Chameleon: Zooey Deschanel

Photo: Steve Granitz/Wire Image

“I wanted to be a child actor so bad that every day I’d beg my parents if I could audition,” Zooey Deschanel recalls, “but my mom”—actress Mary Jo—“said, ‘Not until you can drive yourself to auditions.’ So I had to wait until I was 16, but it was good, because then I went after it myself.” Now 26, she’s had a license and a career for a decade, starring in several films a year, from Elf to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Logan Hill spoke with her.

In Adam Rapp’s new indie Winter Passing, you play the daughter of a disturbed, eccentric novelist (Ed Harris). You grew up in an artistic family yourself (father Caleb is a cinematographer who shot The Passion of the Christ, and sister Emily stars in Bones). Were there any parallels?
I come from a very creative family, and I can relate to that—but I don’t come from a dysfunctional artistic family. They’ve got this weird substitute family that the father’s dreamed up, that’s sort of out of a novel.

Kinda like your name—do more people ask about the Salinger reference in New York than in L.A.?
I think both cities have about the same percentage of Salinger fans.

Winter Passing kicks off in New York, where eccentric authors are more than tolerated, but Ed Harris’s character lives in Michigan.
Yeah, if you stay in a place like Michigan, it’s not as accepted, so he has to make this family that accepts him.

And your character is in a rough state of mind.
She was always hiding behind a wall of cleverness, and forever on the verge of a breakdown—but it’s not until the end of the film that she actually breaks down. I was surprised that it was harder to be on the edge all the time than crying all the time. At least if you’re crying, there’s some outlet. So every lunch, I’d just go in my dressing room and cry.

You could become known as a great comic actress if you wanted. Would you be happy with that?
I try not to think of it as comedy and drama. I think the best comedic actors don’t play it for comedy, they play it for reality. Then you find it funny because it’s real. Playing the genre is the worst thing you can do—it’s embarrassing.

But you play such different roles. Your fans range from sci-fi geeks to film critics who swooned over All the Real Girls. Next up, you’re Sarah Jessica Parker’s roommate in the romantic comedy Failure to Launch. Do you have a plan here?
I think I’d say that my whole body of work is a reflection of who I am, but not any one specific thing.

That must make for some confusion.
Even personally, that can be frustrating. What led me to be an actor is that I have a strange something in me that can drastically change the way I appear to the world. Growing up, I couldn’t understand why people would always have different ideas of me—but because of that I became aware of how you can manipulate your own ability to change. And then I learned to make a career of it.

Winter Passing, February 17, and Failure to Launch, March 10

Chameleon: Zooey Deschanel