'I do try really hard to be normal'

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

Every now and then actors come along who are the television equivalent of Marmite: those who love them do so with a 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 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 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. 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 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. 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 was so Zooey it was almost a pastiche.

"I always wanted to be normal," Deschanel says. "I tried really hard but 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.'"

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. "Ultimately our goal is to make people happy."

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: pleasant, yet oddly unnerving. Surely no one can be that upbeat all 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. 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 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 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."

Deschanel's 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".

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. "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