In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Skylar Astin breaks down his favorite moments from the first season of NBC‘s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist —and looks forward to season two.
Skylar Astin’s Max could have been just the ‘boy next door’ on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Except there is no ‘Average Joe’ that can sing like Skylar can. Thanks to Skylar’s golden pipes and his ability to infuse every line and note with empathy and kindness — Max is no ordinary love interest. And Skylar is giving a performance elevated beyond anything we have seen from him before.
In this interview Skylar discusses his approach to his character, mastering Emmy-winner Mandy Moore’s expert choreography, and which hit songs he’s looking forward to singing next season.
Awards Daily: Skylar, If I tell you that you are Pitch Perfect in this show, are you going to get annoyed and hang up the phone? [Laughs].
Skylar Astin: No, I won’t! Promise! [Laughs].
AD: Well, you are pitch perfect in this show. You’re really terrific.
SA: I appreciate that. Actually, I have high hopes for Max. I just got off a Zoom call with the writer’s room and we were talking about a bunch of ideas for season two.
AD: Can you tell me anything? I mean, you can’t drop a comment like that and not follow up. [Laughs].
SA: [Laughs]. It’s just the first pitch! We’re going to go deeper. I know that. Deeper into who Max is and bring more of me out in him— whatever we decide, it will be with that in mind. It will get personal for sure.
AD: There’s so much I’d like to touch on in terms of season one. I really loved the emotional sides of Max we got to see. Like the fact that, not only does he have a close relationship with Zoey [Jane Levy], but also with her family. He has a bond with Mitch [Peter Gallagher] and Maggie [Mary Steenburgen]. There’s a friendship there as well.
That scene where you go to say goodbye to Mitch in the finale is one of my favorites of yours.
SA: Yeah, I tell Maggie that I told Mitch just how I feel about his daughter. And she said, ‘I’m pretty sure he already knew.’
When I first met with Austin [Winsberg, Zoey‘s writer and creator], I wanted to make certain that Max was really her best friend and not just her ‘work’ best friend. And he assured me that he had high hopes for that.
Because, of course, if he’s really Zoey’s best friend, he would know her parents and have relationships with them. It was actually one of the most interesting improvs that I did and it got into the show.
In episode two, I come and visit Zoey with butterscotch pudding for Mitch. And I walked into Mitch’s study, and Adam Davidson, our director said, Well, why don’t you just riff, and say some stuff, whatever you want.’ I just honed in on this one story about how I once sat in Mitch’s chair and spilled stuff on it. [Laughs].
It’s really interesting, because of all the comedic improvs done on the show, that was the one that was just completely on back-story. It was just like fun to just zoom in on something so specific like that. I think it strengthened the relationship between Peter and myself that day on set.
AD: And I think it also tells you a lot more about Max’s character and who he is as a person. It was actually one of my favorite moments of your character, when Max drops by with the butterscotch pudding, it’s really sweet.
SA: Yeah! We shot that scene over the course of two weeks because we ran out of time one night and then we had to revisit it. So, one side of that scene is like a week apart, which I think is hilarious.
But I will always remember that because it was just the start of us getting up and running. And it took us a second but the scene itself stood the test of time and, actually, ended up being one of my favorite moments in that episode. And very revealing of Max. I like seeing him out of the office.
AD: You mentioned that you did lots of comedic improv on set. Do any other specific scenes come to mind?
SA: I mean, everything I say to Kapil Talwalkar [who plays Tobin] is probably improv, especially if it’s at the end of the scene. Most of the stuff at work and a lot of my exchanges with Lauren Graham were probably improvs. That was something Lauren and I did a lot.
AD: One of the great things about Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is not just that it’s a jukebox musical, but it’s the way that those musical numbers come together.
In season one you sang opera, a boy band classic —you even had a musical number in the middle of a mall. Can you talk me through that? The physicality of it, but then also, it’s all part of the story so you have to have an emotional connection to those scenes as well. It’s a lot of work! I’d love to get your perspective.
SA: Yeah! Sometimes we’d start to learn the moves before I’d even gone in the vocal booth. But generally speaking, we’re told before the episode starts, what we’ll be singing in the following episode. And we immediately start to prep that, whether it’s vocals, choreography, or both. Some [sequences] come together really quickly.
I went to that mall the evening before we shot it for 15 minutes after I had wrapped for the day. Mandy threw me into the choreography; continued to drill the rest of the flash mob; the following morning we brushed it up; plugged in Jane; and shot it four times. That’s how intensely fast it was.
To me, it’s like, there’s no time to be nervous. There’s just a focus and an intensity. And if you spend too much time being nervous, you’ll probably get in your own head about it.
We’ve done so many ambitious things on the show—’American Pie’ and even ‘Sucker’ in some respects, the studio just wasn’t set up to do something like that. There are long one-shots You don’t do a lot of those in these kinds of mediums.
In a lot of musicals, you do so much coverage. And with us, we gamble on one, magical shot that takes us through Zoey’s mind, onto the dance floor, and back into her mind again in one continuous, long shot.
AD: Max, for most of the series, is kind of the ‘nice guy next door.’ And then he has that moment where he gets fed up. What were your goals for the character and your approach to your performance?
SA: I just wanted to make sure that Max maintained his integrity throughout and wasn’t just a device for Zoey. And Austin was always strong about that as well. When it came down to the conflict between Zoey and Max, I tried to stay pretty true to it. There was actually one moment in episode 10 that when we read it at the table, Max was still too understanding and forgiving of Zoey. And Zoey was actually saying some pretty messed up stuff toward him.
Austin said, ‘I wonder why that fight didn’t get hot enough.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I think you need some like real opposing truths.’
And I want to maintain that in every way with Max. People ask me if I’m Team Max. I’m Team All. I’m Team Max, Team Zoey, Team Simon. And whoever is linked up with her at the end remains to be seen. We’re just getting started, you know?
AD: I have to ask you about the opera sequence. I’d never seen anything like it. It really stopped me in my tracks because I thought I knew where that scene was going to go. And it just took a complete turn.
AD: What are some of those moments for you where you just look back and go, ‘I can’t believe we did that.’ And you’re just so proud of them. I’d love to know.
SA: Yeah, there are definitely moments that I think about it in the emotional content. And then there are just days that make me laugh. Like when I think of ‘Con Te Partiro,’ all I’m thinking about is my back sweat. [Laughs]. And how hard Me and Mandy Moore and the entire dance teamed laughed —before, during, and after every take.
Those moments just fill me with pure joy. It actually brightens my day just to think about them. And then there are other moments like ‘American Pie’ where I just think about how moving and touching it was— and how cathartic, and special that day felt. And it was on our last day of filming.
AD: The episode, ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch’ [episode 8] is a big one for you because your character has this moment where you’re like, ‘Maybe, Zoey and I are finally going to make this happen.’ And then, Max hears her sing to Simon. It’s a really heartbreaking moment. It’s subtle but really beautifully done on your part.
SA: I appreciate that. You know, there’s actually a moment in episode seven, right before that. We’re in the hallway of the club after Mo [Alex Newell] and Eddie sing ‘Bailamos.’ I tell Zoey, ‘Hey, I’m done here.’ And then that’s why once she lets me in emotionally and I realized that I am hers —its really, really hurtful for me, seeing her with Simon.
What’s difficult, and what Max is grappling with in that moment, is that he still needs to accept Zoey, her power, and her ability. He can’t completely turn on her, but he’s just so hurt. It’s just so overwhelming. And he’s just so tired.
When you have an argument with your [significant other] you can be saying something, but the truth could be somewhere in between. Whereas with Zoey, the truth is exactly in front of you. You saw exactly what her subconscious is thinking, and she can’t deny that. And you can’t deny that. What do you now do with that information? And that is something that Max takes on and it really complicates the situation.
AD: In terms of the ambition and the creativity of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, is there anything that you want to do in season two that you haven’t had the chance to do yet? I’ve read interviews where you’ve talked about how passionate you are about boy bands and that you sing opera occasionally. So, is there anything else from your personal life, or just things that you enjoy, that you would like to do in the show?
SA: I mean I’d like to put some of my own original music into the show. I also think we should do some mashups. I like duets and trios. I would like to sing passionately with many, many cast members on this show. I would like to do Lady Gaga, Florence + The Machine, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5.
I would like to do a boy band banger each season. We’d have to up the stakes from ‘Bye Bye Bye.’ So yeah, my musical hopes are always soaring because we have everything at our disposal. Of course, we have to be able to pay for it, and all that kind of stuff, but yeah, I would like them to utilize what they’ve got.
AD: Skylar, I’ve seen you tweeting back and forth with Leslie Jones about getting her on the show. Please do!!
AD: What song would you want to sing with Leslie Jones?
SA: What song would I want to sing with Leslie Jones? Oh my God! Anything! [Laughs].
I don’t know. I have to be conscious of the story. That’s the problem, everything has to be so literal. It has to literally mean what’s going on. You can’t do ‘Lost in Japan’ by Shawn Mendes unless you’re lost in Japan.
Beastie Boys keeps coming back to my mind. I just would like to scream at a camera with her. That sounds fun. But in a ‘Lonely Island’ type of way. I also always like to play the opposite of what people would expect.
I would do anything with Leslie Jones, she knows that. And I think she feels the same way about me. [Laughs].
Skylar Astin is Emmy eligible in the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category. Season one of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to watch Hulu and on NBC.com.