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“It’s a show full of heart,” says Jane Levy as we discuss Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the NBC musical dramedy on which she plays the title character, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast.
On the show, the second season of which is now rolling out, the 31-year-old plays a bubbly Bay Area computer coder whose father — like creator Austin Winsberg‘s — was stricken with PSP, a disease that rendered him unable to speak or move, and who becomes concerned that she may have the same affliction after she begins experiencing headaches. She goes in for a CAT scan, during which an earthquake hits, and she emerges with a newfound ability to hear the innermost thoughts of those around her in the form of pop songs.
The show certainly deals with heavy stuff at times, but mostly it is a pleasurable escape, largely because of Levy’s appealing performance. “I was really excited about the idea of a joyful project and a comedy,” the actress says, noting that she was coming off of a melodrama when she was cast. “And what’s so beautiful about our story is that you watch Zoey be able to connect with her father again through this superpower.”
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You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Will Ferrell, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien and Kerry Washington.
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Born in Santa Monica but raised in the Bay Area, Levy began doing theater at a young age, but focused on other things as she progressed through high school and went off to Goucher College in Maryland. Finding herself “massively depressed” after her freshman year, she made the difficult decision to drop out and instead try to pursue acting in New York, where she gained acceptance to the Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s two-year conservatory program. “In my time there,” she reflects, “everything inside me opened up and I was so, so happy.”
Shortly after graduating in 2010, Levy moved back west and quickly landed a part on the new Showtime dramedy Shameless. But she departed after just one season, having landed a leading role on the ABC sitcom Suburgatory, a show which, over the course of its three seasons, elevated her industry standing immensely. Additionally, during hiatuses, she began to appear in movies, most notably Fede Álvarez‘s horror films Evil Dead (2013) and Don’t Breathe (2016), leading up to a part in What/If opposite Renee Zellweger in 2019.
Levy is now being hailed as an overnight sensation, but her ascension has been incremental and hard-won — and marred, she says, by harassment of the sort that many assume went away when the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017. She recently tweeted about what she describes as “just one of many terrible things that have happened to me in this business,” when an unnamed director of What/If humiliated her in front of the show’s cast and crew. “It’s important to share these experiences because they make actresses feel less alone or less gaslit and crazy when sexist, misogynistic things happen to them.”
To that end, Levy expanded upon what happened during our conversation. “His name is Phillip Noyce,” she says of the person referenced in her tweet, a 70-year-old Australian director. “He directed most of our show, or the first three episodes or something. We were in a camera test, and I walked out in a dress, and he screamed out in front of everybody — like, not even to me, I don’t know who he was talking to — ‘Why do her breasts look so small?!’ And I think he [then] said something, like, ‘Usually she has such a beautiful figure,’ which was supposed to be, like, a way to compliment me and sort of downplay what he had just said. But I’m like [to herself], ‘I don’t want that compliment either.’ And so he was like, ‘Can somebody get her a padded bra?!'”
Levy continues, “You know, it’s like one thing to, maybe aside, say [that] to a costume director — which I still actually think would probably be inappropriate, but it’s a visual medium and directors want what they want — but for him to yell about my body like that was, like, mortifying. And so I walked off set, put on a padded bra, came back and he was like, ‘Much better!’ And I walked to my seat, and I remember Samantha [Ware, Levy’s costar] being like, ‘Are you okay?’ And at the time I was like, ‘It’s not that big of a deal.’ But then I went into my trailer and I cried, like, so hard.”
She adds, “Me saying Phillip’s name is not necessarily for me to, like, burn Phillip. And, by the way, when I tweeted that, Warner Bros. [Television] took it very seriously and people contacted me. I don’t want to ‘press charges’ — like, I don’t think he deserves to go to jail or never work again — but I do think that he should be held accountable for saying something that’s so unprofessional, in my opinion.”
(Noyce, offered an opportunity to respond, said in a statement, “While I don’t recall the incident as Jane Levy described during costume selection for What/If, I am deeply sorry for any pain or humiliation I caused her, and for that, I sincerely apologize.”)
After What/If ended, Levy was a free agent — but not for long. She was contacted by Winsberg with a straight-up offer to star in the pilot for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, even though, she now marvels, he was almost entirely unfamiliar with her prior work. “I was scared,” Levy says of the assignment. “It’s a lot of responsibility.” But, as it turned out, she was up to the challenge, able to not only act well, but also to sing and dance when called upon to do so, having had some prior training — and possessing a work ethic that has earned her effusive praise from veteran costars Peter Gallagher, Mary Steenburgen and Lauren Graham.
Making a musical TV show in the same amount of time allocated for a non-musical TV show is “a lot of work,” Levy acknowledges. But, particularly at a time when, due to the pandemic, musical theater is otherwise not available, and many people in and out of Hollywood are unemployed, it is work that she is delighted to have the opportunity to do. As she puts it, “I feel so goddamn lucky to have this job right now.”
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