‘Not Okay’ Star Zoey Deutch Discusses Producing the Dark Comedy and the Test Screening Note That Changed It

For Zoey Deutch, it’s all about the details.

The actor-turned-producer returns to the screen Friday in Quinn Shephard’s dark comedy Not Okay, and she plays Danni Sanders, a depressed young woman who Photoshops her way to Paris to impress an influencer (Dylan O’Brien). However, Danni’s plans quickly go awry when a terrorist attack coincides with her whereabouts, and instead of telling the truth, she opts to pose as a trauma survivor, achieving the overnight fame and attention she thought she always wanted. 

As an executive producer on the Searchlight Pictures project for Hulu, Deutch welcomed the added responsibility. 

“When I did Buffaloed and Not Okay, I was at the center of these movies, so I wanted to know everything that was going on because every little thing matters. So I’d rather have a seat at the table than beg for one,” Deutch tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In 2019, Deutch received rave reviews for her portrayal of Madison in Zombieland: Double Tap, and director Ruben Fleischer recently reiterated to THR that a Madison spinoff is very much of interest to him. Naturally, Deutch would welcome another turn as the world’s last-remaining Valley girl.

“I would love to put the ‘Von Deutch’ attire back on, for lack of a better pun,’ Deutch jokes in regard to Madison’s Von Dutch clothing. “That experience was so fun, and I’ve been begging Ruben [Fleischer] to put me in a movie of his again. But yeah, I would love to play Madison again. She’s such a character.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Deutch also opens up about how TikTok became her best friend and worst enemy during the making of Not Okay. Then she explains how a test screening impacted the movie in a significant way.

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A few months ago, Dylan O’Brien told me the story of how the two of you first discussed Not Okay on the set of The Outfit, and that’s when I learned that you’re a producer now. So what prompted you to move in this direction a few years ago?

Well, my first experience was producing a film [The Year of Spectacular Men] that my sister [Madelyn Deutch] wrote and my mother [Lea Thompson] directed, and that made me realize how much I love doing it. I’m a very detail oriented person. I’m a control freak. I love artists and I have a lot of really amazing artists in my life. So it was such a fun opportunity to be able to put people that I respect and love to work, and to also be involved and a part of all these little decisions along the way that make a movie work. When I did Buffaloed and Not Okay, I was at the center of these movies, so I wanted to know everything that was going on because every little thing matters. So I’d rather have a seat at the table than beg for one.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

On the producing side of things, what was the biggest test you faced throughout the making of Not Okay?

Shooting in New York City is no easy feat. We were also on location during the summer. I’m sure you’ve heard tales of people bragging about how hard “insert movie” was to shoot. (Laughs.) I always laugh at film festivals because it’s a competition of whose movie had less time and less money and was more difficult. So it was just the elements that we faced. We would have six-to-eight pages one day, and then there’d be a thunderstorm. So we’d have to shut down for four hours, and then we’d have to figure out how to get those hours back. Those kinds of things kept happening to us, which made it challenging. I tried my best to stay focused as a producer in prep, pre-production and post, so I could then try to focus entirely on the acting while we were in production, but this one was hard not to be involved.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The marketing really stood out to me as well.

Quinn and I were obsessed with meta marketing and creating a Not Okay TikTok, and it’s obviously unconventional for a studio movie to release information ahead of time about the costumes, the sets, the characters, the actors. They usually want to keep all that under wraps until the right time, but we were really interested in the experiment of parceling out information on TikTok, without telling people what the movie is even about. And it worked. Searchlight was really supportive of it, too. So we were actually very focused on that as well, and it was a very interesting experiment.

The content warning at the beginning of the movie is quite interesting because it sets the tone right away that Danni is “unlikable.” Even the song over the title card says, “You’re gonna hate me.” So what was the discussion around that self-aware choice?

If I’m being honest, that warning was born out of a test screening. People were unsure of what to think about her, and now, the content warning entirely changes the experience of the viewer. It’s also part of the satire, at least from our perspective. It’s like, “We have to tell you that she’s unlikable and that makes it okay? Now you can watch her because you know she’s unlikable?” Whereas when you watch movies like American Psycho or The Wolf of Wall Street, these are brutally unlikable men, but we’re never concerned with that. So it did change the experience for viewers which I thought was so interesting. 

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

I still felt a bit of compassion for her because there are so many people just like her who’ve become trapped by social media’s endless popularity contest. Was that one of your ways into her? 

I was interested in exploring what was motivating her desire for followers and online fame. I was so much more interested in her deep desire for this guy at work to just know her name. I was also interested in why her whole world shifts when her mom says “I love you.” She hadn’t heard her mom say, “I love you and I’m proud of you,” maybe ever. So I was most interested in what makes someone want these things.

I thought it was really smart to include Mia Isaac’s character because it shows that the movie is not trivializing real trauma survivors. In another era, the storytellers probably would’ve let Danni off the hook a little more, but this movie believes in accountability, which is nice for a change. Since I failed to ask a question, I’m hoping you’ll “yes-and” me.

(Laughs.) Yes, accountability! Exactly. Rowan [Mia Isaac] is our hero. She’s our protagonist, who has a full arc and journey. She’s the opposite of Danni in that she’s authentic, and that’s the most surprising thing about her to Danni. Rowan is vulnerable and brave, which is not easy to do, but she does it. So Danni is enamored by the authenticity of this person and the way she leads her life with honesty. Of course, Danni thinks she wants fame and attention and this guy and to not feel so lonely, and when she gets it all and loses it all, she realizes that the only thing she really lost was a true friend. It was the first time she’s felt like she ever had a true friend. So that’s her heartbreak, and she realizes it at the end of the movie. That is the growth. It’s realizing that she was seeking connection, and she did everything wrong to attain it.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Danni and Rowan’s confrontation was quite affecting even though we can’t hear what’s being said. Was that always the plan?

It was scripted that you wouldn’t hear the dialogue, so the fight we were having is all improv. This is Mia Isaac’s second movie ever, and she blew me away in that scene, with what she was doing and accessing. And it wasn’t for show. We thought it was a super-wide shot and that none of the dialogue would be used, but she just destroyed me. So I absolutely wasn’t acting. I was just heartbroken by what she was doing and feeling.

You’re fairly active on social media. You share your work and offer glimpses of your life, including oversized bandages.

(Laughs.)

So to ask the terribly obvious question, has this movie changed the way you use these platforms?

I wish I could honestly say it’s drastically changed the way I use them. I think I’m much more judgmental of myself now, but I would be lying if I said it changed my relationship to social media and my endless scrolling of Twitter. I’m bad about that, for sure.

You knew this movie was relevant when you were making it, but sadly, it’s become a whole lot more relevant since you wrapped. To put it mildly, has it been interesting to watch your movie evolve in real time?

During a Q&A the other night, Quinn said something that I thought was interesting. She was like, “I started writing this in 2018, and I was afraid that none of it would be relevant anymore. But it’s much worse than that. Everything is way more relevant now.” So it’s pretty wild.

Danni and Colin (Dylan O’Brien) smoke a ridiculous-looking joint at one point. Is that actually a thing?

(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s called a scorpion joint.

Wow, what a name.

(Laughs.) Dylan has a massive fanbase, and there were so many people filming us while we were shooting that scene. It was honestly distracting. And later that night, someone sent me a TikTok that had gone viral. Even that word is annoying by the way. Just saying the word “viral” makes me cringe. I physically feel my body tense up. Anyway, it went v-i-r-a-l, and it was a video of the obnoxious laugh that Danni gave him at the end of the scene. Danni was embarrassed and laughed really hard. So, someone videoed me doing that and put it on TikTok, saying, “Who’s this loser embarrassing herself in front of the Dylan O’Brien?” So everybody was mocking me, and I wanted to comment, “It’s me! I’m in the movie.” But that would be very Danni of me because that’s something she literally does in the movie. (Laughs.)

Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Shifting gears, I was the one who originated the Madison-Zombieland spinoff talk with Ruben Fleischer, and I even followed up on it this year with him. Since he’s clearly interested, is it safe to say that you are open to putting on her Von Dutch attire again?

I would love to put the “Von Deutch” attire back on, for lack of a better pun. 

I was hoping you’d say that.

(Laughs.) I had to! You set me up. That experience was so fun, and I’ve been begging Ruben to put me in a movie of his again. But yeah, I would love to work with him again and play Madison again. She’s such a character.

As far as I’m concerned, you and Glen Powell revived the romantic comedy by way of Set It Up, and I was certain that you guys would keep a good thing going and re-team pretty quickly. But Glen told me recently that some projects kind of came and went. So are you still trying to figure it out? 

I hope, down the line, we’ll be able to make another movie in that genre. It might not be now, but I would certainly love to find something to do together again.

In 60 years, when you’re telling stories by a crackling fireplace, what day on Not Okay will you likely recall first? 

I don’t want to sound like an overly sensitive, self-important actor, but even though it’s a dark comedy, I played this much more like a drama. I played it very seriously. The scene of Danni walking to the elevator and crying after the confrontation that you mentioned, I was hysterical and so distraught. And when I got into the elevator, Quinn came over to give me a note because we wanted to run a series. I was emotional and I was crying so much, so we didn’t want to cut. So Quinn also got in the elevator, the elevator door closed, and we got stuck in the elevator. And we were still rolling, but nobody came to get us for ten minutes. Apparently, they thought we were having a deep discussion about the scene. Meanwhile, we were down two floors, banging on the elevator door, yelling, “Let us out! Let us out!” And neither of us had phones because I was in the scene and Quinn was directing. So we had no way to contact the AD, and I guess I wasn’t mic’d because we were just using the boom. So it was truly hilarious because nobody came to get us, and there were a hundred people around because the whole office was filled with cast and crew. So we finally came out of the elevator, and everyone was like, “Are you guys good? Were you guys fighting? What’s going on?” But I was distraught because I had just been hysterically crying for the last five minutes in the scene, and then I got stuck in the elevator. So my body was so confused about what to feel, and it was truly a bizarre moment.

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Not Okay is now available on Hulu. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.