Speaking to Zoe Levin of the series Bonding was a really fun opportunity because not only does she deliver a scalding performance on the Netflix and Blackpills series, but also has been a standout performer in Red Band Society, and in the films Palo Alto and Beneath The Harvest Sky (which debuted the same year at TIFF in the Discovery program). Bonding audiences are really taking notice of her sort of “dual” roles as Tiff and Mistress May, and Levin could not have been more generous in our phone chat, opening up exclusively to Brief Take about her acting philosophy in a surprising and revealing conversation.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our talk with the extremely talented Zoe Levin.
Brief Take: Did you know early on what this project was going to be?
Zoe Levin: The thing is I really believed in the project, and the story and the script was amazing to me. All you can do is your job and show up and bring your characters to life. My goal is to make something for which I was really proud and to work closely with Rightor (Doyle) and Brendan (Scannell). I’m so proud of the work that we did together and it’s so awesome because everyone can see it. I also thought that the world that Rightor created was super bright and creative and interesting, and so it wasn’t “let’s find a place to shoot”, he had everything set up so perfectly—down to the tape in the background that was red. [laughs] You don’t always realize what goes into these little shots and to be specific and to make it all come to life.
BT: What does filming in New York bring to the experience?
ZL: It’s actually kind of interesting because most of the jobs that I book are in New York, [laughs] which is kind of funny and weird. But I think it’s based in New York and I don’t think that it would have worked anywhere else, because it’s the hustle and the bustle of the city-side, and there are so many people on the streets of New York that are walking around that have so many stories that you don’t know. That’s something that added to the duality of these characters. You wouldn’t normally think that they’re a dominatrix behind closed doors, but that’s really how it is in New York: you never know.
BT: Do you think that it was a conscious decision to have duality present throughout?
ZL: I think that it’s something to which I relate in my real life, wearing these different masks: one mask as an actor, being a daughter, being a friend, and myself to the public and myself to my friends. It’s always an interesting dynamic to me to uncover and especially when it is so glaring in a character like Tiff, I thought that it was really fun to explore both sides of it because they are so different, but there’s also a little bit that shines through in both characters. There is a little bit of Mistress May that shines through in Tiff, and there’s a little bit of Tiff that shines through when she is Mistress May, and finding those moments was a lot of fun.
BT: It seems like your career path has taken you to roles such as Bonding.
ZL: That’s kind of interesting about the career path that I’ve taken as it seems like the roles that click with me are the ones that kind of parallel my life in a lot of ways. I’ve been able to grow up in my career and the parts that appealed to me five years ago don’t necessarily appeal to me any more. So finding these stories that match up to my real life, it’s really interesting how it is serendipitous that I’ve gotten to grow up with the roles. And I’d love to write and hopefully direct one day, but that’s a whole other beast that I gotta try to tackle. [laughs] But I’m just really open to anything, especially after doing a role like that…it was scary and it was challenging and I hope that I get to do those kind of roles for the rest of my career, because that’s what makes it fun and scary, but also thrilling.
BT: You recognize the duality present and do you think this is a theme throughout a lot of your roles?
ZL: Yeah, I think my roles have had that present, definitely Kara in Red Band Society, because she was the mean girl with the ironically large heart, and her vulnerability had to really shine through to show how scared she was. Also with Palo Alto, this reputation of this girl being slutty at school, but she’s actually just trying to find her way to fit in and doesn’t know how to show love other than through her sexuality. I rarely do jobs that don’t have these sides to the characters, and I’m so lucky and grateful that I’ve been able to work with awesome directors and writers that let these girls have all of these different sides to them.
BT: And you filmed without a specific order?
ZL: That’s the crazy thing about film, which is that I have a theatre background. I started out working in Chicago in the Theatre District. That was one of the weirder things to me—being on camera, I didn’t necessarily understand and this being one of my first leads, it was especially hard, because she’s in almost every scene, except for her off-days when Brendan had his love story going with Theo. But it made it difficult, because the first three days we shot were in the school, so she’s Tiff in school and then she’s Mistress May in school, so we had to switch back and forth. The costumes really helped with getting me in that space because when she suits up in her Mistress May stuff—her armour, almost—that was super helpful to get me in and out of it.
BT: How did you and Brendan discover your dynamic so quickly?
ZL: I think that it was kind of amazing. I think that Rightor is very good at casting, if I do say so myself. But he really knew what would mesh well, and luckily Brendan and I got along really, really well and we spent so much time together, because it was not that gigantic of a budget as we didn’t shoot it through Netflix. But we had all of these little moments on set together that brought us close.
BT: Do you have mentors in your professional life?
ZL: I mean all the women that I’ve worked with in my career, I’ve been so lucky. I did a play Off-Broadway with Sarah Jessica Parker, (Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola), and she is one of the most amazing women that I have ever met. I would always think to myself: What would Sarah Jessica think or say about this? How would she approach this kind of a problem? because she’s such a boss bitch, so kind and gentle and smart, and that’s the kind of woman that I want to be—really professional, like she’s one of the most famous people in the world and she’s so grounded and real, so that was amazing.
BT: What did you take from this yourself watching this project?
ZL: I actually didn’t see the project until a month ago. It was interesting because we shot it a long time ago, so it was such a whirlwind that I honestly feel like I blacked out a little bit, like I forget what happened. [laughs] So I’m so happy that I waited to watch it, because then it was kind of surprising and special. I saw it in a screening with an audience and it was really fun to see how they reacted. I kind of felt like I was watching it with fresh eyes because that was really fun for me and different.
BT: Did it turn out in the way that you remember?
ZL: Yeah, there were a lot of things that felt that way. It took me a while to get out of that character, in which I feel like once I got out of her [laughs] I kind of forgot how I was just acting in the moment. But the way that Brendan and I were with each other was really special to me. I was like “Whoa, I look so relaxed on camera”, which is not usually what I am thinking, but for some reason, I felt really, really comfortable on the set, and I was able to chill, I guess, just by watching it. It was interesting watching this one, because I felt so far away from it now. I think that I learned a lot from watching it, and there are definitely things that—even within the year and a half that it took to come out—I’ve grown up since then in ways, and I’ve noticed things about myself that I am like “Wow, that just shows how much I’ve grown and changed since doing this role”.
BT: Are you getting a lot of positive feedback from viewers?
ZL: Yeah, I get so many DMs, and pretty much all of them are really positive, and while people may not be actual dominatricies, they write how much they related to the characters, to the story. And I get a lot of “Tiff is me, I don’t know why, she is just me”, and I get that, because I’m not a dominatrix in real life, but I related to it so much when I read it, like it was weird. But that was the goal of the whole series, which was to make it really human and real, so yeah, the response has been really awesome. And then there’s of course the weird ones, that are like “Show me your feet”. [laughs]
BT: Where do you draw the line between public and private?
ZL: I feel like there is one scene in which we are out on a date, Tiff and Doug, and she’s like “sorry, like what you said, everyone has stories. I just want to keep mine, mine.” So it’s this balancing act of when is it time to share these vulnerable things with the world, or is this something I share with the world? And letting people know your authentic self without blasting yourself all over the place.
BT: Would you be open to revisiting the world of Bonding?
ZL: Oh yeah, totally! I mean I’m hoping that happens. I would just love to work again with Rightor and Brendan and keep exploring this fun, funky world that we have created. So yeah, I’m totally game!
Bonding is now streaming on Netflix