With a string of offbeat and eccentric characters on her résumé, Zooey Deschanel has made a name for herself in Hollywood playing the bitter, sarcastic and even occasionally aggressive girl who never quite fits in. After the double punch of the 2002 drama “The Good Girl” and the quirky 2003 Christmas hit “Elf,” the doe-eyed actress seemed to be permanently branded, for better or worse. As Deschanel’s new drama, “Winter Passing,” makes its way to theaters this week, however, she is once again embracing her niche.
“I like the fact that it’s a movie about people who are on the verge of something — it’s like a car crash in slow motion,” the 26-year-old actress said, explaining why she accepted the role. “It’s not a climactic film in any sense.”
Instead, “Passing” tells the tender tale of a fractured being and the equally distressed souls she uncovers while learning the hard way that you can’t go home again. “It’s about a theater actress who lives in downtown New York and has a drug problem,” Deschanel said of her character, Reese, through a crooked smile. “She’s offered a large sum of money to go home to her father’s house, who’s a famous author, and collect some correspondence between her parents throughout the years.
She finds that her father has created this makeshift family. He’s living with a former student and a Christian rock guy.”
The father, who has fallen into a J.D. Salinger-esque state of reclusion, is played by Ed Harris, unrecognizable in a stringy white wig. Also undergoing a transformation is funnyman Will Ferrell, coming closer than ever before to true drama as Christian rocker and eyeliner aficionado Corbit. Add Amelia Warner (“Aeon Flux”) as a British student on the run from her past and you get the motley crew of “Passing,” a character-driven throwback that appealed strongly to self-described old soul Deschanel.
Citing classics like “Five Easy Pieces,” “Scarecrow” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” Deschanel says she misses a time when movies, like life, were made up of progressions of small but crucial moments.
“In a way, all the things that happen have significance,” she said of “Passing.” “But it’s still about the everyday that has significance, not some huge drama. It’s more microscopic.”
Reese attempts to overcome her addictions, deal with her damaged father and feel emotions again by inflicting pain on herself in some of the film’s hardest-to-watch moments. She slams her hand shut in dresser drawers and even drowns her cat, episodes that Deschanel compares to the tragic real-life phenomenon of cutting. “In a way, not feeling is feeling too much, and sort of being overloaded with it,” she said.
“It’s an infliction. If you’re very numb and so disconnected, it’s difficult to know how to make yourself feel. It’s her trying to wake herself up.”
Waking herself up on the set was rarely a problem, however, as Deschanel found herself reunited with her “Elf” co-star Ferrell, one of the quickest minds in comedy. “It’s always great to work with Will. He’s a great actor and a great human being,” she said, insisting that their reteaming was accidental. “We met separately with [writer/director Adam Rapp]. He cast it right before ‘Elf’ came out, and I don’t think he knew we had worked together.”
A great deal has already been made of Ferrell’s first dramatic role, but the actress insists that neither of them thought of the Corbit role in such terms while on set. “I don’t think of it as serious or not serious — it’s all drama, and there are elements of comedy and tragedy in it,” she said. “Anyone who’s a good comedian is a good actor first. Will is first and foremost a great actor.”
In the end, the title “Winter Passing” works on multiple levels, particularly when describing the slow thawing of Rapp’s wonderfully conflicted characters. “You see a sort of melting process,” Deschanel said, looking back fondly on another memorably bitter character just trying to fit in. “You have a character who’s icy and numb, and you get to see her melt.”
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