Seeing Jane Levy in person brings back memories from my own high school experience, when I found solace in the angsty heroine of a new ABC sitcom, Suburgatory, which ran for three years starting in 2011. Levy played Tessa Altman, a mascot for misunderstood small town teens counting down the days until college. While I was nowhere near clever enough to label my hometown “suburgatory,” 17-year-old me no doubt considered living in the Pacific Northwest to be a hop and skip away from dwelling in actual hell.
Levy, 30, makes a quiet arrival on set with her mom (who endearingly introduces herself as “Jane’s mom”), Mary. Though she’s had about a decade of public exposure, Levy still seems a tad uncomfortable being the subject of her own photoshoot. She moves through poses with a sort of withdrawn confidence — she knows what she’s doing, but she’s not about to start calling the shots. The photographer asks if she’d like to look at the monitor and she shakes her head “no” with a laugh.
When I speak with Levy, she reveals a different side to herself — one that’s fully in control (a Capricorn Queen). Though I wouldn’t describe Levy’s side of our conversation as a performance, the performer in her is definitely present. She tells stories with such vigor and humor, imbuing every anecdote with the vitality that separates words in a script from a dramatic reading by a star.
In Levy’s latest project, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, she plays the titular Zoey, a woman who stumbles across a superpower of sorts: the ability to hear people’s inner thoughts and feelings through song. People in Zoey’s life (be it family, friends, co-workers, or actual strangers) will break into elaborate song and dance routines before her eyes (and her eyes only) — and she’s tasked with the job of interpreting, lest the musical acts continue to disrupt her waking life.
“Musical comedy” isn’t the most intuitive genre jump for Levy. She’s done comedy, she’s done horror, she’s done Renée Zellweger-as-a-wealthy-investor-who-practices-archery-in-her-living-room (yes, that’s a genre), but musical theater is uncharted territory for Levy. That being said, she likes “weirder things,” and Zoey’s fits the bill.
Read on as Levy opens up about her new show, working with “spirit guide” Lauren Graham, the toll of acting in the horror genre, and more.
InStyle: Your co-stars on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist include Lauren Graham and Peter Gallagher, both of whom carry a lot of teen TV nostalgia, with Gilmore Girls and The O.C. Did you watch those shows growing up?
Jane Levy: I watched The O.C. and Sandy Cohen felt like my father. And that’s his gift. He is the universal dad to all of us teens. But I didn’t watch Gilmore Girls, shockingly. Since working with Lauren [I] have watched it and she’s so incredible. I’m in love with her now. And then.
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You’ve mentioned that you don’t have a musical background, whereas a lot of your co-stars do. How did you feel when you were filming Zoey’s first big performance in episode 2?
Well, we pre-record our songs. So I had a lot of time with a vocal coach, Eric Vitro — who’s incredible — over the summer before we started shooting season one … I [also had] time in a recording studio, and many takes, and you go on set and you lip-sync. I did end up live-singing two-and-a-half songs because technically we couldn’t have done it with a pre-record. I wasn’t self-conscious. I felt really taken care of by the creative team. Mandy Moore, our choreographer, did La La Land, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance. And her two partners, Jillian Meyers and Jeff Morrison, are like hype men to the extreme. Jerry from Cheer, his mat-talk, that’s how I feel when I walk into the choreographer’s studio. It’s just like three people who just jump to their feet and scream for you. And then every time you get a dance move right they’re like, “Are you fucking kidding me?? Are you fucking kidding me??” And you’re like, “Yeah, I am the best dancer in the world.” And so I felt I had a great team of support.
Are there any songs that you’re dying to perform?
I mean, I don’t die to sing any song because I’m like, that’s hard and scary [laughs]. But there are songs that I would love to see on the show. Not for me to necessarily sing, but I want “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. I love that song so much. I’d love to hear maybe Michael Thomas Grant or Alex Newell sing that song.
How do you think that you would react to having Zoey’s power in your own life?
I think it would be terrible. I think it would be extremely isolating and lonely. And I don’t want to hear what people are thinking for so many reasons. I don’t want to be involved in their private business. I don’t want to hear the negative things they think about me or maybe the positive things. It’s not a superpower that I covet.
Grief plays a big role in Zoey and her family’s life. How were you able to tap into that emotion?
I mean, grief is a universal feeling. I think the human experience is full of grief and I think that’s what makes this show so cathartic to watch as a viewer. I’ve had many people reach out to me on Twitter about the scene, especially between me and Peter [Gallagher] because we all know what longing for parental love feels like. We all know what it feels like to miss someone. We all know what it feels like to lose something. And I think that we really explore those themes and emotions in a very truthful way, and music is such a beautiful tool in order to access those parts of humanity.
So Zoey is a woman leading this all-male team. As a woman in an industry that is predominantly male, could you relate to her struggles at all?
Yeah. I mean I love being a woman and I love being bossy, so I got to do both of those things [laughs]. In real life I was the lead of [Zoey’s] and everyone else was male and I was like, “Yeah, well I’m in charge.” I’m half kidding, I’m like 75% kidding. And also, yeah there’s a theme obviously in the show about being a woman in a male-dominated industry [tech], and having this female mentor in Lauren Graham who in real life was definitely my mentor and spirit guide and best friend. I adore her so much.
So going off of that, you’ve been working in Hollywood for about a decade now? Have you felt a palpable shift on the sets you’ve been on since #MeToo?
Yes, definitely. I’ve definitely felt a greater sensitivity to everything. And I think it’s a really good thing. There’s people that complain like, “We’ve become too sensitive or too woke.” I don’t agree at all. I mean I think we have to swing this way in order to create equilibrium. It’s like I think it’s really important and I’m so grateful and impressed by the women who championed the movement. And there’s still a lot of work to do, not just gendered but across sexual identity and race in Hollywood and equality, and yeah I definitely feel like there’s been a shift in sensitivity. And I think that there can’t really be too much sensitivity.
In a recent interview you said that unlike a lot of actors, you are affected by the characters you play in your own life and carry their emotions off set. How has that worked with the horror movies you’ve been in?
It’s terrible. You have mental breakdowns. And you think that you have to quit acting forever and ever, which actually just instead, you have to quit horror. It’s really hard on the nervous system, I’ll say that.
I watched Don’t Breathe over the weekend …
I mean that turkey baster? Like really?? Yep. I did that.
You’re good friends with Jenny Slate and Mae Whitman. Do you have any collaborations in the works? Do you guys ever talk about doing something together?
We don’t. Anybody want to give us a job? Three-hander?
Buddy comedy. I’m on board. So to this day Suburgatory has a very strong fan base. Would you ever consider a reunion?
Of course. Oh my God. That show is so bizarre. Talk about weird. I showed my friend who had never seen it, some clips the other day and I was like, “God, this show’s the weirdest show ever.”
Who is your dream guest star for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist?
Which role are you most often recognized for in public?
I’m never recognized in public.
Ever. I’ve had an experience where I’ve gone to the store and someone has been like, “Hey, have you seen that new movie Evil Dead? It’s really crazy.” And he was looking at my face. And I was like, “Is this a joke?”
I don’t think that I look like my characters in real life. But most, I guess you could say Suburgatory maybe.
Do you think that’s a good thing, that you don’t get recognized?
Yes, I do.
At this moment in your life, if I had Zoey’s power, which song would I hear you singing?
Right now it’d be something about wanting more sleep. Is there a song? It’s like, “I need to sleep for 10,000 years.” I just wrote one.
Are you into astrology?
Yes. I’m a Capricorn sun, Pisces rising, Capricorn moon.
Favorite item of clothing you own?
Austin [Winsberg], the creator of Zoey’s gave me these Gucci loafers as a wrap present. And I love them.
What is your dream reboot?
I was going to say Twin Peaks, but it happened and I was on it! Um … Sex and the City. It’s my favorite show.
So you’d be down for SATC three?
I would be down for SATC forever and ever.
Who have you been the most starstruck to meet?
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about you?
That I can do 50 pushups.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs by Erica Genece. Hair by David von Cannon. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.