On the surface, the premise of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist might seem somewhat familiar. It is after all a musical featuring some of today’s biggest radio hits. But, I urge you all to spend a time with Zoey, and Jane Levy, because you’ll soon discover this show is anything but ordinary.
Our titular character, Zoey (Levy) is a brilliant coder trying to balance her growing role at work, friendships, crushes, and dealing with her father’s (Peter Gallagher) rare neurological disorder, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) which has led him to lose control of his faculties and ability to speak.
Afraid that her recent headaches are a sign that she too is suffering from PSP, Zoey goes in for an MRI. Next thing you know, there’s an earthquake while she is being tested, and she comes away with the ability to hear people’s thoughts in the form of music – not just their thoughts, but their emotions, their fears, and their innermost desires.
Zoey’s new superpower leads to some office hijinks and genuine comedic moments, but make no mistake, at its core, Zoey’s Extraordinary’s Playlist is about a girl mourning her father as he slowly slips away from her, terrified of what life without him will look like.
Anchoring the show is Jane Levy as Zoey. She is utterly terrific in this role as she balances the music, the dancing, the emotions, and the comedy in a magnetic performance. If you aren’t familiar Levy’s work you will be after this show, and you will root for her from the very beginning.
I can only hope audiences and awards voters are paying attention because Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Levy’s performance are worthy of the praise.
Read my full conversation with Levy below.
Awards Daily: I was doing some research to prepare for this interview, and I read that you said that you didn’t really have any formal singing or dancing training before this show. Is that true?
Jane Levy: That is correct
AD: That just completely blows my mind because watching the show, I never would have guessed that. Can you talk to me about that little bit more? I mean, how do you do what you do? Having no formal training, that’s just crazy! In a good way! In a great way!
JL: I’m smiling so hard! Thank you, that’s very sweet.
Well, I grew up in a musical household, my mom sings. I did musical theater as a kid. My dad was a guitar player. I have musicality in my DNA. I understand music, and tempo, and pitch. I feel like I do. But beyond doing musical theater as a kid, and taking dance classes until I was 13, and then taking Zumba lessons at age 25 [laughs], I don’t really have serious training, and I’ve never really taken voice lessons ever in my entire life.
So, when Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist came about, when I was offered the part, it was unclear how much Zoey would actually have to sing. But I made a very bizarre musical in 2014 that went to the Toronto International Film Festival called Bang Bang Baby. And I sang in that. So, the creator [Austin Winsberg] had heard that I could carry a tune just in case, Zoey does eventually end up singing.
When I got more involved in the project, Austin and I talked, created more of a relationship, and as we were creating Zoey together, I was very vocal about my desire to sing and dance. I had watched all of my costars do it in the pilot, and it looked so fun and I was like, ‘I really think I can do that! I promise, just gave me a number.’
We went to dinner before we shot the rest of the season after the pilot got picked up and Austin was like, ‘There’s this idea that maybe you would sing just right off the bat. And it would be a nightmare.’ And I was like, ‘Let’s do that!’ [The sequence is a cover of The Kiki Dee Band’s I Got the Music in Me which serves as the opening to episode 2].
Because you know the audience is going to be thinking, ‘When is Zoey going to sing?’ And why don’t we just give it to them right away? And, and so we did. When I watched that number, I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was like someone who had been locked up in a stall for years and finally someone blew the whistle and was like, ‘Jane, it’s your time! ‘You can finally do anything and sing and dance like you’ve always wanted to!’
I’m so extra! [Laughs] But I love it! So much. And it was fun that that was a dream sequence because we got to get away with a lot of things that we don’t normally. The musical numbers usually come out of Zoey’s perspective and her superpower. They’re not usually shot like a music video and they don’t usually involve all of the characters, but because it was a dream, we got to do stuff like looking straight into the camera, and really pull out some musical theater flare. And then the dancing. I just love dancing. I’m technically not perfect in any way. What you see there is just me enjoying it.
AD: It certainly seems technically perfect to me! But, let’s talk about your acting process in general because to me you genuinely have one of the hardest jobs on TV. Not only are you doing the physical aspects, like dancing and singing in scenes where that’s required of you. But Zoey is also going though such emotional turmoil with her father’s illness. In the span of minutes, you have people singing to you, crying scenes, then Zoey’s cheerful and she’s trying to be supportive of those around her. There’s just so much that goes into Zoey, how do you approach all of that?
JL: Yeah, I mean, it’s a drama. It’s a musical. It’s like an office comedy. Sometimes, it’s a superhero origin story. It’s so much at once.
AD: You’re flexing all your acting muscles here. I mean, truly, you’re getting to do everything in this role.
JL: Yeah, it’s really fun. I would say though, I thought a lot about what the superpower meant, you know, why she has this ability. In my creation of this character, I think that [her power is] related to her father being diagnosed with this rare neurological condition. I think that when you are in a grieving process, your life, your perspective, and your point of view can become very small and singular, this gift, is doing the opposite.
It is opening her scope like she’s never had before. Like no one’s ever had before, you know? So, I think that while she’s losing her father, she’s also going through this experience of deep empathy. And eventually just hearing the music in life, metaphorically and literally.
And for me, I took the experience that Zoey’s having throughout the series, this fear of losing her father very seriously. And I think that’s guiding everything that she does in season one.
AD: As you were saying, a lot of the musical numbers we see them through Zoey’s eyes. A lot of times when she’s watching the other characters, she’s literally just listening to them sing and pour their heart out to Zoey. When you’re filming these scenes, what is it like to just stand there and watch Peter Gallagher sing to you? Is that awkward?
JL: Yeah. Absolutely!
AD: How does that work exactly?
JL: I mean, it depends on the number. You know, sometimes it’s just incredibly fun to be able to stand there and be the observer. But the scene with my dad in the pilot where he sings [Cyndi Lauper’s] True Colors, I think that the reason why that that scene is effecting is because we all, as humans, know what it’s like to long for parental love. Or to want our parent to say the one thing we wish they could have, or would have, or should have said. That [number] is a moment in which Zoey is getting her dream come true, which is that she can communicate with her father again. And not only that, but he’s there again, to comfort her, be that father figure that he can no longer be because he’s slowly losing his brain.
AD: Beautifully said. I actually got the chance to see you all at SCAD’s aTVfest in Atlanta a few weeks ago when you all won the Rising Star Cast Award. One of the things that I noticed, just seeing you guys interact, is just how well you really do get along. There’s genuine love and camaraderie there. Do you think that being in a musical where you’re singing and dancing all the time, does that forge that bond better than a traditional drama?
JL: Yeah, I do. I think that sometimes you’re just lucky that the group of people that came together for a certain job, you really connect with.
I also believe that it comes from the top down, Austin Winsberg cast all of us, and maybe it comes from him too. I think that being a part of a project in which you get to dance and sing every day definitely makes the environment really conducive to enjoying one another.
AD: One of the themes of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is empathy, and the idea that we really don’t know whatever inner turmoil another person could be going through, whether it be somebody on the street or a person close to us. Has this show and its themes changed the way that you view your own interpersonal relationships in any way? Has it opened your eyes to anything?
JL: That’s a good question. I think Zoey and I had a parallel process while I was shooting, and you know, I couldn’t tell sometimes, this sounds kind of cuckoo, [laughs] but I spent so many hours a day playing this other person that I couldn’t tell if what I was going through was because of what I was working on in my job or because was actually happening in my life.
And yeah, I do think that, you know, my role as the lead actress on this show is like Zoey’s role as a leader [at work] in that she becomes the manager. She also has new found power [that was] something that I related to.
When it comes to empathy, I am generally an empathetic person. I think that most actors are. I’m not sure if I personally gained more empathy, but maybe I did. I was able to see some of the ways in which I am prejudice toward or not as open to certain kinds of experiences. I guess, yeah, I guess maybe I did.
AD: The show uses popular music to explore all of these human emotions which is fascinating and so unique. Has Zoey changed the way that you view and interact with music in your own life? Or how you think about some of these songs?
For me personally, I’ll never be able to hear [Miley Cyrus’] Wrecking Ball without thinking of Lauren Graham belting it out and angrily throwing bread across the room.
JL: I know, it’s amazing!
AD: Incredible. So how has that been for you?
JL: Now if I ever hear a song on the radio, like I just heard Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again on the radio, and I was like, ‘Why do I know this song?’ I won’t spoil it for you, but it comes up later in the season.
And I was traumatized by the song Sucker [from the Jonas Brothers]. It was in my dreams, it was in my nightmares for weeks straight. [Laughs]. Now when I hear music and I’m like, ‘Huh, I wonder if so and so could sing this song.’
AD: Speaking of spoilers, your publicist did mention to me that episode 8 is a big episode for Zoey coming up. Without giving too much away, can you tease that at all?
JL: Yeah, so in episode eight, there’s a glitch in my power in which I sing all of my heart’s songs to everybody instead of everyone saying their heart’s songs to me.
Usually when they sing to me, I’m the only one who can hear it. Well, when I sing my heart’s songs out loud, everyone can hear it. So that creates a great comedic conflict.
AD: I can’t wait to see it! To wrap up, what’s your hope for Zoey as we move forward through this season and hopefully many future seasons. Where would you like to see Zoey go?
JL: That’s a good question! I like the idea of her power shifting in some ways, and I’d be interested in exploring that. And also, I want to see Zoey take up some more space and own her desires a little bit more publicly.
AD: Yes! She’s so busy caring for other people so it would be nice to see her put herself first.
AD: Thank you so much for your time, Jane! I can’t wait to see how everything is going to unfold for the show and for you this season.
JL: Thank you!
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays on NBC. You can also catch up with the season On Demand.