Zooey Deschanel has charm to spare. She’s brought her humor, magnetism, and even vocal stylings to so many lovely comedies since the early 2000s, notably the Christmas classic Elf, the progressive rom-com (500) Days of Summer, and big studio flicks like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Yes Man. Part of a Hollywood family (her mother and sister are also actors, while her father is a noted cinematographer), Deschanel has shown up in all kinds of other movies, too, from dramas like Almost Famous to indies such as All the Real Girls and even animated movies like Trolls.
In 2011, she jumped to TV full-time, starring as “adorkable” (that’s adorable + dork) Jess Day on Fox’s New Girl for seven seasons. Post-Jess, however, there seems to be very little on the horizon for her. Certainly, Zooey Deschanel is one of Hollywood’s most likable stars, which begs the question — why isn’t she appearing in movies or on TV so much anymore?
Zooey Deschanel might not be in any movies or TV shows for the foreseeable future because she could really use the time off. She’s been acting professionally and consistently since her teen years, when she broke out in the late ’90s with roles in the movie Mumford and in an Offspring video. Remember the Offspring? The fact that she was in one of their videos should serve as a reminder for how long she’s been at this.
Over the last couple of decades, Deschanel has appeared in dozens of movies large and small and provided voice work for animated projects. All that, plus she starred in more than 100 episodes across seven seasons of New Girl, a single-camera comedy. Those take a lot longer to produce than laugh track sitcoms (they’re shot more like movies), and Deschanel even served as a producer on the project and co-wrote and performed the theme song. In short, she’s probably a little tired. She’s earned her hiatus and won’t likely miss the grind of a 22-episode TV season for a while.
With iconic film roles in Elf and (500) Days of Summer more than a few years in the past, Zooey Deschanel is now most associated with her role as the tentative adult and overall oddball Jess Day. Stars of shows that run as long as New Girl often have a hard time climbing out from under their most famous role, but the strange thing about New Girl is that it was never all that popular, at least compared to other prime time giants.
While audiences and casting agents may think Deschanel and Day are one and the same, Hollywood may also not be interested in giving Deschanel a leading role because New Girl was not, technically, a hugely successful show. Sure, it ran for seven years, but the ratings didn’t put it into the same stratosphere as similar sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends. In its first season, New Girl debuted to a blockbuster 10.28 million viewers. By the end of season two, just 4.4 million tuned in on average. For season one, New Girl ranked #57 in the annual ratings, its highest placement ever. By season seven, New Girl had tumbled to #171 with an average viewership of just over two million.
For as long as television has been beamed into people’s homes, providing screen entertainment without the hassle or expense of a night at the theater, there’s been a divide between “movie stars” and “TV stars.” Certain larger-than-life actors will always be associated with the cinema, maintaining a movie star mystique by appearing in one or two huge epics a year on 20-foot-tall screens. Some actors, however, are TV people, at home in the more intimate setting of television. That’s why it’s always a big deal when TV stars make the jump to movies (as George Clooney did after ER), or when movie stars deign to do television (like Julia Roberts’ stint on Amazon’s Homecoming).
Zooey Deschanel used to be a movie person, reliably showing up in pleasant 2000s indie films and comedies such as Elf, Failure to Launch, The Happening, and Yes Man. Fox heralded the arrival of film star Deschanel on its schedule in 2011 upon the debut of New Girl. Seven seasons was more than enough time to get her stuck in people’s minds as a “TV person,” making a switch back to movies a little difficult.
Zooey Deschanel came to fame by portraying a movie character archetype that soon turned into a trite character stereotype. Film writer Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the 2007 movie Elizabeth town, a young woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” They’re quirky and fun-loving while spouting wisdom and dressing in an ultra-feminine manner with bangs — just like Deschanel did in (500) Days of Summer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Yes Man.
The use of a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has been called out by culture writers as a lazy trope so often that it’s been parodied and almost killed off (particularly by the movie Ruby Sparks). Deschanel is closely identified with the concept, and the death of its popularity could hurt her chances to get cast. She’s also nearing 40, a little too old to be playing “girls,” and she’s probably too accomplished a performer to play such thankless roles anymore.
With New Girl taking up most of her time, Zooey Deschanel hasn’t appeared in all that many major movies in the 2010s. She co-starred in two big live-action outings during that time: the medieval comedy Your Highness and the music industry satire Rock the Kasbah. Not only did both movies flop, but they flopped spectacularly.
Deschanel played the “damsel in distress” in Your Highness, a swords-and-sorcery stoner adventure, alongside James Franco and Danny McBride. It earned a disappointing $21 million, less than half of its $50 million budget. Forbes named Rock the Kasbah the biggest flop of 2015, for both commercial and critical reasons. It grossed about $3 million against a $15 million production budget (on its opening weekend, it earned $1.7 million on 2,007 screens, the fifth-worst opening ever for a major movie). Film reviewers hated it, too — it’s cursed with an abysmal rating rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
After a string of unsuccessful movies, Hollywood just might be tentative to cast Deschanel at the forefront of a prominent movie.
After starring on her own show for the better part of a decade, Deschanel just might have lost interest in playing supporting roles in those big-budget, high-profile, commercially-minded movies in which she once regularly appeared. Long before (and after) her breakout role in Elf, Deschanel gravitated toward challenging, quiet, low-budget films. Indie movies, in other words.
Her performance in the low-key 2003 romantic drama All the Real Girls won Deschanel nominations and awards from the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the Chlotrudis Awards, and the Central Ohio Film Critics Association. That set the tone for bankable movie and TV star Deschanel’s parallel career as an indie stalwart, with roles in well-received and thoughtful fare such as Winter Passing, Our Idiot Brother, Gigantic, and The Driftless Area. It’s a safe bet that the next time we see her in a feature film, it might be a festival entry or something deep within Netflix’s “independent drama” sub-category.
Over the course of New Girl’s run from 2011 to 2018, Zooey Deschanel’s personal life changed dramatically. A few weeks after the series premiere hit the airwaves, she separated from (and later divorced) her first husband, Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab for Cutie. In 2015, Deschanel found love again, secretly marrying producer Jacob Penchenik. That news broke along with the revelation that Deschanel had given birth to a baby girl named Elsie Otter. In 2017, another baby (with another animal-themed middle name) made four, when son Charlie Wolf arrived.
“You never again have a day where you don’t think of your kids first,” Deschanel told Us Weekly. “Like, ‘How are the kids doing? What do they need?’ That’s my first thought when I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. I’m always thinking of them.” Now that she has a chance to catch up on quality time with her husband and kids, we can’t blame her for taking it.
Whether or not an actor gets cast in things is, in large part, up to their team of talent agents and managers. These people tout their clients to studio executives or casting agents, a deal comes together, and boom, that actor is on the set in no time. But take those dealmakers out of the equation for whatever reason, such as a lawsuit, and the deals don’t get made. That might be a fate facing Zooey Deschanel.
In 2015, agent Sarah Jackson sued the actress, seeking her cut of the earnings from Deschanel’s website, Hello Giggles. Deschanel found representation elsewhere in 2013, but Jackson said she was still owed money. Deschanel made a counterclaim, alleging that her switch from the Creative Arts Agency to United Talent Agency at Jackson’s urging was a career-killer. It kind of was — Deschanel says she booked zero gigs as a UTA client, including during a 2013 New Girl hiatus in which she made herself available for film roles. But she also scheduled She & Him tour dates for that same period, leading a judge to rule in 2018 that Deschanel had missed out on film roles because it was her own fault. Still, involving two of the biggest agencies in Hollywood in a legal squabble could definitely get somebody placed on the “do not cast” list.
Zooey Deschanel had a hard time scheduling acting gigs in 2013 because her side career as a musician was so successful. While filming the 2007 movie The Go-Getter, star Deschanel met major indie music figure M. Ward — she acted, he did the soundtrack, and the director thought they ought to record a duet together. They did, and their band was off and running.
A little bit folk, a little bit classic country, She & Him play whimsical pop music, with Ward handling the guitar work and Deschanel taking the lead vocals. Since 2009, they’ve released six albums of mostly original content, plus two Christmas records and a covers collection. They’ve had some success with their singles “In the Sun” and “Thieves,” and they play a lot of super-chill music festivals each summer. Deschanel just can’t be delighting fans with movies when she’s up there on stage (or busy in the studio) warbling adorable, old-fashioned love songs.