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Since her breakout role as Patrick Fugit’s older sister in 2000’s Almost Famous, Zooey Deschanel has carved out a career as an indie leading lady. From David Gordon Green’s All The Real Girls to nuanced character studies like Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing, and recently, Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer, Deschanel balances detached cool with warmth and a winning smile. That dichotomy comes through in her music as well, which bandmate M. Ward produces and releases under the name She & Him. Their latest album, Volume Two, is a sequel to their debut both tonally and structurally. They play ’60s-inspired songs about the pitfalls of love that are refreshingly naïve on the surface, but infused with a hint of modern sexuality that keep them from being museum pieces. Deschanel’s singing, like her acting, is generally restrained, but while she prefers to underplay, she can belt it out when necessary on tour. Her cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” is a perfect show-closer with a surprising amount of soul and sheer vocal power. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Deschanel about her collaborative process with M. Ward, the challenges of writing songs on unrequited love while being happily married (to Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard), and playing a virginal bride and a less-virginal lesbian, respectively, in David Gordon Green’s Your Highness and Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother.
The A.V. Club: Your music feels simultaneously nostalgic and modern. Do you ever feel torn between the two?
Zooey Deschanel: Yeah, I think so. I usually like stuff that was made before I was born. At the same time, I’m happy to live in 2010 and have access to many years of records.
AVC: A lot of your songs deal with unrequited love and relationships gone bad. Now that you’re off the shelf, so to speak, what are you going to write about?
ZD: I still write about unrequited love. It’s interesting. It was never so personal. I mean, the emotions are personal. I’m moved by the emotions, but they were never all about me. I think when you use too much in your own—if you’re a creative person at all, if you overuse yourself as a pawn in your own adventures to write your masterpiece, I think you end up bending yourself. It’s all very sincere emotionally. It’s just not necessarily my life experience.
AVC: What keeps you coming back to that subject?
ZD: I don’t know. You just like some things or other things, I guess. Interesting stories.
AVC: Have you thought about collaborating with your husband, Ben Gibbard, on a project?
ZD: I like to keep it separate. I think it’s better to have your personal life and your work life separate. That way they don’t corrupt each other, so to speak.
AVC: So no Death Cab For She & Him?
ZD: I don’t think so. I like to be a supportive wife, and I think he likes to be a supportive husband, without having it become like “Let’s make a business out of it.” I think it’s better to just keep it separate.
AVC: Do you set aside time to write while on film sets?
ZD: I rarely do movies. I’ve done like one movie a year for the past couple years. I used to do a lot more, but I’ve just been a lot more choosy lately, so that I do have more time. I’ve been touring a lot, recording a lot, and writing a lot. I just do the movies I really, really want to do, and don’t overwork myself in that area. That way, I can concentrate on one thing at a time. I used to write all the time when I was working, and go home and stay up really late. I’ve just been spending more time doing music lately.
AVC: How’s that process different for you than acting?
ZD: I have a lot of control in writing music and being there for the recording process. I have a real role in all of it. If I’m just acting in something, there’s a lot of—you know, you’re following people’s direction. You’re collaborating. In a way, it’s like a job where you show up, and it’s really somebody else’s vision, someone else’s thing, and you’re there. You might have a lot of passion for it, but it’s not yours unless you’re part of developing it. But an actor for hire is really like—it’s one of many important jobs on a film set, but there are so many people you’re working with. You have to please a lot of people. There’s a burden that comes with that.
AVC: With the growing popularity of She & Him, are you thinking of that as your primary career?
ZD: I really love doing it. Writing music is really my favorite thing, and I’m privileged enough to get paid to do it. I’m not saying I’m quitting acting and stuff, but I really have been happier leaving more time to do music and really having the time and resources to concentrate on it, rather than it being something I fit in between movie projects. It’s sort of something I do mostly, and then I do movies when I want.
AVC: Is there a Volume Three in the works, or are you looking to go in a new direction for the next album?
ZD: We haven’t started recording or anything. I’m just writing right now, and we’re still touring for Volume Two. We’ll see.
AVC: Producing is such an all-encompassing and sometimes vague title. What’s M. Ward’s role specifically, and what’s your creative process working together?
ZD: I’ll write a song and make a demo of it and put in backing vocals, like a little produced demo. Then I’ll send it to Matt, and if he likes it, we’ll go in and work on it and record it for a record. Once we have enough songs that I’ve written that he likes, we’ll go and record it. It’s a pretty classic relay race. I enjoy making the demo because I like to play different instruments. I enjoy trying to make something Matt will like. I enjoy every part of the process. Matt’s very collaborative, and he always has great ideas. He’s a great producer, and keeps evolving. It’s really fun to watch how he has evolved as a producer. He’s an extremely creative person.
AVC: Your IMDB page credits you in development on an “Untitled Groupie Project.” Do you play a groupie?
ZD: I don’t. It’s really early in development. It’s sort of based on that book [Pamela Des Barres’ I’m With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie], but it’s pretty different. It’s really, really loosely based. She’s not Pamela, so she’s not even the same person.
AVC: In David Gordon Green’s new stoner fantasy, Your Highness, you play a virginal bride who shares a name with a porn star. Was this a coincidence?
ZD: I had no idea. Does she? I don’t know anything about the porn industry, but it’s the dirtiest medieval comedy you will ever see. I will guarantee you that. Oh my God, it’s ridiculously dirty. I mean, it’s like the most dirty humor that you could possibly come up with.
AVC: How was inhabiting such a heightened reality different from the naturalistic roles you usually play?
ZD: It was totally fun.
AVC: Your other upcoming film is My Idiot Brother, where you play Rashida Jones’ girlfriend.
ZD: Yeah, I’m still shooting it now. Paul Rudd, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and I are all siblings. He’s in jail for a minor drug offense, and comes in and messes with all his sisters’ lives.
AVC: How was the lesbian dynamic working with Rashida Jones different from, say, working with guys?
ZD: Rashida Jones is awesome! I’ve been totally surprised at what a huge deal everyone’s made out of it, about that. It’s not any different. It’s just like playing people with the same problems straight people have. [Laughs.]