NEW YORK — Change of plans.
Zooey Deschanel, star of the sassy new Fox comedy “New Girl,” was supposed to meet with a reporter for breakfast after her appearance Thursday morning on “Live With Regis and Kelly.” A throng of paparazzi trailed her from the studio to an Upper West Side restaurant a few blocks away, where the reporter was waiting.
This was not going to work. Deschanel stayed put in the big, black SUV, while her handlers scooped up the reporter at Cafe Luxembourg’s front door to make their escape.
Plan B: head to downtown Manhattan for the interview, fleeing the paparazzi in the process.
But three of her bicycle-riding pursuers were not giving up so easily.
“The Tour de France,” said Deschanel, peering through her window as those cyclists scrambled to stick with the SUV. “Tour de Zooey!”
Meanwhile, another paparazzo in a white van stuck close behind, speaking into the cell phone he held, clearly not hands free, clapped to his ear.
“That’s not legal,” Deschanel cracked. “I’m making a citizen’s arrest.”
While her publicist called to arrange an alternate breakfast site and the SUV’s driver inched through the traffic with its unsought entourage, Deschanel registered a mix of amusement and amazement that this kind of thing could be happening to her.
“I am NOT very famous,” she laughed.
Even so, at 31, Deschanel is a seasoned actress who has logged mainstream credits (“Elf,” ”Yes Man”) as well as the art-house fare (“Almost Famous,” ”(500) Days of Summer,” ”Our Idiot Brother”) with which she is more closely identified.
Deschanel comes from show-biz stock that includes her Oscar-nominated cinematographer father, Caleb, and her actress mother, Mary Jo, as well as sister Emily, who stars on the long-running Fox crime series “Bones.”
She is megapretty with her trademark raven bangs, creamy skin and blue eyes that seem in a state of perpetual surprise.
A refreshingly normal person sparked by an endearingly iconoclastic style, she reigns with indie cred: filmdom’s “alt-heroine,” as New York magazine put it in a recent Deschanel cover story. She is, however, confronting the prospect of big-time stardom (and the glare of fame that comes with it) on a big-time network TV hit.
Her series premieres 9 p.m. Tuesday, but befitting the promotional push that Fox has given it (she gratefully salutes her network as “very, very cool”) the “New Girl” pilot is already on view as a free download from iTunes.
On the show, she plays Jess Day, a schoolteacher who is goofy, good-natured and unguarded in her dealings with the world, particularly tone-deaf with respect to men. When she catches her boyfriend in their apartment with another woman, she bolts for new quarters that she finds on Craigslist. It is a spacious loft she will share with three guys (played by Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield and, replacing Damon Wayans Jr., after the pilot, Lamorne Morris) who, despite their reservations, welcome her as surrogate big brothers. (After the pilot, Wayans returns to his ABC sitcom, “Happy Endings,” returning for its second season.)
Jess is the sort of gal who sings to herself her own theme song (“Who’s that girl? It’s Jess!”); who mourns her breakup by watching “Dirty Dancing” while she blubbers a half-dozen times a day; who sets her hair on fire with her curling iron; who greets a strange man in a bar with, “Hey, sailor!”
“Well, I guess I can’t hide my crazy,” Jess laments to one of her roomies after her latest foible.
For “New Girl” to succeed (and many critics think it succeeds brilliantly, listing it among their fall favorites), the viewer must believe that a beautiful girl can also be such a dork that her social life (and general well-being) are routinely upended.
“Here’s the thing: You can be a nerd and be awkward, AND be attractive at the same time,” Deschanel said. It was a half-hour after the chase began and, unable to shake the paparazzi, she had graciously let them snap her on the sidewalk outside Balthazar, her Soho substitute restaurant where now she was settling into a banquette. “Being attractive and smooth are not mutually exclusive.
“Jess is a person who spent six years with the same guy. She’s not a dater. And now she’s being put out there in a way she’s never been before. She’s a little bit guileless and tries to see the best in people,” Deschanel added with a laugh, “and you know THAT always goes wrong!
“She’s different from me in some ways,” Deschanel went on, her hands flying and head bobbing with gusto, “but there’s a part of myself that really is her: 13-year-old me was very much Jess — optimistic, excited all the time. A lot of these things that Jess is, I feel like are at my core.
“I made a career being cast as smart-aleck-type characters, but I’m not sarcastic at all. I’m not ironic. I’m very sincere, generally. So this role played into a part of myself that I hadn’t been using on the screen.”
Deschanel’s love life seems happily fulfilled. Two years ago she married Ben Gibbard, front man for the rock band Death Cab for Cutie. And she has supplemented her acting career by teaming with M. Ward in a folk-rock duo, She & Him, which has a Christmas holiday record coming out this year.
Zooey-watchers marvel: Without getting into scrapes, with no scandalous headlines, Deschanel charts her own course, staying cool, collecting adorers and, in a culture of copycats, retaining her sense of self.
Now she waits to discover how “New Girl” and the higher prominence it might bring impact on Zooey Deschanel.
“I haven’t quite seen yet what that does to my personal life and freedom,” she said, noting with a chuckle, “This has been my first weird paparazzi chase. But I think it was just a weird fluke. I really think those guys just wanted the exercise.”