Unafraid and unrehearsed, Zoey Deutch is the most down-to-earth rising star born to two ’80s Hollywood powerhouses you’ll ever meet.
Zoey Deutch is stuck in traffic. The Los Angeles native is clearly accustomed to gridlock, because she proceeds to describe it over the phone with the smooth and appraising air of a connoisseur. “I’m not sure if you’re familiar with L.A. traffic, but it is the most fun,” she jokes. “A thrill.” Seconds later, the actress briefly interrupts our conversation to honk at an aggressive driver who has just darted into her lane (I can hear the beep of her horn—it’s quick and direct, as even-tempered and levelheaded as a honk can get). “I’m so sorry this is happening,” Deutch apologizes. “Thank you for going with it. You’re so nice.”
For the record, Deutch is the nice one. The 23-year-old actress seems genuinely concerned about me, and I’m genuinely concerned about… me. I want to ask Deutch about her latest projects, her meteoric ascent to stardom, but haven’t found an artful way to steer the conversation away from traffic (“Hey, you know what isn’t stuck in the slow lane? Your career!”). And because Deutch is a busy actress with a very busy schedule, I’m keenly aware that every passing moment is a missed opportunity. So I blurt out a question about the Academy Awards, which Deutch recently attended in an eco-conscious couture gown by Elie Saab—a look that was put together by her stylist, Elizabeth Stewart, and roundly praised by the fashion community. “That was so powerful,” Deutch says of the Oscars. “I was able to watch all of my heroes celebrate their work. And then I got to mingle and trip over things and desperately search for snacks.”
And there it is. Into this static-filled connection, Deutch reveals all of the qualities that make her a rare and compelling figure in Hollywood. She’s a major star without a major ego, a leading lady who can appreciate both high art and snack food. She stays grounded in the glare of the spotlight and seems to have a natural immunity to hype.
The question is: How?
The daughter of actress Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink), Zoey Deutch grew up in the San Fernando Valley “surrounded by cool artists.” I ask Deutch if she thinks her close proximity to the business might account for her pragmatic view of it. “Look, all artists pull from their personal experiences, and anyone who tells you that isn’t the case is out of their mind,” she says. “But growing up in this business definitely gave me a unique perspective on the job. I learned early on to value preparation. I take that seriously.”
In other words, Deutch does her homework—and it shows. The young actress has built an impressive catalog of work since her big-screen debut in 2013’s Beautiful Creatures, in which she holds her own alongside the likes of Emma Thompson, Viola Davis and Jeremy Irons. But it’s in the new indie film Flower that Deutch finds a vehicle for her startling versatility and is able to display her deep commitment to her craft. Deutch plays Erica Vandross, a proudly irreverent 17-year-old who uses her sexuality to extort money from older, ostensibly powerful men who take advantage of people. “The character felt so complicated, frustrating and fragile to me,” says Deutch. “My initial thoughts when I read the script were, ‘I can’t believe they’re going to let me make a movie where the central character gets to do this kind of stuff and talk like that.’ I feel like I’ve been sitting on the sidelines watching all my male actor friends get to play parts like this.”
To prepare for what she calls a “dream role,” Deutch read books on “teenage angst and struggle,” such as Beatrice Sparks’ Go Ask Alice and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. She and director Max Winkler researched borderline personality disorder (“I feel strongly that Erica suffers from it”) and attended a therapy session together. “I was half my character and half myself, and the therapist knew I was playing a part in Max’s film. I know it sounds silly, but it was awesome.”
While Deutch tapped into her character’s psychology, the film itself taps into the zeitgeist. “We made this movie before the Harvey story broke,” Deutch says, referring to the allegations of sexual assault brought against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein that prompted the global #MeToo movement. “It’s not a secret that this business has a very unequal power struggle and that women have been taken advantage of and preyed upon for as long as its inception. And this movie was written as a way to capture that feeling of powerlessness. It’s not like my character handles it in a productive way—she doesn’t. And even though the movie doesn’t provide answers, it reflects how women want to get some kind of control over their lives.”
The message resonates with Deutch, who is an ardent supporter of women’s rights and the Time’s Up campaign against gender discrimination. I ask her if she feels a certain responsibility as a young woman actor to keep the momentum going, and to push hard for change both inside and outside her industry. Her answer is startling—and heartening. “A responsibility? Maybe. But I think what’s even more powerful is that I feel inspired and encouraged to be a strong, independent person. It’s not that I’m being forced to take a stand. I’m excited for the future.”
The future may be fixed in her gaze, but Deutch is still committed to realizing longtime goals. Her upcoming project, Set It Up on Netflix, is the result of a pact she and her Everybody Wants Some!! co-star Glen Powell formed a few years ago. “Glen and I vowed that we would find a smart, funny romantic comedy and then we would make it. And we freaking did it.” In the film, Deutch and Powell play overworked, undervalued assistants who coax (read: trap) their bosses into a romantic relationship in order to score a little free time for themselves. The story is lighthearted, playful and easy to digest, but it still manages to unravel stubborn stereotypes, most notably, the cliché of the one-note female love interest. “I feel like it’s a truly feminist version of a romantic comedy,” says Deutch, whose character, Harper, provides the comedic and dramatic substance of the story. “I’ve played a one-dimensional female character in a male-driven comedy before, and that is a very difficult thing to do well,” she says. “You know that famous line about how there are no small parts, only small actors? I think that’s bullshit. As an actor, you really are at the mercy of the words you’re given to say. I will try to follow the well-written word. But I won’t try to manipulate a path for my career. I want to have the opportunity to play different people and keep mixing it up. That’s important to me.”
One thing’s for certain: Whichever path or direction Deutch decides to take, the actress will most definitely be in the driver’s seat. Don’t try cutting her off.