From show creator Austin Winsberg and inspired by his own life, 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 is being forced to admit some hard truths to her best friend Max (Skylar Astin), who’s been looking for more from their relationship.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Skylar Astin talked about what he loved about the concept of this TV show, how the end result has compared to what he thought it might be, the variety of musical projects he’s gotten to be a part of, Zoey and Max finally having a much-needed conversation, the challenges of doing a big song and dance number in the food court of a mall, whether he’s personally rooting for Max and Zoey to get together, the endless potential of this show for possible future seasons, and how he approaches finding the next project.
Collider: First of all, I have to tell you that I absolutely love this show with all of my heart. It’s my happy place.
SKYLAR ASTIN: I’m so happy to hear that. It’s just so new, so hearing that anyone feels the same way about it that we do is so lovely.
It’s easy to love this show, seeing the finished product, but I can’t imagine how it must have sounded on paper, when it was initially presented to you. When this came your way, how was it presented? Did you think it was insane? Were you intrigued? Were you immediately on board?
ASTIN: I remember loving the concept and thinking two things. “The pilot is written really well. I really hope they can keep this good writing on the series because it’s a pretty high concept.” And then, I thought, “Who the hell is playing Zoey? We are with this girl for the whole series.” When I read the first script, I was like, “She has every other line, so this person better be not only talented, but really watchable and likable and grounded.” And then, when they told me Jane Levy was playing Zoey, I was like, “Well, I’m in then.” I’ve always loved her, and she’s the perfect leading woman because she is both grounded but raw and spectacular, all at the same time. I believe everything she does and she is the perfect window into the world of this show.
How has the end result of this series compared for you? Is it what you thought it would be? Is it what you hoped it would be? Is it nothing like you thought it might be?
ASTIN: There are times when my expectations are met, there are times when the show does something different that I wasn’t expecting, and there are times when my expectations are far surpassed, and all versions of the story are always refreshing and delightful. I’m never disappointed in anything that I’ve seen, thus far. A lot of stuff has been pretty tricky, too. There have been some tonal things on the show where, on paper, it sounds great and you go, “We have to do it now, so how’s that gonna look and work and feel?” I’ve gotta say, everything has worked out. Between Austin [Winsberg], our show creator, and Mandy Moore, our choreographer, our show has a real look and feel to it. The cast is very dynamic and different, but there’s also this thread of truth, throughout. There’s a level of trust that we all have. We pass the baton to each other in these scenes, really seamlessly. Getting to watch the show, it’s been really exciting to watch the pace and tone and movement, and to see the things I know that I get to see now played out, and then the things that I wasn’t there for. I love watching everyone else’s stuff. I have a vague idea of what my stuff will be like. There are always surprises. But it’s the stuff that I wasn’t even remotely present for that I get to see, and I’m constantly impressed by this cast.
When you look at your credits, you’ve been on Glee, and you’ve done Pitch Perfect, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and now this. Are you surprised at how many musical projects you’ve been able to find and be involved with, in film and TV, over the years, as well as how different and varied they’ve been?
ASTIN: Yeah. I just love that there has been a want and a need for this genre. I’ve always been a fan of it. I remember filming Pitch Perfect thinking, “Well, I know, I love it, but I love this kind of stuff. I don’t know if people will pick up what we’re putting down here.” And then, that response took off like wildfire. I think the fact that I understand it and I’m a fan of it, it makes me feel qualified to do. There’s a difference between Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a little bit more irreverent and their musicals are originals. One of my favorite things about doing all of these is finding the distinctions between them. The distinction between Zoey’s and everybody else is that it comes from a magical, ethereal place. The musical transitions from scene to song are done in a really special way, and in a where we’re always able to stay just one step ahead of our audience. Rather than make mention of a national competition or a regional competition, at the end of the season or the episode, Zoey is always caught by surprise by the musical moments.
I love this next episode. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s been a long time coming. We even got to see in the promo that Zoey blurts out to Max that she has a superpower. What is that reaction like for him? How does he feel about her declaring this thing that just seems so crazy and impossible?
ASTIN: Well, imagine what it would seem like, if I told you, right now, that I have a superpower, where I could hear people’s innermost thoughts as songs. I don’t think you’d believe me. And so, playing that reality was difficult, when she told me. Max is totally blown away, and I don’t think he believes it, right away. The process of both of them trying to explain their secrets to one another, at the same time, feels far-fetched. It’s a lot to digest. I’m really excited about that episode because I remember how fun it was to play all of those incredulous moments.
Max has unknowingly already declared his love to Zoey, and now he’s trying to express those feelings again. What does he have to do to move past the friend zone with her? How many times is he going to keep trying to win her over?
ASTIN: I think you’re gonna see. The great thing about our show is that, when you start to think, “Man, is this gonna keep happening, in the same way?,” we’ll give you a curve ball. So, you’re gonna have to keep tuning in, for sure.
You have a big song and dance number in this episode, with the Shawn Mendes song “If I Can’t Have You.” What went into pulling that off? Do you have a certain amount of hours or days for rehearsal? How long do you actually have to shoot that sort of thing? Where are you actually at a mall for that?
ASTIN: We were actually at a mall for that. It’s really difficult, actually, because we don’t finish an episode, and then have a week where we now get to rehearse for the next episode. We’re always rehearsing, throughout. I remember for that mall sequence, for instance, I went straight from filming a scene from Episode 6 to after hours in this mall, where we could only get the food court for a certain amount of time, before shooting that, the following day. That’s where Mandy plugged me in and caught up to speed. And then, the next morning, we were there, bright and early, shooting the musical number and still making adjustments. I always feel like I’m in such great hands with Mandy. She always keeps the musical numbers alive, meaning that if we make an adjustment, on the day, that’s a little bit more organic to myself, my movements or even the space, nobody ever has an ego, in letting a certain thing go, or in making that adjustment or embellishment. Mandy has been key to a lot of these performers’ potential. She really is almost like a dance empath because she doesn’t try to impose her style on you and make you look like her style. She will find your style, and make that look awesome. That’s why she’s so special, and that’s why there’s an endless well of talent, with everyone’s movement because everyone moves differently on the show. Mary [Steenburgen]’s song in Episode 3, just seeing her do these beautiful hand movements that I know was probably born out of a conversation between Mary and Mandy, in the limited time that they probably had, is what makes it so special. Even though we are crunched for time and we are on a hell of a deadline, the time that we spend together is very quality, and we are all reaching a common goal. Every time we do a musical number, there’s a different focus and energy. I just absolutely love those days, and I know everyone else does. Those are the days where we get to look around and say, “How is our show different from any other show? Oh, this stuff.”
Were there challenges specific to doing a big performance scene in a mall, in a food court, in between the rows of seating?
ASTIN: I love it. Give me an obstacle course and I’ll play, and the same goes for Mandy. We’ve shot at bars, we’ve shot at nightclubs, we’ve shot at malls, food courts, on office desks and in boardrooms, and that’s just scratching the surface. I think it actually influences the movement. When you have to navigate tight spaces, it becomes more of that. The Shawn Mendes, “If I Can’t Have You,” number was even more fun when we had that furniture that’s all fused together. What does that mean? Well, they can probably bear more weight, so we can jump up on it. It’s a challenge and a gift, at the same time, to use a location like that.
All of the musical numbers come out of some emotion that the character is having, in that moment, which means it’s more about being heartfelt and less about being perfect, as a singer. Does that make it easier, at all, to do some of these songs? Had you ever done covers of any of these songs before, or have you been learning all of this brand new?
ASTIN: Some songs I hadn’t heard of, and some songs I’ve been familiar with. Each time I was told that I was singing a song, I always made sure to not listen to the original, from that point. Of course, I’ve heard The Proclaimers sing “500 Miles.” I love it. But once I found out I was doing it, I didn’t even want it in my head. And then, I become a little bit of a nudge on the music department, to get them to get me the demos of the arrangement, so that I can at least get that in my head. The turnover in both the music department and the dance department is insane, and probably crazier than the actors. I know it’s difficult for them to turn out these things, but I like at least one or two days, before I record it, to have the track, so that I can at least rehearse along and make a loose plan there.
The musical numbers are really just so crazily impressive.
ASTIN: Yeah, and to add to that, what this show does so well is that it’s a standalone show, on its own, without the music. There are times where, even being on the show, I’ll be taken into a theme that I wasn’t a part of, and I’ll forget that a song is coming and it takes me by surprise, even though I was there for the table read and I’ve read all the drafts of the script. Even being so involved, I forget that we’re even on a musical show, and I think that’s a real testament to the writing and to the performers.
Do you have any personal feelings on whether Zoey should end up with Max? Do you see that happening? Do you not see it happening? Do you hope for it to happen?
ASTIN: I have some vested interest, and I definitely see that happening, but I’m very curious to see where our story goes. I only know as far as what we filmed for Season 1, and some ideas, moving forward. I know that the love that Max has for Zoey is very real. Based on that, alone, I would love to see them together. Having said that, love doesn’t always work out that way, and I’m excited to read the scripts. I’m here for the ride, as well.
One of the things that I love most about this series is the relationship between Zoey and Mo, and I love that Max is being thrown into that a bit now, as well. What have you enjoyed about working with Alex Newell and joining that dynamic?
ASTIN: I was so happy to read all of those scenes. I knew that Mo and Max had stuff in Episode 6, with the make-over, but I was so delighted to know that the three of us would have scenes together. It’s really unlikely and very fun. Three is always an interesting number, especially in comedy, and we have such different dynamics. I really love those scenes. I can’t wait to do more with the two of those actors, in the future.
I also really love the team dynamic at the office, when they’re all at work. What are some of your favorite moments that you’ve shared with that team?
ASTIN: Me and Kapil Talwalkar are constantly throwing in fun improvs to button scenes. There have been several of our ad-libs that have gotten in. There’s a really funny one of his, in Episode 2, that actually buttons the scene and takes it out to commercial. There’s this really fun one that we did, in Episode 6, that made it into the episode, where we’re talking about a robot dog that tells the weather. That was just him and I, sitting at our desks, half being us and half being the characters. There’s so much there with the bro-grammers that we’ll still get to do, in the series. Programmers and coders have a very interesting life. They work long hours, they stare at a screen, and they have Play-Doh on their desk. They’re like adult kids, in some ways, but also little geniuses, at the same time, and that that breeds different kinds of personalities. With Tobin, Leif and Max, how they interact is always very interesting.
Have you had conversations with your show creator about the bigger plan for this series, or where things could go in the future, and what Season 2 could look?
ASTIN: The coolest thing about Austin Winsberg is that, while he’s so smart and this is totally his brain child, there is a part of him that remains completely open to collaboration, and that means there is endless potential for the show. He has a clear point of view, on each character and on the series, in its entirety, but that changes because he’s open. That kind of mentality will take him very far in his career, and also our show very far in its success, having somebody who is so strong in what they do, but open to collaboration. That’s just invaluable.
How do you approach looking for the next project, or finding out what you’re going to do between seasons, and finding something that interests you just as much as the last thing
ASTIN: I’ve been very fortunate enough, on stage and screen, to be in projects that are tough acts to follow, but something that I look for in a script is a little bit of, why now? That’s the question I always ask. Why does this story need to be told now? When I want to do a revival of a show in New York, I ask, why does this story need to be retold? That question can answer a lot, in a script. And by the way, the answer can be really simple. It could be, “America needs a sitcom about these characters.” That’s okay, too. But it’s really, really delicious and you know that you’re doing something special when you get to ask that question, and the answer is huge. The why now for Zoey’s is that I think we need something a little uplifting, and music is a universal language. We’re doing something a little different with the genre that’s almost creating a new genre. I like to call it a magical, with the -ical part from musical. It’s thrilling to be a part of it and it’s thrilling to talk about. When you’re doing something that’s a little different, there’s a higher reward there.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Sunday nights on NBC.