Zoey Deutch Is in Her Dream Come True at Russ & Daughters
The 'Not Okay' star returns to the recently reopened NYC staple to talk her new film, comedy, and the comfort of matzo ball soup.
Every year for her birthday, Zoey Deutch gets a tattoo from Los Angeles' renowned, cool-girl-favorite tattoo artist Doctor Woo. The actress, now starring in Hulu's scammer comedy Not Okay, has tattoos of her dog Maybelle, a scorpion, a moon and stars, 818 to represent her hometown of the Valley, and several other words and phrases. On her ankle, she also has one of her deepest loves: a bowl of matzo ball soup. Done in Doctor Woo's signature single-needle style, there's even a split in the matzo ball and carrots in the broth.
She makes a point to show off the tat at the beloved Jewish institution Russ & Daughters on New York City's Lower East Side, as the staff brings out her go-to order and fourth-generation co-owner Niki Russ Federman says hello. Plated in the back booth of the cafe—which just reopened for dining for the first time since 2020—are latkes, pickles (old and new), bialis, bagels, gravlox, an egg cream, ample seltzer, and, of course, matzo ball soup. "I feel like I'm in my dream!" Deutch exclaims when she takes a seat.
In between spoonfuls of soup, she says, "Some might consider it sacrilegious to get a Jewish tattoo, but it's okay. It is what it is. … I just love matzo ball soup and nothing makes me happier!"
It really does seem like nothing makes her happier as she enjoys the deli spread—calling it "comfort for anybody with a soul"—and relishes in the fact that she's one of the first guests back to the restaurant. She's thrilled to be able to make a stop at the Manhattan haunt while promoting her new release written and directed by Quinn Shephard—and not just because she loves a chance to introduce somebody to the delight that is an egg cream. Russ & Daughters is a family tradition; her grandmother lived around the corner from the original appetizing shop on Houston Street, and, in addition to the birthday tat, she also can't go a B-day without receiving a special R&D package.
According to Deutch, it all comes back to her Jewish heritage. That's why she's so damn funny and has a taste for starring in smart comedies, from Netflix's hit rom-com Set It Up and Richard Linklater's '80s hangout romp Everybody Wants Some!! to indies like Buffaloed and Not Okay. "Comedy is a tragedy plus time, and my people suffered! My people suffered so that I could sit here at Russ & Daughters and talk about their suffering when I eat latkes," she says.
Deutch really is a comedic force, though. At R&D, she's a ham, taking the "Be a Mensch" sign off the host stand and modeling it like a purse. In general, her natural combination of wit and dryness, and lifelong appreciation for humor, makes her one of the most underrated comedic stars today. With Not Okay out now, it seems all but certain that the world is about to get more acquainted with the 27-year-old actress/producer. Soon, they'll all laugh along with her.
In the millennial-slash-Gen-Z satire, Deutch plays Danni Sanders, a 20-something who is so lonely and directionless that she tries to get validation from her followers and hot co-worker (Dylan O'Brien) with an Instagram ruse. From the comfort of her Brooklyn apartment, she milks her Photoshop skills for their worth by making it look like she visited Paris for a coveted writers' retreat. But when Paris is struck with a terrorist attack, Danni's lie spirals out of control. She ends up co-opting attention and sympathy for her own gain, greatly manipulating a teenage activist (Mia Isaac) in the process—all to become the influencer of her dreams. From the moment we meet Danni and she tells her boss that she feels like she missed out on 9/11 to her inevitable, unforgiving downfall, Deutch's performance is a perfect balance of absurdism and cringe comedy. It's also strikingly human. In all of its messiness and critiques of whiteness and privilege, it may be one of Deutch's best roles to date—and she was game for it all.
Shephard said Deutch was who she had in mind for Danni. Once the star came on board, Shephard was willing to push the film where it needed to go. The director had heard countless suggestions in meetings with different distributors that Danni should be "softer," "more likable and digestible," or given a "tragic backstory." Deutch felt differently. "When she came to me after reading the script, she was immediately like, 'Hey, I think this is great, and also we can go harder on Danni,' and I really agreed," Shephard recalls. It was like "getting a green light to do what [she] had always wanted to do with the film."
What Shephard admired about Duetch's body of work was her fearlessness in portraying "women that might be polarizing, that might be unlikable." And it's true: In the past few years, Deutch has played a hustling debt collector in Buffaloed, a teen who extorts pedophiles in Flower, and now a tone-deaf wannabe influencer. But it's also what makes Deutch all the more interesting as an actress and producer, since her choices make space for complicated women on-screen, allowing her comedic chops to shine in a more nuanced way.
"Playing these quote-unquote 'unlikable female characters' is a result of just not being interested in playing the one-dimensional female character," Deutch says. After she did a studio comedy where she "played the girlfriend," she decided "to not be interested or really care about the word 'unlikable' in [her] work, or care about the word 'relatable.'" And while she enjoys taking on these characters—particularly scammers who make the stakes feel high and like she's in on a secret with them—she's largely tired of audiences and the industry accepting movies with unlikable men as nothing more than great movies, and the double standard that comes with similarly complex women.
Hopefully, then, roles like Danni can increasingly dismantle that. Her window into Danni was the character's loneliness and inability to do anything right, and Deutch says she never once judged her. "I have a different relationship to [Danni] now than I did when I was shooting, but that being said, I really reject any comment about her being a sociopath, or her being a horrible, disgusting monster," she says. "She's a misguided, privileged person who makes a mistake and doesn't know how to fix it."
Deutch, on the other hand, can't help but joke about how concerned she is with being "likable." ("All I do is focus on if I'm likable—I'm an actress!") At the very least, she sounds like a blast to work with. One of Shephard's favorite memories from set was when they were shooting in an AC-less car on the hottest day of the year and Deutch was yelling "Not Okay grassroots campaign! Follow @notokaymovie on Instagram!" out the window in between takes. Deutch blames a heat wave for making them "laugh like crazy" and feel a little delirious that day, but it also might just be because she's freaking funny.
While she kids that it's all because of Jewish generational trauma that some would consider her amusing, it also seems to be ingrained in who she is—naturally a bit sarcastic, and having grown up with parents who appreciate good humor. (Her father is Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch, and her mother is actress/director Lea Thompson.) She says, "Both my parents were the funniest people I know, but I definitely think comedy was how I got attention from my dad. If I made him laugh, I really got his attention. That's probably where the desire to make people laugh has come from."
The actress made her own syllabus of her favorite classic comedies. She cites Molly Shannon as one of her utmost icons, as well as Amy Poehler ("a god"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who she's "in deep, deep love with"), Kathryn Hahn (who she had fun working with on Flower), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. To this day, a handful of iconic comedies remain her favorite films.
"When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I very seriously answer Anchorman," she says. "I'm not a cinephile yet. I hope one day I'll get my shit together and watch the classics, but for now, it's Anchorman and Zoolander on repeat. I know every single line to those movies."
It seems as though Deutch could gush about her love for Ron Burgundy for hours, even as it's time to finish her Russ & Daughters bagel and head to a day full of press for Not Okay. Despite rejecting being called funny, she has to cram in a few more laughs on her way out—taking final sips of her seltzer and saying her "insides are bubbly" and that it's a "total catastrophe" she's not the face of Spindrift. She also can't help but detail every part of what's left of her deli spread, explaining the difference between old and new pickles, Gaspe Nova versus gravlax, insisting that there's no egg in an egg cream, and, obviously, reiterating her love for matzo ball soup. Cozied up in a Russ & Daughters booth or on screen playing an untraditional role, it's inevitable that she'll get a laugh out of you.