The first thing you notice about Zoey Deutch is that she has energy — lots of it. When the 22-year-old actor calls me for our interview, she's only just hopped off a plane, but she's brimming with enthusiasm. Our chat has been rescheduled a few times, and though it's no fault of Deutch's, she laughs loudly as she apologizes for the inconvenience, noting that she barely made it through baggage claim before picking up the phone. "I'm sorry, I think the world is trying to keep us apart," she tells me, with dramatic emphasis. "They don't want us to be together, but here we are."
Here we are, indeed. A little over a month since her new movie, Before I Fall, premiered at Sundance, Deutch is reveling in the film's success, attending premieres and joyfully reposting the movie's rave reviews — many of which hail her as the film's breakout star — on her Twitter account. The actor may barely be out of her teens, but clearly, she's come a long way since her days of romancing a Sprouse twin on Disney Channel's Suite Life on Deck and popping up on shows like NCIS and Criminal Minds. The daughter of Back to the Future star Lea Thompson and Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch, Deutch was born into acting, but didn't truly break out until just three years ago, when she starred in the YA fantasy Vampire Academy. A few scene-stealing roles in films like Everybody Wants Some and Dirty Grandpa later, and she's a bona-fide movie star, leading Before I Fall, in theaters now.
It's been a fast climb, but a well-deserved one; as her performance in Before I Fall shows, Deutch is a talented actor who can command a screen with impressive charisma. In real life, she projects confidence, and wants to keep acting until she decides she doesn't want to anymore — a day she swears, with a laugh, will never come. But Deutch wasn't always so at ease with her personality and abilities, she tells me; in actuality, she spent her teen years far more aware of her flaws than her strengths.
"I just remember in high school, feeling like those [negative] qualities about myself were what made me who I am," she says. "Me being a contrarian and saying no to stuff, that made me who I am, that made me Zoey."
Yet eventually, she realized that those characteristics weren't the only things that defined her. "That wasn’t what people loved about me," she recalls. "They loved that I was open, that I was vulnerable. So I started to recognize the good and try to work on the bad."
It's a path similarly attempted by Before I Fall's Sam, a popular but often insensitive senior forced to relive the same tragic day over and over again, all while trying to become a better, more compassionate person. Deutch says she was drawn to the film because it presented teen girls as complex, contradictory figures, just like herself and the peers she grew up with. Sam and her friends are far from perfect — if anything, they're too selfish, too carelessly cruel — but they're real, girls whose personalities and friendships echo those of the actual teens watching the movie's events unfold. "When I read it, I was like f**k, this is a great part," Deutch says. "A lot of people use strong, but I like complex, I like complicated. She’s oftentimes a contradiction of herself. She’s not one thing."
The fact that Before I Fall boasts a female screenwriter, director, and author behind its inspiration certainly has something to do with it. "We’ve seen these kinds of movies made, written and directed by men. I certainly can’t write and speak to the experience of a middle-aged man, right?" Deutch says, laughing. "So I just loved that it felt so authentic."
Like many high school-set films, Before I Fall has its fair share of drama and romance, but the movie is centered on the character development of its female leads instead, something Deutch says she greatly appreciates. "While there’s romance, and, yes, there’s humor, it just delved so much deeper than most teenage dramas," she says. "[Director Ry Russo-Young and I] both have been teenage girls — we know what it’s like, we know how hard it is."
Indeed, growing up female is no easy feat, and Deutch is all too aware of its challenges. But she made it through — and, it's clear, came out the other side stronger and more self-aware than she ever was in her high school days.