For seven seasons, New Girl was low-key, goofy, reliable comfort viewing on Fox primetime (and continues to be a favorite binge rewatch on streaming platforms). It gave viewers a realistic, relatable, and hilarious look into a near-universal experience of millennials in the 2010s: Underemployed or unsatisfied at work and trying to find a forever romantic partner while getting through it all with the aid of friends — who are also their roommates because modern life, particularly big city life, is too tough and expensive to attack alone.
Set in and around a giant loft in downtown Los Angeles, New Girl turned its cast into stars (or made them even more well-known), including Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, and Lamorne Morris. Everyone toiled in the entertainment scene for years before landing the roles of Jess, Nick, Schmidt, Winston — which just may be the most famous of their careers. Here’s what the cast of New Girl did — and looked like — before their iconic loft life.
Zooey Deschanel comes from a filmmaking family
While New Girl evolved into an ensemble show about the de facto family formed out of adult friend groups, à la Friends and How I Met Your Mother, it was at first a TV comedy vehicle for Zooey Deschanel, who over the previous decade had built up a huge resume playing likable, quirky, "manic pixie dream girls."
As it turns out, the actress was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, as she’s the daughter of acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and actress Mary Jo Deschanel, best known for her role as Eileen Hayward on Twin Peaks. Meanwhile, her older sister: Emily Deschanel, would grow up to play the titular character from Bones.
Zooey attended the prep school Crossroads alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Kate Hudson, along with Northwestern University, but dropped out after less than a year to go back to Los Angeles to act professionally. Almost immediately, she found work, in the dramedy Mumford and in the Offspring’s video for "She’s Got Issues." The actress was never off-screen for long in the 2000s, playing the runaway older sister in Almost Famous, department store elf Jovie in Elf, wayward earthling Trillian in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and elusive dream girl Summer in (500) Days of Summer.
Jake Johnson is a natural storyteller
While New Girl was supposed to be about the quirky Jess Day, it was equally about the journey of Nick Miller (Jake Johnson), an odd duck in his own right. Clearly suffering from arrested development, he’s content to be an emotionally distant bartender with an on-again, off-again relationship with Jess, eventually finding he’s got a talent for writing novels about New Orleans detective Julius Pepperwood.
Initially, Johnson didn’t even set out to be an actor — he was a playwright, studying at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and staging his play, Cousins, off-Broadway. He then joined a comedy act in New York, paving the way for his role on the internet-based Derek and Simon: The Show. According to an interview with The New York Times, the Derek in the title is Derek Waters, who was inspired to create the popular series Drunk History about a 2007 conversation with Johnson, in which the latter tried to explain, while drunk, the story of the death of Otis Redding. "Jake was so passionate about trying to convince me that Otis knew he was going to die," dished Waters, adding, "But because he’d had a couple drinks, he was messing up the story."
Besides inspiring Waters to make a hit comedy show, Johnson also landed small roles in indie movies like Paper Heart and studio films like Get Him to the Greek before portraying underachieving Nick on New Girl.
Max Greenfield was a television regular
Before landing the role of fastidious but fussy, success-driven but work-demeaned flatmate Schmidt on New Girl, Max Greenfield worked regularly in series television. Not long after graduating from high school, he landed brief guest spots on youth-oriented shows like Boston Public, Undressed, Greek, Gilmore Girls and The O.C., where he portrayed the younger version of Sandy Cohen (regularly played by Peter Gallagher, who’d coincidentally later portray Schmidt’s father on New Girl). He was most recognizable for two semi-regular parts: fratty, jerky, personal assistant Nick Pepper on Ugly Betty, and flirtatious sheriff’s deputy Leo D’Amato on Veronica Mars.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Greenfield would wind up working in TV comedy. As the actor told GQ in 2011, his bar mitzvah back when he turned 13 was Saturday Night Live-themed. And while unlike the lovelorn, romantically pining Schmidt, he was already married by the time New Girl started (in fact, Greenfield is even a dad now!), although he did pull from an experience to play a guy with a bunch of roommates, having been in that kind of situation "for about a year" after he moved to Los Angeles to become an actor.
Hannah Simone is much more than just a pretty face
After seven seasons of New Girl were produced and aired, it seems like the titular new girl all along might have been Cece. Her character arc was the most dramatic, beginning the series as a jet-set model and finishing it up as a married mother of a toddler and the owner of a successful modeling agency, which she formed as she worried work wouldn’t come her way the older she got.
As it turns out, actress Hannah Simone understands the plight of the model, having done that as an occupation long before she moved into acting. According to an interview with the starlet by Redbook (via Daily Mail), Simone was raised in Europe, where she was showing others how to look good in clothing professionally at a young age. Her family then moved to Canada, where she "got her BA in International Relations And Political Science from the University Of British Columbia and a BA in Radio And Television Arts from Ryerson University in Toronto." If that’s not all, Simone then moved to London, where she began volunteering at the United Nations.
Eventually, the actress propelled herself into the entertainment industry, appearing as a newsreader and VJ on MuchMusic, the Canadian equivalent of MTV, and WCG Ultimate Gamer on SyFy. After a few small acting roles in indie movies and on forgotten series like Beautiful People and Kevin Hill, Simone landed the role of Cece on New Girl.
Damon Wayans Jr. worked with his industry-famous dad
New Girl‘s Ernie Tagliaboo, a.k.a. Coach: sometimes he’s there, and sometimes he isn’t. Similar to his commitment-shy character, actor Damon Wayans Jr. couldn’t be locked down to this series because of outside pursuits. Prior to New Girl, he co-starred on ABC’s funny but low-rated Happy Endings. According to Variety, heassumed it would be canceled after its first season in 2011 when he joined the New Girl pilot, only for Happy Endings to earn the first of two renewals, necessitating Coach’s exit after episode one. Wayans Jr. (and Coach) headed back to the loft after Happy Endings 2013 cancelation, and he remained until the end of season four in 2015 when Coach followed cellist girlfriend May (Meaghan Rath) to New York.
If Wayans Jr. looked familiar, it’s because he looks almost exactly like his famous father, Damon Wayans, star of In Living Color and My Wife and Kids. The younger Wayans got his start in entertainment thanks to his dad, who cast him in a small role in his movie Blankman at age 12, giving him a recurring role on My Wife and Kids as goofy family friend John, and adding him to the troupe of sketch comedy players on his short-lived Showtime series The Underground.
Lamorne Morris was a game show host
A late-breaking addition to New Girl, Winston Bishop filled the room and void left by the departure of Coach. Lamorne Morris brought both straight-faced silliness and sympathy to Winston, searching for something to do with his life after his career as a pro basketball player in Europe came to an end. That journey includes stops in sports radio, the police force, numerous failed relationships, and a hilarious obsession with Ferguson, his exotic house cat.
Morris didn’t have a ton of acting experience before landing a major role on a network sitcom. Apart from bit parts in episodes of The Middle, The Guild, and appearing in a handful of movies and short films, Morris was best known for his work as a TV host. In the years preceding New Girl, Morris hosted the Cartoon Network game show Brain Rush, and was a consistent presence on the BET channel, anchoring the shows HotWyred, BET Now, and various specials.
Nasim Pedrad credits I Love Lucy for her comedic talents
Nasim Pedrad was more or less a regular cast member of New Girl, joining the show midway through its fourth season as Aly Nelson, Winston’s first partner in the Los Angeles Police Department. Over 28 episodes, Aly went from hostile coworker to friend to eventually Winston’s girlfriend and wife.
Pedrad pretty much found her career made in 2009 when she won a spot in the cast of Saturday Night Live. Prior to that, however, she credits a certain classic sitcom for pushing her towards comedy. As the Iranian-born starlet revealed in an interview with Refinery29, "I grew up, borderline learned English, watching I Love Lucy. So, that was my example of just a funny person. She happened to be a woman, and was doing things that no one else had done at that time."
In her five seasons on SNL, Pedrad made a name for herself with savage impressions of Kim Kardashian, Arianna Huffington, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and original characters like the nerdy teen Bedelia, who bears a resemblance to the real teenaged Pedrad, a photograph of whom shows up in the Digital Short "(Do It On My) Twin Bed." Pedrad left SNL to play Jane on John Mulaney’s short-lived sitcom Mulaney, which ended in 2015, freeing her up for New Girl.
Megan Fox’s first role was with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
In improbable casting news, big-time movie star Megan Fox joined the cast of New Girl relatively late, coming aboard in 2016 as a love interest for Nick Miller, temporarily replacing Jess Day as the object of his affections and because the actress who plays Jess, Zooey Deschanel, took a leave of absence due to a pregnancy. Fox portrayed Reagan, an aloof pharmaceutical rep who rents out Jess’s room for a spell after the titular new girl gets sequestered elsewhere during jury duty.
The last time Fox — who left after 15 episodes in New Girl‘s fifth and sixth season — starred on a sitcom was the family comedy Hope and Faith from 2004 to 2006, her first major role on the way to major stardom. Her first-ever gig came when she was only 15, as the snotty villain Brianna in 2001’s Holiday in the Sun, one of the last direct-to-video tween Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen adventures.
After those auspicious early projects, it was on to blockbusters — and being the subject of numerous pictorials in men’s magazines — for Fox, such as the first two Transformers movies (which Fox later got fired from), two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, and the comedy This is 40.
Rob Reiner comes from Hollywood royalty
In the grand tradition of sitcom stunt casting of characters’ parents with famous people, New Girl producers brought in veteran TV star, writer, and director Rob Reiner to portray Jess’s jubilant cheerleader of a father, Bob Day. He first showed up in the second-season Thanksgiving episode, the subject of Jess’s attempt to "parent trap" her divorced mom and dad into getting back together, the first of 11 appearances throughout the run of the show.
Like his TV daughter, Zooey Deschanel, Reiner is a second-generation Hollywood denizen, son of legendary comedian and The Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner. After striking out in his own right as an actor with roles on ’60s TV shows like That Girl and The Beverly Hillbillies, Reiner landed one of the most iconic television roles of his generation, as bleeding-heart liberal Mike Stivic, forced to constantly wage ideological battle with his father-in-law, Archie Bunker, for eight seasons on All in the Family. In 1978, he won an Emmy for his role as the guy nicknamed "Meathead," a few years before he’d launch his directorial career in earnest with films like This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, and The Princess Bride.
Jamie Lee Curtis played an unstoppable scream queen
The other fictional contributor of Jess Day’s DNA: Joan Day, who appeared in six episodes across the run of New Girl. Like the actor who plays Jess’s father and Joan’s ex-husband, Bob, Jamie Lee Curtis is also a very recognizable, second-generation Hollywood veteran with many successful and distinct career periods. Even before her two breakout roles in 1977 — as Lt. Barbara Duran on the military sitcom Operation Petticoat — Curtis was well-known because both of her parents were Tinseltown legends. She’s the daughter of matinee idol Tony Curtis, star of Spartacus, Some Like it Hot, and The Defiant Ones, and his first wife, Janet Leigh, who will likely forever be best known for her role as runaway criminal (and shower murder victim) Marion Crane in Psycho.
Jamie Lee followed in her mother’s footsteps as a scream queen, portraying the seemingly unstoppable Laurie Strode in the Halloween franchise. After a couple more scary flicks like The Fog and Prom Night, Curtis moved into comedy, becoming one of the most reliable and frequently working actresses in the ’80s and ’90s. She’s portrayed prostitute Ophelia in Trading Places, Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda, and Helen Tasker in True Lies. For better or for worse, as of late Curtis is almost as well known for her series of commercials for digestion-assisting yogurt.