Zoey Deutch is hard-wired to make people laugh. “My parents valued a great sense of humor over a lot of other things that young girls are taught to value,” says the 24-year-old actor, over a plate of kosher dill pickles at her favorite Jewish deli in the San Fernando valley, where she’s been a regular since she was five days old. “The compliments were not ‘you’re pretty’, but ‘you made me laugh’. The positive reinforcement shaped me.”
With her doll-like features, tiny frame and wavy auburn hair, Deutch could easily pass for the classic young ingénue. But when you hear her high-pitched, rapid-fire patter, laced with anecdotes about how she embarrasses herself all over town, it’s clear she’s much more of an actor with “comedic chops”, in the tradition of a Sandra Bullock or Emma Stone or, say, Back to the Future star Lea Thompson, who also happens to be her mother. While Deutch’s career started at 15, with a regular stint on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life on Deck, she’s taken some very un-Disney-like turns in the decade since, starring in and producing twisted little indies about, for instance, teenage vigilantes (Flower) and corrupt debt collectors (Buffaloed). That might explain her not-quite-household-name status: despite consistently glowing reviews, she didn’t break through in traditionally glamorous, star-making roles. Not that she planned it that way. “I admire people who are able to map out a trajectory [for their career] or have a vision board and watch it come to fruition,” she says, with a bit of a shrug. “I have not yet come to the place in my life where I’ve been successful at that.”
Her oddball ascent continues this fall with two very high-profile – and irregular – supporting parts: one in a big-screen sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap, opposite Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson; and the other on Ryan Murphy’s Netflix show The Politician, where she raises the stakes by playing a chronically ill teenager for dark laughs, opposite Jessica Lange (the show also stars Gwyneth Paltrow). When the show’s lead, Tony-winning Ben Platt, another LA theater kid made good, sent her the script – a satirical send-up of America’s current political climate seen through the lens of an over-achiever running for high-school student government – she couldn’t say no. “It was the best pilot script I had ever read,” says Deutch, who flew herself to New York last fall on her one day off between projects to read for the part of Infinity Jackson. “I love to audition more than anything, and I thought, well, even if I just read for Ryan Murphy and don’t get it, I will have had that experience. I will learn something.” Of course, she did get the part: “And that’s how I ended up spending four months in a bald cap,” she giggles. “Regardless of what the audience thinks of Infinity, I always considered her a survivalist. She believes what she has been told, and she is doing what she has to do to survive.”
“My first STEPS were taken on a movie set. My FIRST word was ‘lipstick’, in my mom’s MAKEUP trailer”
Deutch knew she wanted to be an actor from the time she could speak, which makes sense when you understand where she came from. While her mother, Thompson, was a regular in classic ’80s movies, her father Howard Deutch (whom Zoey describes as “the funniest person I know”) was the director of John Hughes-penned classics Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. Zoey’s older sister, Madelyn, 28, is also in the business, and wrote, starred in and composed the score for the 2017 feature film The Year of Spectacular Men, which Thompson directed and in which Zoey co-starred.
“Recently, I was on the talk show The View,” says Deutch, “when a grip came up to me and said, ‘Do you remember me? I worked on your mom’s show.’” Thompson starred in the NBC sitcom Caroline in the City for five years in the ’90s, which began right after Deutch was born. “And I said, ‘Well, my mom was breastfeeding me then. I definitely don’t remember you. But it’s so nice to see you.’ You know, my first steps were taken on a movie set. My first word was ‘lipstick’, in my mom’s makeup trailer. It was 100 percent my deepest desire [to perform].”
“Yes, I did grow up in HOLLYWOOD, but my parents treated it as a JOB, not a lifestyle. I saw the NEGATIVE part, too”
Hollywood legends like Walter Matthau and Shirley MacLaine were guests at her family’s Thanksgiving table, but the way Deutch explains it, life was not as flashy as one might suspect. For one, she grew up on a suburban farmstead in LA. “We had so many rescue animals, chickens, displaced horses, dogs,” she says. “And yes, I did grow up in Hollywood, but my parents treated it as a job, not a lifestyle. I saw the negative part, too, that it could be all-consuming. It doesn’t end at five or six or even midnight. It just ends when it ends. Which is never.”
One might think that growing up with famous parents would afford her special perks as a child but, according to Deutch, that wasn’t the case. Her middle-school years were as awkward and torturous as anyone else’s, and her experience with bullies has shaped her into a more empathetic and compassionate adult. “I had a terrible time in middle school. Just the worst,” she says. “There were a lot of coughed insults when I walked down the halls, and there was some pushing and shoving, but mostly it was just people talking behind my back. Now I’m in a profession where everyone talks behind your back. But I rarely pay attention to it and I never do it to others. It’s none of my business what other people think about me, and I meditate on that mantra.”
At 14, Deutch transferred to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she skipped a grade and graduated a year early. Her parents were not eager for her to start work so young but, ultimately, they didn’t stand in her way. “My parents didn’t want me to work in high school, but they saw how miserable I was, and I think they just wanted me to have some success and happiness,” she says. Deutch, a self-described creature of habit, still drives the first car she bought for herself at 16, and still lives near her parents. Whenever she runs into those less-than-kind school peers, “we just pretend not to see each other,” she says. “But they know.”
“I’ve been TRYING to establish boundaries for MYSELF, so I can lead a LIFE where I’m not living to WORK”
With her razor-edge wit and penchant for lugging around enormous hardcover novels, Deutch smashes any clichéd ideas about what it is to be a life-long “Valley girl”, but she was still able to plumb the stereotype to great effect in the upcoming sequel to Zombieland, playing Madison, a dimwit Barbie clone. “Clearly, she is not an idiot. I mean, she survived a zombie apocalypse, living for 10 years inside a Pinkberry [frozen yogurt chain] freezer. And she comes out with perfect hair and pristine nails,” Deutch says incredulously, her saucer eyes growing even larger. “Being on that set with those actors was one of the great experiences of my life. It was so unbelievably fun.”
The big challenge for Deutch now, she says, is just making time for herself off-set. After all, she forfeited her school holidays for years to pursue her dreams of acting. “I’ve been working for a decade and I never once thought about building a vacation into the schedule,” she says. “This year, after I finished Zombieland, I went to Japan. After The Politician, I went to east Africa with my sister; Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.” While there, she even spent time with a crew of wildlife photographers and filmed a video diary about climate change for the Our Planet series on Netflix. Soon, she’ll be off to Brazil with Platt and a handful of her co-stars from The Politician. “I’ve been trying to establish boundaries for myself, so I can lead a life where I’m not living to work,” she says. “The scary realization is that an actor who does nothing but act is kind of boring. If I do that, all I can talk about is acting. Or myself. And I refuse – I refuse – to be an uninteresting person!”
Zombieland: Double Tap is on general release in the US and the UK on October 18. The Politician is available on Netflix now.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown