Jane Levy: "Laughter is a human need"

by Gabriel Lerman March 17, 2020
Actress Jane Levy

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She may be known as the girl who had to defend her marriage from a mysterious woman willing to exchange favors in What/If or the scream queen from two Fede Alvarez's films, the Evil Dead remake and Don't Breathe. But at 30, Jane Levy also has a long list of comedy projects to her credit, including the role of Mandy Milkovich on the first season of Shameless and the lead on Subrogatory. Now, Levy is the star of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist in NBC, a mix of comedy and musical where she plays the main character, a busy professional in a hip office that suddenly discovers she can hear everybody's thoughts through the famous songs they are playing in their heads.

Do you think your show is a perfect one to watch in the times that we are living in right now?

That’s a good question.  Yeah, it’s almost hard to think about, I was looking at the mirror and feeling incredibly anxious and I have another episode coming out on Sunday and usually around this time of the week I start to post about the episode to get people excited about watching, and I thought, okay, this is a weird time to be self-promoting, but then I was like well, actually it doesn’t have to be solely self-promotion, I’m promoting this show and entertainment that is really needed in a time like today, like I am about to go figure out what I am going to watch on my TV for the rest of the day because I’m not going to go outside.  And something I have been thinking about this virus is how everybody on planet earth is going through the same thing.  And I find comfort in that.  We are all afraid and all of our lives matter.  And our show is about this, it’s also about connection and about how we are all together in this whole experience of being human.  So yeah, I actually do think that it’s a great show for right now.

What does comedy give you as an actress that other genres don’t? 

You know, laughter and smiling is a really good feeling. And I guess I think that that’s incredibly important, just like sunshine is important, or friendships and love is important, laughter is a human need, I think.  And I am attracted to comedic projects because I think that all of life, even in our hardest times there is comedy.  And so my personal favorite genre is when then there is a blend of comedy and drama like there is in this because to me that’s representative of what my life is like. 

What about music?  How important was it for you to be in a musical as well? 

That was exciting.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for a project that involved singing and dancing, but when it came my way, I thought what a great opportunity to try something new.  And like I was talking about comedy, dancing and music really affects people and it affects everyone on set when we are working and it affects the audience when they are watching.  And it can communicate things that you can’t communicate with just speaking.  And I think it is joyful, watching people sing and dance is an incredibly enjoyable experience.

For many episodes you were just a witness to people dancing and singing.  How hard was that?  Were you envious of all these people in front of you?

It wasn’t difficult.  I am being presented incredible song and dance numbers by very talented artists, so I had a lot to respond to. But I will say that there was a part of me that was like I want to be a part of it, it just looked so fun, watching my fellow actors sing and dance.  And so when we were shooting the Pilot, Austin Winsberg our creator, had the idea of there being an episode in which Zoe sings every single number.  He had that idea a long time ago.  And I was really excited about that because I wanted to be a part of what everyone else was doing.  And we pulled it off, it’s coming up one week from this Sunday, and I’m really excited for people to see it. 

Did you ever sing in school plays?

I did.  When I was a child, I sang in school plays but as an adult, I haven’t done much singing.  So at first, I was actually excited because I thought yeah, I can do that, I can figure out how to do that.  And then when I started I was like oh this is a lot harder than I realized, which was humbling.  But I had a voice coach and an incredible music supervisor and we picked songs that fit my range, I guess.  And I don’t know, I think that episode, that I sing all the numbers in and dance, I am more proud of it than anything I have ever made. 

In this show, you are surrounded by many young great actors, but you have a few stars like Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher or Lauren Graham, who have been doing this for a while.  Do you grow as an actress when you have to work with people like that?

Yeah absolutely.  I think every project I grow as an actress.  But when you work with really great actors, the job is made easier.  Working with Lauren is so easy, she’s so present, she’s so funny, she also knows so much about the industry and she was like a spirit guide for me throughout the whole process, because it’s a rare situation to be in, for an actor in a television show in which you are in the entire series, it’s really exhausting because of the television schedule. And so she had that experience on Gilmore Girls and she gave me a lot of advice.  And she told me when I should conserve my energy.  And I was also really blown away by the younger talent as well when you work with actors who are trained in the theater and there’s a spectrum of incredible actors and some are trained and some are not.  But when you work with musical theater actors, their voice, you can’t just walk onto Broadway and be a singer, people have worked for years on these skills.  And to me, that was incredibly impressive and inspiring.

Do you miss horror?

I don’t miss horror.  I know that I am going to upset horror fans when I say that, but it’s really taxing work, especially on your nervous system, when you spend months at a time screaming and crying and trying to run for your life.  I am really proud of the two projects that I made and I am glad I made them when I was young and I had a lot of energy, because like I said, they were really taxing. I still watch horror, being in it is another story. 

Did you regret leaving Shameless after the first season to go to Subrogatory, which was canceled after three seasons?

No, I didn’t.  I had such a good time on Suburgatory.  And the role on Shameless was a recurring character and I didn’t actually watch the rest of the series after the first season.  But I am really so happy for all of them that their show lasted for so many years.  But no I have never regretted it because Suburgatory was such a pivotal time in my life, I mean being the lead of a show gave me a lot more visibility and in turn, if I hadn’t done that job my career would probably have been different, who knows, maybe it would have been different in a good way or not as good.  But I think that Suburgatory was when people really first saw my capability of being a leading actor.

How did the whole acting thing start for you?

You know I don’t even have a clear answer for that, it was just an impulse.  I did it as a kid, and as a kid, it was one of those, it was like the one thing that I did and I got feedback on, I was like oh I am good at this thing because when I auditioned, I didn’t really get the leading role in the play and then when I do the play, people usually responded to it.  And I didn’t know deep inside that oh I was good at this thing, I was just like oh, I do this thing and I get a response, so that must mean that not bad.  And it made me feel good too, I loved performing. When I was a teenager I changed my mind and was confused and so I tried a bunch of things.  And so I stopped acting as a teenager and mostly focused on soccer, and I am someone who when I commit to something, I do it all the way because I am very type A personality who loves to be productive so when I played soccer, I took it really seriously, I was the Captain of the soccer team and acting fell by the wayside.  And then when I went to college, I was incredibly unhappy, and I just couldn’t enjoy myself and it felt pointless and I felt why am I doing this thing, it feels like I am doing it because I am supposed to in life, you go to college and you get a job.  But I don’t want to do that, that’s not what is in my art.  And so I was young and dumb enough to be like well I am going to go after something else.  And I told my parents I was going to pursue acting because when I was in college I thought to myself what’s the one thing I loved doing and was actually fulfilling, and I was like well that is acting for me.  And so I went to acting school in New York and when I got there I was like yes, this is the right decision. I really, really, really love it, love acting so much and I respect it a lot.  And my relationship to acting has changed over the years and I am still curious about the craft itself and always interested in getting better and I still go to class and I love going to the theater and reading about old actors and actresses and learning more about film and I just love every process of it.

Speaking of acting, last year you played counter to Renee Zellweger in What/If , who ended up winning the Golden Globe a couple of months ago.  Did you feel like you were playing tennis with the best player in the world?

Renee is such a great actress. Sometimes when you watch great actors, you can sort of see their choices or their process and they are really smart and really good.  But there is something about Renee’s work that was like seamless.  I look at it and I’m like what is she doing and how is she doing it?  And I can never figure it out.  And so I am just very impressed by her, so lucky to have worked with her, I learned a lot from watching her, how she acts on screen and off and I am incredibly happy for her and proud of her and she deserves it.