With 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist,' Jane Levy Finds Her Voice (Exclusive)

Standout Performances
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Levy opens up about playing Zoey, fans' enthusiasm for the series and hopes for season 2.

When Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was renewed for a second season on June 11, Jane Levy -- who plays the titular heroine on NBC’s breakout musical comedy -- felt a wide range of emotions. There was gratitude and excitement, of course, in returning to a character and a job she cherished. But in a time of great uncertainty amid a global pandemic and calls against racial injustice, a part of her was torn. “The last three and a half months, we’ve all experienced what it’s like to have no idea what’s in store for the next day, the next month, the next year, the next two years,” Levy said by phone the day after the series was officially picked up. “Knowing there’s something sort of on the books is nice for my anxiety.”

The overwhelmingly enthusiastic and heartfelt response by fans to the season 2 news, one of the few bright spots in the current era of a suspended Hollywood, led Levy to be more introspective than usual. “I was very moved by how many people expressed excitement about the show being picked up, and I felt very supported by a lot of friends, old colleagues, strangers on the internet. That was really lovely, to have a nice moment amidst a heartbreaking time,” the 30-year-old actress shared, eternal optimism for a better, more just world peeking through. “I feel like there is a change happening right now -- and I hope it’s lasting change.”

At the heart of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a story about a family faced with the unenviable task of saying goodbye to their patriarch, who is slowly dying from a degenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). During a freak accident while getting an MRI, Levy’s Zoey magically downloads thousands of songs into her brain and suddenly discovers she has the superpower to hear other people’s truest thoughts and emotions through music or, as the show calls them, “heart songs.” Levy’s performance has been singled out as a stellar case study of how to expertly balance the show’s tricky tonal shifts -- from exploring the emotional depths of grief one minute to the heartwarming musical whimsy of another -- without batting an eyelash. 

While Levy is known for her work on subversive comedies like Suburgatory or horror fare like Castle Rock and Don’t Breathe, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist isn’t the first time she’s had a hand at song and dance. “I made this very wacky musical in 2014,” she said of Bang Bang Baby, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. In the indie, Levy plays an aspiring singer who meets her rock idol. She recalled barely having time for vocal or dance lessons to adequately prepare for the role. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist was a different story. “I really got to learn two new forms of expression -- how to weave dancing and singing and acting all together. It’s proven to be a very fulfilling, hard job.”  

With a complete season under her belt, Levy reflected on the evolution of Zoey and her own personal growth. The rigors of being the show’s No. 1 and portraying a character who gradually finds her voice through the gift of music created an experience that has been largely transformative. It has also unlocked a desire within Levy, who is not a trained singer or dancer, to be less afraid to speak her mind. “Playing Zoey has changed me in a lot of ways,” she said. “To be able to play this person, I, Jane, have to be willing to take up a lot of space by nature of dancing around and singing and using your voice to that level of expression. And I’m someone who in my personal life has had a hard time taking up space. Being the lead of the show, it started to change me as a person. I feel like I’m developing my voice as a person alongside playing this character -- and I think those two things are related.”

To highlight Levy’s best scenes in season 1 would be a fool’s errand; there are simply too many gems to pick from. But the episode in which Zoey suffers a glitch in her superpowers after learning of her father’s rapidly deteriorating health, causing her to be the one to uncontrollably break out into song for all to see and hear, remains one of her personal favorites for its sheer ambition. The only cast member to perform all six songs featured in the hour, Levy said pulling off the tall task was “scary” at first. “The only way you can really get past your nerves is by doing it,” she recalled thinking to herself, admitting her mind often resorts to worst-case scenarios. “There’s a 4-year-old inside of me that wants to be on the stage and with all these different tonal shifts in this episode, I really got to do everything.”

There’s the moment Zoey sings Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” to her co-worker, Simon, an intimate yet seductive performance that brings about a wave of contradictory emotions, from pure embarrassment to crackling sexual tension. “It’s so human to be embarrassed by desire,” Levy agreed. “That’s why it was so fun to perform because I’m playing this character who’s constantly running away from her true feelings. Being able to explore Zoey’s deepest sexuality, I really had to go there and that was new territory for me.” There’s also the moment Zoey performs the holiday classic, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” when she sees her boss in a compromising position with an employee. “I was like, ‘OK, if I don’t go full out and completely embarrass myself, it’s going to fall so flat,” Levy said with a laugh. “I would go to the monitors and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, more of that!’ I felt like the biggest goofball.” 

“There’s something very clownish and overtly cartoony about my sense of humor, and we just leaned so far into that aspect of me, Jane,” she expressed. “I’m so proud of the episode because I feel like we told a specific story and we got to go out on all these crazy branches. It all fits very concisely into this one day of this person’s life, where she is struggling to confront this really bad news that she’s going to have to say goodbye [to her dad]. Now that I look back, in some ways, the whole show was an exercise in watching someone figure out how to say goodbye to their most loved person.”

Jane Levy as Zoey Clarke, Peter Gallagher as Mitch. James Dittiger/NBC

It all culminates in Zoey’s gut-wrenching final goodbye to her father, Mitch, where Levy and Peter Gallagher share a sentimental, dream-like moment dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” -- a touching tribute to the first episode. The entire cast wept during that scene in the table read. “It’s Zoey’s fantasy to find out what her dad was actually thinking and she gets to have this moment where her dad takes care of her. It makes me cry right now just talking about it,” Levy said, choking up. “Instead of watching her father take his final breath, she gets to dance with him one last time and have him hold her and tell her she’s going to be OK. It was very, very emotional but I’m very proud of it.” 

Though the writers’ room for season 2 of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist only opened up in June, Levy hopes this isn’t the last of Mitch. (Creator Austin Winsberg, whose late father the character is based on, has intimated as much.) “I would love Peter to come back. I adore him as a person and as a scene partner,” she said, adding that the Zoey/Mitch scenes “have embedded themselves deeply into my subconscious.” Even without the family’s lynchpin present moving forward, Mitch’s impact will color the rest of the series. “Next season we will explore how we move on after we lose someone and I assume that’s going to be just as messy as preparing to say goodbye,” Levy hinted. “How is Maggie going to move on as a 60-something-year-old woman who’s been married for 40 years? How is Zoey going to move on through this portion of grief?” But it’s not all stormy clouds ahead. “I’d like Zoey to go on adventures. I want Mo to be in my ear telling Zoey what I should say to my date, and it goes terribly wrong.”

Speaking of Zoey’s love life, it certainly isn’t without its drama. While it appeared the pendulum swung in favor of her best friend and now ex-coworker, Max, when they shared an Earth-shattering kiss at the end of the season, Levy isn’t so sure. “I don’t know what the status is of Zoey and Max or Zoey and Simon. I don’t think there’s been an actual definitive move toward either one at this point.” That’s not to say she has her own personal feelings on the matter. Referring to a key scene in the glitch episode, where Max tells Zoey he believes their connection is rooted in love and what she and Simon have is lust, Levy supports that observation. “I do kind of agree with that. I’m sure it’s more complicated and people love nuance. But I do think there is a real chemistry between Zoey and Simon -- a palpable attraction. With Max, it’s more of a steady love.”

As Levy awaits word on when filming on season 2 can resume, the actress isn’t shy about what an Emmy nomination would mean to her personally and in her career -- especially for a project as singular as Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. (If she lands a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, it would be a career first.) “Being recognized by my peers and by the audience, and the fact that we move them and that my performance as Zoey made them laugh or made them cry or made them think back to a hardship in their life or made them feel inspired, I feel so grateful to be part of the discussion,” she said. “Zoey has definitely been a pivotal time for me as an actor and as a person. I cannot wait to explore her even more in season 2.” 


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