With a history of singing songs from the 1890s, taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock and being born into a showbiz family, Zooey Deschanel swings into theaters this weekend in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," along with Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo. In addition to her work in the indie feature "The Go-Getter" and singing in the two-piece band "She & Him," Deschanel took the time to sit down with "Popcorn with Peter Travers" to talk it out.
"The Happening" marks Deschanel's first collaboration with director Shyamalan. She plays the female lead, Alma Moore, the wife of Mark Wahlberg's character. In the film a mysterious toxin is released, forcing those exposed into a suicidal frenzy.
Of Shyamalan, Deschanel says, "I was interested in working with him because he has such an incredible visual sense and I noticed that in all of his films. Each one looks really different and they all serve the story really well. I was just interested to see how I fit into that landscape."
"The Happening" was shot almost entirely on location in Pennsylvania. Deschanel described the positive tension involved in shooting with Shyamalan. "There's a lot of pressure," she said. "It's one of the things that I loved about watching his other movies, but it's definitely difficult to do as an actor because you're not just relying on 'oh, they'll just use a piece of this.' You have to hit it right every time until it's done."
Actress by Day, Rock Star by Night
Since her appearance in Lawrence Kasdan's "Mumford" when she was 20, Deschanel has managed to make a name for herself in indie films, picking up roles in larger budget films like "Elf" and "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" along the way. In 2007, she starred in Martin Hynes' film "The Go-Getter," where she met her musical collaborator, M. Ward. Deschanel and Ward went on to form the group "She & Him," whose album "Volume One" was released in March. The album peaked at No. 71 on the Billboard 200.
"The director [Hynes] asked me to do a duet for the credits with M. Ward, who was doing all of the music," she recalls. "We went, recorded it, and it was really fun. I had a really lovely time and I was talking to Matt [Ward]. I said that I had all of these songs I had written and had all these home demos. He was like 'well send them to me.' I was pretty shy about it and I kind of hemmed and hawed, so finally after psyching myself up I sent them to him and he called me and was like, 'I really like these, let's record them properly.' Then all of sudden we like became a band."
Deschanel contributed vocals, piano and guitar on the album. She describes the process of songwriting as therapeutic in a sense. "The songs on the record span over the last eight years or so," she says. "I'm always writing music in my spare time, it's sort of one of the ways that I release tension like if I'm working and it's stressful. I like to write music. It's just like some people knit, I write music."
Deschanel is quick to cite the personal influence of such musical legends as Neil Young and Carole King. "Most songs are only about three minutes long and the best songs just go right for the jugular," she says. "It's a very effective form of art. I always admired songs that were able to encapsulate a feeling into a single line. The shorter you can keep it, the more evocative in a shorter period of time, the more I think you have succeeded at writing a song."
The Family Business
Growing up in a somewhat showbiz family, her father Caleb Deschanel is an Academy Award-nominated cinematographer, best known for his work on acclaimed films such as "The Right Stuff" and "The Passion of the Christ."
Her mother Mary Jo Deschanel starred in the cult David Lynch TV series "Twin Peaks." Named after one of the title characters in J.D. Salinger's novella "Franny and Zooey," Deschanel became interested in films when her father brought home a collection of Alfred Hitchcock movies. This opened the door for a newfound fascination with the works of Stanley Kubrick and the French New Wave.
It wasn't a natural start into the acting. "I started auditioning for things and I didn't get cast in anything because these people were like, 'we don't know what to do with her," she says. "She's not like a cheerleader, she's not like nerdy, and we don't know where she fits."
Despite her family's connection to the business, there have been some awkward moments. "I remember when I went to the Toronto film festival where 'Mumford' premiered and seeing it for the first time," she says. "It's a really strange experience seeing yourself for the first time and your face that big. It was in this huge theater, sitting in the balcony and I'm like 'oh my gosh, this is so weird.'"