Sister Act: Zoey and Madelyn Deutch

May 23, 2018
Zoey Deutch (left) and Madelyn Deutch (right).

The comedy film “The Year of Spectacular Men” tells the story of Izzy Klein, a recent college grad who struggles to navigate the ways of the real world and relationships, and turns to her mother and sister for support. Making it was literally a family affair. The romantic comedy stars sisters Zoey (“Before I Fall,” “Why Him”) and Madelyn Deutch (“Outcast”) and their mother, Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”), making her feature directorial debut from Madelyn’s screenplay. Zoey and the sisters’ father, director Howard Deutch, are among the producers, and Madelyn composed the score.

“We’re such a close, tight-knit, possibly co-dependant family and we’ve always been looking to do something together but we never could figure it out,” Zoey told the Journal in a telephone interview. “Then Maddie had this great idea and we all went guns a-blazing. One of the coolest parts about it is it’s a rom-com about sisters made by sisters. It was absolutely a labor of love for all of us. We have been working on this movie for four years.”

In her semi-autobiographical script, Madelyn’s intention was “to tell an authentic story about a millennial woman’s life, and how messy that is,” she said in a separate phone interview. “There’s a lot of pressure placed on young women. You get out of college and you’re supposed to know exactly what you want to do and meet the perfect guy and decide whether you want children or not. All these big decisions are placed on women when they’re like 22.  I wanted to communicate that it’s OK to be a woman that’s stumbling and asking hard questions, because that’s what I went through.”

Some real-life character traits wound up in the script, including Zoey’s germophobia, but Madelyn said finds little similarity with her character Sabrina, other than both are actresses. Her misadventures on a ski trip inspired a “meet cute” scene that Madelyn’s character has on the slopes in the film.

Madelyn described the aspiring actress she plays as “nicer and pluckier than me. I’m more of a mercurial, emotional creature. I’m very detail oriented. I can sit in a room and concoct stories. She wants to get out and have experiences. She’s like the better version of me.”

Izzy is Jewish, though it’s not referenced in the script.  She’s “really neurotic and in my mind she’s Jewish or had a Jewish dad, like I was raised,” Madelyn said. “Our mom was really gung-ho about starting us in Hebrew school at an early age. When she met my dad, I think she felt very at home with [Judaism] and the Jewish community. She grew up with Christianity in the Midwest in the ’60s, and the whole idea that [Jews] are commanded to argue with God, I think, blew her mind. She just loved that. Artists are so much about challenging the norm.”

Zoey said that being Jewish is “so embedded in our DNA. I very much feel pride in my Jewish heritage and culture. We celebrate the High Holidays and I can recite the whole Ve-ahavta,” she said. Ever since a family trip to Israel a few years ago, she’s been “aching to go back. The food and the people were amazing. They really live for the now, and no one was confused with my argumentative personality there. They really got me. It was a revelatory experience.”

In addition to the family’s traditional Passover seder, Madelyn threw a “Pals-Over” party this year for her Jewish and non-Jewish friends. “We had roast chicken and matzo ball soup and lots of desserts. What was so beautiful about it is Passover is about overcoming oppression — everyone can relate to that,” she said.

“One of the coolest parts about the movie is it’s a rom-com

about sisters made by sisters.” — Zoey Deutch

Another holiday memory had her laughing. “When I was 5 years old, I went with my dad to the Purim carnival,” she said. “I was decorating a yarmulke for him with
glitter glue and the tube got stuck, so he squeezed it really hard and the glue
exploded all over my face. I was traumatized. I had glitter in my eyes, I was crying. He carried me out of there and I didn’t go back to Hebrew school till the fifth grade. I was
so ashamed.”

Both sisters had bat mitzvahs and have fond memories of the milestone. “It puts a lot of responsibility and accountability on the kid.  You’re treated like an adult with opinions and a point of view,” Madelyn said. “I think it changed my life, being able to stand at the bimah in front of a congregation and say what I thought about the world around me. I think it altered the kind of adult I became.”

Very close to “the two talented people who happen to be my parents,” Madelyn praised her father’s skills as a hands-on producer. “He’s great at dealing with the political landscape of getting a film made,” she said, adding that her mother’s 30 years of experience as an actor translated well to her role as director.

“She knows actors and how to approach them and deal with them in a way that’s so considerate, almost motherly,” Madelyn said. “She was that way with everybody, not just us. Everyone was like, ‘I love her! She made me feel so safe.’ She’s an amazing director.”

Madelyn said the examples her parents set paved the way for the way she and Zoey approach their careers. “They have so much goodwill in the business. They’ve treated people with respect and moved through 30 years of working in a really impressive way,” she said. “They’d take us to set when we were little to watch them work. I think we developed a really strong appreciation for a good work ethic. I also saw the hard side of the business, watching them go through extreme disappointment and heartbreak after a bad review or something in the trades. They had a lot of ups and downs. But for them, it’s not about cash and prizes. It’s about the work.”

Zoey echoed that sentiment, citing the best advice she’s received: “Work hard, be nice and keep going. No one just gets lucky, in my opinion,” she said. “Hard work pays off.”

Both sisters knew they wanted to be in the entertainment business early on. Zoey, now 23, began acting classes at age 5 and attended the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. Madelyn initially chose the music route. With a paternal grandfather who ran United Artists’ music publishing division and a maternal grandmother who was one of the first female disc jockeys in the United States, “we have a music lineage on both sides,” she said.

“I grew up singing and started writing songs when I was a teenager and then I went to a conservatory to study music,” Madelyn said. “But I started taking an acting class in college because I was really lonely living in New York. I was 17, and I needed other creative outlets. Acting was a really good way to try to get to know myself better.”

Now 27, Madelyn is a multi-hyphenate, acting, writing, developing television projects and directing music videos. She wrote a feature film she plans to direct, possibly this fall. Compared with “Spectacular Men,” which takes place in many locations and has a fairly large cast, “it’s insular,” she said. “It’s one couple and one night.” She also composed its score.

Zoey is in the Netflix romantic comedy “Set it Up,” in which she and her “Everybody Wants Some!!” co-star Glen Powell play overworked assistants who scheme to get their demanding bosses (Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs) out of their hair by getting
them to date. “She’s super thoughtful, good intentioned, funny and frantic,” she said of the character. It begins streaming on June 15, the same date “Spectacular Men” hits theaters.

Zoey has a movie coming up with Johnny Depp and another project she’ll produce and star in starting this summer. “I didn’t know producing would become such a passion of mine but it has,” she said.

Zoey’s career wish list includes acting in a musical, a western and playing a villain. “I want to do different stuff — dramas and comedies and action movies, just keep diversifying and expanding my brain and horizons and trying new stuff,” she said. “I feel like it’s such a gift to be able to learn and continue to be a student of cinema, and that’s what I love about this job.”

Both sisters would love to work together with their mom for the third time (all three were in “Mayor Cupcake,” in 2011). “I know Maddie has written a whole smorgasbord of things and I’m just waiting for her to include the rest of the mishpachah,” Zoey said.

Asked what makes her happiest, she replied, “My family, my dog and good food at Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard. I’d have an ice cream soda, pickles, matzo ball soup, half pastrami — mustard on the side, two latkes, extra applesauce. I’ve been going there since I was 6. I know my order by heart,” she said. “I could recite it in my sleep!”

For Madelyn, “The thing that makes life worth living and makes me want to get up in the morning is creative collaboration. Working with other amazing artists is the whole point of living for me. But on a day-to-day basis, just to make me feel more Zen, I love to cook,” she said. “I’m famous for my salads.”

As the release of “Spectacular Men” approaches, Madelyn compared the feeling with “watching your kid go off to kindergarten. This has been almost four years of my life. It’s so hard to get a movie made, and it’s a miracle that we’ve arrived at this moment,” she said. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done.”

“The Year of Spectacular Men” opens in theaters and VOD platforms on June 15.

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