Zooey at the Zoo: Sundance Report

Meet Zooey Deschanel, reluctant dauphine of the Sundance Film Festival!

Ms. Deschanel lives in Beverly Hills-she didn’t want to get specific about the arrangements; her mom said that she’s “still basically living at home”-but it took a bumpy flight to Utah (fat girls in Brigham Young University sweatshirts gnawing on caramel apples, Eternal Marriage textbooks in their laps) and a bleak night in a Motel 6 just to pin her down for 45 minutes.

Sitting in a temporary canteen near the bottom of the Park City chair lift following a photo shoot for Jane magazine, the actress seemed distracted and tense, gnawing on her fingers with slightly crooked teeth, her large blue eyes darting around the room, a pale purple vein thrumming on her forehead.

“I panic about a lot of things,” she said. “I guess I’m just a high-strung individual. I have a lot of energy-nervous energy. I bite my nails. If somebody comes up behind me, I jump . I can’t help it. It’s my nervous system. I don’t know how to explain it.”

She said she’s pretty much rejected Hollywood balms like therapy (“It just makes me more nervous”) and yoga. “I like to run but I have weak knees, so I walk a lot,” she said. “I walk miles and miles and miles. I try to be really careful about traffic, because people never look both ways before they cross the street. I’m always thinking of the worst-case scenario in my head.”

Renowned for her clothing sense (though she claims she’s never been to a fashion show), the Type A, 5-foot-6, size-6 Ms. Deschanel was wearing black Ugg boots festooned with rhinestones (“I’ve worn them for years,” she said, scoffing at the brand’s recent surge in popularity), black tights, a deconstructed mini-skirt by McGinn, a demure pale blue oxford-cloth shirt from a school-uniform store, and a pearl ring on the middle finger of her right hand. She was carrying a white leather Hogan handbag and a copy of the magazine Hollywood Life with actress-of-the-moment Scarlett Johansson on the cover. Told that some have her pegged as the next Scarlett, Ms. Deschanel gave a brittle little laugh.

“That’s so funny,” she said, “because Scarlett Johansson is 17 and I’m, like, 24.”

A few days later, she would don black Chanel, mod motorcycle boots and a big floppy pink hair bow to host the festival’s award ceremony alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, her co-star from The Good Girl (who, like most male attendees, didn’t bother to shave for the occasion). Today, however, she was promoting her latest movie, Eulogy , a Royal Tenenbaums –esque comedy about an eccentric family, the second film from director Michael Clancy, with an impressive ensemble cast containing several elder stateswomen: Debra Winger (“I loved Debra,” Ms. Deschanel said, and indeed she uncannily recalls the former’s younger self at times with her husky voice), Piper Laurie (“So grandmotherly!”), Glenne Headly (“Really sweet!”) and John Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston (“A sweetheart!”). Asked whose career she most covets, Ms. Deschanel said, “I don’t know. People keep asking me that question. I actually have no idea-I just want to have my own career.”

The résumé thus far has gotten her a lot of “one-pagers” in magazines and a bit of a slavering male fan base. Ms. Deschanel debuted in Mumford in 1999, directed by Lawrence Kasdan. (“Always do better work when it’s the other actor’s close-up, when you’re off-camera,” he advised, “because it will show that you’re generous.”) She was the airline-stewardess, sister in Almost Famous , and then appeared in a bunch of or forgotten independent films. Major Sundance lesson: “Indie” film can be as oppressive and wearisome as big-budget Hollywood. Then last December she practically stole Elf as Will Ferrell’s shopgirl love interest.

Ms.Deschanel displayed some un -Elf- ish moments during lunch-for example, when a tofu-scramble burrito sans beans that a publicist had pre-ordered for her failed to arrive in a timely manner.

“Gawd,” she said, whipping out her cell phone. “Do you mind if I just make a call? Sorry.” The tape recorder was turned off while somebody got chewed out.

A few minutes later, the waitress plunked the burrito on the table a bit abruptly and wheeled away.

“What’s wrong?” Ms. Deschanel said. “They’re so rude. I just really don’t understand it. I feel like they hate me, and it hurts my feelings …. Excuse me?”

She resummoned the server, a perky, freckle-nosed mountain-mama type, and said, “I just feel like there’s a lot of hostility towards me. Everybody keeps not talking to me, and it really hurts my feelings.”

“I’m sorry-there’s no hostility!” the waitress said, slipping into self-righteous uptalk. “We’re just all … super-super-busy?”

“I just wanted to make sure no one’s angry with me,” Ms. Deschanel said.

“No one’s angry,” said the waitress. “We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t make your food twice.” She took her leave again.

Ms. Deschanel was still stressed out. “I just want to make sure people don’t dislike me,” she said.

A lifelong loyal Angeleno, she is famously the daughter of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and actress Mary Jo (both of The Right Stuff ), and the younger sister of another actress, Emily, two years her senior, who also had a movie coming out at Sundance this year. “We’re really different-she’s like tall and blonde-so I don’t feel competitive towards her,” Zooey said. Apparently, theirs wasn’t the glamorously nomadic childhood breathlessly described in the press.

“Yeah, I went on location, but I wasn’t hanging around movie stars!” she said. “I think I saw a movie star-once!”

Elementary school was tough (“Everyone was so mean to me,” she said. “I was kind of chubby when I was little-a pudgy kid”); high school was a bit of a John Hughes movie, with classmate Kate Hudson in the popular role (“She was a little too cool for me … I felt kind of on the outside of things… I was an A student, never had a boyfriend”); a partial semester at Northwestern was something of a disaster.

“I got there and I was like, ‘What is this ?'” Ms. Deschanel said. “I don’t like beer. I don’t like frats . I don’t like dorms. I don’t want to socialize with people just because we live in the same building. People would knock on my door and be like, ‘Are you coming to the dorm social?’ I’m like, ‘No. I’ll be in my room .'”

She elected not to move to Manhattan-“Too expensive,” she said. “New York’s, like, astronomical”-constructing instead a quiet L.A. life dominated by her boyfriend, actor Jason Schwartzman ( Rushmore) , whom she first met when they were teenagers, and her cabaret band, If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies.

“I never go out,” she said. “Unless I’m forced to. I try to avoid parties as much as I can. I’m literally at home every night. I lose my voice if I go out, and I hate losing my voice. So I go to bed at 11 every night. No one ever sees me anywhere. Except for the movies-I go to the movies sometimes. I have a very simple sort of life. Nobody ever recognizes me.”

The charms of Park City’s renowned snow (best trail: Glory Hole) appeared to be lost on her.

“I hate skiing,” she said. “I don’t like ski outfits that much, ha ha. ” She craned her neck at an artificially tanned woman teetering at the counter in high-heeled designer hiking boots. “You get into the parties and you’re like, ‘How did these people get here wearing halter tops?'” she said. “How did they defy gravity?”

Would she ever do a nude scene-something like Ms. Johansson’s bare butt through pantyhose in the wildly overrated (except for Bill Murray) Lost in Translation ?

“No … unless it was like I felt it was really necessary,” Ms. Deschanel said. “A lot of times, it feels like people do that to, like, prove that they’re brave, and I don’t think that that necessarily proves that you’re brave. I think that there are other ways to prove that you’re brave-more subtle ways.”

What did she think of fellow indie darling Chloë Sevigny giving a blowjob on camera in Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny ? Ms. Deschanel blanched even whiter than her natural alabaster. ” What ?” she said. “I hate to say this, but that’s the most disgusting thing I ever heard. I would never, ever go near a movie like that.” She paused. “She can do whatever she wants, though, you know? She wants to film it, great!”

Ms. Deschanel has endearingly fuddy-duddy taste in pop culture, like Gene Wilder movies (“I think he’s a genius”) and old musicals: Meet Me in St. Louis, Bandwagon, My Fair Lady . “Oh-I love this song,” she said, as some Elvis Costello came on the loudspeakers.

She’ll play a young actress in a downward spiral opposite Will Ferrell and Ed Harris in the forthcoming Winter Passing , a drama by New York playwright Adam Rapp. It’s not an easy part. Like Ms. Johansson before her, Ms. Deschanel is making the transition from cute to sexy. “I can be very critical of myself,” she said. “When I see myself onscreen I’m like, Oooh-aah … and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I hate that angle.'”

Lately, she said, she’s been having some weird dreams-“about being on a ladder, and knives.” On the eve of the Golden Globes, it wasn’t hard to play Dr. Freud with that one.

“I have no ambitions as far as fame goes,” Ms. Deschanel said. “I don’t really care. Anyone who likes you because you’re famous is lame, anyway. Leading lady, yeah. But star … I don’t know what a star is. People are always like, ‘I knew they were a star!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s a star.’ I mean, there are all kinds of people who act like they’re stars, and I don’t think they should, you know. That’s what kind of bothers me about Sundance is that you go to places and they’re like, ‘Who are you?’ And then if they decide you’re somebody, then they’re nice, and if they decide you’re nobody, then they’re not, and I really hate that attitude-I really, really, really detest it. It’s like a thing that really bothers me on a deep level.”