Is it Skylar Astin‘s mission to be involved with every single musical project in Hollywood?
From the Pitch Perfect franchise to taking over the role of Greg Serrano in the final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to playing musical male lead on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, that’s certainly what it feels like. And while Astin made the most of his one-episode appearance on Glee with a show-stopping performance in 2014, he tried to be even more involved in that groundbreaking musical dramedy five years earlier.
“I actually auditioned for the pilot of Glee when I was in New York doing theater,” Astin tells EW. “And I definitely lost out on several other roles of course. But it’s really nice when you get to do [musical movies and shows] because it’s something I understand and do pretty well and really enjoy doing.”
On NBC’s new musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Astin plays Max, the good-natured and easy-going best friend of the titular Zoey (Jane Levy). Max is completely unaware that Zoey accidentally gained a new “superpower” to hear the inner thoughts and desires of everyone around her through song and dance … so he has no idea that she now knows he’s in love with her. All he knows is that she’s suddenly pushing him away with no warning or explanation. And yet he still takes everything with a smile. Could he really be that perfect, or is a major friendship reckoning coming?
EW got Astin not only to look back on his journey from starring on Broadway to Pitch Perfect to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and everything in between but also to tease why Max is definitely going to be one to watch on the new hour-long musical series — despite seemingly getting the short end of the stick all of the time in his friendship with Zoey. Plus, for the perfect recap of the series premiere as well as behind-the-scenes interviews with all the stars and creator Austin Winsberg, check out our exclusive video above now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re obviously no stranger to playing the male lead in a musical project. But from Pitch Perfect to Crazy Ex to Zoey’s, how is this role different from all the ones you’ve played in the past?
SKYLAR ASTIN: Max has the furthest to go. Eh, actually if I’m thinking about Greg Serrano, he had the furthest to go but [Pitch Perfect’s] Jesse is younger obviously than all of them, and he has that fire and ambition and fun, carefree attitude that I really appreciate and resonate with. Max takes that carefree attitude and actually lacks ambition. You see in the pilot that he says he doesn’t think he’s manager of engineering material and he’s fine with that. That kind of says a lot about him, that he’s coasting. Jesse sees the good in everything and Max is more complacent. Max has more places to go. As far as Greg is concerned, I really got to do the 2.0 version where he was sober and righting the ship in his life. He had quite the journey but [laughs] I didn’t take the first part of it.
So despite being in every musical project in Hollywood ever, what are you getting to do with this show that you’ve never gotten to do before?
I got to sing opera in an episode — I sing opera in my life but never really anywhere other than stage and that’s musical theater opera at that, so that was really nice. I just want to keep dancing. I dance in the numbers that I have done and I’ve talked to [choreographer] Mandy Moore just the other day while we were hanging out and I was like, “Hey, season 2 I want to dance! Like a real dance piece.” That’s the challenge that I’m up for.
The dancing on Zoey’s is also unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a musical series before. It feels like a real live performance each time.
Mandy was really adamant from day one that she wants the dance to be seen and part of the language and really showcased and not all musical shows and movies do that. You’ll notice that we don’t do a lot of cuts in our musical numbers, it’s a lot of steady cam. It’s a fluid motion and that not only showcases the dance and performance but also because it’s from Zoey’s perspective, we should really feel like we’re in that room. If you cut it up too much, that feels more like a music video. That’s something that everyone wanted to avoid.
That’s exactly what I was going to say — it doesn’t feel like a music video at all!
And the amount of time we have to do it is a different situation entirely. We do our best and have great people in charge, so that helps.
I can’t even imagine how grueling the shooting schedule must be for you with all those big group numbers. How has filming this show compared to Crazy Ex and the Pitch Perfect movies?
Since I joined Crazy Ex in season 4, it was as well-oiled of a machine as anything ever could be. We’re just dealing with season 1 stuff, infrastructure-wise [on Zoey’s]. And everyone just cares so much and everyone is really working their butts off. A lot of times that can complicate things but also make it special. We definitely have that compromise on the show.
Now let’s dive deep into your character Max because I feel so bad for him after the series premiere. Without seeing things from Zoey’s perspective, he’s getting treated pretty badly by his best friend. But he takes it all with a smile. Is he really just that good of a person or are we going to learn more about what he’s going through later?
Without giving too much away, I will say that your concern is warranted and I think it’s something that in real time, Max understands for himself. That smile does start to fade and he does feel taken for granted and pushed aside. How he deals with that is in an interesting way. I can’t really reveal too much about that but Max definitely deepens when he starts to look inward rather than within Zoey’s experience and go, “Who the hell am I? How do I actually feel about all of this?” Rather than putting it in someone else’s hands. I love the journey he takes, with and without Zoey.
Obviously, viewers can understand she’s pushing Max away because she has so much going on in life and can’t add a confusing love story with her best friend to the pile. But since he doesn’t know her thoughts and reasoning, anyone in his shoes would be hurt. What’s going through his mind during all of this?
It’s complex because at this point, he’s not aware that Zoey’s aware of his crush. It’s conflicting. While he is supportive of her relationship with Simon [John Clarence Stewart] and everything that’s going on in her life, he doesn’t really know how to deal with it or how to reveal to her how he feels.
You have this amazing song and dance number coming up — not only is it completely in Italian, you do it all while balancing a bunch of coffee cups. How long did it take you to get that number down?
I recorded it a couple days before we shot it. I wanted to make sure that was really done properly because it’s technical and it’s classical. I probably did about eight takes of “Con Te Partirò” when I normally do around four. I just wanted to make sure I had everything perfectly. It’s kind of funny how when you memorize something like that, even if it’s in another language, you’ll always know it.
Did you know Italian before tackling that song?
I sang an Andrea Bocelli song for my International Honors Society — humblebrag — so I have had some experience singing his stuff. And I also studied a little bit of opera with a voice teacher when I was in high school. I do know some of the ways in which you’re supposed to attack certain aspects of the language.
What was it like filming that upcoming scene?
It was pure fun. People always ask me if I’m thinking about the moment and the challenge, and really what I was thinking about was my jeté and making sure I’m to the right of the desk so Bradley our camera operator can get by.
And I have to ask — were any of the coffee cups actually filled with liquid when you were filming or were they empty?
They were filled with liquid! But there was a little bit of tack on the bottom to make sure they stayed in the cupholder. Actually, the one that I hand Jane was filled pretty high and there were a couple takes where I think I splashed her a little bit. It was just water but like, hey man, we don’t have to fill this to the brim. But since I’m handing her one, they wanted it to feel like the real weight of a coffee cup. That drives me nuts when I see movies — hey guys, you’re holding a beverage and you’re holding it like upside down, basically. Insane.
What songs are coming up for you this season that you’re really excited about?
I do sing mostly all genres — I’m down to do a country song. I got to do a really popular boy band song this year which was fun to do my boy band thing. Pop, rock, soul, ballads, I really want to sing female singer songs. I love repurposing when covering songs so we should go as deep possible — change keys, change tempos, change genders and really have fun with it. We’ve only done season 1 so far but we already have a lot of really fun ideas for season 2. They’re not specific songs but just where we want to go musically is really exciting. I just hope that this continues to go on because I think we have a deep well of opportunity.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist returns on Sunday, Feb. 16 with an encore of the premiere at 8 p.m. and episode 2 at 9 p.m. on NBC.