
“We recorded a song for the soundtrack to a movie called The Go-Getter,” she says of her initial sessions with Ward, a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s folk rock track “When I Get To The Border”. “I guess I told him that I’d written all this music and that I had all these demos, and he was really interested in hearing it. So I sent it to him and he suggested we go into the studio and sort of properly record them. It just sort of started as something that we thought would be fun.”
The result is a set of warm, perfectly-pitched vintage pop, on which Deschanel has been variously likened to Linda Ronstadt, Dusty Springfield, Patsy Cline or one of Spector’s girls — depending on who you poll — while Ward refracts her songs through the AM radio dial of postcard Americana.
“It was great, it was really fun,” says Deschanel. Fun, she’s fond of saying, is the record’s motif; what’s surprising is how she manages to sound both sunshine-romantic and as bittersweet as a lovelorn country chanteuse. “Yeah, I mean it was the music I was listening to,” she considers. “I feel like this style of music has a certain simplicity that I like. You know, I like those chords and I like that sort of style in country music. I think that’s just where my sensibility lies. It’s what I wanted — we recorded on tape and we tried to make it as authentically lo-fi as possible.”
Deschanel is conscious of the comparisons she’s drawn with her musical predecessors. Asked about the album’s overt nostalgia for ’60s pop, she’s frank as to her influences. “Well [Matt and I] loved a lot of that stuff. I mean, oldies radio. I pretty much grew up listening to oldies radio and a lot of old country, old ’60s pop: the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Zombies and the Kinks and I think probably then, you know, Carole King. I think my songwriting and sensibilities lie in that tradition.”
Volume One nods to the Zombies by recreating their arrangement of “You Really Gotta Hold On Me” and flaunts its Beatles worship with a cover of “I Should Have Known Better”, which Ward and Deschanel slow down to a near tropical whisper. Was she apprehensive about appropriating a Lennon-McCartney composition?
“No. I mean everything we did was because it was fun — because we liked it, not to play to the expectation of how people would perceive it. With anything it was like, we like this so we’re gonna do it. I liked playing the song and I like singing it; it was pretty much as simple as that. I think carrying all those ideas through to the end is a good way to conduct. You keep these principles close to your heart. If you have a sort of idea that you’re gonna be some glorious person all the time then your expectations are higher and it doesn’t really turn out as well as if you’re just doing it for fun.”
It’s obvious that Deschanel’s jazzed about the record, and talk of music piques her interest. Ask her what she’s listening to and she shifts gears. “I have so many records in my mix,” she ponders.
Tough question, granted. She & Him, Volume One?
Laughter. “That would be egomania.”
Finally she clicks, after the deliberation of a music obsessive — or someone who’s been frantically, covertly trawling their iPod. “Ah… I’ve been listening to some old Marvin Gaye hits. Oh, oh — Mama Cass Elliot!” She exclaims, happy to have tapped her memory. “I’ve got that record, Mama’s Big Ones.”
Suddenly it’s tempting to imagine Deschanel the way many of us first saw her, as the mentor older sister to future rock journalist William Miller in Almost Famous — offering the wide-eyed kid her vinyl collection as a rite of musical passage.
So, if she had to pass on three records to someone’s little brother, what would they be?
“Only three—that’s two few!” Deschanel protests. “Uh… [long pause] The Zombies’ Odessey and the Oracle. I would also say Dusty Springfield — Dusty in Memphis. And… ah, The Beach Boys — Pet Sounds.”
Originally published in RUSSH