She dreamed of doing musicals on Broadway. “Then I was like, ‘Argh, but you have to be a good dancer and that’s kind of lame.’ ” Her manager, Sarah Jackson, spotted her at age 16 as Red Riding Hood in a 99-seat North Hollywood production of Into the Woods. Soon after, she landed her first onscreen job, a single-episode guest spot on Veronica’s Closet as a wannabe model with a hilarious, unidentifiable accent that was most certainly not in the script.
During Deschanel’s first year at Northwestern, she says, Sarah Polley dropped out of the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous, and Kate Hudson took over for her, leaving an opening for Hudson’s original part, the older sister who assures the “Cameron Crowe” character that “one day you’ll be cool” as she runs away from home with her boyfriend but leaves all her records behind. The casting director remembered Deschanel from an earlier audition. “It was a divine stroke of luck,” Deschanel says, enough for her to quit school and move back to L.A. She didn’t want to find herself in the same position Emily had: having to compete with 17-year-olds at age 22.
“The fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness—that needs to be examined.”
She did seven projects over the next two years, and another four in 2003, including Elf and the lead role as an aloof heartbreaker in a small mining town in All the Real Girls, for which she got nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. “Everything happened really fast when I was younger,” she says. “It was a moment where I felt like I had to grab everything. I was just like, ‘Oh my God! I am so thankful and so happy that I actually get to do this.’ And then there were ups and downs and it was very confusing and I worked too much.” The downs, though Deschanel’s not one to name names, would no doubt include the M. Night Shyamalan flop The Happening. The biggest up—with an unanticipated downside—would likely be (500) Days of Summer, a sleeper hit in which she plays the complicated dream girl to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom, first bewitching him with her love of the Smiths. The movie, told almost entirely through Tom’s perspective, was “actually very misunderstood,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many guys, and girls, are like, ‘You did him wrong!’ What, she’s a bitch because she didn’t want to date that guy? So? Are we bitches because we have our own opinions? If that makes me a bitch, or that makes women bitches, then maybe we’re all bitches.”
The New Girl script came her way at a time that Deschanel was a little weary of the indie-film circuit. She’d already taken most of 2010 to tour with She & Him. She hadn’t thought seriously about doing TV—she’d never found a character she wanted to play for such a potentially long stretch. Jess, though, she liked. The show’s I Love Lucy sense of high jinks, too. Plus it was a chance to work with a female writer, which she’d hardly ever done, and to show off her physical-comedy skills, which in later episodes will include fending off an 11-year-old suitor on a wedding dance floor and leading a group of troubled youth in a hand-bell choir, impromptu choreography by Deschanel. “I guess I felt like there was stuff I could do that nobody knew I could do,” she says. “It’s rare that the ladies get to be funny in that particular way.”
On the set of New Girl, a battle is heating up between Deschanel and her trailer. “It’s the worst!” she says, harrumphing as she shows me its fake-wood insides. “I’m really trying to make it cute in here. It’s really hard. It’s just so—ugh—brown!” Her assistant, Lexi, pipes in. “It could at least look like something that’s not a dentist’s office,” given that Deschanel is working sixteen-hour days. But painting or wallpapering makes her nervous, especially since the long-term fate of New Girl is unknown. Her solution: draping every possible surface in pink and red linens, many of which are printed with cupcakes.
Amid all the textile sweets, we eat lunch: a gluten-free salad. “I have, like, all these stupid food allergies. It’s pretty shitty,” she says. Briefly, she mulls over what to do with the painting of a pair of moccasins on the wall. It came with the trailer and is so hideous and comically southwestern that at first I thought Deschanel had put it there as a joke. Irony isn’t her style, though. “I’m worried if I pull these weird things down, they’re going to be mad at me,” she says. “So I’m trying to figure out something I can put oooooover this.” She demonstrates by holding up a picture of smiling lambs she happens to have lying around.