She’s not ‘Sick’, just really serious
Steven Zeitchik discovers why one actress greets every day as an intense intellectual in a Judd Apatow world.
When Zoe Kazan was in high school, she spent her time on that quintessentially American teenage pastime: reading Harold Bloom. One day she discovered a preferred volume was missing, borrowed by Barry Mendel, Judd Apatow’s frequent producing partner. ‘‘I think it was my copy that I had given to my mother, who had given it to her friend Barry,’’ Kazan recalls. ‘‘I was upset – it was a book about Shakespeare and one of my favourites.’’ When she saw Mendel nearly 15 years later, at an audition for the new film The Big
Sick, she tweaked him. ‘‘Like ‘where’s the Bloom book?’ He never gave it back.’’ (Mendel remembers it differently: ‘‘I had given it back. It just took a really long time.’’)
A comfort with both Hollywood and academia co-exist in Kazan, whose emergence as a film force is at once as inevitable as an Elizabethan tragedy and as surprising as a rhyming couplet.
The scion of cinema royalty – she’s the offspring of two directors and Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan
(Reversal of Fortune) and Robin
Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and her grandfather is Elia Kazan – the Santa Monica native hardly took a leap by becoming an actress.
Kazan landed her first movie role at 19, spent her 20s in more than a dozen indie productions, and ended the decade with an Emmy-nominated turn as anxious Denise Thibodeau in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge.
Now 33, she has a breakout part opposite Kumail Nanjiani in The BigSick, which is shaping up as the counter-programming hit of the year.
Produced by Apatow and directed by Michael Showalter, the romantic dramedy (and Nanjiani semi-autobiography) centres on a struggling Pakistani American stand-up who falls for fellow Chicagoan Emily, only to run into familial resistance (his) and a serious illness (hers). Kazan plays the part with a sweet-but-never-sentimental vibe, managing to exert a strong pull on the film despite being in a coma for much of it.
But the actress also has climbed the ranks with an eggheadedness that’s rare this side of James Franco. Kazan is the kind of person who not only has devoured Stoppard and Steinbeck, she’s a little surprised if you haven’t.
Kazan was scouring the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, having made the trip from the Brooklyn residence she shares with her long-time partner, the actor Paul Dano. In the next few months, Lincoln Centre will stage a new play Kazan wrote – a futurist marital drama titled After the Blast – and she searched the museum for design ideas.
‘‘I saw an ad on the subway for the museum and I thought it would be interesting to visit – ‘what happens when objects take on totemic power?’’’
Kazan says she was a lonely child. Her folks bucked the caricature of the overscheduling Westside parent in favour of plenty of unstructured time at home. Her friend group at school could be limited, owing to her adolescent bookishness.
‘‘Sometimes I was the only person raising my hand in class. I would almost get upset at everyone – like ‘why don’t you care more?’’’ she says. ‘‘It became very important to me to be loved by teachers.’’
Kazan’s social blossoming happened at Yale, where she found common ground with like-minded text nerds. ‘‘I remember the first time I met Zoe,’’ says New York theatre director Lila Neugebauer, a classmate and close friend who will direct After the Blast. ‘‘Even at 20, nothing was trivial; nothing was surface. There was a kind of underlying gravity.’’
Says Kazan: ‘‘I’m a very serious person. Unfortunately, sometimes.’’
Ethan Hawke, whose stage directorial effort Things We Want ranks among Kazan’s theatre credits, noted how her singlemindedness played at the audition. ‘‘She came in and just started breaking down this play with all these killer insightful comments,’’ he says. ‘‘I walked out of there thinking ‘this is a very serious human being’.’’
Nanjiani says that intensity came through, even in an unconscious state.
‘‘Those scenes in the hospital where Emily is hooked up to all these wires – we had Zoe hooked up to all these real machines on the set,’’ he recalls. ‘‘And I’d come in to the hospital room and do the scene, and on the monitor I could see her heartbeat going up. And I thought, ‘You’re like a biologically good actress’.’’
Kazan is actually going against type in Sick, playing Emily with a breezy cheer that confounds the more studied need of many of her previous parts. Exhibit A of those roles: a few guises she inhabits in the 2012 conceptual romantic drama Ruby Sparks, which she wrote with Dano.
Kazan is collaborating with Dano again on Wildlife , an adaptation of the early Richard Ford novel about a family crisis. Needless to say, Wildlife is far from Kazan’s only hyphenate activity freighted with seriousness.
That weight hangs over her other work – After the Blast centres on a depressed female character that Kazan says was informed by her own battle with the disease – and, in a way, over her.
‘‘Paul and I went to the Thomas Edison museum recently – have you been there?’’ she says. ‘‘The way Edison was problem-solving required a kind of obsession. He had a cot in his lab because he slept there so often.
‘‘I don’t have a lot of patience for people who want to clock out,’’ she continues, then contemplates the toll.
‘‘That moment in Broadcast News where Holly Hunter is told how great it is to be the smartest person in the room and she cries and says it’s awful – I definitely have moments like that sometimes, moments when introspection and drive can be lonely-making,’’ she says. ‘‘And it doesn’t help that I have a partner who is very work-oriented. Sometimes we’re two hamsters on a wheel.
‘‘It’s a little embarrassing to feel so serious about work and the world. It makes you vulnerable. I think it’s cool to take the posture of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I didn’t try that hard’. It’s a more protective way of being.’’
Kazan pauses. ‘‘There’s something really earnest inside me all the time. It’s not a cool or fun way to be. Sometimes I would like to experience being someone who’s not wired the way I’m wired.’’ – Los Angeles Times ❚ The Big Sick (M) opens in New Zealand cinemas on August 3.
‘‘It’s a little embarrassing to feel so serious about work and the world. It makes you vulnerable.’’ Zoe Kazan
The Big Sick has been a big hit with audiences in America.
Zoe Kazan with her long-time partner, the actor Paul Dano.