Photos by Randall Slavin Words by Tamara Rappa
Acting, Singing, and Dancing in her Starring Role on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Golden Globe Nominated Jane Levy Leaps into her Leading Lady Status
Tamara Rappa: When Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist debuted, I was 100% convinced that the creators sought you out because of your extensive background in singing and dancing, and I know now that that was not the case.
Jane Levy: Right. In fact, maybe they sought me out, because I didn't have... no, I'm just kidding. When I read the Zoey's pilot, she didn't sing. There were conversations about how much I would take part. They knew they wanted someone who could probably, in theory, sing and dance. I make fun of our creator and say, 'You really just handed this whole show over to me, without having any idea that I could do this. Where did you get the faith or the confidence?!' Maybe he just knew, but I think the both of us were surprised by my abilities.
"You really just handed this whole show over to me, without having any idea that I could do this. Where did you get the faith or the confidence?! Maybe [series creator Austin Winsberg] just knew, but I think the both of us were surprised by my abilities."
TR: How did you prepare as an actor to step into Zoey?
JL: I thought a lot about expression, and how we use our voice and our bodies as actors all the time. Singing and dancing is just an extension of that expression, it's more grand, and in many ways, more vulnerable. I thought about why these people burst into song, and why, in the history of musicals, do people burst into song? Usually it's because they feel so much, that speaking no longer is enough, and it needs to be sung. I've learned so much about myself as a person and as an actor throughout this process. I think when I move on to my next job and there's no music, I'm going to be very bored.
TR: What do you love about Zoey's personality?
JL: I'm not sure that this is something I love about her personality, or that I'd be friends with her because of it, but I love playing her because of her neuroses. She's someone who is rather shut off from herself. She's always trying to plow right through, hurl herself into situations, because she tries to handle it. She is bursting at the seams at all times because she's highly sensitive and feeling, though she pretends she's not. To be able to play someone who's pretending to the outside world to be one thing, but bursting at the seams with another, and knowing as an actress that everyone else can pick up on it, is a really fun thing to play with.
TR: One of the things I always notice about your character is that your face as Zoey is very expressive; as you say, she's 'bursting at the seams'. Is it exhausting to play someone who's bursting at the seams like that?
JL: It's definitely exhausting. This job is really taxing. I'm working all the time and not on just acting, but on singing and dancing. It's a real testament to stamina. And I used to be an athlete, so I feel like I'm built for this kind of work. I have a lot of energy as a person, and so it's really the only thing that could exhaust me, because even yesterday, I did a twelve hour press day and when we finished, my mom was here and she was like, 'Jane, sit down.' And I was like, "Nope'. I don't know how to relax. I don't even know what that means.
"I thought about why these people burst into song, and why, in the history of musicals, do people burst into song? Usually it's because they feel so much, that speaking no longer is enough."
TR: How does dance and singing practice and recording work alongside filming the show?
JL: We're still trying to figure that out episode to episode, especially for me. I don't sing and dance in every episode. It's just every once in a while. But when I do, we have to figure out when I can rehearse or record, because there isn't a lot of it. It's different every episode, and we don't have the whole season when we start. We get the scripts every other week for the next episode, so there isn't that much prep time. It'll be like, 'Jane's not in the last scene today, maybe we can fit in a fitting, and four lines of ADR. Maybe she can have a music rehearsal'. I do feel cheated sometimes because I don't have enough time to rehearse. And when I say cheated, it's because I just want to spend as much time with Mandy Moore as possible. I usually get one or two rehearsals before a number.
TR: What do you love about Zoey's family?
JL: Especially during season one, the central part of the show, and what I think has the biggest heart, is Zoey's relationship with her father. I also love that Zoey, in many ways, is kind of juvenile. Maybe juvenile is too harsh of a word, but there's something very simple about her. Her superpower has rocked her world. She is truly someone who would go visit her family after work, have dinner there, and then continue to watch movies with her dad. That would make her happy, I think, until the end of time. Then she loses this person and is forced to be in the world in a way she never was before, and never wanted to be. And throughout the process she's realized that connection, and community, and empathy, and melody--- are all essential parts of living a happy life.
"She loses this person and is forced to be in the world in a way she never was before, and never wanted to be. And throughout the process she's realized that connection, and community, and empathy, and melody--- are all essential parts of living a happy life."
TR: Do you or any of the other actors pitch songs to be performed on the series?
JL: Oh yeah. Me, less so, because I don't come from a musical theater background. Mary Steenburgen composes and writes music. I don't consider myself someone with a vast knowledge of music, so I sort of stay in my lane and I act, and I do what they write. But for next season I have a Spotify playlist that I'm putting together that I'm going to send to [series creator] Austin. I'm going to make it short enough so I know he'll have to listen to it, because if it's long, he won't. I'm going to pick my selects, I think maybe I should keep it down to ten songs.
TR: Are you looking forward to using your singing and dancing skills beyond your role as Zoey? That opportunity has got to have come your way.
JL: I've been offered a couple of musicals after working on this show. What I would really like to do is go on stage, this show has made me want that even more. I'm absolutely terrified of it, but I think that's probably why it would be a good thing to do.
"I've been offered a couple of musicals after working on this show. What I would really like to do is go on stage, this show has made me want that even more. I'm absolutely terrified of it, but I think that's probably why it would be a good thing to do."
TR: How has and does Zoey's expand and push you creatively, beyond the fact that you're using different skills at once? Is there anything else about your work on Zoey's that expands you creatively?
JL: I have to be a leader. I am the person who's on set the most, and that role comes with responsibility. Being able to be good at your job, and to be a good crew member, and a good cast member all at the same time--- is a really great challenge. And just so important to making good work.
TR: What I love most about Zoey's, is the combination of content. Different types of music; from all decades; singing and dancing; humor; topics that highlight important aspects of our current culture; sadness and grief; coworkers and the workplace. It's a really compelling 'stew'.
JL: Totally. I agree with you. That's what music allows us to do. We're a show that has a fantastical reality and we use music borrowed across time. That really makes the show very expansive. I, too, love that about it. There are so many places to go. What a lovely thing.
"I have to be a leader. I am the person who's on set the most, and that role comes with responsibility. Being able to be good at your job, and to be a good crew member, and a good cast member all at the same time--- is a really great challenge. And just so important to making good work."
TR: This season on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist you tackle the topic of systemic racism, and systemic racism in place within the show's very core, the SPRQ Point offices and organization. What were the conversations around that like?
JL: It's a very topical and sensitive subject, especially for our black characters or cast members, and for our society at large. And so it catalyzed a lot of conversations, which I find to be a really productive by product of making that episode. Casts were talking to other casts about what they needed from one another, and what they expected of one another. We were having really honest conversations and asking each other, 'Why do we want to make this episode?', making sure that the 'why' was for good reason that will help people, and not just give ourselves a pat on the back and commodify Black Lives Matter. There was a ton of conversation, and I felt like my role was to be the white person in the storyline, authentically. To do what they write, and be truthful in that this person is going to have biases, and flaws, and be hurtful, and understand, and not understand it. I felt that was an important part of my role in it. And then also to just listen to the creatives in our production who do experience racism, and to step aside and really let them tell me what they wanted to about the episode, and what they needed from me in order to accomplish it.
"I felt like my role was to be the white person in the storyline, authentically. To do what they write, and be truthful in that this person is going to have biases, and flaws, and be hurtful, and understand, and not understand."
TR: The visuals for the show are extraordinary; from SPRQ Point to Mo's apartment, and now with the addition of Maximo restaurant What are the creative teams behind set and wardrobe like? Do you enjoy the visuals as much as I do?
JL: Absolutely. And it's a huge part of the show. Our set designer is incredible. Our costume designer is incredible. Mandy Moore is incredible. ...And the DP and the lighting crew. I love that our show is so colorful. As it should be, because of, as what we were saying, how expansive it is and how many worlds it exists in: the comedy world, dramatic world, realistic world, fantasy world. I think it's a huge part of the language of our show. We are colorful, down to my red hair.
TR: Let's talk about that signature red hair of yours. Red is not your natural color, right?
JL: I got a job on Shameless, They colored my hair dark because there was another actress with a short blonde hair and they didn't want me to look like her. It was like a reddish brown. And then when I was slowly trying to get that color out of my hair, my hair was red. I went on an audition for Suburgatory, and I got the job, and thought, I'll transition back to blonde. And they said don't, keep the red. And it stuck. I have to keep it for now. But I'm also very unattached to hair. Change the color, change the cut, who cares? It grows.
"I love that our show is so colorful. As it should be, because of how expansive it is and how many worlds it exists in: the comedy world, dramatic world, realistic world, fantasy world. I think it's a huge part of the language of our show. We are colorful, down to my red hair."
TR: When I think of the show, I think of the many extras used in various scenes containing song and dance. And I wonder, what is your relationship with them? What kind of energy do they bring to set, and to the project at large?
JL: There is a difference between our extras and our dancers. Honestly, I didn't really know much about that world until this show. Something that I really respect about Mandy Moore, is that she's very adamant about protecting her dancers. Dancers don't have a union like actors do or directors do. I didn't know that until Mandy told me, it's a huge oversight, and if anyone's going to change it, it's Mandy. Mandy's very protective of her dancers, in that they are treated like actors and they get trailers and their hair and makeup done like the actors do. I think that's right. I'm always enthralled when I'm around dancers. I just think, it's not that often that you're around a group of actors that have trained their whole lives at a conservatory. When you see dancers, you think, 'these people really take their craft seriously and have trained for so many years to make one move look so easy'. Dancing is complex, and dancers are fun people. They're energetic, and they're sensual, and they are present and alive. I'm always in love with all the dancers around me.
"I do feel cheated sometimes because I don't have enough time to rehearse. And when I say cheated, it's because I just want to spend as much time with Mandy Moore as possible."
TR: When most series wrote the pandemic into their storylines, Zoey's did not. What were the conversations being had around that decision?
JL: This isn't in my wheelhouse, but it was a topic of conversation, and not many that I was a part of until after the fact. Austin felt strongly that we shouldn't write the pandemic into his show. I don't know if there is a right or wrong answer, but I like what we did. We do need some escapism. I think it's nice to be able to escape into this world where people can hear people's thoughts in musical numbers.
"Austin felt strongly that we shouldn't write the pandemic into his show. I don't know if there is a right or wrong answer, but I like what we did. We do need some escapism."
TR: Let's go back to Jane before college. Where did you grow up? And were you surrounded by other creative people?
JL: I grew up in Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge in the Bay area. And I was surrounded by creative people. My family is full of a lot of creatives. My mom is an artist and a florist, and my dad went to conservatory for music before he went to law school and became a lawyer. My cousin is a professional ballet dancer. My cousin is a fine artist. My aunt is a former dancer, a yoga teacher. I have a lot of creatives in my life.
TR: You're from such a gorgeous part of California. Do you like LA? Could you see yourself moving back?
JL: I do like LA. It's my home. I've lived here for 11 years. And I have a lot of problems with it. Namely, the heat. I'm such a wussy when it comes to hot weather, I really cannot handle it. And it's just getting hotter and hotter, and drier and drier. So I do fantasize about living somewhere cooler, but I don't know if I could live in Marin full time. It's a little homogeneous, and it's also a little boring.
TR: I understand that you went to college in Baltimore for a short time, and then switched gears to study acting at Stella Adler in New York City. What was the exact catalyst for that? What made you pull the trigger and go for acting?
JL: I was really unhappy in college and uninspired, and I just thought to myself, 'I don't think I can keep doing this. Nothing about this is fun or interesting to me. So what is fun and interesting to me? What really is? ' And I remember thinking to myself, 'When was the last time you felt turned on creatively?' The answer, was acting. I had always done it as a little kid, not seriously at all, except for community theater and school plays, and there was a part of me that judged it as meaning that I didn't really know I loved acting. Then there was another voice in my head that said, 'No, I really think you love it.' And it turns out I was right. It's my favorite thing. I was listening to my gut. I will never get bored. I respect the craft. I love making something in a group. I love cameramen and writers and choreographers and my cast mates and set designers. And there's just something so magical when it all clicks and you can get something on the screen that is meaningful. I mean, it's a thrill.
"When I'm working on this job, I have no bandwidth for anything else. I have this very singular goal, I'm playing Zoey all day long. Now that I have some time off, I want to give myself some space to really daydream."
TR: I think that's true for a lot of creatives who end up pursuing their craft, whatever that may be. They start out thinking that it might only be a hobby. What were your acting school days like?
JL: Super fun. I was also a teenager, I think I turned 20, but started at Stella Adler when I was 19 years old. I was there for a year and a half. And I had gone from being depressed in college to living with my best friend from elementary school in New York City. And that was fun.
"I'm addicted to Instagram just like everyone else, but something that's been bumming me out recently is that everyone looks the same and is doing the same thing. And that's boring."
TR: I'm a native New Yorker so I want to imagine Jane hanging out in New York. Where did you spend time? Where were you going in New York? What were you doing?
JL: Okay, so I got an apartment walking distance from Stella Adler in a very weird part of New York city. Forgive me if this is where you live, but Murray Hill. I could walk across town from 33rd or whichever street I was on in Murray Hill, which is the strangest. We had this tiny little apartment, it was our kitchen and two rooms. My dad's from New York, and my grandmother lived in the financial district for forty five years. And my boyfriend of ten years also is from New York, he's from the Upper East Side. In some ways feel I'm New Yorker-adjacent because of that. But when I was 19, what would we do? We would go to Opening Ceremony and buy things we couldn't afford. We would also try to get into clubs, but I looked so young, and my fake ID sucked, and so I would get us kicked out. We weren't cool enough to actually know anyone to get us into the places, so we would wait in line and then get kicked out. I spent a lot of time going to class and I also worked at the studio. I think that was because I just wanted to spend more time there. So I would stock the toilet paper in the bathroom, and sit at this funny administrative desk. I would spend all my time at Stella Adler because I loved it there so much.
TR: Which of the actors that you have worked with, Jane, has had the biggest creative impact on you and why? And how?
JL: There are so many actors that I've worked with that I really admire. Someone that comes to mind is Melanie Lynskey. I think she is so good. I love watching her. And she is really her own person. Right now she's playing Leonardo DiCaprio's wife in a movie with Ariana Grande and Jennifer Lawrence. She goes from those movies, to little independent's, to HBO shows. She's someone I admire on so many levels, but especially her acting. Who else? I worked with Glenn Close on a pilot for Amazon that didn't get picked up. That was so wild. I was so impressed by her, I don't even want to talk about her acting because, duh. She would show up for her stunts, there'd be a scene where she is getting carried away in a stretcher, literally just a body bag. And she was like, 'I want to be there'. I found her professionalism and her dedication and her curiosity at that point in her career to be so inspiring. I could talk about acting forever...
TR: In a recent interview, you said that it's only now after ten years in the business that you are really starting to feel you have a voice as a creative. What is that voice? How do you describe it?
JL: I think it depends project to project, role to role, but first of all, I think I have a lot more confidence than I did ten years ago. I know what I want; I know what I want out of a scene, I know what I want out of a project. And it all has to do with storytelling and being unselfconscious and free and present. I know what I want, and I know how to ask for it.
"I don't think it would be possible for me to be in a romantic relationship with someone who is not creative."
TR: What future roles are you interested in? What are you thinking about?
JL: I have a lot of ideas. I just finished season two, and when I'm working on this job, I have no bandwidth for anything else. I have this very singular goal, I'm playing Zoey all day long. Now that I have some time off, I want to give myself some space to really daydream about this question that you just asked me. One story that has always attracted me, is a female athlete story, because I used to play soccer. I feel like there's only a few movies about women in sports, and few that I really like. And I love comedy, so I'd love to do some more comedy. I would really just like to work on a film.
TR: What things inspire you creatively, generally speaking?
JL: Weirdos. I like people who, to use the most cliche thing, dance to the beat of their own drum. People who are curious, people who are relentless in terms of their creativity, and people who are just strange and are interested in things that the masses aren't. I'm addicted to Instagram just like everyone else, but something that's been bumming me out recently is that everyone looks the same and is doing the same thing. And that's boring.
TR: Being a creative, what do you look for in a romantic partner? Do you need or like to be in a relationship with another creative?
JL: I don't think it would be possible for me to be in a romantic relationship with someone who is not creative.
TR: Who is Zoey at age 45?
JL: I imagine that Zoey, against her own will, will become some sort of a mentor to someone else with some superpower.
"I've been having a hard time reading fiction, I don't know if it's an attention span thing, or if there's so much going on in the world that I want to just know facts. I've been reading non-fiction. I read a book called Yellow Bird, it was phenomenal."
"I have so many sunglasses. My brother makes so much fun of me. My favorite brand for sunglasses is Celine."
"My go to item of makeup is Lipstick Queen lipstick. It's in a blue case and the lipstick is actually yellow, but it makes my lips coral."
"I love a baguette with butter."
"I love getting manicures, and my go-to color is red."
"I love the smell of lily flowers."
"My facial moisturizer of choice is by Living Libations, called Best Skin Ever."
"The handbag that I carry is by Loewe. It's a cross body, but can turn into a clutch."
"The shoes that I'm living in are black Net-A-Porter Birkenstocks."
"I wear this deodorant from Living Libations which has a bunch of essential oils in it, so it acts like a fragrance for me."
"I love acid washed jeans."
"Sometimes I really enjoy a cold Coca-Cola."
Jane Levy reviewing images with photographer Randall Slavin on Carbon Beach in front of our shoot location, Malibu Beach Inn.
Letting it flow with stylist Tara Swennen.
Hair gets a touch up by Bridget Brager.
APRIL 2021 COVER
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ASSISTANTS PHOTO: CHRIS BALDWIN, BING PUTNEY. FASHION: SAGE ALANNA FALCONER