Zooey Deschanel Can't Be Anyone But Herself

Her fashion sense is big on TikTok. New Girl is thriving on Netflix. She's dating HGTV royalty. For Deschanel, knowing who you are means never really going out of style.

Originally Published: 
Zooey Deschanel.
Erik Carter

Zooey Deschanel has always had bangs. The first time her parents ever took her for a cut, the hairdresser gave her the blunt, eyebrow-length bangs that have come to define her so thoroughly that she recently reminded fans on Instagram that, yes, she does have a forehead. “I remember, when I was a kid, looking at my forehead and noticing it was about five shades lighter than the rest of my face because it was always covered in a thick layer of fringe,” Deschanel says. She grew them out once — in ninth grade — but like many ill-conceived teenage style experimentations, it didn’t take. “I just feel more like myself when I have them; it’s a part of my identity. My style doesn’t really follow trends so much as it is a reflection of who I am.”

Some of that is because “I’m a Capricorn — I know what makes me me,” she says in a surprisingly gravelly voice, like if Lucy from Peanuts smoked Parliaments. Deschanel has also taken the Myers-Briggs test and knows which house she’d be sorted into if she were a teen wizard. She finds Hogwarts houses much more fun than astrology, to the point that when we meet in the backyard of a Brentwood home rented for today’s photo shoot, she implores me to take the Pottermore quiz to find out where I would belong. (Slytherin.) She’s had her assistant, her stylist, and her publicist all do the same. A few weeks later, she’ll post an Instagram from a trip to Universal Studios with her boyfriend, Property Brothers’ Jonathan Scott, with the caption, “Even Ravenclaws need to have fun sometimes.”

“I’m not really ever, in my life, trying to be someone else,” Deschanel tells me.

That unwavering sense of self made her a singular star in the late aughts, one known as much for her love of 1960s-style dresses, saddle shoes, kittens, and cupcakes as she was for filmography. With her star turn in (500) Days of Summer and her equally acclaimed music career (as one half of folk-pop duo She & Him, with M. Ward), she brought a hipster cool to Hollywood at a time when Beyoncé and Jay-Z attending a Grizzly Bear concert was still headline news.

But after (500) Days — a movie about the dangers of projecting too much on a person just because they like The Smiths — it became all too easy for people to… also project a lot on Deschanel. Deschanel was often conflated with her characters because of the twee, girlish femininity they shared. While starring in the hit Fox sitcom New Girl, she bristled at the way the show’s tagline, “Simply Adorkable,” was treated as if it were a description of herself. “I don’t always identify, perhaps, with the way that I’m portrayed in certain public contexts,” she told HuffPost in 2017. “[The tagline] was our marketing department at Fox. … That’s a word that describes the character that I play, not me. I don’t personally have identification with that word myself.”

“People would say I was unique or quirky, and I remember being like, ‘Why?’ I just wanted to be normal.”

Today, the Deschanel brand is as strong as ever. She spent June on the road with She & Him ahead of the duo’s upcoming Brian Wilson tribute album, and she co-hosts Welcome to Our Show, the New Girl rewatch podcast with former co-stars Hannah Simone and Lamorne Morris. An iconic sitcom character can be an albatross around any star’s neck, but Deschanel is leaning in, hard. At today’s shoot, though there had been a conversation about styling Deschanel in menswear, she opted for a multicolored floral dress and a ring shaped like a daisy; even her kitten heels are decked out in flowers (and are sure to find fans on TikTok, where twee fashion is now all the rage). Oh, and when she finds out where in the city I’m staying, she recommends a bakery with really good pies. Pies!

It’s not like she hasn’t been through the Hollywood wringer at times. But Deschanel at least has the satisfaction of knowing she made it through without changing herself. “It’s like they want you, but they also want to destroy you, knock you down, and make you worthless at the same time,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like you are object. I’m like, ‘No, I am subject. I am not object.’”

Deschanel didn’t always possess this confidence. The now-42-year-old first started pursuing acting in her late teens and quickly landed a part in Almost Famous as the sardonic, bohemian Anita — and casting directors quickly began to view Deschanel as eccentric, too. “A lot of the girls that came to L.A to try their hand at acting were extremely confident, probably the prettiest girls in their school coming from the Midwest,” she says. “And when they were looking for a more awkward, oddball person [they thought of me].” But Deschanel struggled to square the way she was being perceived with her own sense of identity. “People would say I was unique or quirky, and I remember being like, ‘Why?’ It wasn’t like I was trying to be that way. I just wanted to be normal. Somehow this other thing was what was coming across, and I felt like that was frustrating.”

While those qualities funneled her into “best friend” roles in bigger movies, her scene-stealing sense of humor shined in indie films like The Good Girl, All the Real Girls, and The Go-Getter. But the attention those moves received was nothing compared to (500) Days of Summer, which screened at Sundance in early 2009. “We got a standing ovation,” she says. “I went to, like, 10 Sundances in a row. I definitely went times where I had movies that didn’t hit. I saw the reaction [to 500] I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have something special.’”

“There wasn’t any material like that in movies for me. I’m not Reese Witherspoon. I don’t have that kind of fame level.”

(500) Days of Summer went on to become the breakout hit of the summer, earning a slew of Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations. Soon after, Deschanel was reportedly in consideration for the The Avengers. But in reality, the phone wasn’t ringing with any offers. “That was a really tough time, actually. They kind of killed the indie movie around then for a while,” she says. And without these types of projects on the horizon, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Deschanel. “I was like, ‘Maybe I won’t act anymore.’”

Moving to network television was not exactly what a studio exec would have advised. “A lot of people thought it could go very wrong,” she recalls. But when the script for New Girl came across Deschanel’s desk — a millennial Friends-esque comedy about a woman who finds herself living in a loft with three male roommates — she sensed something original in creator Liz Meriwether’s characters, and she was drawn to the way they seemed like people you’d actually want to hang out with (and maybe play elaborate drinking games with).

“There wasn’t any material like that in movies for me,” she says. “I’m not Reese Witherspoon, I don’t have that kind of fame level. So, in a way, I have to be very smart about what I choose.” (There wasn’t necessarily much material for Reese Witherspoon, either, who, citing a lack of compelling roles for women, also moved to TV to star in and produce dramas like Big Little Lies and The Morning Show.) And while Jess Day was certainly an extension of Deschanel’s endearingly offbeat characters, she wasn’t anyone’s sidekick here — she was a primetime heroine.

Deschanel went all in, also signing on as a producer. (In 2014, she was promoted to co-executive producer.) “Zooey was our boss. When we auditioned, we needed to get Liz Meriwether’s approval, we needed to get the network’s approval, and then Zooey’s,” Jake Johnson, who starred as Nick Miller, recalls. “Then Zooey did a very cool thing. As the show went on, and the cast started getting its wings, she just became one of us.” Johnson grew particularly close to Deschanel, as the opposites-attract love story between his low-key sexy, disgruntled bartender and her do-gooder school teacher became the series’ ace. “She really cared about tone. We would text and talk about Pam and Jim from The Office [in terms of] Nick and Jess and say, ‘What are we trying to do? We know this is here, we know we have great chemistry, what’s our goal?’”

Even small moments, like Nick and Jess’ first kiss — which has been praised for embodying the perfect balance of respect and assertiveness — continue to go viral on Twitter. Johnson says most of the credit belongs to Deschanel. “If my memory serves me correct, which who the fuck knows if it does, I remember her saying, ‘Grab my shoulders hard and pull me in.’”

“When you don’t work for a while, people are quick to want something new. They don’t understand why you would want to spend time with your children.”

Critics were cool on New Girl at first, but at the height of its success, the show earned Deschanel an Emmy nomination, a hosting spot on Saturday Night Live, and a rumored $125,000 per episode. Four years after going off the air, it remains as popular as ever. On TikTok, the show’s hashtag has more than 2.5 billion views. In 2020, it was one of Netflix’s most streamed titles, and the platform is reportedly seeking projects that emulate the series. “In the last few years people have been thinking about things in terms of ‘high concept’ or ‘low concept,’” Deschanel says. “I’m like, concept has nothing to do with whether something is successful. New Girl has the most generic concept. It’s in the writing and the chemistry of the actors. Not to pat myself on the back…”

For all the fun Deschanel had on the series, though, it also burned her out. “My last four years, I was either pregnant, breastfeeding, or had an infant,” says Deschanel, who has two children, Elsie Otter and Charlie Wolf, with ex-husband Jacob Pechenik. “I remember Modern Family would wrap at lunch. We would work 80-hour weeks. It was harder to do a long-running show with those hours.” After the show ended, Deschanel’s castmates jumped right back into work, landing new roles on new buzzy shows and films like The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Deschanel wasn’t so eager. “I’d been working almost straight since I was 17 years old,” she says. “It was time for me to have a break.”

Taking such a break after anchoring a sitcom smash is, again, not what a Hollywood exec would advise. “The scariest thing is, when you don’t work for a while, people are very quick to want to have something new [from you] if they haven’t seen you for a while,” she says. “They don’t understand why you would want to spend time with your children or whatever. But it was really worth it to me, and I would not trade having that time for the world.” She walked her kids to school and to the beach to look at boats. She co-founded two sustainability-focused startups, small-space vegetable garden Lettuce Grow and organic-foods rewards app Merryfield, designed to make better-for-you products more accessible.

She also fell in love with HGTV’s most eligible bachelor.

“I tell anyone who asks, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I know I’m dating up,’” Scott says. The two met while appearing on Carpool Karaoke in 2019 and immediately clicked. “I was flirting so bad that they had to edit it down,” he says. But shortly after filming, Scott went on a horseback riding trip through the Rocky Mountains without any cell service. So when Deschanel didn’t get a text back for four days, she thought he was ghosting her. “The very first text I sent when I came out of the mountains was a video I recorded to a Canadian country song that she had mentioned to me,” he says. A bold move, but it worked. “She was like, ‘Oh, this guy likes me.’ And we’ve literally talked every single day since. It’s been the best three years of my life.”

They’re in the process of moving into the dream home they’ve been renovating for the past few years. And though the internet hasn’t known what to make of their pairing — the celebrity podcast Who? Weekly has a slideshow breaking down the improbability of their relationship — that hasn’t deterred them from exchanging loved-up Instagram comments and posting gushy tributes to one another (including a heartwarming Father’s Day post with Pechenik). “[Jonathan’s] from a different world. I kept my cards close to my chest. But everything about him was kind of out there because people know him for him,” Deschanel says. “I’m like, ‘He’s so nice, kind, funny and smart, why wouldn’t I want to tell everybody?’”

The admiration goes both ways. “It’s one thing to just play different characters, but it’s another thing to really create a whole brand around making sure that it’s OK to be yourself and to be passionate about what you want to be passionate about,” Scott says. He’s also glimpsed just how much New Girl and Jess Day have meant to young women. “Every time we’re out, some young girl will come up to her and say, ‘You’ve inspired me to get through a very difficult time.’”

Celebrities hosting podcasts about their sitcoms is a relatively new phenomenon. Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey started hosting The Office podcast Office Ladies in 2019. Rob Lowe and Parks and Recreation writer-producer Alan Yang launched Parks and Recollection last year. And Deschanel is right — in an industry obsessed with reinvention, spending time on memory lane can feel like a bold swing. But Deschanel missed her co-workers, and when you’ve got young children, taping a podcast beats flying back and forth to sets every week (though she does that, too, having filmed starring roles in the upcoming music drama Dreamin’ Wild and the adaptation of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon).

I ask Deschanel if she has a dream role in mind, and she laughs. “I’ll have to, like, read it and then I could tell you.” Instead, she thinks about the actors she admires and asks herself: Would Allison Janney do that? Would Laura Linney do that? People known and respected for great work, and that’s it.

“It’s never been exactly my ambition to be a movie star,” she says. If people “see my style and my personality and have maybe a certain degree of interest in me as a person beyond my career,” well — that’s never been something she can control. She shrugs her cropped balloon-sleeved shoulders. “I just like to do good things with good people.”

Photographer: Erik Carter

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