Kathryn Romeyn | December 4, 2020 |
As she shoots season 2, the star of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist talks alternate realities, female role models and the magic of human connection.
Jane Levy is currently living in an alternate universe: “This very strange swirl of radically different and extremely familiar,” she says. The California-bred actress is shooting Season 2 of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist for NBC in British Columbia, where the entire province, according to a recent Instagram post of the actress on a ferry, has had just about 13,000 COVID-19 cases total. And—spoiler alert!—the TV show takes place in a pandemic-free world.
“It feels somehow extremely normal and familiar, and at the same time very foreign and surreal,” says Levy, who turns 31 at the end of December and plays Zoey. “When we are shooting, I am no longer existing in a pandemic, so I’m sort of shot back into this different reality. Off set I’m back.” COVID has warped all of our worlds, even for an actress accustomed to taking on disparate roles. “At home watching TV, when I see characters hug each other, I’m like, ‘Oh no! You’re not supposed to do that!’” Levy says, laughing. “I’m not doing that in real life, but in fake life… yeah, it’s bizarre.”
But the fact audiences won’t see Zoey and her compatriots played by the likes of Lauren Graham, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell and Mary Steenburgen performing their musical theater numbers in masks doesn’t mean the show isn’t attuned to the times. In fact, it’s strangely pitch-perfect considering what 2020 has delivered. As in Season 1, Austin Winsberg’s creation is a one-of-a-kind harmony of laugh-inducing comedy, delightfully entertaining song and dance numbers, and poignant, tear-jerking moments. It’s not saccharine nor is it sarcastic—it’s just real.
Grief plays prominently in the series, which left audiences with the death of Zoey’s dad, generously acted by Peter Gallagher. “It’s one of the harshest realities of human existence—that people are mortal,” Levy explains. What they’re filming now, she says, “explores what it means to move on after we lose someone, how grief transforms and changes and grows after someone dies.” In the opener of Season 2, Zoey hasn’t left her apartment for six weeks, something audiences know a bit about thanks to widespread lockdowns. “She has to step back into the world, but she’s changed and she’s stuck in a place of profound loss,” says Levy. Again, hundreds of thousands of Americans may feel parallels. “So I think there are some nods to the pandemic without actually addressing it directly.”
Before she charmed and surprised audiences as Zoey Clarke, the brainy computer programmer who hears people’s innermost thoughts, yearnings and fears through song, Levy starred in the satirical sitcom Suburgatory and the horror franchise Evil Dead. Since childhood, she recalls, “I’ve always had the performer gene; it’s at the core of who I am.” At 6 years old, while sitting on the toilet, Levy yelled to her mom in the kitchen, “I want you to get me an agent and I want to move to L.A.!” She’d lie in bed at night thinking, “I’m going to be a movie star.”
But Levy didn’t actually pursue acting until she was partway though a miserable college experience. Upon moving to New York for acting school, she discovered concepts like belonging and happiness. “What’s so fun about being an actor is it’s not a solitary art—you can only make it with other people,” says Levy, who, like Zoey, claims to be neurotic and the last one to get the joke. “You need an audience and a director, other cast members. That part of this art form, I think, is my favorite.”
Levy knows how blessed she has been to be in such talented company already. Her first major role, on Suburgatory, was with “this amazingly feminist showrunner, Emily Kapnek. There was no emphasis on being thin or hot or palatable for the male gaze, and when I look back I realize how rare that was,” Levy explains. She name-drops costars Glenn Close, Melanie Lynskey, Renée Zellweger and, of course, Graham and Steenburgen as “women I really look up to for their talent and individuality and strength.”
Another woman has her inspired lately too. “I’ve had moments of ecstatic joy about having a first female Black Indian American vice president,” says Levy emphatically, “but at the same time I feel like there’s always more work to be done.” The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, she says, opened her eyes in a way they hadn’t been before, and the actress feels it’s the bare minimum to use her platform to discuss fascism, abuse and threats to democracy.
In August, Levy headed to Canada for two weeks of quarantine before shooting started on Zoey. She’ll be at it until spring, working 14-hour days with a distanced crew whose faces she only half sees, and without the usual high-fives after intricate dance numbers choreographed by La La Land’s Mandy Moore, which require extreme focus and teamwork. This formative role, Levy says, has taught her about herself, both as a person and as an actor. And it’s just now, after 10 years in the biz, that “I am really starting to feel I have a voice as a person and, on top of that, as a creative.”
Her newfound confidence has Levy eagerly anticipating what might come next. Though she says it’s years away, “I would love to produce.” The actress says she’s good at recognizing talent from people who haven’t been widely appreciated, and finds the idea of “professional matchmaking” appealing. “I would love to write and direct as well, but I’m somebody who likes to really study something before I do it; I don’t necessarily just jump,” says Levy. “I like to learn the rules and observe.”
Zoey’s superpower is hearing people’s inner songs, and it comes with a heavy burden of social responsibility. But Levy, admittedly hyperactive, says if she could choose her own, it would be the ability to nap—“deep, luxurious, satisfying sleep”—at the snap of her fingers. As tired as she may be, “with so many people unemployed, I truly feel so blessed to have a job. I’m pinching myself, counting my blessings and thinking about how much I love acting,” she says. “I love this part; I love my costars and the fact that the audience responded to our show.”
On Twitter, Levy’s privy to an outpouring of gratitude and comments, especially in response to moving scenes with Gallagher. Acting, she allows, can be quite egotistical—”you want people to look at you and applaud you.” But, she adds, “when acting is really creative and real, the ego sort of disappears and you just feel high in this way of peak human connection. It sounds cheesy, but it’s real.”
As it turns out, the most creatively satisfying parts about being Zoey, says Levy, are not getting to show off how quickly and adeptly she can shift tone, nor dazzle with song and dance. It’s the community and connections her character has forged. “When we were making this we had no idea that it was going to come out during a global pandemic and that it was going to be such a monumental time of collective grieving,” says the actress. “To offer people some sort of cathartic release is kind of magical.”
Photography by: Thomas McDonell