Skylar Astin Dishes on the Magic of 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' and a Realistic Love Triangle (Exclusive)
Warning: Do not proceed if you have not watched Sunday's episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.
One more person is in on Zoey's superpowers.
On Sunday's delightful episode of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, the eponymous heroine (Jane Levy) was forced to spill the beans to her best friend and co-worker, Max (Skylar Astin), about her secret ability to hear everyone's truest thoughts and emotions through big musical numbers. At first, Max called her bluff, thinking it was all made up, but later realized -- after an illuminating chat with Zoey's neighbor, Mo (Alex Newell) -- that Zoey wasn't fibbing at all.
It all came out after Max, who has been quietly vying for Zoey's affections all season (let's not forget about Simon!), performed an impressive flash mob number to Shawn Mendes' "If I Can't Have You" in the middle of a food court to confess his love for Zoey, only to be royally shut down. As Zoey told him later, her answer to whether they should start a relationship is "messy," partly due to her fear that she'd lose her friend if something goes awry. Obviously, that wasn't the answer Max was hoping for, and while Zoey asked if things could remain the same, like their movie nights, he wasn't taking the bait. So, with a big question mark on Zoey and Max's relationship, where does this leave them?
Following Sunday's episode, Astin -- who took time out of self-quarantine to hop on the phone with ET ("It's nice to do something else, talk about something else") amid the coronavirus outbreak -- broke down the crucial hour, including the importance of Zoey's confession, how it affects her relationship (and friendship) with Max moving forward and more.
ET: Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is such a bright spot on television right now. Do you feel the same way?
Skylar Astin: I am so happy to hear you say that, because I definitely feel that way. I think the show is spectacular and so different. And what would be so terrible is if we thought we were sitting on being the high-concept, new, different, magical show and everyone's like, "Oh, I've seen that same thing a million times." But that hasn't been the case, and I'm so glad audiences have taken to it.
You've had a lot of experience in the musical theater world, with Spring Awakening and Pitch Perfect. How is this show different from the what you've done before?
I think that the way that music is introduced and interwoven throughout our show is different. A lot of the other musical TV shows or movies like Pitch Perfect and Glee, oftentimes they make mention of a riff-off or a national, regional competition that's coming up. So the music doesn't take you by surprise as much. It's more set up and the narrative focuses more on the competition aspect, whereas our show really is a musical, where the music comes from a slightly more cerebral place. It is a true surprise every time the music comes. It's never convenient, which makes it a little messy too.
The show asks a lot of you as actors to suspend disbelief. How do you make sense of the world sometimes, because it can be quite fantastical?
There are some tricky realities that we have to play. There are times where I am supposed to be completely negligent to an entire musical number that's going on around me and there are other times where we get to play with the musical reality. Playing the flash mob scene was a little tricky at first because Max is singing as Max, not as Zoey's musical version of Max -- we've seen him do several numbers at this point. So me and the director Richie were talking about, "What does Max sound like when he's not in Zoey's real point of view?" And we didn't want to make him tone deaf and sing off-key, because that would not be pleasing. Why would you spend all the money on a Shawn Mendes song and not sing it remotely correct? So we made Max able to carry a tune. No fun Skylar embellishments like I did in "Sucker" or in "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." We sang it more straight-toned, straight melody and kept it vague, because it's supposed to convince even Zoey, who sees full-on Broadway musicals and movie musicals on a daily basis.
It's supposed to convince her that this is her typical "Zoe-ality," so threading that needle was tricky. There were little things like that, because tone is so important on this show. If you are explaining some of these plot lines or even reading it on the page, it can go either way. And thankfully, the writers had the foresight, the directors and [choreographer] Mandy Moore, our DP and our camera department all really come together in this beautiful marriage and we all made this really cool thing happen.
Can you talk about filming that particular scene, because it is a big number to pull off. What was it like filming on the day?
Randomly, the song itself and the filming of it was so organized, quick and fearless. We must have done four to five takes of it all in total. And it was always solid. There are so many moving parts in that number. Mandy and the entire flash mob worked on it for a day and then they plugged me in the night before we shot it and taught me all the movements. Since all of the movements were very clean and concise and flash mobby, it was really clear. Mandy made a really navigable but exciting road map for me in that number, and there was never any hitch.
Max and Simon have different relationships with Zoey. How has this love triangle evolved since the start of the show to where it is now? After this episode, you can see both sides of the coin and they're both realistic matches for Zoey.
John [Clarence Stewart] and I talk about this all the time and never wanting to make it feel like a competition or a choice. Because that doesn't only preserve our characters, but it really protects Zoey. Zoey is nobody's prize and she's nobody's to claim or win over. So we do love the idea that there's a Team Max and Team Simon thing. But we tend to, when in performance, really take care of each other. There are scenes that Simon and Max have down the line and they have some difficult conversations. There's an obvious way to play all those scenes; they can be sizing each other up, looking at each other up and down, a game-on type of mentality. John and I have never seen it that way.
I remember we went on a long walk on the beach and we talked about Max and Simon, who they are and what their potential could be as people in each other's lives. And it can get difficult because, while you have a respect for somebody, when somebody is getting to experience the thing that you want so desperately, it can get ugly and it can get complex. At the end of the day, John and I always want to maintain a real level of respect with these two men.
We have the scene in the elevator and it's very clear that things have shifted between Max and Simon a little bit. Can you hint at what we can expect for them as they navigate their dynamic following this episode?
People say that Max has a leg up after [this episode] and I know where it goes. I knew where [episode] 7 lies in the scheme of all of that... I think episode 3 even ends with Mo saying, "Well, looks like I'm back on Team Simon." There's so much to love about John and Simon, and it's such an amazing character, so I have a feeling that the pendulum could always swing back the other way. But yeah, I think at the end of 7, it's where things are headed with Max and Zoey and I think that deepening of that relationship gives Max that feeling of having a leg up.
This is a big episode for you, because Max is finally let into Zoey's secret that she can hear people's inner thoughts in big musical numbers. How does that change the relationship between Max and Zoey?
What I love about Max and Zoey is that even though she's pressured in that moment, she still does feel like she can tell Max. I think that that says a lot about their friendship and about their relationship. There's only very few people that know about this superpower that she has. I's very brave and daring of her to do that. The cards are out on the table now; she can't ever make any excuses for why she's acting a certain way towards him. It's really bold.
Because he knows that his innermost feelings are there for her to see, does that affect how he acts around her?
There's two ways of seeing it. There's, "Oh my God, thank you so much for telling me. Now everybody knows and everybody can live happily ever after." Or there's the feeling of, "Wow, there's been a betrayal. You're telling me you knew all this stuff?" As Zoey begins to let people in on her powers throughout the season, it's going to be interesting to see what people are really there for her and are understanding, and what people can't handle this new information.
What has been the most gratifying musical number you've gotten to experience or be a part of so far this season?
I loved doing the opening number to episode two, "I've Got the Music in Me," because I love the idea of the rug pull that our writers [wrote]. It made me laugh on the page. And I swear to God, every time that piano falls on her, I laugh. I mean, it's just so ridiculous. I love us saying to our audience, "This is what our show could be, but it totally isn't." I just remember I had a perma-smile. I was just like, "I'm going to make Max happy and living on air," because why not? We get this opportunity to show our audience something that they're not going to see anywhere else.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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