From prime-time sitcoms to horror and suspense, Jane Levy has built a career around versatility. Her first major role came in 2011 on ABC’s “Suburgatory,” followed by a spate of horror roles in 2013’s “Evil Dead,” 2016’s “Don’t Breathe,” and on the Hulu series “Castle Rock” in 2018. Now, Levy returns to network TV for NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” where she plays the titular Zoey, who realizes she has the ability to hear people’s inner dialogue in the form of song.
How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
The first job that got me a SAG card was “Shameless,” which is still on the air. I had just moved to Los Angeles. I had finished a year-and-a-half conservatory at Stella Adler [Studio of Acting] in New York City. I believe [I booked] “Shameless” within two weeks of arriving in L.A., which was really exciting. I was driving home in my mom’s Volvo from my callback, and I found out I got the job from my agent and crashed my car.
“Shameless” was also your first time on a professional set. What was that experience like?
It was so surreal and incredibly exciting. I was nervous. It was a moment in my life that I remember feeling immense gratitude. I felt like, Wow, this is a dream come true; I’m living my dream. I felt very welcomed by the cast and crew on that set. I think I had wrapped “Shameless” when it was pilot season, and “Suburgatory” was the first pilot I ever auditioned for and I got the job. It was a pretty spectacular year for me.
You’ve done work in so many genres. Does that affect how you typically prepare for an audition?
I don’t prepare differently for different genres. I tend to think about the character and what the character needs, and I also like to think about the conflict within the character, because I think that, as humans, we are very complex and we want different things at the same time. And often the things that we want conflict with one another. That is something I’m always thinking about when I approach new characters. The writing tells you a lot. Most of the time, if you’re working on something with good writing, the writing takes care of a lot of the storytelling and your job is to fill in the blanks. I’ve been thinking a lot while I’ve been working on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” because I’m working with so many incredibly talented and seasoned theater actors. Because we’re doing a musical, I think about Broadway a lot. I’ve been sort of itching to get on stage. I think that [audition] approach would be much different than my approach now. I’m terrified of having a live audience and doing the same thing eight times a week, but I’m very intrigued by that idea right now.
Speaking of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” what has playing Zoey added to your acting skills?
I have been joking around that it’s the Olympics of acting because the show is a drama, but it’s also a farcical comedy at times. I get to do everything in this show that an actor would ever be asked to do—besides riding horses or driving a car very fast. I have gained a lot of new skills on this job. This show is told through my perspective, so I’m on set all hours of every single day, because the show doesn’t exist without the character Zoey. In that alone, I do feel like an Olympic athlete. I’m very, very excited for people to see it because I’m extremely proud of the work that we have done.
What advice would you give your younger self?
My same neuroses that I had when I was 21, auditioning and working in this industry, I still have—maybe they’re even more amplified. But in terms of acting, my advice would be to trust yourself. The more personal and intimate and trusting of yourself you can be, the more universal I think the work will be.
What is your worst audition horror story?
I auditioned for a Marvel movie, and the casting director told me, “This is film, not television.” I don’t know what the fuck that meant, especially now that television has become so prestigious. It’s a pretty funny thing to say in general. Another horror story of an audition would be… I don’t know if this is a great thing to share with the public, but I was in New York and I went on an audition and I was out of underwear, so I wasn’t wearing underwear under my jeans. When I walked out of the audition, I realized my fly had been unzipped the entire time. I did not get the part. [Laughs] They probably thought it was a weird power move. That was horrific and hilarious.
What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
I think that kind of behavior actually can work, or it can backfire and you look like a cuckoo clock. But I tend to believe the work will speak for itself. I don’t know if I have the balls to do [something wild].
What performance should every actor see and why?
“I Love Lucy,” I think, is such an important part of our cinematic history. Lucille Ball—she went to clown school; her farcical comedy is something that I’ve been referencing a lot when it comes to “Zoey.” I think that she is so clever and so…I don’t know how to explain it; there’s an earnestness and also a strategic element to her acting that is just so fucking good. I also think about the time, [and] a woman having her own show and how powerful she was is something I’m really impressed by and inspired by.
Throughout her career, Jane Levy has played a wide variety of different roles: an idealistic scientist willing to do almost anything for the greater good in Netflix series What/If, an aspiring writer that cannot seem to escape a dark destiny in Hulu’s Castle Rock, a snarky teenager longing to escape to the big city in ABC’s hit show Suburgatory, and a modern scream queen in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead remake. Despite the vast differences in each of their personalities and portrayals, Jane says that all of the characters she’s played are like her in some way. “I guess the least like me is my character in Evil Dead,” Jane muses, “because in Evil Dead I played the Devil.”
Jane’s diverse filmography only makes sense considering the way the actress chooses her roles. “I am more drawn to good writing than particular kinds of roles,” says Jane. “I guess I try to avoid cliches. I am definitely drawn to humor. I like peculiar stories and characters.” Jane finds inspiration in a variety of sources as well, citing a long list of influences: friends Jenny Slate and Mae Whitman, Holly Hunter, Viola Davis, Lucille Ball, the films of Jonathan Demme, drag queens, and her acting coach as well. “The list of people I’d like to work with is also very long,” Jane says. “But to name one, Paul Thomas Anderson!”
“I dropped out of college in 2008 to pursue acting,” Jane explains, reflecting on getting her start as an actress. “I had no idea what I was doing and no reason to think it could work. My parents were skeptical but supportive, and I enrolled at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting less than a year later. When we were about to graduate we sent our headshots and resumes to various managers and agents. I had a really great headshot, apparently, and I got a meeting with a manager. He started sending me on auditions and I booked the leading role in an independent movie. The casting director Deanna Brigidi championed me and sent my audition to agents in Los Angeles, convincing them to sign me.” Thinking back to what she would call her “big break”, Jane has trouble deciding. “I played Mandy in the first season of Shameless before leaving the show to work on Suburgatory on ABC,” she says. “I guess those both in conjunction?”
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“The Pretenders” debuts on September 27.
French New Wave obsessed film student Terry and his best friend, the smooth-talking Phil, are both seduced by mysterious actress Catherine. The longer they know each other, the more they realize they don’t truly know the real Catherine. After years of sex, betrayal, and collateral damage, the three careen into a lifestyle that leaves one of them fighting for their life.
Jack Kilmer, Dennis Quaid, James Franco, Brian Cox, Jane Levy, Juno Temple, Shameik Moore.
An afternoon with the actress talking Hunger Games auditions and working with Renée Zellweger.
The internet has made a certain correlation in the past decade and three quarters: Jane Levy and horror flicks are a match made in gore heaven. “It’s in part because of my athleticism,” she surmises as to why she keeps getting cast for the genre. “Final girls are sort of warriors, and I think I have a really good scream.” But despite all of this, Levy still has pretty diverse (and impressive) IMDb credits. She landed her first gig in Suburgatory in a very serendipitous fashion (more on that below), simultaneously had a recurring role in Shameless, and on top of racking up double-digit film and TV credits in the horror-thriller category—her most recent alongside Renée Zellweger in Netflix’s What/If—she was just confirmed to star as the lead in NBC’s new musical drama, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. We sat down to chat with Levy about the audition that started it all and the audition that didn’t work out but made a hell of a good story, and what it was like to work with Renée Zellweger.
On how her first role came from a series of perfect events:
“I was 18 and I had just finished a year of college in Maryland, where I was playing soccer. I was a serious jock, working out twice a day. I wasn’t really passionate about my studies, and I just didn’t feel excited to be at school. I thought, When was the last time I did something that really interests me? And that was when I was onstage. I remember feeling that was the most at home I’ve ever felt while doing something. I told my parents that I was dropping out of college, and they were surprised and scared for me, but they were supportive. I auditioned for theater school in New York and did that for two years and then moved to L.A. right as I graduated.
“[Suburgatory] was the first time I ever auditioned—the stars were aligned; something was happening in my favor. I had a general meeting with ABC, and I showed up, and the person who I was supposed to meet with wasn’t there. So some other executive was like, ‘Hey, sorry about that. Why don’t you come into my office and talk to me?’ I sat down—was wearing Frye boots and a ’90s dress that I bought thrift in New York. [Laughs] And she was like, ‘You know, you actually look right for this part, for this pilot we’re developing called Suburgatory.’ She had me read the script right then and there. She put me in touch with the creator, and I ended up getting that job.”
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