A scene stealer steps off the sidelines

Special to The Times

Zooey Deschanel was surprised recently to discover she had become a shorthand descriptor. Known mostly for her deadpan, sardonic and scene-stealing performances in films such as “Mumford,” “Almost Famous” and “The Good Girl,” the 23-year-old heard from her older sister, also an actress, that the script for a television pilot invoked a character with the phrase “Think Zooey Deschanel.”

“Everybody was calling,” Deschanel says with exasperated disbelief. “And they thought it was funny that the description of the role was me. But I’m not even sure what that means. I think there’s a certain space people have decided I occupy -- the funny-sidekick thing.”

In “All the Real Girls,” writer-director David Gordon Green’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2000 debut, “George Washington,” the actress boldly strikes out in a new direction. In Deschanel’s first lead role, playing one-half of a young couple struggling with love and heartache in a small mill town in North Carolina, Deschanel is both captivating and revelatory, reviewers have said. (The film opened Friday in Los Angeles.)

If her previous work always left the viewer wanting more, a longing for those strange, beguiling women to come back on screen, or even to get a movie all their own, Deschanel at last has an opportunity to convey a fuller portrait, to display the larger picture instead of just hint at its details.


Striding forcefully into the quiet, near-empty lobby of a beachfront hotel one recent sunny noontime, Deschanel exudes an endearingly off-kilter personality, at once in line with and distinctly separate from her on-screen oddballs. She speaks freely, somewhat loudly even. It’s as if she is the center of her own solar system.

She has pinkish-fair skin and naturally dark hair, a combination of her black Irish and French ancestry -- “a natural goth,” as she puts it . Her hair, currently dyed a yellowy blond, is tied back by a length of whimsical pink ribbon to reveal her most striking features: wide, bright-blue eyes framed by silken, long lashes, and a pert, pretty-bow mouth.

Her looks, unconventional by the usual Hollywood standards, have at least partly steered her toward the dry, quick-witted comic roles for which she is known.

The strength of her dramatic work in “Real Girls” should help her move on from the supporting roles, including the dreaded “best friend” parts.

“I’ve really only done that once,” she says, referring to her turn in “Abandon” as Katie Holmes’ college chum. “And they decided I was good for that, but I decided I wasn’t. I just refused to do it enough that I’ve begun to escape that. A lot of these roles are just a formula idea of somebody’s best friend, and it’s like, I don’t even have that many friends. In high school, I stayed home all the time, so I don’t know how I’m everybody’s best friend now.”

Instant rapport

Describing the road to “Real Girls,” Deschanel explains her immediate attachment to the part. “I was on vacation and I must have read the script 10 times. I was upset because I thought I wouldn’t be back in time for the audition. Sometimes you read something and just think, ‘That’s mine.’ ”

Deschanel came to the attention of writer-director Green through casting agent Mali Finn. After meeting with the actress, Green had her read with Paul Schneider, who appeared in “George Washington” and was already cast as the male lead in “All the Real Girls.” Many actresses turned up that day to audition, but Green says he immediately knew Deschanel was right for the part.


“Her instincts were so tremendous and so challenging,” Green says. “As a director, I wasn’t getting [flattered] by an aspiring starlet, I was being confronted. That’s huge right there. You try to be professional about these things, but we told everybody else to go home.”

According to Miguel Arteta, director of “The Good Girl,” both he and writer Mike White, independent of each other, pictured Deschanel for the role of Cheryl, the retail clerk prone to embellishing store P.A. announcements and subverting such simple interactions as handing back change.

In fact, Arteta refused to cast the role until he could meet with Deschanel.

“What we’re dealing with here is a really rare mix of qualities we haven’t seen in a young star in a long time,” Arteta says. “We’re talking about a young Shirley MacLaine.”


There is also Deschanel’s cabaret act, “If All The Stars Were Pretty Babies.” Named for a tune from the 1920s, Deschanel and Samantha Shelton (younger sister of actress Marley Shelton) belt out jazz standards with an eight-piece combo at clubs and coffeehouses around Los Angeles whenever their schedules permit. Deschanel usually plays some songs on her ukulele.

Family affair

The more one learns about Zooey Deschanel, the more oddly appropriate it seems that she is named after a member of the urbanely eccentric and bohemian Glass family from J.D. Salinger’s “Franny & Zooey.” Her father, Caleb, a four-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer whose filmography includes “The Patriot,” “The Right Stuff” and “Being There,” is currently in Rome shooting Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” Her mother, Mary Jo, is also an actress.

Young Zooey gravitated toward musical theater while attending private school with future co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Kate Hudson, and attended Northwestern University for about a semester before heading back Hollywood way.


As she talks with equal enthusiasm and erudition about the pedal steel guitar she got for Christmas (“I took to it pretty quickly”), the shifting grammatical usage of the words “dude” and “cool,” or her passion for the decidedly second-tier Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis film “Boeing, Boeing” (“I use it as a litmus test for friends”), Deschanel comes across as an old-fashioned, all-around entertainer: If she could, it seems, she’d probably hit the road as a vaudeville performer.

Perhaps it is the influence of the cabaret act, or her penchant for vintage clothes, but Deschanel often hears herself compared to old-time Hollywood stars, or is told that she has a hard-to-place, out-of-time quality about her.

“People keep saying this!” she excitedly interjects. “I don’t know. I just like certain things, my aesthetic. I don’t know if that’s what I project because I like it or it’s just the way I am. To me, you just like what you like.”

According to Arteta, Deschanel’s burgeoning appeal passes even the toughest test. “When you go into post-production,” he says, “you’re doing the sound mixes with these guys who do movie after movie, day after day, and they just couldn’t care less about how special you think your movie is.


“When they notice something, you can tell you’re dealing with a real star. Believe me, mixing ‘The Good Girl,’ these guys would always freeze the frame right on Zooey’s face. They couldn’t get enough of her.”