Zoey Deutch is the kind of young actor who seems constantly to be perched on the precipice of becoming a household name — but instead of the studio blockbuster that might solidify her stardom, her next movie has tended to be an idiosyncratic indie that helps showcase her growing range and talent. First that was Everybody Wants Some!!, in which she provided the main female presence in Richard Linklater’s loving ode to college testosterone, and then came Sundance 2017 entry Before I Fall.
But with Max Winkler’s Flower, Deutch has truly proven her chops as a lead, lending pathos, humor, and boundless energy to the gonzo teen-vigilante Erica, for whom nailing an alleged child-molester and bailing out her dad are just part of growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Vulture caught up with Deutch to discuss the unique challenges of making a dirt-cheap indie, working with a female DP for the first time, and why characters like Erica are the kind of roles her male friends usually get to play.
This is an obvious first question, but I think it could lead in a few different directions: What in particular attracted you to this character?
That she was like a Travis Bickle put into a 17-year-old girl with a pet rat. She was a blast, and I remember sending it to a few friends and them expressing that she was possibly unlikable and possibly lacked redeeming characteristics. I had to process it, and I realized, if a man plays a part like this, they’re morally ambiguous, and if a girl plays a part like this, they’re unlikable. First off, I never was concerned and I’m not concerned with unlikable — I’m concerned with un-relatable but I’m not concerned with unlikable, and she feels very, very relatable to me. She is a girl who is desperately searching for some semblance of control. That’s where her oral fixation comes through, that’s where the fellatio element comes into play.
That’s a good Freudian way to put it.
Well, it is! It’s an oral fixation, and it’s very transactional. I’m sure it’s totally fun and easy to talk about and discuss a young woman’s sexuality, and people are quick to jump down my throat about it, but she is not looking at any of this as a sexual experience or act — this is all transactional.
What do you mean when you say that people are quick to jump down your throat about it? Do you feel like people aren’t open to the idea that a woman’s sexual expression can be about something other than the sexual element?
Right, it’s a very hard thing to grasp that she’s doing these things because she is spiraling and has no control of anything in her life. It’s very hard to understand that if you’ve never experienced that or if you’ve never been a teenage girl. Specifically in her instance, I think she, more so than the average, has such a deep-seated fear of abandonment that she will fuck up a relationship so hard and so fast before they have any opportunity to hurt her. She is so, so, so, so fragile, and you have to believe that behind this bravado, behind this maybe possibly put-on masculine, cavalier attitude, there is this very fragile creature who doesn’t want to be left and abandoned.
You can really see that in the scene with Adam Scott’s character in the car, where she tries and he’s like, “No!” It’s clear that she’s looking for connection through that, too.
I always felt like that was her first kiss, and I always felt like that moment where he grabs her leg, which we actually reshot because we needed a close-up of it because we were hopeful that people would see that that was really the first time she’d ever been touched like that — it’s upsetting to her and jarring to her and confronting, like, Oh my god, do I like this person, do I like this monster? At the end of the day, she is this teen vigilante trying to take down an alleged child molester, but she’s also possibility into him, which is so complicated and so fucked-up and so honest.
It pierces through her veneer of control.
It’s a very interesting movie to have been written by three dudes [Alex McAulay, Matt Spicer, and Winkler]. At what point reading the script were you like, oh, these guys get it, these are real teenage girls? Because there are so many movies that are written by guys about teenage girls that are very much just what guys think teenage girls are like.
Totally, I’ve made one. I think all of three of them are very smart and very funny in their own ways. I guess I never — there was no point in reading it where I was shocked that men wrote this character. What I was excited by when I started talking with Max was how aware he was of how important it was to surround himself with female department heads, which, almost every single one of our department heads were women, including our DP, which, I realized I had never fucking worked with a female DP before in my entire life!
That doesn’t surprise me at all.
It shouldn’t, but it shocked me because I had never realized that, and I started looking into the statistics, and this year, the Oscars was a huge year. I found out that less than one percent of films are scored by women, too — it’s just an eye-opening and important time. But Max is an incredible listener, and again, speaking to this climate and this time that we’re in, we’re all learning to be better listeners. Everyone was very sensitive, everybody was very aware, and Max listened to everybody and never claimed to have the answers.
Which is a good quality for a director, one that some lack.
You know what’s so interesting: I realized there are two types of directors — and I’m not saying one’s better than the other, it’s just interesting — but there’s the type of directors who hire people, great people, and let them run off and do their jobs, and then there’s directors who hire great people and want to micromanage every move. It sounds like I have an opinion on one or the other, and I honestly don’t, they’re just very different styles. I have a feeling if I were a director it would be the latter —again, I mentioned before this interview that I love details [laughs]. But he really lets people run, he lets people go and he listens. He has a very bright future ahead of him, I think.
I wanted to talk about some of the details that you put into the character, because you can really see them in the movie. Especially her style — what was the process of creating her style like? How did you guys build out her wardrobe? That Frida Kahlo shirt was such a cool find.
Well, [costume designer] Michelle Thompson, we gave her 20 dollars, a blowtorch, and a floss pick and said, “Go!” [Laughs.] It was a very collaborative effort. The flannel shirt that I wear in the first scene I got at a thrift store in Montana when I was 12. There’s a white tank top I wear that was my mother’s when she was a professional dancer when she was 20. The shorts, the Timberlands, the everything — I’ve done that with almost every movie I’ve been in. Even if it’s a bigger movie, I tend to bring in my own shit because it feels like my shit, and those tangible objects can sometimes bring you back really quickly. Sometimes, even if you’re feeling like you’re not grounded, and you’re like, where am I?, sometimes even just having something in your pocket can make you go, okay, I’m a human being. I don’t know if that makes any sense!
No, it makes total sense. One thing I’ve always noticed about your work is you seem like a very comfortable actor, which is to say that you’re able to respond to the things around you in a scene naturally, rather than just performing the character in isolation — which, I think, can also be done well. But you always seem like you have a relationship to the clothes you’re wearing and the place you’re in.
Thank you, I appreciate that, that’s an interesting observation. I think also — [Laughs] every single acting teacher, every acting book will say, acting is reacting. I decided, because my ego is so big, I’m changing it to, acting is selective reacting because [Laughs] it’s so funny, specifically with Flower —every single person who makes a small movie is like [stage-whispers] It was the smallest movie, it was so hard, our lives are so difficult, but how’s this: our movie was so hard, it was so difficult, but that’s the truth! Given the circumstances that we found ourselves in and the small budget that we had and the zero time we had, there were different scenes literally taking place next to me. We shot that car scene, the breakdown scene, with less than a skeleton crew: there were four people including the two actors, so the director and the DP carrying the camera, and we were in the Ray Donovan TV show’s parking lot, and they were shooting another scene next to me as I’m trying to have my breakdown, the most deeply emotional scene in the film! So that’s when I decided to redefine acting is reacting to acting is selective reacting: I’m not reacting to the Ray Donovan trucks, but I am going to react to this very serious and intense breakdown and confrontation of losing hope that I’ll see my father again.
Giving yourself some sort of context to work with that’s useful and not just like —
— because saying acting is reacting is, to me, a little bullshitty if, like, the light falls down and you’re supposed to keep going. Okay, how come I’m supposed to react to this and not to that? That’s why acting is selective reacting! [Laughs.]
Right, and any three-word phrase is going to inherently be pretty full of shit.
I think you’re right about that.
For a 90-minute movie, there are so many tonal shifts in it. It’s a really goofy comedy, and then it’s really dark and intense. Were you aware of that when you were playing the part, or was it just all something that could happen to this girl?
I was scared for sure, because those were some serious tonal shifts, but I trusted Max. It’s funny, because when you’re in most of the scenes, it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the tone of the film, or at least it is for me [Laughs]. So literally, if it was an insert shot, I would watch it and try to see how this movie was coming together, because we didn’t have playback, we didn’t even have dailies — and if they had them, there was no way they were going to let me see them. I trusted Max, but it was definitely a tricky tone to achieve. I think that was what people were most nervous about with the film. But I think first and foremost, the most important thing that Max and I communicated to each other, which may seem stupid on paper, or on Internet-land, is that we never looked at it as a comedy, I never saw anything as a joke. I didn’t look at it as a comedy or a dark comedy, I looked at it as a straightforward drama — and I think that was because Max and I talked about it, not because I have very poor reading comprehension skills [Laughs]. I knew it was irreverent, and I knew that it was crazy, but I didn’t think of it ever as a comedy.
You seem to be seeking out interesting, challenging roles like this that other actors at this point in their career wouldn’t necessarily be advised to take because they’re kind of “risky,” or they’re not big roles in studio movies. Do you know what I mean?
Totally. I’m just laughing because I never saw this as risky; I always saw this as the great goal and joy of my career thus far. I’m super-aware of how hard it is to get a great part, and it has to be about process, not outcome, and when the outcome is something that you dig, that’s awesome, but the process of making this movie was so spectacularly cool for me that it will be forever in my heart, those short [Laughs] 16 days that felt much more important than 16 days. But I never once thought this was risky — I thought it was totally obvious that I should fight for this part. The one thing I do try to do, because I know there’s no way I can map out or plan out a trajectory of my career, it’s just impossible, but I know that I can try my best to do different stuff, because I know that it’s easy to pigeonhole a young actress. And I’m ready, I’m all geared-up, guns a-blazing, no one is stopping me! [Laughs] It’s my favorite thing when everyone’s like, [high voice] what do you think is going to happen because you’re a young actress in Hollywood? And I’m like, you watch! You watch 50 years from now when I’m still doing these movies that take 16 days to shoot, watch what happens!
And I think it’s kind of a sexist question, too. That notion of the “career” is so much more liminal for a woman. With men, it’s just like, you can do whatever the fuck you want!
One-hundred percent. I have a ton of male actor friends who are in their late 20s, and they have no rush. And I’m like, you guys, your mentality is shocking. Look, my mother directed a movie and we were in an interview and someone said, “So do you think you’ll do another?” Would you ever ask a male director, “Do you think you’ll do another?” They directed the movie! It would be insane to ask that to someone who has followed their passion!
Zoe Lister-Jones told me the exact same thing, that someone asked her that and she was like, “Yes! Why would I not direct another movie?”
Isn’t that interesting? I’m constantly checking myself because I know I have unconscious biases and deep-rooted, embedded, weird shit that I’ve taken on, but that one particularly is fascinating to me.
It just shows the way that women have to prove themselves every time they do something. Even when a man is doing something for the first time, it’s assumed that he’s done it because he’s going to continue doing it, and a woman does it because she got the chance to do it, and now is she going to keep doing it or is she going to go back to just being a woman?
That’s a really interesting point. Right, right.
I thought it was really interesting in the press notes how you said that this was the type of role that you were watching your male actor friends play.
I felt at times that I was on the sidelines watching dudes play these types of parts, and I know now —and I don’t mean this to sound ungrateful or inflammatory, I do have a lot of gratitude for a journey, but: I have played one-dimensional female characters in male-driven comedies, and I have to say, it is the hardest thing as an actor that I have yet to do, because when it is not on the page, you’re left floundering trying to create something from nothing. Unfortunately, in that instance, it’s not like being a painter, you can’t do it alone. You need everybody onboard to create this multidimensional human being, and that is a truly difficult thing to do, near-to-impossible to make work, and mostly because they don’t want you to make it work, they want you to be that. It is what it is. But when you get a chance to play a part like this, it’s — fuck what people think, fuck if people hate it, I don’t give a shit. This is the dream, this is the goal, this is the hope, this is the fun, it’s the glimmer of hope in really fighting and working your ass off in this business.
And yes, it did feel like I was watching some of my dude friends get to play parts like this, and I was like, “I can do that, I know I can do that!” And I never thought about this before, but it is funny when people are like, “I had no idea you had this in you,” and I’m like, I did! I never questioned it! And I totally get it — I watch movies all the time. Mother! was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I was so blown away by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, and I personally think she’s the greatest actress of our generation, and even then, I was like, “I had no idea she could do that!” Of course she could do that, she’s Jennifer Lawrence, she can do anything! So I’m not judging people by their reaction, and I am not comparing myself to Jennifer Lawrence, but I’m just saying, I understand what that’s like, to look at a performance and go, “I had no idea that you had that in there,” but it was cool for me to go, “I knew that I had it in me!”