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.

The Press - - Culture -

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.

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