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The force that is Zoey Deutch: Ambitious, curious and hater of the term ‘it’ girl

Actress Zoey Deutch, star of "Before I Fall," at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Zoey Deutch has been going to Art’s Delicatessen since she was 1 week old. Her friends have tried to get her to go to Canter’s, but she refuses to “cheat” on her beloved Studio City haunt.

Which explains why she’s cozied up to Tony — who has been a waiter at Art’s for decades — inside one of the deli’s booths. They are showing each other photos of their dogs. Tony has a West Highland Terrier named Yogi; Deutch has a pit bull named Maybelle.

“Did you send Yogi the photo we took of ourselves?” Deutch asks. “He does have a phone, right?”

Tony laughs and scoots out of the booth, asking if he could get his “babe” anything to eat. Deutch requests a cup of matzo ball soup and a plate of potato latkes, and off Tony goes.

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It’s slightly jarring to see the 22-year-old being so chummy with the waiter after watching “Before I Fall,” her new movie in which she plays a high school mean girl. Based on Lauren Oliver’s 2010 young adult novel, the film is a kind of “Groundhog Day” for teenagers.

Deutch stars as Samantha, a 17-year-old who seems to have it all: a hot boyfriend, the coolest group of friends and really good hair to boot. One night, after she and her fabulous posse are leaving a party, they get into a car accident that magically freezes Samantha in a time loop, making it so that she wakes up every morning and is forced to relive the same day of high school over and over again. Not surprisingly, the experience leads the protagonist to do some serious reflecting about the way she treats people.

Out Friday, “Before I Fall” marks the first lead role for Deutch. Though she’s had prominent supporting parts before in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!” and opposite James Franco in “Why Him?,” this is her first starring vehicle — this is her first movie where the poster features only her face.

So she’s been getting a lot of attention lately. When “Before I Fall” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival — where she also had a small role in the J.D. Salinger biopic “Rebel in the Rye” — critics were quick to anoint her the latest “It” girl, a title she despises.

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“We never hear the term ‘It’ guy,” Deutch said. “But putting that aside, I’m very ambitious, and I hate the way that there’s a negative connotation for ambition. Because I think it means you’re just willing to work hard for something you want and love. I have no delusions of grandeur of how this goes. I know it’s a really difficult and up and down path, so that ‘It’ girl thing just bugs me.”

Deutch gets her hair and makeup touched up during a photoshoot.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

She’s a power lady. She’s not just a Hollywood starlet. She’s a force in her own right.

Director Ry Russo-Young on Zoey Deutch

Deutch is well-acquainted with the realities of Hollywood thanks to her parents, Lea Thompson and Howard Deutch, who have been working in the business since she was born. Her mother is an actress best known for her roles in the “Back to the Future” films and the NBC sitcom “Caroline in the City”; her father is a director (“Pretty in Pink,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”).

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“I have a lot of friends with famous parents who, when they’re doing press, have their publicists say it’s off-limits to talk about their parents,” she says. “That never even crossed my mind. First of all, I’m too much of a loose cannon to try to censor myself. But I’m also not ashamed of them. I’m proud of them. I’m lucky to have parents that support and love and encourage me, and I have zero say in that privilege. That’s luck. But me being in ‘Before I Fall’ is working hard. I have no complex about that.”

Bryan Cranston, who played the father to Deutch’s character in “Why Him?,” says he had no idea who the actress’ parents were until production was underway. When they visited the set, he made sure to tell them what a “wonderful job” he thought they’d done in raising her.

“I said, ‘You’ve got a very special girl here. If you guys are out of town for Thanksgiving, send her over,’” the actor says. “I just fell in fatherly love with her, almost as much as my own. I’d adopt her.”

Ry Russo-Young, who directed “Before I Fall,” describes a similar love affair with the actress. Before the 24-day shoot began, the two women spent weeks together blocking out how to film the movie — a confusing process that called for Deutch to act out the same scene on different days from one take to the next.

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“She would say to me on set, ‘Should we try it this way? Do we need that?’ We got into it together,” says Russo-Young, 35. “She pushed me to fight for what’s important. She’s one of those people where you’re like, ‘You do sleep, don’t ya, honey?’ She’s a maniac. I guess I’m old, but she’s a true millennial. I’m like, ‘How are you tweeting and looking at photos and Photoshopping at the same time?’ She’s a power lady. She’s not just a Hollywood starlet. She’s a force in her own right.”

Deutch says she aspires to have a career like Sandra Bullock’s — to be the kind of actress who you don’t immediately associate with either drama or comedy. She’d also like to go to college, and is currently paying tutors to help her learn about political science. At Sundance, she took part in the women’s march and is vocal about her support of Planned Parenthood on social media.

“Look,” she says, lifting up her sweatshirt to reveal a T-shirt that says a woman’s womb is “more controlled” than guns. “Before I was an actor, I was a human and a citizen. People have told me to stop posting that stuff. But people also told me to tweeze my eyebrows.”

Zoey Deutch, center, and others march down Main Street during the March on Main event during the Sundance Film Festival.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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We never hear the term ‘It’ guy . . . so that ‘It’ girl thing just bugs me.

Zoey Deutch

She takes out the designer purse she’d inherited from her mother and starts to dig through it, searching for her credit card.

“Also, what is wrong with me?” she says, holding up a ragged plastic sandwich baggie containing her money. “I can’t afford a wallet, apparently. I also have, like, a lollipop and a shirt in here.”

She dumps out the contents of her bag: The lollipop she’d taken from the jar at the front of the deli. A rumpled crop top. A disposable camera, as if it were 1999. A tin full of Altoids and oil of oregano, which, she says, is “just good for everything in general.”

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After she sorts her things, she looks out the window across the street. There’s a building with gleaming, golden onion domes, which might seem out of place alongside the Urban Outfitters and California Pizza Kitchen on Ventura Boulevard.

“I’ve never seen anyone go in there once in my life,” she says. “ Maybe it’s a klerb.” (That’s “club,” for all of us older than 22.)

“Would you like to go?” she asks. “I want to do, like, an undercover mission. Investigative journalism! Let’s go find what’s going on over there.”

She rounds up her herbal supplements and money baggie, hugs Tony goodbye and heads for the door. “I bet this is going to be so anticlimactic,” she says, crossing the street.

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A few minutes later, she’s standing below a sign that reads “Romanov.” Later, a quick Google search would reveal that Romanov is a Russian restaurant that boasts “an environment that is reminiscent of the Tsar’s Winter Palace.” But Deutch is unaware of this information at 5 p.m. on this Thursday, when she takes an elevator up to the space and finds a lone server wiping down tables.

“Hello?” the actress inquires. “Is this a restaurant?”

“Um, yeah?” the employee responds.

“OK!” Deutch said. “I’m leaving now!”

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She returns to the elevator, a giddy smile overtaking her face. “Well, now I know.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA

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