In the first few minutes of Buffaloed, Peg Dahl delivers a searing threat: “Do not fuck with my MONEY!” Wearing a maroon polyester suit, “shitty nurse sneakers,” and an oversized scrunchie, she fires off her gold gun in the air, daring her competition to come out and face her. Welcome to Buffalo, New York, where the underground world of debt collecting reaches a Wolf of Wall Street-level of chaos and lawlessness, and twenty-something Peg is right in the center of it.
Zoey Deutch, 24, stars as Peg, a self-identified “aggressive little shit with a gift for gab” in the yet-to-be-released indie directed by Tanya Wexler (Finding North, Hysteria) which premiered in late April at the Tribeca Film Festival. The pairing — Deutch as Peg, Wexler as director — is pretty much perfect. Buffaloed is a story about ambition, power, and money, which just happens to also feature a young woman. And it also just happened to dovetail perfectly with Wexler’s professional frustration as a female director at the time — and an only half-serious wish she had put out into the universe.
“It was the classic gaffe,” she told Refinery29 during the festival, seated alongside Deutch, and co-star Judy Greer, who plays Peg’s chain-smoking mother. “It had been like 8 years [since my last film] and I could never build on my success. Every time I was up for a movie, a guy would get it. I finally called my agent and was like, ‘Send me stuff with women and guns.’”
Then one day, a little less than three years ago, she got a script written by actor Brian Sacca — his first feature film screenplay — about a woman named Peg, hustling her way out of Buffalo, one morally questionable gig at a time.
“Brian had captured something brilliant about a woman trying to make something happen in her life,” Wexler says. “She is an anti hero — a completely unapologetic, unafraid anti-hero...written in such a fun and funny way.”
Deutch was already attached to both star and produce, and within a year they were filming. “You rarely get such a perfect marriage of an actor to a role,” Wexler says. The typical arc of most independent films, from inception to filming is five to seven years; Buffaloed took less than one.
A very successful actress (and daughter of another former teen star, Lea Thompson), Deutch first read the script while she was filming Set It Up for Netflix (her second rom-com with the streaming service opposite Glenn Powell was just announced) and thought it was brilliant. “You love Peg even though she makes mistake after mistake,” she says. “You love all these characters even though they are characters you shouldn’t love.”
Peg is small-time hustler — not a scammer, not a con artist, but a young woman with entrepreneurial drive and bad luck. First, she sells up charged “smokes” from her car trunk at her high school, and later upgrades to selling fake tickets for Buffalo Bills games to raise money for her college fund. She’s arrested for the latter and goes to jail. A few months later, she leaves jail with a few new tricks, a renewed conviction to get the hell out of Buffalo, and a shit ton of debt from legal fees. This is where her story really begins.
Peg learns about the crooked world of debt collecting and realizes that she’s really good at getting people to give her money over the phone — much better than the local townies currently monopolizing the industry. Inspired, she goes to work as a debt collector to help pay off her own debt and eventually starts making a hearty profit. But along the way, she realizes she may not be as in control of the situation as she feels in her matching polyester suits and crop tops. “It is a bizarre and lawless business that I knew nothing about before,” Deutch says of the debt collecting industry, which really did find its epicenter in Buffalo in the early 2000s. “I almost wish I still didn’t because it is so upsetting and it affects so many people. Every single person has a relationship to debt and debt collectors.”
Even though it’s about a serious nationwide issue, the movie is funny. Like, hilarious. It’s that balance of humor, hustle, and humanity that attracted Wexler to the project. “It is funny, and it is about people trying to embrace the American dream that is just not achievable,” she says. “It is a myth, just to even keep a roof over your head.”
Deutch is responsible for a lot of that humor — she literally threw herself into the role. “I got more injuries on this movie than I have on any other movie,” she says. “I got laryngitis twice. I really hurt my knee. I had a giant bruise on my ass from falling and the makeup artists asked if we should cover it up. I was like ‘Nah, I feel like Peg would have it.’”
Wexler agreed, saying that the star is basically an IRL Peg “without the ethics violations. There is something natural about that character with her that came through. The most research we did was thrift store shopping — getting who this character was and her personality through her look.” And the look is good, thanks to Deutch’s thrifting skills.
“Before she started working with them as a lawless businesswoman, she is wearing whatever she can scrap together, but after that [she wears] her dad’s old suits,” Deutch says. “She’s cut them up and they make her feel powerful, capable, and dressed for success. I didn’t necessarily mean to have them be polyester, and that was my bad. She wanted to be taken seriously, but in her own quirky, weird Peg way. She is still drawing outside the lines.”
And that rebellious nature rubbed off on Deutch in subtle ways while filming. “When we were in Buffalo, we went to the Buffalo Bills’ gift shop, where I got the scrunchie [in the film]. The Buffalo team wouldn’t clear the logo, but I wore it anyway. You can’t see the logo, but I knew it was the scrunchie. I was clearly influenced by Peg...I wanted to break the rules a little bit!”