Zoe Kazan on act­ing chops, writ­ing tips, sex­ism on set and new film ‘The Big Sick’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Noth­ing can re­ally pre­pare you for how dis­arm­ingly hon­est Zoe Kazan is. The grand-daugh­ter of Hol­ly­wood leg­end Elia Kazan and, for 11 years and count­ing, one half of a celebrity cou­pling that also fea­tures Paul Dano, the 33-year-old Yale grad­u­ate, play­wright, and star of stage and screen is sel­dom guarded.

She’ll hap­pily ad­mit to sleep­ing with teddy bears into her teens, and notes that “hav­ing to stop play­ing dolls was re­ally hard”. She’s frank about her fa­mous part­ner, Paul: “He’s a lit­tle bro-ier than people ex­pect. He’s a lad. He likes sports. I think people would be sur­prised by him given his sen­si­tive nerdy per­sona.”

She even has an em­bar­rass­ing lo­cal con­fes­sion. Her abid­ing cul­tural mem­ory of Ireland, where she shot What If with Daniel Rad­cliffe, is the Na­tional Wax Mu­seum. “The first day I got to Dublin I was re­ally jet­lagged and I was try­ing to stay awake,” she re­calls. “It was rain­ing re­ally heav­ily. But it was a Mon­day. So all the other mu­se­ums were closed. I’d never been to a wax mu­seum be­fore and I was so scared. Ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied.”

Re­ally? “Oh yes. One of the spook­i­est ex­pe­ri­ences of my en­tire life. I don’t do well with the un­canny.”

She has re­cently spo­ken out against on-set sex­ism, not­ing that when she was younger, a male pro­ducer thought noth­ing of in­quir­ing whether she “spat or swal­lowed”. Last Novem­ber, she au­thored a char­ac­ter­is­tic ally can­did es­say for the New York Times chron­i­cling her teenage bat­tle with anorexia: “The causes for my eat­ing dis­or­der ran along the usual lines: de­pres­sion, an in­abil­ity to ex­press my rage, a de­sire to ex­ert con­trol, a de­sire to feel less, a de­sire to have my body ex­press the things my voice could not. That, and I had got­ten in the habit of be­liev­ing it was better to take up less space. When I met the boy I fell in love with, I was a year into this dis­ease and sub­sist­ing on less than 500 calo­ries a day.”

She has sub­se­quently re­cov­ered and moved on to an en­vi­able ca­reer. She has ap­peared in main­stream hits like Nancy Mey­ers’s It’s Com­pli­cated and Sam Men­des’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road. There have been cultish indies, in­clud­ing Ta­mara Jenk­ins’s The Sav­ages, David Gor­don Green’s Our Brand is Cri­sis, and the Pyg­malion up­date Ruby Sparks, which she also wrote. That screen­play was short­listed for the 2013 In­de­pen­dent Spirit Awards, adding to the plau­dits al­ready gar­nered by her plays: Ab­sa­lom, We Live Here and Trudy and Max in Love.

Yet while grow­ing up in Los An­ge­les, Kazan, the daugh­ter of two screen­writ­ers – her mother, Robin Swicord, wrote Mem­oirs of a Geisha and The Cu­ri­ous Case Of Ben­jamin But­ton; her fa­ther, Ni­cholas Kazan, wrote Re­ver­sal of For­tune and Fallen – was de­ter­mined to avoid the fam­ily guild.

“I saw how lonely and iso­lated that life can be,” she re­calls. “I don’t think they’re lonely. They have a lot of friends. They go out. But I think I’m more in­tro­verted than they are. I read through fire alarms as a kid. I have that kind of ab­sorb­ing re­la­tion­ship with my imag­i­na­tion. I wrote from a very young age. But I so badly wanted to be an ac­tor and I felt that I had to con­cen­trate on that. It’s just I was so bored be­tween jobs as an ac­tor. I don’t think bore­dom is very good for any­one. So I picked up my writ­ing – in a se­ri­ous way – to es­cape.”

‘Too big for my body’

Act­ing only be­came a con­sid­er­a­tion when, aged 14, Kazan tried out for a school play. “I have a very sen­sual way of un­der­stand­ing the world that can feel over­whelm­ing. And when I first found act­ing as a stu­dent, it was like: ‘Oh, there’s a place for that; there’s a place for my emo­tions that are too big for my body; there’s a place for me want­ing to play house or dress up for the rest of my life.”

In The Big Sick, Kazan plays Emily, a white Amer­i­can psy­chother­apy stu­dent, who falls in love with Ku­mail Nan­jiani, a Pak­istani-Amer­i­can co­me­dian. Sil­i­con Val­ley star Nan­jiani, who plays him­self, keeps his re­la­tion­ship with Emily se­cret from his con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim par­ents, while his hope­ful mother keeps invit­ing pos­si­ble wives to din­ner. Emily dis­cov­ers the truth, just as an ill­ness sees her hos­pi­talised and placed in a med­i­cally in­duced coma, leav­ing Nan­jiani to make smalltalk with her an­gry par­ents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Ro­mano).

That’s got to be odd, play­ing Nan­jiani’s wife, while the real Emily V Gor­don, who co-wrote the screen­play, watches from the side­lines, in a thinly fic­tion­alised, meet-cute ver­sion of their IRL ro­mance? “You know, act­ing is such a strange pro­fes­sion any­way,” smiles Kazan. “You spend all your time pre­tend­ing that things are true that are not true. You make out with other people and then go home to your nor­mal re­la­tion­ship. So this ac­tu­ally didn’t feel that far be­yond my ken. And Emily is a re­ally great per­son and we hit it off im­me­di­ately. By the time I came on board, the char­ac­ter had al­ready been fic­tion­alised to a great ex­tent. I didn’t feel like I had to im­i­tate her. And I think it would have been weirder if she wasn’t there.”

The Big Sick marks a wel­come re­turn to form for super-pro­ducer Judd Apa­tow. “Judd Apa­tow does this very un­con­ven­tional re­hearsal process where he tapes these long im­provs,” says Kazan. “You read the scene and you im­prov around it. And then you do the scene again but you switch the power dy­namic. And then you do some­thing else. It’s very cre­ative and there’s no end re­sult at­tached to it. And then they go back and pick what worked from those im­provs and put them into the script.”

The same week that The Big Sick pre­miered in Sun­dance to pos­i­tive re­views, Don­ald Trump is­sued his first travel ban. The irony isn’t lost on Kazan, who has lately become an ad­vo­cate for health­care and other is­sues that bring her into di­rect con­flict with the cur­rent Po­tus. She’s de­lighted that Nan­jiani has now joined the thin ranks of high-pro­file, south Asian, An­glo­phone movie stars, and that her co-star – who grew up in an Urdu-speak­ing Shi’ite Mus­lim fam­ily in Karachi – has sub­verted Hol­ly­wood’s pre-ex­ist­ing rom-com re­quire­ments.

“I didn’t feel as re­spon­si­ble for those is­sues around rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­cause it’s not my life ex­pe­ri­ence. The thing that I kept rais­ing were tropes about women on screen. . . . I don’t think there’s any­thing main­stream or con­ven­tional about this story. And some­times when some­thing is re­ally unique, au­di­ences don’t al­ways em­brace it. But we’ve got­ten very lucky so far.”

Rais­ing tropes about gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion isn’t al­ways so wel­come: “It de­pends on what you’re watch­ing and it de­pends on what your stan­dards are. But if you look at the num­bers it’s get­ting worse for women in film, not better.

“I just wish there was a wider range of ma­te­rial avail­able and a wider range of women in­volved. I don’t mean to com­plain. I know that it’s eas­ier for me than it is or some people. But it’s de­mor­al­is­ing when the ma­jor­ity of projects you read are com­pro­mis­ing in some sense. I also think there’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing about why we want rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It’s not for to­kenism. It’s not so we can feel in­cluded in the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s about so­cial and eco­nomic par­ity.”

I didn’t feel as re­spon­si­ble for is­sues around rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­cause it’s not my life ex­pe­ri­ence. The thing I kept rais­ing were tropes about women on screen

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