In a celluloid universe of bubbly blondes, Zooey Deschanel is a refreshing exception. The 25-year-old actress sits before me, skinny shoulders hunched in a navy-blue blazer, electric eyes blinking out from a frame of almost-black hair, looking slightly twitchy, as though her metabolism is skittering along at twice its normal pace. I ask her if she's done many interviews today and her face opens into a smile.
"Yeah," she says, "but, uh, this is going to be the very best one, right?"
Deschanel is in an enviable spot, career-wise. Not yet a major star, but fast on her way to becoming one, the actress is the embodiment of what film people call "an industry darling." This means she gets lots of interesting work without the hassle of being stalked by the tabloids.
Winter Passing, the low-budget first feature by playwright Adam Rapp, is the film Deschanel is at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote. A melancholic coming-of-age tale, the film is the perfect showcase for her moody talents. "When I read the script, I was so excited," she says in a voice that sounds the way a cat's tongue feels. "It was so incredible and rare to read such a complex female character. The parts that are out there for girls my age are usually, like, somebody's girlfriend."
Deschanel stars as Reese Holden, a young theatre actress subsisting in contemporary New York on a sketchy diet of cocaine, whisky and meaningless sexual encounters. The only child of two famous and emotionally unavailable writers, Reese wanders the city in a grim haze. When a publisher offers her big bucks for the rights to her recently deceased mother's letters, she must return home to Michigan to find them. It is there that she confronts her father (Ed Harris), who is being cared for by strange houseguests (Will Ferrell and Amelia Warner) as he lives out his final days in a J. D. Salinger-esque state of reclusive debauchery.
Deschanel, whose previous work includes Almost Famous, All the Real Girls and Elf (the latter also with Ferrell), says the role of Reese was one of the most taxing of her career.
"I have a thing when I read a script that I really love, it's kind of weird. I get this feeling that I need to protect the character. I want to play the character so I can protect them from, like, being hurt," she explains. "With Reese, she's so vulnerable but she's also so jaded and cut off from her emotions. At the beginning of the movie, she's doing all this stuff, slamming her hands in drawers, trying to make herself feel. Her attempts at intimacy are awkward and failed. You don't see the real flex of emotion until the end of the film."
Deschanel, who is much more animated in person than the flat, stony-faced Reese, said holding back, rather than going whole hog, was the great challenge of this role. "We didn't want to tell the story of someone who was crying and going 'ahhhh,' all the time," she says, raising her hands in the air and mimicking actorly histrionics. "At the same time, she's in so much pain. She's on the verge. It was very trying for me because I'm not like her. I laugh and cry all the time. I would spend all this time on the edge and at some point I'd have to let it all out. At lunch, I'd go to my dressing room and I'd just cry and cry."
According to writer-director Rapp, it was Deschanel's willingness to embrace the character's dark side that convinced him she was perfect for the role.
"A lot of much more famous women wanted to do it," he says, "but Zooey had a great dynamic of not being afraid of the cruelty in the role and being able to go to an emotional place that's authentic. I was just the most impressed with her and I knew I had to cast it right."
The film, which was shot for just under $3-million in New York and New Jersey, is set to open in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 28, but has yet to secure a Canadian distribution deal.
"The actors basically did it for free," Rapp jokes.
Filmed in the dead of winter, the 28-day shoot was fraught with problems, including one day when the outdoor set was sinking into the snow. "It was a film we all really, really believed in, otherwise we wouldn't have been there," Deschanel admits. "It's always tricky when you're mixing commerce and art, but I believe there's still a place for little movies like this one."
Winter Passing screens at TIFF tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the Paramount, 259 Richmond St. W.