All eyes at the party train on her, the paragon of femininity in a formfitting white lace minidress and cascading brunette waves. “I’m not gonna lie. She’s the reason I’ve had bangs for seven years,” whispers one female guest. “Those eyes!” says another upon meeting her. “I kept thinking, If I had to die and I had to be looking at one thing when I died, it would be your face.”
That face is the face smiling down from billboards right now—accompanied by the unfortunate tagline “Simply Adorkable”—advertising New Girl, the fall sitcom for which Fox is hosting this “tastemaker” screening at an old smog-check center in Culver City. She’s plastered all over subway and bus stops, too (“Boys will be boys. Jess will be Jess.”)—arms raised joyously skyward, head cocked, leg lifted, a cross between Mary Tyler Moore and your 10-year-old sister.
On the show, Zooey Deschanel’s Jess, following a truly humiliating breakup, answers a roommate ad from three single guys on Craigslist and moves into their downtown-L.A. loft, only to wreak havoc on their lives by virtue of her Jess-ness, which includes watching Dirty Dancing six times a day, sobbing uncontrollably, creating her own theme song—“Who’s that girl? It’s Jess!”—and trying to find rebound sex via the pickup line “Hey, sailor.”
Deschanel, 31, is a smoother cat, most of the time. But she’s not used to this sort of attention. Lately, drivers have started yelling out to her on the road beneath one of those giant signs bearing her image. She covers her face at the thought: “I’ll drive to work, and I’ll be like, ‘Aaaaahhh! Zooey, get away!’ Huh-hah. Heh.” Deschanel has a laugh like a rapid reverse hiccup.
If America at large knows her, it’s usually because she was in Elf with Will Ferrell or because people think she’s Katy Perry. She has a sizable and fervent following, though, among those who see something of themselves, or at least of people they know, in the sardonic wits and artsy flakes she plays so well. In the 2002 film The Good Girl, she was an eye-rolling Retail Rodeo employee whose sign-off at checkout is “Here’s your change, and fuck you very much.” In Our Idiot Brother, her most recent movie, she’s a Brooklyn bisexual living in a communal loft who yearns to be a stand-up comedian. But Deschanel doesn’t just portray indie culture onscreen. She, more than most of her indie-actress peers, seems to live it, too—less sardonically than sweetly—and the perception of her as a sort of standard-bearer for all things sincere and nostalgic (or mannered and twee, depending on your point of view) has made her a figure of both adoration and exasperation. She has a band, of course, a folk-rock duo with M. Ward. As half of She & Him, she sings Shirelles harmonies, plays piano and ukulele, and writes most of the songs—well enough that, as Pitchfork.com wrote in a stunned, positive review, she’s somehow avoided “a Hollywood archetype: the actor-turned-singer-turned-punchline.” Online, she declares her love of board games, baking, and karaoke to the almost 600,000 followers of her super-sunny Twitter feed, @therealzooeyd, and this summer she started a humor and lifestyle website called HelloGiggles for “smart, independent, and creative females.” Section headings include Cuteness and He Haw.
That’s why it’s almost a shock when she shows up at the party in a dress that seems so much more generically actress-y than her usual sixties vintage fare. She had to call on her stylist for emergency help, she explains. “I only found out last minute there were going to be cameras. I was going to wear this old dress I’ve worn to, like, eight events. Do you think this one is a little too … sexy?” She pronounces it “sax-EEE” and screws her face up into an exaggerated Lucille Ball expression of dread, as if she’s uncomfortable with the word even leaving her mouth. Still, she dutifully heads over to the tiny red carpet where reporters ask things like “Do you ever get mistaken for Katy Perry?” (“I literally met her twice six years ago,” she tells me. “It’s a strange relationship to have with somebody. I probably answer more questions about her than about my own family.”)
Skirting around the carpet is the real Jess incarnate: The show’s 29-year-old creator, Liz Meriwether, who wrote the pilot about the four years she’d spent “Craigslist surfing from sublet to sublet”—sometimes after horrible breakups, though she doesn’t like to talk about them. A playwright, she moved to L.A. to be a screenwriter, and she’s done well for herself, despite being, as New Girl executive producer Jake Kasdan says, a “hugely self-conscious extrovert” who actually does sing to herself when uncomfortable, just like Jess. Her incredibly raunchy first feature script, Fuckbuddies, was No. 6 on the 2008 Black List of the best unproduced movies in Hollywood (sample line: “I go on dick-tasting tours of Napa Valley”); Ivan Reitman eventually neutered it into No Strings Attached. A 2009 New York Timesarticle featured her as the latest member of “Hollywood’s New Power Posse,” a quartet of women writers, including Diablo Cody, who jokingly call themselves the “Fempire.” Meriwether is wearing black thick-framed glasses similar to Jess’s and has dirty-blonde hair with bangs much like Deschanel’s. She’s said of Deschanel, “I didn’t think I could find someone as weird as I am.”