Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist star Skylar Astin on the challenge of not singing perfectly
It's no secret that Skylar Astin is a polished performer. He's got the voice of angel and the dance talent to match. But what happens when he has to rein in his professional skills to sing a little less perfectly? That's exactly what he had to do in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.
During the first season of NBC's musical dramedy, Astin's character, Max, performs the Shawn Mendes song "If I Can't Have You" for his BFF Zoey (Jane Levy), declaring his feelings for her. At first, Zoey's annoyed — she's heard this all before, thanks to her superpower of tuning into people's inner thoughts and desires through songs that only she witnesses. She's seen Max declare his love for her through song multiple times now. But halfway through the performance, she realizes that Max is actually singing this song to her — in real life. He's hired a flash mob to help him declare his love for her in a grand romantic gesture. She freaks out and runs off without responding, and Max is left hurt and confused.
The implications of this moment change everything for Max and Zoey's friendship, but the scene itself was important for another reason. Because it's the real Max singing and not the idealized Max in Zoey's head, he couldn't be a professional singer with the pipes of a Broadway star like Astin.
Below, Astin breaks down the challenges of filming that scene, his hopes for season 2, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you find out you'd be doing this musical number not just in Zoey's mind, but as Max in reality?
SKYLAR ASTIN: When we were filming episode 6, Austin [Winsberg, the showrunner] told me that the following episode I was going to be singing a Shawn Mendes song, and he gave me the whole "you're welcome speech" because I have been mentioning how I wanted to do a Shawn Mendes song. And then when he told me the way I'd be singing it, I was like, "Wait, so you're basically giving me exactly what I want, but I'm not allowed to execute it the way I want, really at all?" [Laughs] I was like, "You owe me another Shawn Mendes song, then!" It was interesting because I couldn't bomb the performance, because if I sound off-key or something there's no way Zoey would be able to sit through that for 90 seconds; she'd be like, "Something's off here." So it has to be convincing enough for her, but Max isn't as good of a singer as I am.
How did that change your performance, both in how you sang it and how you danced?
Vocally I couldn't do any embellishments or alternative melodies that somebody who has a lot more musicality than Max would do. And then as far as performance was concerned, Mandy [Moore, the choreographer] gave us very basic, fun flash mob choreography that most people could be able to pick up. But during the performance, I realized that filling it with the pure joy that I was feeling actually gave Max his performance voice. That's who he was with his movements, he was just this fun jelly bean.
What were the challenges you faced in performing this number, since it was so different from what you'd been doing all season?
I had to perform it more straight. I had to kind of square out the melody in a way, but we chose to keep him on tune the entire time because there were definitely conversations about, do we give him sour notes? Do we make it seem really raw? But I think that that wouldn't be pleasing. And why would you go through all that to get the clearance of such a great song like that and not do it somewhat justice? So me, Mandy, Austin, and director Richie Keen, we had a lot of discussions, and that's what we came up with.
What was it like to have hold back to perform it?
Well, it hurt my heart! [Laughs] Because there's a lot of things I wanted to do with that song. What I normally do in the booth is I do the song straight through a few times, and then start to do some cool stuff on the chorus and then some improv stuff, and I didn't get to do that section of the record. We just did it very square and I was like, all right, well, we can't keep doing too many takes because we don't want it to be too good. I think we laid down like four takes full-on, and that was it.
What did you think about how that allowed the show to do a musical number in a new way?
We're always playing with the power and playing with the uses of the power and the receiving of the power. In this way, she's telling someone about her powers, all while he's actually singing to her in real life. I love how we're constantly playing with the genre and expanding the tone of the series, and I think that this musical sequence in this episode really accomplishes that.
That moment is also a huge emotional turning point for the character since he's confessing his love to Zoey. How does that change things for the character?
Any time you perform for somebody, especially privately, it's very vulnerable. You're hoping for a reaction. Even when you do this on a professional stage, you're hoping for a good reaction. And so to be able to do that completely out of your comfort zone, the way Max did, and then she runs away? That changes things forever. Any time you broach the friends-to-more-than-friends line and you cross it, your friendship will never be the same. It's bold. And doing that in kind of a heroic way with this flash mob, I think that's double vulnerable. The fact that she reacts that way and doubts is the start of a lot of awakenings in Max, where he realizes that he's got to stand up for himself. There are several times throughout the first season, starting with episode 7, where Max begins to wake up, and this number is the origin to all of that happening.
How did this moment affect how you played him moving forward?
That's when we started to make Max more three-dimensional. Now the cards are on the table, there's no more secrets, Max knows that she has the power, and he becomes her confidant in that knowledge. All the while, he slowly starts to feel taken for granted now that his feelings are out there and she's never had the proper response. And when he starts to get his career going, she's not as supportive as he would like her to be, and that's really the beginning of Max's independence. And that song is where he gets that off his chest for the first time.
What do you want to see from their relationship in season 2, now that she's finally figured out she loves him back?
I just want it to be earned if they get together, you know? I don't want them to get together out of convenience. They have a real, deep love for each other and if they're going to get together, I don't see them breaking up. They have nothing but time, and we have nothing but time to tell this story. So I'm interested to see the repair that they do on themselves before hopefully giving it a shot and getting together.
What songs do you want to perform in season 2?
There are so many artists that I want to sing. I want to sing female songs like Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine, Taylor Swift, Adele, Bonnie Raitt. And there's so many good ones by men like Bruno Mars, Maroon Five, Shawn Mendes, Troye Sivan, Khalid, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, [Justin] Bieber, tons. It'd be fun to do another boy band song, or another pop song like I did with "Bye Bye Bye," and every season do like a big boy band song. But it has to make sense within the story, and that's always the first rule. So that dictates what songs we sing.
Do you campaign for songs you want to sing? Do you reach out to Austin about that?
There's communication, for sure. He's opened it up to me before and I've also suggested songs, and there was one time where he wanted a certain song and I really didn't want it. [Laughs] So we changed it. But anything I do is because I just love the show and I love the character and the psychology of the character. There's just things you could pick up on. I'm glad that everyone is super-collaborative, and mostly I just get so excited about whatever they give me and I am happy to do it. And I'm up for the challenge.
What was the song that ended up getting changed?
I will tell you that the destination song was "Bye Bye Bye." But I won't say what the song was out of respect for the artist that wrote the song that was picked initially. But hey, we got N'SYNC out of it!
What kinds of conversations have you had with Austin about what we're going to see from Max in season 2?
A bit more about who Max is, even his family life, just going a little deeper and drawing from my own personal experiences. And we'll see where they land. They're just getting the [writers'] room started and we've already explored several different story lines, but they're honing in and laying out the entire season right now, and I really like where they're at from what I've heard so far. We're all very happy and we want it to be on for many years to come as well. We'll make sure that this season is important to us.