It took little time for actress-singer Zooey Deschanel – a petite and enigmatic beauty – to gain a devoted audience. Taking up acting as a teenager in the late 1990s and moving into prestige projects such as Almost Famous (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), Deschanel’s off-beat projections of character made her cast-worthy before the Christmas comedy Elf (2003) did the trick. Over the next few years, Deschanel found her niche as a reliable supporting presence in both mainstream and art house works like Failure to Launch (2006) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). With the breakout indie hit romance (500) Days of Summer (2009) opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Deschanel moved from a quirky co-star to an undeniably talented and charming leading lady. Capitalizing on her special brand of geek-chic appeal, she was deemed “adorkable” in the marketing campaign for her well-received Fox‘s sitcom, New Girl (2011-). Waiting for Hollywood to gain an appreciation for her appeal, Deschanel’s determination to follow her own path paid off with dividends that far exceeded her professional achievements.
Zooey Claire Deschanel was born on Jan. 17, 1980 in Los Angeles, CA. She and her older actress sister, Emily, were raised by their father, Caleb, an Oscar-winning cinematographer and their mother, actress Mary Jo. Deschanel, whose first name was taken from the male Zooey Glass character of J.D. Salinger‘s story Franny and Zooey, often spent her young years hanging out on film set locations, despite the fact that Deschanel wished for a typical, sedentary family home life. Despite this fact, by the time she was old enough to know what acting was, she wanted to be an actress, but her parents rejected the idea, telling her she would have to wait until she had a driver’s license to get her around town. Deschanel attended the elite prep school Crossroads in Santa Monica, CA alongside future co-stars Kate Hudson and Jake Gyllenhaal, where she discovered an interest in singing and musical theater; at one point, considering a career in jazz singing on Broadway. At 16, she appeared as Little Red Riding Hood in the North Hollywood-based Interact Theatre Company‘s production of Into the Woods. Driver’s license firmly in hand, Deschanel started auditioning for onscreen parts, landing on an episode of NBC’s Veronica’s Closet (1997-2000) just days before her 18th birthday.
Frustrated by the industry politics of Hollywood, Deschanel left for Chicago to attend Northwestern University in the fall of 1998, but seven months into her first year, realized she wanted to be auditioning again and headed back to Los Angeles. Her first break came as a self-conscious teen on the psychiatrist’s couch of Lawrence Kasdan‘s low-key comedy Mumford (1999). The fall release gave a wide audience a brief introduction to the actress, as did her appearance in the video for She’s Got Issues, a song from the popular punk quartet, The Offspring. The following year, she offered up a more formal introduction, knocking out audiences as the wise, world-ready flight attendant and older sister of Cameron Crowe‘s rock and roll epic Almost Famous (2000), a film which also served as classmate Kate Hudson‘s breakout project.
Following Almost Famous, Deschanel’s options broadened, enabling her to develop what would become an ongoing taste for independent films. Appearing in Manic (2001), she played the sullen, troubled resident of a mental institution and a fellow patient’s object of affection. She just as easily switched gears to become the tart-mouthed, small-town counter girl of a different indie, The Good Girl (2002), starring Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal. Turning her attentions to a musical diversion that arose from an introduction at filmmaker Sofia Coppola‘s 2001 Jazz party, she and actress Samantha Shelton bonded over a common interest in old Jazz standards and decided to put together an act. With period outfits and a small backing band, the actresses would trek across Los Angeles in between acting gigs, performing in clubs under the moniker of If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies. When not onscreen, Deschanel would also spend her off time hanging with an equally musical boyfriend, Coppola’s cousin, actor Jason Schwartzman, whom she dated until 2005.
Returning to bigger projects, Deschanel took on a role as Rene Russo‘s daughter in the ensemble comedy, Big Trouble (2002), as well as had a smaller part as D.J. Qualls‘ bandmate in The New Guy (2002) before trying her hand at a thriller with Abandon (2002), in which she played the best friend of a college classmate tormented by her boyfriend’s mysterious disappearance. On a roll, the projects kept her working, but Deschanel really got a chance to shine under the promising young director David Gordon Green. With his 2003 effort, All the Real Girls, she was his embodiment of first love, playing Noel, a small town 18-year-old on the cusp of a sexual awakening in North Carolina. Deschanel and co-star Paul Schneider won positive comments playing out the intimate, young romance between a virgin and the smitten town stud. By the summer, her status as one of Hollywood’s freshest faces had been further verified with her role as the good-hearted department store elf, tentatively romancing Will Ferrell‘s lumbering real elf in Elf (2003). Deschanel even got to add her voice to the soundtrack, singing alongside Leon Redbone in a rendition of Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
By 2004, her lead role in Green’s film had netted her an Independent Spirit Award nomination, but with Elf, Deschanel was now a sought out actress, picked to star in Disney‘s long-in-development screen adaptation of Douglas Adams‘ cult classic novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As the alien love interest Trillian, Deschanel had serious fans of the sci-fi satire debating the merits of her casting well before the mid-2004 shoot had even begun. After wrapping production late in the year, she relaxed and watched the release of her indie ensemble comedy Eulogy (2004), for which her perplexed, grieving granddaughter provided the memorial. As Hitchhiker’s Guide hit theaters in the summer of 2005 to mixed reviews, Deschanel continued to work steadily in different-sized projects. The somewhat delayed release of Winter Passing (2005) reteamed her with Ferrell in a more somber outing of family estrangement, but the actress got to put her singing to serious use on television as Lady Larken of ABC‘s musical movie, Once Upon a Mattress (2005), a raucous retelling of the classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. Deschanel’s quirky sensibilities even managed to steal the show from Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey in the by-the-books romantic comedy, Failure to Launch (2006), a high-concept comedy which showcased Deschanel’s character Kit, an off-kilter, mockingbird-hating roommate.
Taking advantage of an increasing number of diverse onscreen opportunities, Deschanel found another interesting place to go on television. For Showtime‘s Weeds (2005-), a series about a suburban mother dealing marijuana to make ends meet, Deschanel recurred as the wild girl Kat, coming in and out of her ex-boyfriend’s life. By 2007, she had no less than half a dozen projects that stretched into independent and studio territory. Deschanel opted to mix things up as a former famous child actor bonding with a social misfit under their small-town malaise in The Good Life, as well as the owner of a stolen car connecting with its thief in the small comedy, The Go-Getter. Further into 2007, Deschanel shook the dust off the Hitchhiker’s Guide reception for another go at fantasy filmmaking. To an ever expanding group of converts, her casting as the winsome music teacher and crush of a young farmboy in Disney‘s adaptation of the children’s novel Bridge to Terabithia seemed ideal. She also expanded her résumé to include voiceover work, taking her distinct voice to the animation production of Surf’s Up. As Lani Aliikai, the sexy, exuberant penguin lifeguard of Pen Gu Island, the film was widely praised for its impressive story and CGI animation. Not wasting a moment’s time, Deschanel reconnected with past co-star Paul Schneider as they both went to the gritty Old West to help tell the big screen story of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a movie starring Brad Pitt.
If any expectations about Deschanel’s career remained, they were only of her abilities and the loftier challenges just ahead. On the heels of Terabithia, Deschanel moved to the SciFi Channel, embodying a Dorothy-esque figure named DG in Tin Man (2007), a very twisted take on The Wizard of Oz. Taking her own personal musical aspirations to the next level, she released her first music album Volume One as one half of the folk-pop band She & He, with musician M. Ward. Later cast in a Janis Joplin biopic, Deschanel spent many months in vocal training, looking to perfect Joplin’s necessary trademark rasp. The subsequent Gospel According to Janis (2008) – one of several competing Joplin films – promised to usher the singer-actress into a new level of recognition. Before that project went into production, she starred in M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Happening (2008), a dark apocalyptic thriller about a family that flees a natural disaster threatening humanity’s very existence.
Busier than ever, Deschanel also played the free-spirited love interest of Jim Carrey in the comedy fable Yes Man (2008) prior to gaining strong notices opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the coming-of-age romance (500) Days of Summer (2009), as the girl who breaks Levitt’s heart. The breakout indie hit of the year and overwhelmingly well-received by critics, the film earned both Deschanel and her co-star some of the best notices of their careers. On a lark, she also guest starred on a 2009 episode of her sister Emily’s popular forensic Fox‘s crime drama Bones (2005-). In September of the same year, Deschanel married her fiancé since 2008, musician Ben Gibbard, the frontman for the popular alt-rock groups Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. After a brief hiatus, Deschanel returned to screens in the stoner comedy-fantasy Your Highness (2011) as the virginal maiden betrothed to the valiant Prince Fabious (James Franco), and as the sister of an eternally naïve and good-natured slacker (Paul Rudd) in Our Idiot Brother (2011). Back on television, she enjoyed favorable reviews with the premiere of her own TV sitcom as the New Girl (2011-), a bubbly, nerdy girl who moves in to an apartment with three single guys after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her much ballyhooed performance brought her a first-ever Emmy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy Series in 2012, as well as a Golden Globe nod in the same category later that year.