Interview: Zooey Deschanel Talks About 'Elf'

"It was definitely a challenge to not laugh"

New Line Cinema

Zooey Deschanel's vocal talents are well-known today considering her successful Grammy Award-winning recording career, but the first exposure of many to singing of the star of TV's The New Girl was in the 2003 film Elf. As the love interest of Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), Deschanel shows off her sweet-sounding vocal skills. Even more than a dozen years later, the longtime Christmas classic remains the actress' most popular film.

In Elf Deschanel stars as Jovie, a department store clerk whose Christmas spirit has all but evaporated. Late on her bills and toiling away at a thankless job, it’s not until Buddy and his unbridled enthusiasm for all things Christmas enters her life does she discover something that puts her in a more jovial spirit.

In 2003, Deschanel spoke to about her work in this family comedy, revealed her love for the holiday season, and what it was like on the set with Will Ferrell and director Jon Favreau.

When you got the script and it required singing, did that scare you at all?
No, I’ve been singing forever. I started out doing musicals. I think that was part of the reason why they gave me the part, because I sang.

When did you learn to sing?
I learned to sing when I was very small but I’ve been taking voice lessons since I was 11. That’s 12 years, more than half my life. I can’t even remember the first time I started singing.

When you recorded “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Leon Redbone, did you record it with him in the studio?
I did. He is a cool guy. I had one of his records when I was a kid that I used to listen to all the time. I loved him and I’ve always been a fan of his. It was really neat to be able to meet him. He recorded his part later. I recorded my part first. I haven’t actually heard the finished version. He was there and his producer was there. It was really fun. It only took a couple of hours. We just went in and laid down the tracks. It was great. He did the voice of the snowman. I remember when Jon Favreau, at the beginning of filming, was talking about getting Leon to do the music I was like, “Do it!” Then when I found out I got to record a duet with him, that was really exciting.

What was Christmas like growing up?
It was horrible (laughing). No, I’m kidding. It was the best, actually. I was just watching a video of myself from when I was six, opening presents, my God, veraciously. I love Christmas and I really got in to the spirit of it - early on in the year usually. Maybe June, July, perhaps May or April, I would begin to talk about what we would do on Christmas.

Do you have any favorite Christmas movies?
I like It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s my favorite one. I love Miracle on 34th Street, the old one. And I like A Christmas Story. How could you not? When I was a kid, that was on 24 hours a day all Christmas. You’d wake up in the morning and it was a loop of A Christmas Story. Literally, there was a station that just showed A Christmas Story.

What was it like working with Will Ferrell? Did he make you laugh every time you filmed?
No, because then we wouldn’t have ever gotten anything and they probably would have fired me. It was definitely a challenge to not laugh. It was great working with him. He’s the nicest guy in the world.

What was your favorite scene to film?
It was fun when we were in the department store because there were all these weird toys everywhere – little kid guitars, little stuffed animals, and just weird stuff. We had fun there.

Can you talk about your character? She’s supposed to be a New Yorker who doesn’t have much Christmas spirit.
It seems like New York’s a really Christmasy place. People walk down the street and they act like they don’t care but I think deep down inside, New Yorkers really care about Christmas. New York is way more Christmasy than LA. LA is not cold, there’s no gigantic Christmas tree, and no one is ice-skating. You have to drive to an indoor rink to go ice-skating.

I do play a jaded New Yorker. It’s difficult to be in the Christmas spirit when your water’s been shut off and you’re being harassed by a gigantic elf. You have to take kind of a humiliating job to make ends meet.

Did you grow up believing in Santa Claus and elves?
Did I ever! Yes – I don’t know about elves. I didn’t think much about elves because I was trying to think about the man in charge, the one that was going to bring me presents. I believed in Santa Claus until I was like 14. [I believed] I’m more likely to get better presents no matter if there’s a Santa Claus or not, if I say I believe in Santa Claus. Then if my parents think I do, then they’ll give me two sets of presents. Then if Santa Claus really does exist, then he’ll appreciate my support.

Why is it important that children believe in Santa Claus?
I don’t know that it’s important, but it’s nice to be a kid when you’re a kid, you know? It’s nice to pretend. It’s a nice story and it’s sort of representative of childhood in a way. It’s something that a lot of kids believe in – most kids believe in Santa Claus – and it’s sort of representative of letting kids be kids and not having kids be adults before they’re ready.

What are you working on now?
I have a movie called Eulogy coming out next year. It’s an independent movie. It’s a comedy – a dark comedy. Then I have another movie that Will’s also doing called Winter’s Passing that I’m going to start in about a month.

Is that a comedy?
No, it’s a drama.

Are you working nonstop?
By the end of the year I’ll have done three movies. That’s pretty good. That’s more than half the year. As an actor you want time at home, what amounts to half a year of working and half a year at home.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick