CULVER CITY, California — If the main thing you associate with Janis Joplin is her tragic end, you're missing the big picture, according to actress Zooey Deschanel, who is set to star as the iconic blues-rock singer in "Gospel According to Janis."
"I think her life is characterized for a lot of people by her dysfunction," Deschanel said, adding that the Penelope Spheeris-directed musical biopic aims to change that. "It's about her as a sort of vibrant person. The idea [for the movie] is that it's about her life, but it's about her vitality rather than her [tragedy]."
This is somewhat odd, admitted Deschanel, considering "Gospel According to Janis" takes place almost entirely takes place almost entirely on October 4, 1970: Joplin overdosed on heroin and whiskey and died at age 27.
"There are some flashbacks, but [the flick concentrates] on her last day," Deschanel said of the film's plot. "The script makes this day a microcosm for the rest of her life. It's a sort of microscope rather than a general overview."
The minds behind the film arrived at this unique approach only after several failed attempts at doing the film with a more traditional narrative, Deschanel said. "I don't think a traditional biopic would capture someone as unique as Janis Joplin. When they first came to me with the project, it was with a different point of view," Deschanel recalled. "We went through a lot of different incarnations of the story to find the right way to tell it — to try to catch who she really was."
Who Janis was, Deschanel said, was far more important than how she died, despite the fact that the film mostly centers on her last day. "She was so different from anyone who had come before her, and [she] was very smart. She was completely out of the mold," the 27-year-old actress said. "She was very liberated. In a time when she was [viewed as] different, she was not afraid to be who she was. That's refreshing to see."
For Deschanel, playing Joplin means putting in some serious work to mimic the singer's distinctive vocals. "I'm a singer, but I don't sing like her naturally — my voice is not like that," said the actress, whose best-known singing role is probably from "Elf" (she's also appeared in "Almost Famous," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the forthcoming "Surf's Up"). "Her voice was very raw and very gravelly and rough, extremely volatile. I was doing a lot of training for that and a lot of work on the character."
The freedom to tell the story in a way that does Joplin's life justice is not without an irony the singer might have found amusing. For an artist who once sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," the story of Joplin's life is now caught in legal limbo, Deschanel said.
"[The film's] on hold right now, so I don't know when we're going to start shooting. We were supposed to shoot in November, but it's one of these things [that] seems like it's been hard to get all the money and the rights in place," Deschanel reported. "There are all kinds of different rights. You need the rights to the song, and life rights. There's a lot of legal stuff that goes into playing a real person."
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