From show creator Austin Winsberg and executive produced by Paul Feig, the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who suddenly finds herself with the ability to hear the innermost thoughts and desires of those around her – whether family, co-workers or complete strangers – in the form of popular songs that are often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. While the jury is still out on her ability being an unwanted curse or an incredible gift, Zoey finds herself connecting with the world in a way that can’t help but deeply affect her. The series also stars Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart and Lauren Graham.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jane Levy talked about the incredible experience she’s had making Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the challenges of doing a series like this, whether we might learn how and why Zoey has this new ability, shooting the musical numbers, the unique friendship between Zoey and Mo (Alex Newell), the family dynamic, how complicated it is when you know the inner thoughts of everyone around you, whether Zoey would want to give up her ability, and if there are big picture ideas for the series.
Collider: It seems like this show would be impossible to describe to somebody, especially to the actors being considered for it. When this came your way, how was it presented to you? Did you think it was insane, were you intrigued, or were you immediately on board?
JANE LEVY: It’s interesting, I’ve been asked this question a couple of times, and I can’t even remember. So much has happened since reading the script. We’ve been shooting such long days, for so many days, and we’re still not even done. And I am so deeply immersed into the world that is Zoey that I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t Zoey Clarke. When I read the script, I remember liking it, obviously, but I really didn’t know. I didn’t know what it was going to be. It’s been surprising, throughout the entire process. It’s just ever-evolving. Making movies and television is such a collaborative art form, and it really starts to have a life of its own. You find your footing with the ways in which you relate to the other people that you work with, the relationships between your characters, and then your relationship between your character and dance. It’s been so much fun. I’ve gotten to do so many things that I’ve never done before. I’m learning to sing and dance and, as an actor, I’m engaging with music in this way that I never have. My scene partner sometimes is a song, or is a performance of a song. It’s so fun to work on, and it’s so great to work with so many talented people. We have such a great team of creative people, from Mandy Moore, our choreographer, to Austin [Winsberg], our writer, to the cast. And then, we also have to borrow works of art, in the form of music from artists across time. It’s awesome.
What are the challenges that are specific to being the actor at the center of all of this, with the story revolving around your character? Do you always feel like you’re learning something new, with as often as you have to be on set and with everything that you have to do for this show?
LEVY: Yeah, definitely. Practically speaking, it’s just really a lot of work. They can’t really shoot anything without me because this whole thing comes out of this one woman’s head. So, just hours wise, it’s a lot of hours on set. It’s very long and hard. But also, it’s been an interesting challenge to craft, as an actor, this ability that’s happening through my character’s body and spirit. I feel like I have such great teammates with me, to explore new possibilities. Zoey is at the center of a lot of this, so how do we give her growth? How does she start interacting differently, as time goes on, with these musical numbers? How does she act differently, when it’s someone she knows rather than someone she doesn’t know? We’re all talking about that kind of stuff, on set.
We have no idea why she suddenly has this new ability, but neither does she. Is that something that’s going to come up, at all, during the season, or is she just going to accept it and go with it?
LEVY: I, Jane, have a suspicion about where and why she has this power, and I think it’s related to her father, but we don’t have an explanation, like some sort of all-seeing God, or something, has equipped her with his power, for a reason. But we do, in real time, watch the struggle of what, what this power is and why the power is. At times, it’s a real burden for her, and at times, she considers it a gift. We actually haven’t finished shooting the series, and I still haven’t read two scripts, so I don’t know how the series ends. Maybe you’ll get more answers. I couldn’t tell you.
What’s it like to shoot these musical numbers while they’re happening around you?
LEVY: I’m definitely deeply affected, every time. We have an episode, later in the season, in which one of the musical numbers is performed by all deaf actors, and that was so stunning. It’s really fun to work on a musical because ,oftentimes, we’re doing normal scenes, and then it’s time for the musical number, and the choreographers descend from their dance studio upstairs and the sound guy start plugging in the speakers. And then, the minute these actors start performing, everything changes. The molecules in the air changes. You look around and the assistant director is dancing behind the monitor, and one of the crew members is grooving a little bit, and everybody has a smile on their face. Music is powerful. Part of the reason the show is so special is that we get to use this tool – this art form of music – to tell stories that can’t necessarily be expressed in words.
In Episode 2, you get a performance of your own, for a dream sequence. What was that like to shoot? Is it a lot more technical and challenging to actually be part of the performance?
LEVY: That was really fun. That was Episode 2, so we had a lot of prep time because we were just coming off of our hiatus, between the pilot and Episode 2. So, I had a lot of time to work with the choreographers, and it was really fun. I will say that you will see more of that coming, and I had less preparation time for that, which was scary, but I think we nailed it. I’m pretty excited for people to see that episode, down the line.
Are you someone like Zoey, who doesn’t often know the songs that she’s hearing, or are you someone who is more aware of genres and eras of music than she is?
LEVY: I definitely know more about music than Zoey does, but I find myself like Zoey, especially when everyone one set is basically a musical theater actor or is very well-versed in the musical theater genre, and I know nothing. I’ve never even seen Hamilton. Even the huge hits, I don’t know anything about. They’ll quote plays and actors and singers, and I’m just blank faced and have no idea what anyone’s talking about yet, even though I’m the lead of this show. But I know more about music than Zoey, for sure.
One of the things that I really love most about this series is the relationship between Zoey and Mo. It’s a friendship that we haven’t really gotten to see on screen before, and I love watching you guys together and hearing your banter with each other. What have you found most surprising about that relationship, especially knowing that they come from a place where they didn’t really want anything to do with each other?
LEVY: Yeah, I love Mo and Zoey’s relationship, as well. I think of them as unlikely girlfriends. Alex [Newell] is so much fun to work with. He is obviously an insanely talented singer. I’ve never heard anything come out of the human body like what comes out of his body. He is so funny and also just so lovable. I, too, love that relationship.
That’s such a beautiful aspect to this show. What’s happened with her father is obviously weighing heavy on her, and anytime a family member is sick, it’s tough and challenging, especially when they need to be cared for. How is it to explore that, and to have someone like Peter Gallagher to explore that with?
LEVY: Peter is just such a great actor and scene partner, and I feel so lucky that he’s playing my dad. He really affects me so much, when we’re doing scenes together. With some actors, I read interviews and they say stuff like, “I can go kill somebody, and then I go home and I feel fine.” I am not like that. I feel very affected by the characters that I play, and working on this storyline of loss and sadness, it’s hard. It’s really hard, also knowing that this is what our creator, Austin, went through. It’s a personal story for him. His father did have this disease, and he lost his father. It’s also cathartic because we’ll do scenes together that are really moving, and crew members will come up to me afterwards, crying, and say, “I lost my father this many years ago, and that was so beautiful.” It’s just sad. We all know what loss is. The whole point of our show is about the human experience and how we don’t really know what other people are going through, but Zoey does. I hope that the takeaway is just maybe a little bit of increased empathy in our audience. The heart and the core of our show is the relationship between Zoey and her father.
I also really love the moment that Zoey encourages the team that she finds herself leading at work, by telling them that she sees their strengths, which is important. What’s it’s been like to work with that bunch of guys? Have you had any favorite moments that you’ve shared with them?
LEVY: My favorite stuff to work on there is when I work with Lauren [Graham]. I think she’s just so funny. I cannot keep it together when I act with her. I don’t know how many takes I’ve ruined by laughing. Also, Skylar [Astin], Kapil [Talwalkar], and Michael Thomas Grant are so great, as well. It’s an interesting dynamic, being that there’s not many young women in this show. I’m basically the only one, and working with a group of boys and actually being in a leadership position, is kind of meta. I think the reason that she does point out their strengths is because of what the ability is teaching her. I’m trying to think of funny moments with them, and Skylar is one of the funniest people. He’s so quick. He’s got the quickest mind. But I can’t think of any fun anecdotes, at the moment.
Because of her ability, there are things that Zoey learns about people’s lives and about their feelings that they probably would prefer she not know about. Is that something that’s going to continue to cause issues for her? Is that the downside to what she can do?
LEVY: Yeah, definitely. Finding out about people’s private thoughts about you is complicated and can end up with hurt feelings, but also hearing people’s private thoughts about their private stuff, especially when it comes to sex-related issues, things can get pretty comfortable. Out show is interesting because usually drama is created with a conflict between two characters, but in our show there’s that, but then there’s also the added conflict of what’s going on within Zoey, which is that she basically knows secrets, all the time. People are telling her their secrets, all the time, but they don’t know that they’re telling her their secrets. So, it creates an interesting dynamic.
Do you think if there ever were the opportunity for her to get rid of this ability that she would take it?
LEVY: It’s a good question. Yes and no. The best thing that’s ever happened is that she’s able to communicate with her father again, so I don’t see her ever wanting to take that away.
Have you had conversations about what the bigger plan for this series could be, and where things could go, in the future, if the series continues, or are you focusing just on this season right now, so that you don’t drop exhausted?
LEVY: Well, both. There are times when everyone is like, “Oh, can’t talk to Jane. Jane looks like she’s about to fall over. Let’s leave Jane alone.” But we’ve definitely had big picture conversations and Season 2 conversations. There are a lot of ideas and a lot of places that we could go, but I don’t know what those are yet.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist debuts with a preview on Tuesday, January 7th, before moving to Sunday nights on February 16th.