Zoey Deutch Talks Bullying, 'Before I Fall' and Embracing Ambition (Q&A)

Austin Hargrave
Zoey Deutch photographed by THR at Sundance Film Festival

"In a time of unparalleled meanness, it’s good to be kind to yourself and others," says the actress, who stars in the YA adaptation and also wrapped a film directed by her mother Lea Thompson.

In Before I Fall, Zoey Deutch stars as a popular high-school girl who finds herself reliving the last day of her life over and again. Though the role in Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver's young-adult novel challenged her as an actor, it also brought back unpleasant preteen memories.

“My middle school experience would be equated to that of hell — it was horrible, it was really horrible,” she recalls to The Hollywood Reporter. “But this movie shined a light on something I had a difficult time understanding: the people who bullied me were most likely bullied as well at some point either at home or at school … People are more complicated than just one thing; nobody is just ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

Deutch tells THR about managing the minutia of the intricate Open Road release (out Friday), facing her social media addiction and shooting a movie directed by her mother, Lea Thompson.

What were your first thoughts about Before I Fall?

I read the script and burst into tears. It isn’t just a teen movie; it questions mortality and purpose and not taking things for granted — who you want to be when you die. It definitely made me do a lot of self-reflection. There’s a sign in the movie that says, “Become who you are,” and that really spoke to me. Becoming who you are isn’t a one-stop shot, it’s a forever process and there’s no right or wrong time to do it. It’s been moving to see the way that people react. After a screening in Toronto, I saw people picking up strangers’ trash and opening the door for other people — small acts of kindness. The weight of storytelling became that much clearer to me in that moment: in an hour and a half, you could potentially make someone want to be a better person. I don’t mean to get political here, but in a time of unparalleled meanness, it’s good to be kind to yourself and others. I’m happy to put a little compassion into the world.

Was your high school experience similar to that of your character Sam?

I actually had a wonderful experience because I was in an arts high school. But if you take it back a few years to why I ended up at an arts high school, my middle school experience would be equated to that of hell. It was horrible, it was really horrible. But this movie shined a light on something I had a difficult time understanding: the people who bullied me were most likely bullied as well at some point either at home or at school. It’s hard to have compassion for people who are torturing you, especially in the moment, but people are more complicated than just one thing; nobody is just “good” or “bad.”

Since Sam relives the same day over and over again, how complicated was the shoot?

Prepare yourself. Get a snack. It’s like a bedtime story because it’s so complicated. The irony, by the way, of shooting a movie all about not having enough time is that we did not have enough time to shoot this film. It’s a small, independent movie, and it was a very quick and intense shooting experience.

I’m someone who likes to be super prepared, so before shooting I had time with my teachers and Ry to break everything down: scene by scene, prop by prop, moment by moment. It’s hard to explain in a concise way, but we shot every scene at least six times for at least six “days,” often in non-sequential order: we’d shoot my close-up of day 1, day 6, day 4, day 3, day 5, and then we’d go into a wide shot and shoot the master of day 5 and day 2. It would never be in the same order, just depending on lighting or costume or cast or crew. Ry and I created a shorthand: different names and colors and subtleties for the days. When we didn’t have enough time, we had to decide which day was most important for that scene, or get two days in the same take. It was daunting, but also an exciting challenge, honestly.

Unlike the book, social media plays a big role in the movie. Has it made you rethink how you use it?

I have a complicated relationship with social media because I don’t want to admit that I’m addicted to it, but I totally am. My bios on Instagram and Twitter are kind of blasé, but meanwhile, I’m obsessive. I’m a total poser and liar about that stuff — I just wanna come clean here with The Hollywood Reporter and it’s important that you know I’m a fraud!

Sam is someone who disastrously follows the rules of her group without any self-reflection — including how she engages on social media — and doesn’t really realize how her words can affect people. I think she feels that life will just carry her along without having to live authentically. That’s easy to do on your phone — to pretend to be somebody else.

What’s next for you?

I just finished Flower, written and directed by Max Winkler and with Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott and Tim Heidecker. It’s about a young girl who looks for love and validation in the wrong places. It’s a film I’m so proud of. I love my job and I just want to keep doing it until I don’t want to anymore, and I don’t ever really see that happening. I don’t need it to be one thing; I love and comedy and drama, and I want to do a western and a musical. I want to do everything, and no one is stopping me.

You also wrapped The Year of Spectacular Men. What was it like to shoot with your family?

It’s a beautiful comedy written by my sister, who stars in it and scored it — that’s badass. My mother directed it, and I acted and co-produced. Everybody always wants some kind of dirty detail — I would too, a mother and two sisters made a movie! — but the truth is, we got along really well and respected each other throughout the entire process. In terms of filmmaking, it’s grassroots and as personal as you can get. It’s empowering to be part of something from the very beginning; as an actor, you’re so much at the mercy of other people’s decisions.

What did you learned about your mother as a director?

I was so impressed by her ability to listen to everybody’s opinions — to really listen to them, take them in, take a moment and then decide for herself if she agreed or didn’t. It’s just a lot easier to be impulsive, hear the first sentence and go, “No, that’s not what I want.” As an actor of 35 years, she understands every single facet of the business and set and crew. I really loved working with her. She’s a fantastic director.

Would you three make more films together?

Yes, ma'am!

Any advice for those entering the industry today?

Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. I don’t know why that word has a bad rap and really, it’s mostly just for women. All it means is that you’re willing to work hard for what you want and love, as far as I’m concerned. So work hard, love what you do, be nice to people and be ambitious! There’s nothing wrong with that. And, you know, wear sunscreen.

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