Zooey Deschanel: 'I do try really hard to be normal'

Zooey Deschanel is playing to type as a girly kook in her lauded new sitcom. It may not be to everyone's taste, but it's just the way she is

Every now and then actors come along who are the television equivalent of Marmite: those who love them do so with unabashed passion; those who hate them are equally vocal – and the two sides will never agree. Zooey Deschanel is one such actress.

The 31-year-old star of the much-praised US sitcom New Girl, which starts on Channel 4 on Friday, is as infamous for her polarising effect on people as she is for her big, blue eyes and husky voice. For a certain type of woollen hat-wearing, moustache-growing, tattoo-sporting, sensitive young man she is the ultimate fantasy – fond of thrift-shop finds and baking, bright without being threatening, quirky, cute and given to blushing. When New Girl was first shown to the US press the captivated male critics all but rolled over and asked her to tickle their stomachs.

Yet for every one who adores her – and it's not just men; in a recent profile in New York magazine one woman gushed that "she's the reason I've had bangs [a fringe] for seven years" – there is another who finds her insufferably twee. She has been accused of spearheading, whether accidentally or on purpose, a type of retro-femininity, promoting the idea that woman are more attractive if they act like girls. In a now notorious blog post, the comedian Julie Klausner wrote of Deschanel and her ilk: "There's so much ukulele playing now, it's deafening. So much cotton candy, so many bunny rabbits and whoopee pies and craft fairs and kitten ephemera, and grown women wearing converse sneakers with mini skirts." It's true that Deschanel can come across as a female Fotherington-Thomas, tripping along, skipping and simpering: "Hello trees, hello flowers, hello clouds."

In New Girl, where for the first time she has a leading television role, she plays Jess, an "adorkable" (their word) girl who makes up her own theme tune, attempts to pick men up with the words "Hello Sailor" and weeps uncontrollably while watching Dirty Dancing. For this, she has been described as both the ultimate hipster pin-up and "unabashedly childlike".

The show continues to divide critics: in the same week that The Washington Post branded New Girl the "most irritating new show of the year", its leading lady picked up a best actress nomination in the Golden Globes.

Deschanel herself, perky and slender in a bright-red woollen jersey and dark, skinny jeans, remains sanguine about both bouquets and brickbats. "I don't crave the approval of someone who just doesn't like me," she says. "If they don't like me then they don't have to watch [New Girl] and that's fine. But yeah, occasionally you'll run across something where someone will say something mean about you and it's hard because there are some things you can't change about yourself. And, you know, you shouldn't change them because other people like them. It seems like a lot of people love having an opinion, which is great, but I don't always need to hear it."

Primary among those opinions is the idea that Deschanel is the ultimate manic pixie dream girl, a slightly kooky but ever so adorable muse, who combines girl-next-door charm with a subtle sophistication ensuring that our hero is never quite sure where he stands. It's a type she has perfected in any number of movies – from All The Real Girls, in which she played an aloof teenage muse, to (500) Days of Summer, where she was both dream girl and heartbreaker. Her role in Elf as a depressed department-store worker riffed on her occasionally goofy persona, while her recent turn in Our Idiot Brother as a bisexual Brooklynite who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian was so Zooey it was almost a pastiche.

"I always wanted to be normal," Deschanel says. "I tried really hard but it's like I try so hard and then people still say I'm offbeat." She shrugs. "I've learnt to accept that and take advantage of it as an actor. It's like, 'Well that's who I am,' and it comes through and it's OK."

It's also the case that, increasingly, Zooey Deschanel is a brand. There's the successful sitcom (New Girl attracted 10.1 million viewers at its debut and has been hailed as the break-out show of the US television season); the music career (she sings, plays the piano and ukulele and writes songs with Matt Ward for their indy band, She & Him, which has attracted positive reviews); and a website, Hello Giggles, which is aimed at "smart, independent and creative females" and which, with its pictures of cute animals and articles on thrift-store finds, is unashamedly girly in feel. "I've always been really girly," she admits. "With the website I think people are happier when they're not saying negative things about other people, so ultimately our goal is to make people happy. Hopefully a few people agree."

Her twitter feed, which has nearly 900,000 followers, is similarly cheerful, filled with recipes, exhortations to fans to upload their favourite dog pictures, and exclamation marks. Following it is rather like being perpetually doused in sunshine: perfectly pleasant and yet oddly unnerving. Surely nobody can be that relentlessly upbeat all of the time?

"I am pretty much always cheerful," she says. "Even early in the morning. I go on tour with my band and it's, like, 12 people on one bus. And I feel like I'm the one who's happy in the morning..."

Yet beneath the happy façade runs a more self-conscious seam. She is much given to mannerisms, twisting her hair round her finger, hugging herself. It would be no surprise if she suddenly twirled around in the manner of her sitcom forerunners Marlo Thomas, of That Girl, or Mary Tyler Moore. "I love Mary Tyler Moore," she admits. "The moments in New Girl where Jess sings was something that I really related to in the script. You know, you think, like, 'I'm going to be Mary Tyler Moore.' That thing of somehow being a part of the crowd but somehow everybody's watching you."

There are moments, too where the poise slips. She is keen to stress how close she is to her older sister, Emily, also an actress (she plays the lead female role in the long-running police procedural Bones), yet when asked if she ever babysits for her three-month old nephew she sounds flustered.

"If somebody else is around. I don't... I've never really babysat," she finally says. "I'm not great at babysitting. I kind of like don't know what to do, maybe if my mum was around or something." She recovers. "I like holding him, he really is terribly cute." In another reference to Emily she remarks that when she told her sister she was doing a show for Fox, the dry response was: "It might not get picked up."

Deschanel's own personal life remains off bounds. A week after we meet, it's announced that she has split up from her husband of two years, Ben Gibbard, the singer in Death Cab For Cutie. A brief statement says that the split is "amicable" and "mutual". Two months earlier Gibbard had told New York magazine, describing the time the couple first met: "I was just awestruck she was even talking to me."

While the reality is no doubt less cheery than the spin suggests, Deschanel will have no problem staving off sorrow with the hectic filming schedule of New Girl. She's also considering movies and has just released an album of Christmas songs. "I've just always loved Christmas music," she says. "We wanted it to feel very intimate, like you were just sitting round the fire making music... It was really for fun."

'New Girl' starts on Friday at 8.30pm on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game