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Zoey Deutch on Her Jewish Sense of Humor and Rejecting Her ‘It’-Girl Status

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Zoey Deutch, 24, has been appearing on “Up-and-Coming Hollywood ‘It’ Girl” lists for nearly a decade. Nobody can seem to agree on when, exactly, she’s going to be the Next Big Thing. In a way, this categorization makes sense: She’s got a Natalie Portman–melded–with–Jennifer Lawrence face, and her early work suggests a sort of safe, “It”-girlie trajectory. She plays the love interest in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!!; she makes out with Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa; she’s the straight man to James Franco and Bryan Cranston in Why Him? But what sets Deutch apart from her peers is that she’s funny. Like, really funny. High-octane, screwball, Lucille Ball funny.

Her more recent films have started to reflect that sense of humor. In 2018’s darkly comedic Flower, she’s a phallus-obsessed teen who extorts grown men by giving them blow jobs, then demanding they pay her off before she exposes them. In last summer’s rom-com smash Set It Up, Deutch plays a beleaguered editor’s assistant so desperate to reclaim her life that she schemes wildly with another exhausted assistant (Glen Powell) to trick their demanding bosses into falling in love. And in Buffaloed, a Fargo-esque small-town comedy premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, Deutch is Peg Dahl, a blue-collar Buffalo resident bogged down by debt with dreams of financial freedom. After she’s sent to prison for selling knockoff Buffalo Bills tickets, then screwed over by a local debt-collection agency, she emerges with a new plan: She’ll start her own debt-collection agency, one that prioritizes humanity over profits (but still keeps her flush with cash).

The role is decidedly, purposefully unglamorous. Deutch spends most of the film with either zero makeup or garishly overapplied eyeliner, her hair piled atop her head and secured with a scrunchie, sporting oversize pantsuits. Buffaloed centers on Deutch’s natural comic timing — and her ability to carry an entire film with it. We caught up with Deutch before the premiere to talk about how being raised Jewish made her so funny, whether she’s frustrated by constantly being pegged as an up-and-comer, and holding Seders with her Catholic mom, Lea Thompson.

Do you mind if we sit awkwardly close to each other on this couch? It’s just so loud in here I’m worried my phone won’t pick you up.
[Laughs] There’s nothing awkward about this at all. Are you kidding me?

Tell me how this movie came to you and what appealed to you about it.
I was shooting Set It Up in New York, and while I was shooting it, I got sent Buffaloed. I think in part it really appealed to me because it was so far away from what I was doing at the time. And I fell in love with Peg. I fell in love with her drive and her ambition and her will. And I came on as a producer, and we started looking for a director, and we found Tanya Wexler, who is really awesome. It’s only strange to me that she hasn’t already directed 12 huge blockbuster franchise movies. She’s so overqualified and capable and talented and prepared and calm under pressure. From the time [I got the script] until release, it only took two years. I think it’s a huge testament to Brian Sacca’s writing. He’s pretty smart and gifted. I’m a really shitty writer. Really, really bad. When anyone creates something that good out of nothing, I’m always in awe.

What do you mean, you’re a shitty writer? Have you tried to write?
I’m bad. I have 14,000 fluff words. Words that don’t need to be there. Even when I text or write my captions. I don’t even have captions on Instagram because I’m stupid.

I actually think you have really good captions on Instagram. They’re very pithy.
I probably paid my sister off to write one of them. Or begged my friend, like, “Just come up with anything, please. I’ll give you this dress in exchange for a caption.” A barter system of sorts.

Speaking of which, you now have a short history of playing hustlers. What do you think that’s about?
I like anti-heroes. They’re fun. They’re a little bit more unexpected. It’s fun to play someone that surprises you, even if you’ve prepared for months for a role — when you play someone like that, you’re jolted by surprise in the moment.

As a kid, or a teenager, did you ever scam or hustle in any way?
Nope. Goody Goody Two-shoes. God, I don’t know. Everyone’s a walking contradiction of themselves. But no, I wasn’t a hustler or a scammer. Unless I’m hustling or scamming you right now.

That would be intense. How did you get the Buffalo accent down?
The whole world is heightened, so it was tricky for me, because I wanted to stay true to a Buffalo accent, but I also wanted to make sure that it felt consistent with the world that was being created. We visited Buffalo a couple times, and I worked with a dialect coach named Liz Himelstein, who’s amazing, and she kept me in check. It’s such a bizarre, cool accent.

It sounds a little midwestern, too.
Yeah, my mom [the actress Lea Thompson] is from Minnesota, and there’s definitely a midwestern thing going on. And there’s actually a reason for that. I’m going to butcher it, but if you look it up — the lineage of Buffalo — it’s based in something that sounds like a midwestern accent.

It’s also slightly Fargo-y.
Actually, my dialect coach did Fargo. And she kept being like, “Dude, I know you think you’re going too far, but I’ll tell you a story about — ” and I’d be like, “Fargo. I know. I know.”

The director described this movie as a “love letter to strong, inconvenient women.” You’ve been playing these sorts of women recently. Would you describe yourself that way? Do you see yourself that way?
Do I see myself as a strong, inconvenient woman? I don’t think I identify with that. But I do identify with drive and having this real force and motivation that is kind of inexplicable. It’s totally self-inflicted, and I’m responsible, 100 percent, for being this way. You’re probably referencing Flower, too, right?

Yeah, but my first couple jobs — I did two movies where I was the love interest. And it was really, really hard, because you’re trying so hard to deepen it, root it, ground it into something that it’ll never be. Because at the end of the day, as an actor, you’re just a piece of the puzzle. You’re not the whole thing. So it was exhausting and difficult. I learned my lesson — that it’s just too hard to [play a love interest]. It drives you crazy. You’re trying so hard to make something happen that isn’t going to happen. That’s probably why I have gravitated towards these strong, inconvenient women.

Are you referring to Everybody Wants Some!!!?
No, I’m not speaking about that, actually. I’m not going to name names. It doesn’t matter, but I did two [roles like that]. And then I was done. I don’t need to do it ever again. And it isn’t that they weren’t strong female characters. I think they actually were really strong female characters. Being present and loving and full of kindness is very strong to me.

And that’s all we’ll say about The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
[Laughs] Exactly. My illustrious career.

When I was researching you, I found a brief aside where you mentioned you got your sense of humor from your Jewish dad. What did you mean by that, exactly?
Yes! That’s the way that we would connect — if I made him laugh. He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. He’s so crazy. Here’s a textbook neurotic-father-daughter outing: I was out of town for four months, and I came back, and my knee was hurting, so we did a whole week of doctor tours together. My dad [film director Howard Deutsch] and I went to every doctor in L.A. together. But the problem was, he was going with me to be a loving father and be there with me — and instead, he would just make it about himself and make appointments with those doctors. I started recording them, and I have a whole series of the most ridiculous conversations. He would literally walk in and be like, “Okay, I have a question. Can I make an appointment on this day?” And he would go to different floors and talk to different doctors. This was last week.

It’s similar with me and my Jewish dad. We just sort of fuck with each other constantly.
Yeah. We just ruthlessly make fun of him, and he loves it. It’s great. It’s amazing.

How would you characterize the Jewish humor in your family or Jewish humor generally? How does it feel different to you?
I was just talking about that. And I don’t know if it’s self-deprecating. It doesn’t feel sarcastic to me. But it’s not witty British humor. I’m not sure — how would you describe it?

I think it’s morbid.
Maybe it is morbid. That’s funny.

To me, it’s very death-centric. My family and I have this joke, whenever we talk about someone who’s dead, we’ll be like, “They’re still dead.”
Yes! Literally. Yes. Yes. Yes. I don’t know how you’d describe it, but it is such a cool part of the culture. It obviously was meant to help us survive and to deal with all the craziness. You had to laugh. And that’s something that I really value and I’m grateful to have seen in my parents: laughter during difficult times, which I do actually qualify as a characteristic of the culture.

Your mom is not Jewish, right?
No, no.

Does she feel a little bit left out of the fold in that regard?
She’s the one who organizes the Pesach Seder. I would say she’s more Jewish than my dad. But no, she was raised Catholic. So the good news is, is that I’m technically half-Catholic, half-Jewish, which means I have a whole lot of guilt. But I did get my 23andMe, or whatever — the ancestry thing. It said I was 51 percent Jewish. So I guess it’s really tipping that way. Have you done that?

No, I wanted to, but then my boyfriend was like, “You don’t want our genes sitting around in some office.”
I know. Someone said that to me and I was like, “Fuck.” But also, what’s crazy is that you get email. I just got an email this morning that was like, “We have new information about you. Your third cousin is …” The more people that do it, the more information they have.

So they have this file on you and who you’re related to? Seems really cool.
Super-safe and harmless. Doesn’t freak me out at all. But I got a DNA test for my dog. And then I was like, If I got one for my dog, I should get one for me, ’cause that’s weird that I just did it for my dog. I wanted my self-care to be on the same page. I was like, “Wait a minute. I just bought you a $200 collar. I haven’t bought myself anything for $200 in a long time.” And then I didn’t. But I did get my DNA test.

You’re probably fine. I wouldn’t worry.
I don’t know, you just really scared me.

Let’s blame my boyfriend.
He’s in trouble with me. He’s in big trouble with me.

What was your bat-mitzvah theme?
“Winter Wonderland.” And the photo-booth person spelled my name wrong in the photo booth. And that’s just totally not relevant to anything, but I just remembered it. I wore the ugliest silver BCBG dress that I found at a Goodwill. It’s the ugliest dress I’ve ever seen. Ever. I mean, it’s almost impressive how ugly it is. I was like, “Mom, can I get my eyebrows waxed?” And she was like, “Okay, fine, do it.” And so I got really thin eyebrows. But the problem is I didn’t know I was allergic to whatever wax they were using, so not only did I have little tiny eyebrows that looked weird, I also broke out into a rash on my whole face. Then I had to wear this much makeup. So I looked like a wax figure in a really ugly silver BCBG dress. And I made everyone watch my entrance.

The dance routine.
I did a full-blown, really embarrassing dance number. What was your theme?

“Rachel in Concert.” Every table was a different diva.
Wow. Did you sing?

No, I was going to, but I chickened out.
Do you regret it to this day?

Fuck. That’s a good thing to remember in life. The times that I’ve chickened out, I’m like, “I fucking should have done it.” There’s this one water slide that I never went on in Montana. I swear to God, to this day, I’m like, “I should have done that.”

But the Jewish person in me wants to tell you that people get decapitated on water slides.
That’s probably what I was thinking about. And also, the germs in the water. That was really what was freaking me out.

When did you first realize “I’m funny”? When did you first feel funny?
I don’t feel funny. I don’t ever feel funny. I don’t know! When my dad laughs, that’s when I feel the funniest, because that’s the person who I think is the funniest.

You must know at least a little bit that you’re funny, because you’re doing these really funny roles lately.
That’s for other people to determine, not me. I certainly can’t put the pressure on myself. But you know, it’s probably a testament to how unintelligent I am: With Flower, everyone was like, “It’s a comedy. Dark comedy!” And I had no idea that it was a comedy. I swear to God. I swear to God. With this, too. Everyone’s like, “It’s funny.” And I’m like, “Okay! That’s great. I didn’t know.”

Maybe that’s why you’re funny. Because you don’t know you’re being funny.
I guess I’m just maybe taking it all a little too seriously.

To that point, I feel like I’ve been seeing your name on the “Next Hot Thing” lists for, like, eight years. How does that feel to you?
It’s so funny. I’m always like, “You guys, I’m not. Because it’s not happening. So don’t worry about it.”

Do you even want to be the next “Rising Star of Hollywood”? ’Cause it seems like you’re choosing these quirky indies instead, which is great.
I’d love to do that kind of a thing. I would. It’s just that these are the parts that I’ve responded to and the parts that I’ve gotten. I’m in no rush. I’m here for as long as I get to be here. I love what I do, and I’m stoked by smaller, bigger, supporting, starring, whatever it is — as long as it’s fulfilling. It is funny, though. Because yeah, I’m always like, “Really? I’ve been doing this for ten years now. You’re sure that I’m up-and-coming?” Whatever.

You’re like, “I’m here.”
Instead of up-and-coming, could there be a staying list? The “Hanging Around” list. One time, I did this thing for a magazine, and the whole piece was about me being like, “I don’t understand the term ‘It’ girl.” And then literally the next week, I went to the “It”-girl luncheon. I was like, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to literally just specifically bash this one thing.”

Zoey Deutch on Jewish Humor and Rejecting Being an ‘It’ Girl