The actor breaks down Sunday's poignant flashback episode and whether the best friends can repair their relationship.
Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Sunday's episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist flashed back six years ago in its penultimate episode of season 2, which revisited Zoey's first day at SPRQ Point (also when she met her future best friend Max) but also revealed a health scare that nearly up-ended her family.
Through an emotional therapy session, Zoey recounts the first time she was forced to really face the idea of loss and grief, that it wasn't when her father was dying from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) but rather when her mother had a small heart attack. The timing couldn't have come at a worst time, with Zoey fighting for one of two coveted full-time positions at SPRQ Point (her dream company) in a Hunger Games-style, multi-round challenge.
With the help of her partner, Max -- who wasn't exactly her first choice -- they somehow survive to the end. But when it came time for SPRQ Point CEO Danny Michael Davis to name which two of the remaining four would win the two jobs, he picks Max. And while Max and Zoey didn't immediately get on the right foot (and are, in the present day, on the outs), he gave up the job and persuaded Danny Michael Davis to give it to Zoey -- even arriving at the hospital to share the good news.
As Zoey's therapist so perceptively said during her session, "It's as much a love story as it is a loss story." The only question is, will Zoey do something about it before it's too late? Following Sunday's episode, series star Skylar Astin discusses Zoey and Max's unexpected first meeting all those years ago, where they stand in the present day with Max's move to New York City looming and why he believes there won't be an easy answer in regards to their relationship status by the end of the season.
ET: This week's episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist fills a lot of blanks in terms of the origins of Zoey's and Max's relationship, and how they met. What makes this one so special?
Skylar Astin: Episode 12 is a flashback episode and is utilized as backstory for Zoey with her parents, but it's also origin story of Zoey and Max and Zoe at SPRQ Point. There's a lot of great story areas there and a really fun opportunity to give some context to the present-day Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. Even with characters like Tobin and Leif, just to see where they came from, their progression and it's fun to plant those Easter eggs in the past that we get to see realized in present day.
Tobin has a completely different look with some serious facial hair, Leif looks like a completely other person, Max is a lot more competitive and in his own head. How did it feel to revisit the not-so-distant past?
So fun. It's a period piece of six years ago, so it's not like we're telling a story too far in the past. But it's just long enough to give your character a little bit more pep in his step. I got to be a bit more jovial, a bit more sarcastic. I think Max had a bit more sarcasm in his earlier days at SPRQ Point. I was thinking about the pilot and in the pilot, I mentioned that I don't have so much drive. And not even in a sad way, he's proudly mentioned to Zoey that he doesn't believe he's management material and is totally fine just accepting a paycheck and doing the bare minimum. To dial that back even further and think of where he was out of college -- take it or leave it, you know? It's an interesting place for Max to now. He has struggled a bit with his identity and who he is as a businessman now, and as a son to his father and wanting to prove him wrong. You get to see that there's a lot of insecurity underneath that fake confidence that he carried in the pilot and also in this flashback episode.
Had you always had questions about Zoey and Max's initial meeting?
I think it would have been a safe assumption that when Max and Zoey met, they got along right away and instantly had that fun banter, started gossiping about the other people at the office. But turns out they were oil and water and Max was a jerk to her. She's got a very Type A personality, even more so in the flashback and Max has more of a casual way of approaching life and his work, which really, really irks Zoey. So it was really fun to play that and have them meet at opposite ends and come together and really forge a friendship.
It says a lot that he was more interested in the SPRQ Point frisbees.
That just says it all, right? It's like he cares more about free merch and free swag, because he doesn't even know this is Zoey's dream. It's like she can't wait, everything's coming together and Max is just there for the opportunity and for maybe some frisbees.
What about Zoey did Max gravitate toward initially on that first day?
It's the fun, flirty attraction of "Who is this person? Why is she wearing a shiny suit?" It's a guy that you would think is just having a go at her and having fun teasing her, but what you really understand further in the episode is that he actually admires her work ethic and almost wishes that he could feel the same way -- that every deflection is really masking the fact that he does want to do well. He does want to impress his father and it's probably that attitude masking his fear of rejection and his fear of disappointing his family.
One of my favorite moments from the episode is Max and Leif's impromptu sing-off of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud." What was it like filming that scene?
I appreciate that. I loved filming that scene. I loved creating it. As far as the blocking and the roadmap, we always have an interesting needle to thread any time we sing out of the context of Zoey's reality in real-life singing. We've done it with the flash mob [in season 1] and some other instances, but interesting is doing this little duet does provide context for the episode in season 1 when I did the flash mob. We had thought that that was a bit of a leap, like, "Wow, why would a coder in San Francisco be so comfortable performing and be comfortable singing?" Even though he mentions how he goes out on the limb. Seeing that he is that kind of a person who would probably bust out at karaoke or in this case, bust out some Ed Sheeran on a escape room style scavenger hunt, it provides you context into some of Max's wit.
At the end of the episode, we find out that Max was actually the one who got the job, but persuaded Danny Michael Davis that Zoey deserved it more. What do you make of his decision and what it illuminated in regards to his values and what he saw in Zoey?
It's very noble of him to do that. Clearly the conversation that they had on the stairs at SPRQ Point had an impact on him. When you give up your position to provide another person an opportunity, there must be a real reason there. Having her tell him that she's always dreamed about this and that she cares, I just think he felt guilty, like, "How could I take this job away from someone who truly deserves it more?" Everything that she had gone through and was going through and was still managing to excel at the challenge. I know Max could never have done it without Zoey. And I think he believes SPRQ Point would be a way better place with Zoey in it. You clearly see that in present day, how well she is succeeding and look at them now. Max isn't even there anymore and thriving in his own new profession, but Zoey is not only in charge of the fourth floor, but she's the new Joan.
This episode kind of was perfectly placed, in terms of where things may land with Zoey and Max with his big decision to possibly relocate to New York City for the popup restaurant. Where do you see their friendship/relationship at this point in time because there is a fork in the road for them?
They're at a bit of a crossroads, but I think that the separation is healthy. It is probably best for Max, since Zoey is not only dating Simon, but Max is dating Rose and he also is really focused on his business. It's one thing to say you're going to go on a pause, but then to see them everyday thereafter, whether it's at a party or an opening... I don't know that it's the best thing if they are truly going to maintain a friendship and get back to that friendship. If it's the best thing for them to just be in each other's lives so consistently, and in the way that they do -- even in episode 11, when they try to go on a double date, how that completely backfires and it's just not fair to any of the four people involved in that double date.
In an earlier episode, Max confronts Zoey about the whole back-and-forth thing that they're doing and calling out how "unhealthy" it is seemed to be an an eyeopener for Zoe. Was that conversation a necessary one to have?
I do and Jane [Levy] played that scene so beautifully. You could feel her heart break there, but it's necessary for them to progress. And then to either start their new journey as just friends or to have a better understanding about where they're at. Max has, for a while, really stood by and been strong and been supportive of Zoey's process, especially while she's been grieving the death of her father. It maybe is the right time for him to pick up the conversation and say, "Hey, we can't keep doing this if that stuff's going to come up." I love when Max puts his foot down with Zoey. Not just for Max, but for Zoey. It's important that she knows that. Max doesn't have that window into someone's subconscious the way that Zoey does. It's a blessing and a curse for her as you've seen throughout the season, but sometimes people like Max have to just come out and say it and I'm glad he got that opportunity and I'm glad that Zoey really heard him. You could tell that she was clearly affected by those words.
Will we see a decision in regards to Max and Zoey before the end of the finale?
I don't think so. We have a lot of story left to tell and I don't know if we really wrapped it up in a complete bow. But I also don't think we're going to have fans thinking we're taking any easy way out and leaving it up to a complete cliffhanger. We handle it the way our show always does. Not completely expected, but very thoughtfully and not just thoughtful to the characters that we're representing, but also the people that were telling the story to. That's not saying that we're catering to any fanbase of a certain relationship, I just think that we know audiences these days are very smart, very clever and deserve a lot out of these stories. The writers and Austin [Winsberg] have just done an unbelievable job at expanding this world and giving us something really special to look forward to in a potential season 3.
Do you think Max will be able to fully give himself to the Rose relationship with Zoey still kind of orbiting around his life?
It remains to be seen. Katie Findlay is such an incredible actor. She does such a great job of playing Rose. She makes it impossible for audiences to not see her side in this whole story. We need to have respect for that as well. If it's meant to be, it will happen. If not, we shouldn't be telling the story of a character like Rose, who just stands idly by and everyone's just waiting for the person who's not ready to be with them on this show. Whether or not they work out really remains to be seen at this point, but I feel good about the two of them. She's an incredibly viable option for Max. Austin and the writers did such a good job not making this character someone who the audience is supposed to glaringly understand is not right for Max. Sometimes writers can write those kinds of tropes of this is the person who's trying to change Max for the worst and Zoey's so clearly the right person for him. Human nature is more complicated than that and we tend to tap into that. Simon in many ways, there's a reason why there's so many people that want Simon and Zoey to end up together. That's because of the characters, because of the way they're played and the way they're written. A lot of people want Max and Zoey to end up together. I'm sure many people want Max and Rose to end up together or certain people want those people to be alone for a while.
One of the highlight musical performances was the cover of 'NSync's "Tearin' Up My Heart" with you, John Clarence Stewart and Alex Newell. Do you have a personal favorite from the season?
I love "Tearin' Up My Heart." I love any time we get to do anything boy band, that's a big thing for me. I've now gotten to do "Bye, Bye, Bye" and "Tearin' Up My Heart," so you'll never hear me complain. But yeah, I loved that that rendition was so simple, but then we just play with harmonies and these really simple boy band moves that were not overly done. Mandy [Moore] and Team Dance were so thoughtful in giving a taste of what their boy band inner monologues would be. They're not completely mocking it, not being satirical and being truthful to the moment. I think that's why people loved it because it wasn't the most show-stopping number, but it was satisfying. It left me personally wanting more from those three vocally. As far as a favorite song or sequence, I really loved that I got to do "New York State of Mind" this year. That was a big full-circle moment for me as a singer; I've been singing that song a long time. Of course, I love that huge sequence in episode 2 that the writers were so incredible to gift me with and Jane with.
What can you tell us about next week's finale, which has me worried because of its title, "Zoey's Extraordinary Goodbye"...
It's good and it's really going to make you want to talk to people.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. For more on the series, watch below.
To stay up to date on breaking TV news, sign up for ET's daily newsletter.