In the musical dramedy fantasy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, lead actress Jane Levy took on the principal role of Zoey, a young computer programmer who discovers she not only has the ability to hear people’s innermost thoughts, but that, even more surprisingly, they come to her through the medium of song and dance. Premiering during the winter, the show quickly gained many passionate followers who were looking for a bit of heartfelt escapism during the COVID-19 quarantine. Here, just days before the announcement of a second season, Jane Levy chatted about the most extraordinary role of her career so far.
DEADLINE: A lot of people discovered Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist during lockdown. How was it for you to see your show as a source of solace during this period?
JANE LEVY: It means so much to me to hear that the show offered comfort or joy. We had no idea that our show was going to come out during a global pandemic, and it was so gratifying and humbling that this work that we did offered anything to anyone during this time.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it caught the hearts of so many fans?
LEVY: It’s a feel-good show even though it deals with real, heavy issues. I think ultimately afterwards, it’s a show where you feel like those tears you shed opened you up a little bit more. Or, you have a cathartic experience, where you work through some of your own grief. Whether it’s grief that happened before COVID, or the grief of the pandemic, I think it’s a show that allows for release. And it’s been such an honor. Truly, I still can’t even believe that I’m on a show that people watch. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: You’ve been on popular television shows before (Suburgatory, Castle Rock), but have you ever experienced this kind of connection with your audience as you have with Zoey?
LEVY: No, I haven’t. I felt like I was working differently than I’ve ever done while making this show. I was just deeply connected to her journey of getting this special gift. But the core of Zoey is her relationship between her and her dying father, and it was really emotional. I felt, for lack of a better way to explain it, like I had given this project my whole heart.
And that process was painful, but I was able to do that because I was working with people who were doing the same thing. [Creator] Austin Winsberg and [choreographer] Mandy Moore were really interested in telling a story about love and loss. And not just in a cute, network television, singing and dancing way, but in an honest, messy, tragic but also beautiful, way. I’m really proud of the show we made, and I feel so connected to the audience where I’m inspired to keep going.
DEADLINE: Austin Winsberg chose you as Zoey from the beginning. Did you work with him prior to taking on the role?
LEVY: No, and I don’t think it was anything that spectacular. Honestly, they had a list of actors, and there was a lot of things that this actor had to be able to do. We switch from farcical comedy to real drama, plus there’s singing and dancing, so they had to find an actor who they thought could do the tonal shifts in the show. I think that it was basically just a spreadsheet of actors and I checked the boxes. [Laughs]
I don’t think Austin really knew much about me, to be honest. We were joking about it, recently, where I was like, “At our meeting, I swear, you had no idea about any of my past work. You hadn’t done your homework.” It was just a great leap of faith.
DEADLINE: Once you understood that Zoey’s story was a version of Austin’s personal experience with his late father’s PSP (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy) disease, did you use him as a sounding board to help create your version of Zoey?
LEVY: We did talk about Austin’s personal experience, but he gave us a lot of freedom to interpret the way that we were instinctually inclined. Austin gave us room to fill out these characters, for ourselves. Along the way, with each episode, you just go deeper and deeper into this character and the line between you, the actor, and the character starts to blur a little bit. Plus, I think the writer begins to hear your voice more, when they’re writing for you.
DEADLINE: Is your performance also affected by your extremely talented ensemble cast?
LEVY: Definitely. I am so affected by the people around me. I had incredible scene partners in Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, Lauren Graham, Mary Steenburgen, the list goes on, oh my God. And eventually, it just becomes a great collaboration between the actor singing and Mandy Moore’s choreography.
DEADLINE: Given the nature of the show, it’s surprising to hear that you didn’t grow up a musical theater nerd.
LEVY: Well, I will say that I did musicals as a kid, but I don’t know anything about musical theater. I’m working with a cast of real heavy hitters and I am the numb nuts at the center of it all who’s like, “What? Who? Why?”
When I was a kid, I did a lot of dance. I danced ballet and I was on the hip-hop dance team in high school. I also come from a very musically inclined family. My mom sang jazz in college and my dad went to conservatory for guitar, so it’s in my DNA. I guess maybe I could now say I’m a musical theater person…or maybe just a musical TV person, though I do find the singing to be so hard. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: Which begs the question, why did you take a role where you have to sing?
LEVY: Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy singing. But after doing the show, I realized, “Wow, that is something that’s very hard.” I think the reason it’s so hard is because you have to be relaxed, to be good at it. And I am the opposite of relaxed.
DEADLINE: Because you’re in practically every scene of the series, can you walk me through what an average day looks like?
LEVY: Mondays start at 5:00, and then by Friday, we’re working until three o’clock in the morning. On average, I would say 15 hours a day. Every day would be navigating the ADR (re-recording of audio), or if I could pop up to the dance studio, just so I could see what they were going to do the next day. I was never a part of the rehearsal, because I was always shooting. And that’s why a lot of my movements in other people’s music numbers are very simple.
Do you eat? No. Do you sleep? No. Do you have friends? Nope. [Laughs] I actually had to learn to give myself five minutes to eat. As someone who is a very good soldier, when I’m asked to do something, I step to, but then I realized that I was fainting…
DEADLINE: Oh no!
LEVY: It’s totally crazy. I am someone with a lot of energy and I don’t like sitting down, so working really hard comes naturally to me, but I learned to harness it over time.
DEADLINE: But all of this hard work has been worth it for you.
LEVY: Oh yeah, it’s very rare that you get a job as an actor that speaks so specifically to your interests, sensibilities and talents. With this show, I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Zoey. This is my role and I just feel so lucky that it came along.
DEADLINE: What kind of advice did your friend and co-star Lauren Graham give you about this role?
LEVY: Lauren Graham became my spirit guide during this process. Because of her success in Gilmore Girls, she told me that leading a one-hour drama is a really hard job for an actor; just timewise on set, and stamina. Gilmore Girls was so instrumental for her, and when she read the script, she thought, “There’s no one else in the world that can play this part.” And so, she would say to me often, “Really enjoy this, because it doesn’t come up often.”
DEADLINE: When Season 1 ended, I had a profound realization that the show was really a culmination for the audience to learn how to say goodbye to someone we love.
LEVY: That is beautiful and making me tear up. I’ve never put it that way, but now that I’ve had some time to separate from the character, I see that her struggles were really that. And I think it’s the result of all of us taking this story so seriously. It reminds me of something that I thought about playing Zoey, which was fantasy and a wish. Because the story is basically Austin’s fantasy about being able to communicate with his father in the last months of his life. And we have these deep wishes with the people we love in our lives. Like that one sentence that we fantasize our father or mother, or lover would or could say to us. And that is so powerful. I think this whole series is an exploration of that fantasy, in a way.
DEADLINE: A lot of that climaxed in the episode “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch” where Zoey not only knew that goodbye was something she had to confront, but her magic internal powers were rendered useless, meaning that she had to sing her feelings out loud to everyone instead.
LEVY: That entire episode is basically her not being able to confront the fact that she’s going to have to say goodbye. All of her jumping around, bopping like a crazy person, which is so funny at the beginning, is just a shield to ignore the pressing issue at hand, which is, she’s going to lose her father.
It was also the episode where I performed every single song and dance number. We took three days off from production, so that we could learn the choreography and record the songs. We really told a very specific, effective story, and that’s what’s so amazing about Mandy Moore, because she’s a storyteller first.
As an actor, you spend your whole career thinking about your intention behind every line. Now there’s an intention behind every movement and why we choose this musical artist to pair it with. It’s a colossal amount of work, but it was so cool. Our show is a collaboration between the writing, the dancing and the acting, but also the songs we choose. To be able to thread the needle between all of it and actually tell a true, grounded story was an incredible feat.
DEADLINE: What was it like to work with all of your talented co-stars?
LEVY: It’s a total privilege. I get to witness my incredible talented cast mates just throw their gifts at the world. And I feel so lucky, to have watched them express themselves in the way that they did this first season.
DEADLINE: Do you have any favorite performances?
LEVY: I’m always excited to hear Alex [Newell] sing, I think he’s one of the best singers on the planet. When I just watched him on Celebrity Drag Race, and RuPaul said that Alex Newell is his favorite recording artist today, I almost fainted. Watching Lauren get on a bar, and sing [Kesha’s] “TiK ToK,” was also pretty incredible. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: How about with Peter Gallagher?
LEVY: For me, personally, all the songs that I’ll take with me forever are the ones that I did with Peter. “True Colors,” “How Do I Live,” and the final father-daughter dance, where there was no music, I think those three impacted me the most.
DEADLINE: Now that you’ve had some time to sit with the experience of shooting this show, what did you take from it all?
LEVY: There is nothing left on the table. I feel like I gave everything that I could have, and so did the rest of the team. I’m so incredibly proud of our work, and I wouldn’t change one thing.