Zooey Deschanel, daughter of a six-time Oscar nominee, claims she’s not a nepo baby

Zooey Deschanel and her sister Emily Deschanel are both very successful actresses. Emily was the star and producer of Bones for twelve seasons, while Zooey was an indie-darling-turned-TV-star, and she’s currently moving between TV and film, plus she’s engaged to one of the Property Brothers. Before Emily and Zooey were making their big breaks as actresses, the “Deschanel” name was already well-known in Hollywood. Their father, Caleb Deschanel, is a well-respected cinematographer and director of photography, and his CV goes back to the 1970s. Caleb Deschanel has worked with directors like Hal Ashby, Barry Levinson, William Friedkin, Richard Sheridan and on and on. He’s been nominated for six Oscars. He’s a big deal! But according to Zooey, being the daughter of a six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer father does not equal “nepotism.”

Zooey Deschanel has denied that her six-time Oscar nominee father and actor mother made it easier for her to enter the film and TV industry. The New Girl star has been branded a “nepo baby” in recent times – a term referring to beneficiaries of “nepotism” and given to celebrities with family connections allowing them exclusive access to rare opportunities.

Deschanel’s father is Caleb Deschanel, a cinematographer who has worked on movies including The Lion King, The Patriot, My Sister’s Keeper and The Passion of Christ. He also has credits on other classics including The Godfather and Titanic. He has been nominated for best cinematography at the Academy Awards six times for his work on The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ, and Never Look Away. Meanwhile, the Elf star’s mother is Twin Peaks actor Mary Jo Deschanel (formerly Weir), and her sister is Bones and Spider-Man 2 star Emily Deschanel. Zooey denied that her family made it easier for her to become an actor, in an interview with Lewis Howes on The School of Greatness podcast.

“It’s funny because people be like, ‘Oh, nepotism’, I’m like no. My dad’s a DP [director of photography, another term for cinematographer]. No one’s getting jobs because their dad’s a DP. It’s definitely not.”

However, she acknowledged that she received some “creative” help. “My mum is an actor and my dad is a cinematographer and a director. I can’t possibly emphasise enough how much creative help I had from my family unit. My dad is a great creative mind and such a talented person. My mum is a great actor and is so nurturing. My mum would coach me when I didn’t have an acting coach, she would help me, read lines with me. She’d be so supportive. I would have so many great discussions about film and filmmaking with my dad. They both would help me. My dad would also read lines with me and give direction. Then having a sister whose an actor. It just makes you automatically have a community, and how much our communities help us – whether its our families or our found communities.”

[From The Independent]

I just… why can’t anyone just admit it and acknowledge their privilege?? Why do we have to go through this every single time?? It brings up something else I’ve been wondering, which is: do these people not understand the concept of nepotism? It feels like these idiot nepo babies think nepotism is specifically “my mother called the director and got me this role.” While that is definitely nepotism, it’s more than that – it’s having a famous name, having an inside track within the industry, having a well-connected father who has worked alongside some of the best directors in the industry for decades. It’s stepping inside the casting office and the casting director saying “Oh, ‘Deschanel,’ is your father Caleb, and are you Emily’s sister?” At the same time she’s like “no, I’m not a nepo baby,” she’s literally describing all of the privileges she had growing up in a creative, well-connected Hollywood family!

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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56 Responses to “Zooey Deschanel, daughter of a six-time Oscar nominee, claims she’s not a nepo baby”

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  1. SussexWatcher says:

    Stop calling me a nepo baby! *takes breath* Here are all the ways my famous and connected parents helped me succeed in the industry.


    • Lia3 says:

      For some reason people are just ashamed to admit they were given a leg up and want to pretend they did it all by themselves. It’s very rampant in my industry as well. I openly admit I wouldn’t be where I am without my father. I work in finance, my father was on the board of one of the largest firms in the world, once I graduated University he got me a job, it was a low level entry level job, but I didn’t have to send a single resume or job hunt or anything, I knew I had a $80,000/year job waiting for me. Stayed there 2 years then moved up the chain and now I own my own firm. There are tens of thousand of finance graduates that have to hustle or go out and get graduate degrees to get any sort of entry level position so I know how lucky I am. But the other finance nepos make so many excuses and refuse to admit their family connections got them started.

      • NikkiK says:

        I think it goes back to that whole American, rugged individual, pull yourself by your bootstraps mythology. White Americans in particular, love to think they are successful because they worked sooooo hard and earned it. It’s also how they convince people that if you’re poor, you’re not working hard enough.

    • AlpineWitch says:

      Exactly 💯
      It’s funny that later on she described all the ways her parents helped her lol

  2. Bad Janet says:

    This irks me so much.

    Like – I get it. You didn’t get a free ride. No one handed you a job. fine.

    But this is so naïve and needlessly defensive, it’s painful. You still got a HUGE BOOST by having connections, people who like your family, the benefit of the doubt you’re “good people” that comes from the work of people who are related to you, the benefit of the doubt that you get the industry and know what it comes with.

    It’s like when I go on a job interview and I can name drop someone who I know works there, who is in good standing with the person interviewing me. That is a huge deal. These connected kids need to STOP 🛑 downplaying the massive impact of family connections.

    • Kelly says:

      All this. I mean it’s not like nepotism doesn’t exist in tons of industries. One of my first jobs was in my uncle’s restaurant. There are tons of people who follow their parents into law, medicine, or even blue collar jobs. Just acknowledge that you had an in to that industrial, that you’re grateful you had so many opportunities, but that you want to work hard and be known for your own body of work. I think the best one was that girl from stranger things who admitted her name and her parents opened doors for her, but that it would only get her so far if it turned out she sucked.

    • Jais says:

      Yes @bad Janet, it’s the needlessly defensive part that gets me. No one is necessarily saying they don’t also have talent. The overly defensive denial is just…okaaay? It’s like the person is saying that deep down they question their own true talent. Like stand by your true talent. If it’s there, it’s there, whether you had advantages or not. The defensiveness just suggests an insecurity.

    • Chris says:

      I find Americans especially have an extremely difficult time acknowledging that they had help getting where they are. I think it comes down to the way the country mythologies the “self-made” success. Its like they believe that by acknowledging it they’re also acknowledging that they don’t deserve any of their success – especially actors. Look in pro sports – plenty of athletes are the children of former athletes and all of them will tell you that helped them as they grew up.

      As others have noted, it is far from unusual for kids to go into the same line of work as their parents but actors seem uniquely defensive about it – probably because its harder to defend your merit than in other fields, because acting success doesn’t necessarily come down to merit (i.e. the most talented actors are almost never the most successful – so many factors unconnected to your talent play a role in success, many of which are influenced by having connections). This is not true in most professions, which is also why you rarely see a doctor who is the daughter of doctors being defensive about it or even the child of a pro athlete who is himself a pro.

      Acknowledging having privilege means accepting that acting isn’t a terribly merit based profession. And Americans, especially white ones, loooooooove believing in the myth of the country being a true meritocracy.

      • ara says:

        I don’t think it’s a uniquely American phenomenon- I grew up in Central America and it’s 100x more pronounced in every job sector.

  3. ariel says:

    They all sound delusional when they deny obvious privilege.

    And it reminds me what i would sound like if i pretended i don’t benefit from the system of white supremacy.
    Delusional and ridiculous.

    It is a good lesson.

    But for people with PR teams- so many of them seem incredibly dense.

    Starting their careers was probably difficult- but not acknowledging the HUGE leg up they had- delusional. And silly.

  4. Lexilla says:

    It also doesn’t take anything away from her talent. “Nepo baby” does not mean “no talent,” which is I think the root cause of this defensiveness. It means you had a leg up. Just admit it. Sheesh.

    • BlueNailsBetty says:

      This. All day, every day.

      Nepo babies are in every industry and many are in family businesses. As long as the nepo baby has the knowledge and experience and has a good work ethic it’s generally fine. Obviously, there are a lot of nepo babies who do not deserve the job and other good candidates are unfairly denied. I’m not saying all jobs should be filled with nepo babies, just that sometimes it’s fine because they are the best person for the job.

      I got my first real (temp summer) job that ended up morphing into a full time regular job due to my mom working at the same government agency. I didn’t work under her (even when I later worked in her office one summer but she wasn’t my boss).

      The thing is I got the job because my mom worked there but I kept getting hired for summer and then regular jobs because I had a great work ethic and I broke records and ended up becoming highly skilled and experienced in various departments.

      I have *always* acknowledged that semi-nepotism gave me my start but it was my work ethic that got me positive attention.

  5. Shawna says:

    It’s not like Deschanel is as common as Smith.

    I sort of love this heat for her. In the early oughts I styled myself indie/twee and liked to think I was cute and original (eyeroll, right?), so I was annoyed that her overplaying the role and made it look so stupid and caricatured. That’s on me, but it doesn’t stop me feeling petty today!

  6. Lawgirl says:

    How hard is it be admit you get an advantage due to your well connected parents? In fairness I’ve never been a fan if Zoey’s and she was the worst part of New Girl Allison Williams had the best response to this:

    All that people are looking for is an acknowledgment that it’s not a level playing field. It’s just unfair,” Allison said. “Period, end of the story, and no one’s really working that hard to make it fair.

    “To not acknowledge that me getting started as an actress versus someone with zero connections isn’t the same — it’s ludicrous. It doesn’t take anything away from the work that I’ve done. It just means that it’s not as fun to root for me.”

  7. sevenblue says:

    So, what she is saying that all the help was limited to their house. Her mother and father read lines with her, had discussions with her about acting, but their connections to the industry didn’t help her in any shape or form. How can anyone believe that?

    How did she get an agent? Does she really think we are gonna believe that she got an agent all by herself, while her father and mother have already got probably a very good team since her father was able to book so many good projects. I loved listening to the Office podcast (“Office Ladies”). They talk about all the things they had to do to get an agent, to book a project while working full time job to be able to live in LA. It was very informing to hear stories from non-nepo baby actresses. I doubt Zooey had similar experiences. That doesn’t mean that she is a bad actress. I loved her in “New Girl”. However, the opportunities she got weren’t just because she was a good actress. Unlike many others, she had the luck to get into the room and that luck was mostly because of her parent’s connections and experiences in the industry.

  8. VilleRose says:

    I actually didn’t know this about the Deschanel sisters so I learned something new! Now I know why Emily was always my favorite lol. Zoey says she’s not a nepo baby and then goes on to say how her parents coached her and helped her with lines and discussing film making and were a tremendous aid to her creatively before she hit it big. My parents have zero industry experience with Hollywood and would never have done any of the above that she describes had I wanted to try my hand at being an actor. They would have been supportive, sure, but beyond “ok good luck now!” they would have been no help. Why is it so hard for nepo babies to admit they had privilege others did not? Did many of them work hard to get to where they were? Yes, of course. But none of them can deny they got their foot in the door from family members already in the industry which is what drives us normies crazy.

    • AlpineWitch says:

      Yes to everything you said.

      Additionally, I wanted to become an actress when I was 16 and my parents did everything they could to ostracise me. Needless to say, by myself I went nowhere.

  9. I think she just described what a nepo baby is while she was defending why she isn’t one.

  10. Concern Fae says:

    I don’t know. Over 25% of Americans work in the same field as one of their parents. It’s just very obvious in the entertainment industry because we have people’s credits going back generations.

    The problem is the lack of opportunities everywhere and a narrow path to achieving even a middle class existence if you aren’t already starting from background where you have a lot of resources. Making this the about of actors and actresses seems like a cheap shot. It’s a systemIc problem.

    • SussexWatcher says:

      I think the issue is more the nepo babies trying to deny having famous parent in the business helped them. It would be like someone who worked at their family-owned restaurant trying to say their parents being the owners had nothing to do with them get a job there.

      • Dee(2) says:

        I think the problem that a lot of them have with it is the term nepo baby itself is very dismissive. And it does minimize how hard they may have worked, some not all. Like you said plenty of people get a leg up in the industry they’re in because of the connections of their parents or family members, I’m pretty sure most people don’t realize that a lot of teachers, doctors, lawyers are Nepo babies too but we don’t describe them that way ( I have literally examples in my family of every single one of the above). I’d probably be irritated by it too if too if I had been in a industry for years and people still acted like the only reason I was still successful is because of my parents/siblings connections in the beginning.

      • Sass says:

        @Sussexwatcher exactly. Even Meghan has acknowledged that her dad’s work in the industry helped her.

  11. TarteAuCitron says:

    Zooey went to a school that had a very strong arts program, so she would have grown up with other kids with similar industry connections: Damon Wayans Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kate Hudson. Kate & Zooey were in Almost Famous together… it all just cumulates.

    I’m sure there’s a Kevin Bacon 6 degree thing going on somewhere, LOL.

  12. NotSoSocialB says:

    Butbutbut- a Property Brother???? Yikes.

  13. Flamingo says:

    I work in corporate America, and I can’t tell you how many plum summer intern roles are just handed to client’s kids. Or legacy hires within our firm based on who their Daddy is. And all the while these kids think they get the jobs on their own. Since all the negotiations happened behind their backs.

    Sure, Ems you did it ‘all on your own’

    Believe in the dream.

  14. February pisces says:

    I’m actually going to agree with Zoe slightly here. Her dad being a cinematographer isn’t the same as if he was a huge movie star. Whilst he maybe very respected in the industry, those behind the camera very rarely have that much power unless your a famous directors, writer, producer. General public don’t know him or care, so Zoe or her sister aren’t going to be handed parts based off of that alone.

    I know people who work in film and they don’t have that much power where they can just make their relatives huge stars. Most of them are just working job to job.

    • SussexWatcher says:

      But it’s not about the general public giving her jobs, it’s about other industry insiders, who would certainly know her 6-time Oscar nominee father’s name and history. And it’s about her (and other nepo babies) trying to deny her parents working in the industry gave her any kind of leg up. If nothing else, they would have connections to agents or casting directors and – as she herself stated – would know how to prepare her for auditions and roles.

    • sevenblue says:

      @February pisces, her parents are in the industry. They know agents, bookers. Since her father had so many successful projects, he must have a very good team. With all that in her reach, you really believe she didn’t get any help? Her mother didn’t help her get an agent? Her father didn’t know any bookers to send a word for Zooey? They are her parents, of course they are gonna help her. That doesn’t mean she got publicity because of her parents.

    • Concern Fae says:

      LOL. Cinematographers don’t have “teams.” What they have are technical specialists who work for them and probably an office manager of some sort who keeps track of the people and equipment.

      Looked up Emily and Zooey’s mom. Her career was almost entirely single episode appearances on TV shows and unnamed characters in movies. Her one big movie was a small part on a film where her husband was cinematographer. She was also on Twin Peaks, but that was largely cast with Lynchian oddballs and she doesn’t seem to have gotten work out of that. Of course, cinematographers have to travel a lot to work on location or wherever the studio is, once the girls were born, she was undoubtedly a SAHM.

      So their help was undoubtedly not of the get their daughters parts type, but instead letting them know what the industry expectations are and steering them clear of sketchy situations. So not nothing, but certainly nothing of the path clearing juggernaut that “nepo baby” brings to the mind. More what the daughter of a teacher who decided to become a teacher would get. A leg up on organizing lesson plans, how to pace your days, just the observations of who a teacher needs to be to be successful.

      It’s really just a gotcha trying to catch people out so they show their ass.

      • sevenblue says:

        Umm. What? Of course a successful cinematographer would have a team including managers, agents. Do you think he just sits at home and waits for a phone from a big budget movie director for work opportunities? Her mother may not be a very booked actress, but she would still have an agent to get the roles she got. Actors who don’t have any family members in the industry start with trying to get a good agent, which is very hard and is very important for their career.

        I listened to a lot of people’s stories getting some acting jobs with no connections. Getting in to the audition room is very hard and in a lot of cases deliberately full of obstacles. Sometimes while people are waiting for their audition, some nepo baby cuts the line and gets into the room before them. It is just stupid to compare acting jobs in Hollywood to a teacher. The acting job is supposed to be based on talent, not their family connection. That’s what they always say to the public, the most talented one got the job. Nepo baby discussion contradicts that.

    • February pisces says:

      I studied film and know people who work in the film industry and you only have hiring power if your famous, not if your behind the scenes. She could have been introduced to agents etc as the industry in built on connections. But it’s hard for people to get jobs who are already established in the industry.

      Nepo babies get booked for jobs because their parents are famous and it’s the family name that attracts audiences. Her father being a cinematographer isn’t enough of a sell for her to automatically booked for gigs.

  15. HuffnPuff says:

    Nepotism is everywhere. It doesn’t help to deny it. Look at sports – tons of it there. I’m seeing it play out right in front of my eyes. Semi-talented kid, semi-famous dad. Guess who gets all the breaks? The kid will grow up like Zooey thinking his dad had nothing to do with it. It’s frustrating to watch. Much like watching billionaires claim they are self made and shouldn’t have to pay any taxes when their businesses rely on government agencies and infrastructure in order to be profitable.

    • SarahCS says:

      Exactly, it happens all the time.

      I loved horses as a kid but had very limited access. Maybe if Princess Anne had been my mother I too could have been an olympic equestrian like Zara. We’ll never know!

  16. sealit says:

    My Mom’s side of the family worked in Hollywood. Definitely the more blue collar, crew side of the movie set. But it still helped me get my internship in college at the same company when I was able to drop stories of my Grandpa playing poker with famous actors on set. Any little thing helps when you’re trying to stand out and get your foot in the door. And cinematographer is no small thing.

  17. Renee' says:

    Her inability to acknowledge the most basic privilege is so arrogant.

  18. Jilliebean says:

    Her and her sister have been around for a while and this is the first that I have heard of her parents being in industry…

    I always thought she was famous because she looks like Katy perry.

  19. Sass says:

    I don’t really remember when it happened but somewhere along the way (after New Girl) I got the ick about Zooey. This isn’t helping.

    My favorite fun fact about the Deschanels overall is that Emily is married to Cricket from It’s Always Sunny 🤣 I prefer Emily overall, she seems chill.

  20. Lens says:

    The thing is in the industry ( Oscar nominated especially) cinematographers and editors are well known to everyone working there, if not to the general casual film goer. Absolutely a casting director would have heard of and admired her dad. These people don’t know how tone deaf they sound. Admittedly not every son or daughter of a well known actor makes it maybe that’s how they look at it. Yes you still have to have an extra something but 90 percent is getting in the door.

    • Lightpurple says:

      Caleb Deschanel is not just some guy working on movie sets; he is extremely well-connected and he’s the director of cinematography; he has a crew under him. He has worked for/with Disney, Jon Favreau, William Friedkin, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ron Howard, Tom Cruise, Barry Levinson, Mel Gibson, Hal Ashby and a very, very long list of actors. He’s known in the industry and producers and directors will take his call. Zooey has a dad who can do a lot more than just run lines with her.

      • February pisces says:

        Whilst her dad is definitely established and that absolutely help get a foot in the door for auditions. Being the daughter of a cinematographer isn’t enough of a sell for Zoe to get booked for gigs. He dad isn’t famous and therefore audiences don’t care, so her family name isn’t enough to trade on publicly.

        The whole point of nepo babies is that they trade their brand on their family name.

      • Debbie says:

        You say that her dad isn’t famous, so audiences don’t care, and so her family name isn’t enough to trade on publicly, However, the audiences who you say “don’t care” aren’t the ones doing the hiring or the ones doing the booking or the ones auditioning her. I think what the others are saying is that other people in the industry who are also behind the scenes (doing the auditioning or bookings) know the names of famous and influential insiders. So, this happens well before the performer gets in front of an audience. And it’s just one of the many ways in which those with connections are a step ahead of those starting from scratch.

      • February pisces says:

        @debbie most actors have to go on hundreds of auditions before they book a gig. Nepo babies bypass a lot of that process because their famous family name helps sell whatever tv show they are being booked for.

        Casting agents weren’t going to book Zoe because her dad is a cinematographer, because that isn’t a sell for audiences, they don’t know him or care because he’s not famous. Most likely it would help with a foot in the door, but not carry her though to the end. Also so many people auditioning for roles know someone in the industry.

  21. Nikki says:

    Being engaged to a Property Brother doesn’t get her good deals on contracting services either. The moment these people deny their priviledge they lose me forever, I cannot watch them in anything every again. They really think they are something so special that it transends their priviledge.

  22. MillieSue says:

    Most people don’t like to acknowledge privilege of any kind. Period. My husband used to wonder why so many of our peers had so much more than us or seemed further along in “success.” (All relative.) and I said that I knew for a fact their college was paid for by their parents so they didn’t have loans, while we did. Or they’d been allowed to live at home rent free until their mid-late 20s, and we’d both been paying rent since we were 18 (separately, we didn’t mean until 30.) My husband and I came from low income families where this was not possible. But none of the people I knew even thought of those things as privileged because it was all they knew. It doesn’t mean they didn’t work hard in school or at their jobs, but they had all of this help along the way that neither of us did. And if you mention it, most people get very defensive because they feel it diminishes their hard work. It is very frustrating to encounter that attitude, and I’ve gotten into heated arguments over it, but I also cannot fault them because they were born into that, and I wasn’t.

    Also, I work at an engineering firm, and the rate of nepotism is staggering. Some nepo hires are amazing and other nepo hires are terrible.

  23. Peanut Butter says:

    Bless your heart, Zooey

  24. GrnieWnie says:

    It’s just a simple matter of having access to the industry itself. HEre’s a parallel: once, I read the Wikipedia page of a leading light in my academic field – someone I really admired. He’s just such a skilled writer and thinker. I read his bio, and it turns out that both of his parents were professors at Columbia.

    So that makes sense: the man was probably guided into and through an academic career by two parents who understood very well the skills and challenges and situations and whatever else that one would need to navigate.

    For my part, I had to learn absolutely everything from scratch and made about a million mistakes that harmed my career. And like it’s really that simple. Having access to a field/industry/area of practice and people to guide you through it on one level or another – that’s a gift. That’s an advantage. Of course, not everyone has it. Of course, it’s harder when you don’t.

  25. Chimney says:

    Looked it up just to be sure and her parents both have enormous peepers

  26. Tee says:

    Randomly watched Yes Man recently, and begrudgingly watched New Girl, (during COVID and LOVED it) and I cannot see her beyond boring cardboard on screen. And trying to make a music star out of her… remember PRINCE on New Girl…how did they make that happen???? Nepo baby magic???

  27. bisynaptic says:

    She denies… and then goes on to explain how it’s really true.

  28. Rural Juror says:

    I think some of the issue here is the term “nepo baby” itself. Originally, I understood the definition to be people (usually Hollywood) who were suddenly everywhere or who had significant exposure primarily based on their family connections (Kaia Gerber, Lily-Rose Depp, Brooklyn Beckham, etc.). Basically, the term was initially used towards people with what appeared to be unearned opportunities.
    Now, the definition of “nepo baby” seems to have expanded to include literally anyone who had parents or other family members in the same industry. Yes, those industry connections are certainly helpful. But there’s a big difference, IMO, between someone like Zooey Deschanel and, say, Lily-rose Depp.
    Nepo baby, as originally used and defined, was something of an insult, so I’m not surprised that folks get defensive. Particularly when it’s being applied to literally anyone with industry connections.

  29. Petal says:

    Oh god this nepo-discussion is becoming so tedious. If you are talented, and can truly prove it through your medium of choice, WHO CARES?

  30. JMiney says:

    It’s funny how when it comes to the topic of nepotism l, nepo babies lack nuance. Some nepo babies hit the jackpot – their parents are big wig producers or actors that can easily get them cast in their own projects. The other level are kids of parents who work in the industry, know how to connect their kids and help navigate the system and help them get a foot in the door. Regardless of which camp they fit in they’re still privileged bc they don’t understand the hardest part is getting in the door with no connections and no understanding of how the system works

  31. teehee says:

    Nepo baby 100% applies where the parents push their kids into certain careers, like on RHOBH, some peoples daughters are “models” or whatever else what do NOT qualify for them, and you see their moms aggressively hawking their no-talent kids– that is a nepo baby.

    Zooey is a great actress– so that term is less applicable HOWEVER names and connections mean everything, even outside of Hollywood, but especially moreso in Hollywood, so it is not an irrelevant factor.

    The talent needs to back it all up- so if they’re doing a good job, well then…. fair enough.

  32. TRex says:

    I agree with her and everyone else who has a child who follows in your footsteps. Come on guys – it stands to reason that if you and your partner have a child, and this child is the progeny of a doctor, artist, scientist, musical virtuoso, etc, then this ‘child’ stands to have a very high probability of also having this gift/talent. I don’t get the hate.