Hollywood star Jane Levy made herself a household name for playing the titular role of Zoey Clarke in the NBC’s Emmy Award–winning and Golden Globe–nominated musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. She drops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about her leap into the world of acting, dreaming fearlessly and what comes next. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
This Hollywood Life
Carlos Watson: Were you always thinking about acting and doing it as a kid?
Jane Levy: No, I was really into soccer and I ended up picking my college because I could play on the soccer team. They didn’t give me a scholarship; it was division three. It’s not that cool. But I was more into sports in high school. I did theater as a kid and then as a freshman in high school, but then I moved on to soccer and then I moved back to acting.
Watson: Oh, interesting. So you see yourself as moving back to it?
Levy: I mean, as a little, little person, I always performed and would put on skits for my family and I took dance class — and I remember this thing that sounds crazy. I remember being 4 or 5 and asking my mom to get me an agent, and I don’t even know how I knew what an agent was. And she was like, “No, what are you talking about? What do you mean ‘an agent’? We’re not in Los Angeles. Continue to be a kid.” She doesn’t remember this, but I remember it. So yes, I think I’ve always wanted to be an actor deep down. But I only started to seriously pursue it when I was 18.
Watson: And what made you flip back?
Levy: I was in college near Baltimore, Maryland, at a school called Goucher. It’s a very small liberal arts school. And I played soccer. I was a jock and I was deeply unhappy. There was a deadening that happened inside of me. I was like, is this what life is going to be like? You just go to college and then you do what society tells you to do? Sitting in a class was never inspiring to me. Anyway, I was depressed.
And I remember the summer after my freshman year, I was journaling and I was thinking to myself when was the last time I really felt like myself: It was being in plays as a kid. I was like, “OK, I’m 18 years old, I might as well pursue it now because I’ll give myself four years. And if I fail, I’ll still only be 22, I could go back to” … I could figure all sorts of things out. I told my parents I was dropping out of school. They were bummed but supportive. I moved to New York City and I did a year and a half conservatory at Stella Adler. And when I was there, I was like yeah, this was correct. This is what I love.
Watson: Did you think that you were going to have as much success as you did?
Levy: I am a very determined person, and I don’t know if it was just a naive 18-year-old’s confidence or if somehow I was destined to do this thing. But I was like, I remember our teachers would say in class, “Chances are, none of you are ever going to work as an actor.” And in my head, I’d be like, “Oh, I’ll show you. I’m going to.” I would walk home from school after class — and I’m neither religious nor an atheist — but I remember praying and being like, “Please, all I want is to be an actor, please, please, please.” I don’t know who I was talking to, but …
When the Game Changed
Watson: So now what do you think worked?
Levy: Well, for one, it’s absolute luck. I don’t know how luck works, but I’m sure that’s what happened. But also, I think maybe if I had to answer that question, I looked really young when I was 20. I looked like I was 14 and I had classical training. And so that’s the one thing I can look at that maybe gave me a leg up.
Watson: What moment was a game-changer for you?
Levy: A couple of years ago, I was like, “I’m confused. I forgot how to approach a character. I miss reading plays. I feel so stagnant and uninspired.” So I started going to class again and since then, I got Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and I’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe, which is so unbelievable, but I really credit it to learning acting. So for me, I think that’s why I’ve had the success that I’ve had because I love the craft and I’m committed to continuing to learn. Just because you have a job on TV does not mean anything about acting, you know?
Watson: As an actor, who do you admire?
Levy: So many. I’m going to leave this interview and I’m going to always feel like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that person.” But Chris Cooper is one of my favorite actors. I guess it also has to do with empathy. When actors have a lot of empathy … I feel changed after watching him in American Beauty. Then, Jane Fonda, I love. Viola Davis — every performance she gives is a full-body … visceral reaction.
Watson: Where do you feel like you’ve given your best performance ever?
Levy: I feel shy. Some of the work that I’ve done on Zoey’s has been work that I’m really proud of in that when you talk about exhilarating and scary, something that I try to set up for myself is that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that the most exciting stuff that gets captured on camera is when you really experience something, and that involves surprising yourself or being surprised by something that’s happening.
Watson: Who’s your crew and tribe in LA?
Levy: When I first moved to LA, I found it really hard to make friends. And I took three years until I made one friend. And now as I look back, I’m like, God, I’m so lucky that since then I have some really wonderful friendships. So, Mae Whitman, who is also on NBC on a show called Good Girls, she’s my best friend. It’s just a coincidence that our shows are back-to-back. Lauren Graham, who played my boss on Zoey’s and played Mae’s mom on Parenthood on NBC, she’s a good friend. Jenny Slate is a close friend of mine. My boyfriend is in the art world and a lot of my friends are actually in the art world. That’s a lot of my social life. It’s not Hollywood. It’s that other industry. And that’s something I love about LA.
The Starstruck Star
Watson: Have you had a wondrous celebrity meeting where you met someone you really wanted to meet or you were awed by?
Levy: Many. I mean, I did a roundtable last year with the Hollywood Reporter and I couldn’t say anything the whole time because Tiffany Haddish was on the Zoom call. I was so shocked by how much of a weirdo I was. I couldn’t make a joke. I was sweating. And then finally I told her, because I was like, “You guys are going to think I’m a psychopath because I’ve been acting so strange, but it’s just because I am starstruck. I’m fully starstruck.” She took it really well.
Watson: If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would you get together with?
Levy: OK, Phil Jackson would be on there. And RuPaul. And Prince.
Watson: Good choice. Your name, do you have the right name for you? Is that the right name? And if not, what should you have been named?
Levy: Yeah, I feel like my name is pretty fitting.
Watson: If you had to do an alternative?
Levy: Maybe Louise.
Watson: Well, part of the reason I was asking is I do think that your name is a good name, and it’s a memorable name. I don’t know that I know a lot of Jane Levys. I remember a football player, Joe Montana, once said that he thought in addition to talent and teammates and all that, a big part of his success was his name because he thought that sportscasters liked saying his name. Any thoughts?
Levy: I love what you just said. I mean, something about my name that has meaning is that my last name is Jewish and I am half Jewish. That’s basically the only culture I feel like I have because on the other side I’m English, Irish. I’m just really American. And then, on my father’s side, I’m like, “Oh, this is what it would feel like to have a culture.”
That’s what I think of my Judaism because I’m not religious and I don’t really follow any religious practices. So I guess I’m proud of my last name because it just makes me think of my heritage and my history. But it’s also not a real last name because I believe my great-grandfather when he came from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, the name was changed to Max Levy.
Watson: The last year, if it has changed you, what’s the most significant way in which the last year has changed you?
Levy: Oh, my God. Just thinking about what it means to live in a community and how to be a good citizen of your community. There’s a lot of work to do there.
Watson: What are the most interesting things you’ve learned in this life about love?
Levy: I’m trying to think of what RuPaul says, but it’s something about it that’s so obvious, but you can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself.
Watson: OK, dreaming fearlessly: It’s hard for people to do. What’s the best advice you’d give to other people watching about what you’ve learned about not only dreaming fearlessly but bringing the dreams alive, even when it’s not always easy or straightforward?
Levy: Growth is uncomfortable. I mean, there are so many different kinds of discomfort, so I don’t want to encourage anyone to live through traumatic discomfort. That’s another story. But I think you know when you really want something more for yourself, it’s going to feel uncomfortable. And sometimes we have to be OK sitting in discomfort. That’s such a boring answer. If I heard my advice, I’d be like, “No. Something more fun.”