The Before I Fall star explains all
At a diner on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, the kind with vinyl banquettes and a case near the entrance stocked with slightly stale pastries and mayo-rich “salads,” actor Zoey Deutch is a regular. The recent star of Before I Fall—the indie screen adaptation of the dark young-adult novel of the same name—orders matzo ball soup and compliments our elderly waitress, with whom she is on a first-name basis, on the eccentric purple streaks in her close-cropped hair. Then the woman touches Deutch’s shoulder in a way that feels so friendly and familiar that you know, you just know, that the 22-year-old actress is the kind of person that you are going to like.
“Everything in my life happens in this place,” says Deutch, using her hands when she speaks, almost leaping out of her seat with energy as she gestures around the room at the gray linoleum and bad lighting. “I’ve been coming since I was a little kid. I have all of my family dinners here. I bring first dates here! I sit here and read. I have all of my meetings here, if I can.” Next to her on the table is a bookmarked copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
The whole setup would make a great scene for a teen movie, if the writer wanted to introduce a sympathetic female lead who is grounded despite her obvious beauty, a small-but-spunky girl who doesn’t forget where she came from. Maybe it’s no coincidence then that teen movies are in Deutch’s DNA. Her parents, actor Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, met in 1987 on the set of Some Kind of Wonderful, one of two movies her father directed that was written by the late prolific ’80s screenwriter John Hughes (the first was Pretty in Pink). “It’s hard to grasp when someone says my parents touched them in some way—that their voices were in their heads,” she says.
They married in 1989 and had two girls, Zoey and her older sister, Madelyn, also an actor, who were raised nearby and attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). From the sound of it, the youngest Deutch always had an outsized personality.
“Oh my God, I had so many questions. Why? Why? Why? I talked all the time. People would say, ‘Lea, Howie, how do you do this?’” she laughs. “But they were just like, ‘This is how she is!’”
Deutch says she inherited from her father the distinctly Jewish perspective of finding the humor in all situations. “He taught me not to take things too seriously—that I could always find something funny.”
“From my mother I inherited my work ethic and the desire to live a purposive life,” says Deutch, whose mother’s genes are also apparent in her slight 5’4” build, auburn hair, expressive face and high-pitched voice. “She works harder than anyone I know. I remember when I was a kid, she never said, ‘I’m so sorry I have to go to work.’ She would just say, ‘I love you, and I’m going to work.’ We knew that she was proud of it, and she was also an excellent mother. There were no apologies necessary.”
Inherited or not, the combination of traits Deutch possesses has caught the attention of Hollywood. She has a handful of movies expected to be released this year, but insists the seven-year road she traveled to get here had its share of obstacles. While she was a student at LACHSA, Deutch landed a recurring role on a Disney Channel show, The Suite Life on Deck.
“But the next hundred auditions didn’t go so well,” Deutch laughs. “It was a very rude awakening.” She made a series of film adaptations of popular novels, like Beautiful Creatures (2013) and Vampire Academy (2014). Then Richard Linklater came calling. Spending time in Texas with the largely male cast for Linklater’s semiautobiographical college story Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) was an experience that she clearly valued. Linklater gave her plenty of creative freedom on set, even drawing from Deutch’s own words to form her character Beverly’s monologue professing her love for theater.
“I love what I do. I really do,” says Deutch. She adds, “And I’m really ambitious. But ambition is a dirty word to some people. All it means is that you’re willing to work hard to do what you love.”
Despite her delicate appearance, it’s true that she projects a tomboyish charm. Even the actors she’s most inspired by, like Michael Shannon and Bryan Cranston, are male. In last year’s Why Him? she played opposite James Franco as Cranston’s daughter.
“Anyone who says don’t meet your idols hasn’t met Bryan Cranston,” she says. “Because he is the absolute best.”
Her most recent film, Before I Fall, directed by Ry Russo-Young, hit theaters in March and screened at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a teen movie based on a YA novel by Lauren Oliver, and it has all of the existential angst that Hughes made popular in her parents’ era, but with a darker edge. Deutch’s character, Sam, is the victim of a car accident and is forced into a strange purgatory, reliving her last day as she untangles the mystery surrounding her death and discovers the value of everything she is in danger of losing. An of-the-moment soundtrack featuring artists like Grimes reaches out to an audience much broader than its intended tween target demographic. “I play a bully who ends up getting bullied, but in a really different way,” Deutch says.
Also on the docket is Rebel in the Rye, in which Deutch plays Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, in Danny Strong’s movie about the life of reclusive author J.D. Salinger. It’s just the latest in a string of roles that showcase Deutch’s versatility, with turns in everything from compelling indies to higher-profile comedies.
She just wrapped filming the Max Winkler-directed coming-of-age drama Flower, with Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. It’s yet another instance of her character being pulled from the pages of a book, boding well for more time in this diner booth in the name of research. For Deutch, that studiousness seems to apply to the inner workings of the industry itself. One gets the sense that she has her eye on the long game:
“At the Gotham Awards, Ethan Hawke gave this great speech; the gist was that he was it then he wasn’t it. He was hot and then not hot. And that it was good for him to experience that, and know that it won’t always be consistent,” she says thoughtfully. “It’s a job. You have to be OK with the ebbs and flows.”
Photography by BEAU GREALY.
Styled by ALISON EDMOND.
Written by CHRISTINE LENNON.