Jane Levy on ‘Panic’ and Jim Carrey as Inspiration for Special ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ Episode

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” the eighth episode of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”

“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” thrust Jane Levy back into the spotlight as a leading lady in a broadcast series, but the eighth episode of that NBC dramedy, entitled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” more literally thrust her into a spotlight as the center of six musical numbers.

“It was a huge source of panic for me because I am in practically every scene of the show, and the few scenes I’m not in, it’s either that I’m getting my extensions redone or I’m rehearsing a dance number or doing ADR. I had zero time off for the entire show, so prepping six musical numbers seemed like an impossibility,” Levy tells Variety. “A lot of these people are trained singers and dancers. This is new for me.”

The show started with Levy’s titular Zoey suddenly hearing those around her burst into song, revealing their deepest emotions, be they joyful, angry or sad. It was something she dubbed a new “power” and by which she was at first confused and somewhat uncomfortable, but as time went on it opened her up to have a better understanding of what those around her were going through, and it taught her more about music to boot.

In “Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” after receiving devastating news that her father (Peter Gallagher), who has a rare neurological disorder, is starting to decline, Zoey is the one burst out in song. It begins with a performance of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” as she arrives at her office fresh from the doctor’s appointment, but as she sings and dances her way around, she eventually ends up in front of her friend and coworker Max (Skylar Astin), who wonders why she is singing.

“‘Crazy’ is her trying to walk through the fog of getting terrible news, “Levy says. “Zoey coming to terms with losing her father — that to me is the arc of the whole season and the heart of the show and the core of what Zoey is experiencing.”

The realization that Max can actually hear her throws her for a loop, especially as she can’t control when new songs will burst out of her — from subtly revealing she knows her boss (Lauren Graham) has been seeing one of her employees (Michael Thomas Grant) by crooning “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in the middle of a meeting, to breaking into “Under Pressure” during a new product pitch. She even sings love songs to the men in her life — sweetly sharing “I’m Yours” with Max, hitting on Simon (John Clarence Stewart) with “I Want You To Want Me,” and emotionally pleading to her father with “How Do I Live.”

“In this episode along there was farce, physical comedy, real serious drama, slapstick and then dancing and singing — you don’t get that opportunity that often,” Levy says. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘What a great learning experience for me as an actor.’”

Here, Levy talks with Variety about the process of performing six musical numbers for one episode and how Zoey’s experience here informs her behavior for the rest of the season.

When did you first learn about the idea for this episode, and how did you prep differently for this episode than ones in which you just have to react to other people singing and dancing around you?

While we were shooting the pilot, I remember Austin [Winsberg], our creator and showrunner, was talking about this as an idea. So he had been thinking about this for a long time, and then I’m not sure exactly at which point I found out it was going to happen — probably when we started shooting Episode 2. Me and the choreographers spent three full 10 to 12 hour days working on these numbers. Mandy [Moore] is one of the most fun people to collaborate with, ever. She’s so intelligent; she’s so committed; she’s so creative. A lot of our sessions begin with us talking about it — where do I think Zoey is in this time? — and she watches how our bodies move and we kind of create it together in this organic way that I was surprised by. I thought choreography was like what you see in the movies: some really strict ballet teacher slapping your ass with a ruler or something. But Mandy’s not like that at all, so the most fun part of making this whole show was working with her and her team.

What determined what numbers you started working on first?

I had an assistant director, and she was kind enough to come to me very early on and say, “When do you want to shoot what?” I wanted to get the scene with my dad out of the way first because as an actor when you know you have the big emotional scene, it keeps you up at night, and I didn’t want that to color my experience. So once I got that under my belt, the rest was dancing, which is fun. There’s also whether sets are actually ready for us to rehearse on them. There’s how much of the script we have in preparation, whether I have my scene partner available to rehearse with on that day.

Let’s talk about “How Do I Live” first then. It’s a very emotional performance, but it’s not as physical as the others in the episode. Did that make it more or less challenging?

It was a really interesting experience to cry and sing at the same time! When you’re crying you’re sort of gasping for breath, and singing calls for a lot of breath. We did, I think, half of my takes live where I would sing and my voice would not even come out. We used some of that, which I think is great because I’m not a professional singer, I’m not interested in sounding perfect, I’m interested in telling a story, and my voice is a part of that. If I don’t sound great and my voice is breaking, great, that’s the kind of show that I think we are all making. It’s not music video, perfectly polished musicality; it’s coming from a real need and urge.

How important was it for you to sing live while shooting each number?

“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was live. Part of “How Do I Live” was live, and then parts of “Under Pressure” were live, but the rest I was lip synching, which is a skill in and of itself, and that was new to me as well — selling the acting that you’re actually singing.

What were the conversations like about what Zoey’s voice should sound like when she’s performing these big musical numbers in her mind versus when we see her in reality?

Technically there wasn’t a conversation about how my voice would sound; it was more about what she’s going through. Mandy coined the term “Zoe-ality” while we were making the show, and all of our musical numbers come from Zoey’s perspective, so we were always talking about whether something was reality or “Zoe-ality.” It’s a heart song so it has to be your real, deep, carnal feeling when you are in “Zoe-ality,” so when I was constructing this episode, I would think about what is the deep part? Zoey is someone who is not in touch with her feelings or is constantly running away from her feelings or burying her true feelings so she can be good at her job or not make things fall apart with her awkward personality. So for me, with each of these songs, the “Zoe-ality” had to be a deep desire [but] then when you cut back to reality, you’re back to Zoey covering up her feelings, being the Type A coder girl who’s just trying to solve problems and doesn’t want to really admit what’s going on inside of her, whether it’s her crush on her best friend or wanting to have sex with a coworker or knowing her boss did something unethical.

How is Zoey most changed by this experience? Is this a turning point where, in future episodes, she may break into songs again or with others?

No. [But] I do think that her relationship with her power and these songs changes throughout the series, and as she gets more comfortable with the power, she realizes she has more responsibility with the power and actually just starts to hear the music in life. That’s a metaphor we kept using. Mandy and I talked technically a lot about how do we grow this? Even just with my body language in these numbers, we would talk about how I start to interact differently — Do I touch people? When do I start participating?

Given that both Max and Simon now know Zoey has feelings for them and understand the nature of those feelings, how do their relationships move forward in the coming episodes?

You’ll get a lot more from both relationships. There will be a lot more intimacy between Zoey and Simon, and Zoey and Max. And there is a number in our finale that was one of my favorite things we did and it involves one of them. It is a love scene with two musical numbers and it’s funny and sexy and really cute all at the same time.

What will her relationship with her dad look like now that he’s heard her sing to him and she has to accept his fate?

After this episode you do see her at home a lot more. Zoey and her dad spend more time together. You’ll see him go up and down in the next couple of episodes, which is hard to watch. The finale ends with a six-minute oner, and when I walked off set, because I am in the last part of that oner, there were 50 people crying. So I will say that you get a really satisfying, beautiful number that was an incredible feat by Mandy Moore.

How do you feel most changed by this experience? Was there one particular musical number that you found really rewarding?

“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is a particular flavor to the humor. I walked off set after doing that, straight to our writer Samantha [McIntyre], and I was like, “I feel so seen. There’s something about this number that is my true essence.” I guess it’s like the bizarreness to it. I got to be like Jim Carrey for a day; we kept talking about “Liar Liar” as an inspiration for that scene. But it’s also endearing and sweet. There’s something so specific about that number [that] I’m not sure I’ll ever get to do anything like that again.

“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC.