Friday, July 9, 2010

The Zoe Kazan Interview

This is reprinted--without my stammering and awkward pauses--with the permission of ICON, where it appeared earlier this month.

Zoe Kazan looks like she's 15, sounds like she's 18, and is one of the best actresses you've never heard of. Already an acclaimed stage actress and playwright at age 26, Kazan is now a leading actress in a film. She portrays a lovelorn, epileptic college student who returns home to New York City for spring break in the low-key and quietly moving indie character study, The Exploding Girl.

Kazan, the granddaughter of legendary film director Elia, is excellent because she loses herself in the role. That trait has defined her film career, leading to first-rate supporting performances in a wide range of films, including Revolutionary Road, It's Complicated, and the overlooked Me and Orson Welles.

In a recent phone interview, Kazan talked about preparing for her first lead role, how conversations are different in New York and Los Angeles, and why she's perfectly happy being a chameleon.

Pete Croatto: Reading the production notes for The Exploding Girl, one thing that interested me was that before there was even a script, you and director/writer Bradley Rust Gray went on a series of walks where you told him stories. How did the character of Ivy take shape from those walks?

Zoe Kazan: My mom, before she saw the movie, was like, "How much of it is autobiographical?" And none of it was. That was the kind of the surprising thing to me. Brad has mostly worked with non-actors before, and a couple of instances they [Gray and his wife/frequent collaborator, So Yong Kim] found people who were like the characters they had written…So when I started working with Brad, I assumed that his process would be applied to me in the same way that it had been applied to his own actors. I don't know why I trusted him because normally you don't trust people with your life stories if you think they're going to use them. We really hit it off; we really got along. I didn't expect him to make it autobiographical, but I did expect the character to come closer to me than she did. She's very different from me and obviously her story is not my story…I think he tried to know me so that he could figure out where I was so he could move from that point into a different territory, knowing that I could play somebody else.

It became like a shorthand for us because we knew each other so well by the time we started filming it was very easy for us to have discussions about who Ivy was and who she wasn't.

PC: So, the walking served as a meeting point. You got to see where the director was coming from, and vice versa?

ZK: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, we really didn't talk about the movie that much at all. We would talk about things that were thematically similar to the movie. We talked a lot about love. We talked a lot about childhood, about growing up. I told him stories about my parents and my sister. I think we became emotionally very familiar with each other.

PC: That collaboration really shows in the performance; it does make it all the more authentic.

ZK: I loved working that way. I think there are a lot of examples of actors having longtime collaborations with directors or friendships with their directors that I think informed the work. What was kind of different about this was that Brad was working that connection with me as he was writing the script.

PC: The movie doesn't feel scripted.

ZK: People always ask if there's a lot of improv, and it's a hard thing to answer because a lot of the script was exactly as it is onscreen. Brad, I think, is a little bit like [a documentary filmmaker] in how he works. A lot of times he'd put the camera on while we were resetting to try to get something just happening between me and Mark [Rendall, who plays Ivy's longtime friend, Al]. There are a couple of things in there. We'd have whole days where he would shoot things that weren't at all in the script…He created a lot of room for happy accidents.

PC: Speaking of the script, there are a lot of quiet moments in this movie. One that leaps to mind is you looking forlornly through a stack of CDs. Was it challenging to act in a movie that didn't have a lot of dialogue?

ZK: I haven't thought about it like that. The first week that we shot, we shot only with me and not with any of the other actors except for me on the phone with Greg [Ivy's never-seen boyfriend]. So I got very comfortable being alone with the camera…I think it was like a 50-page script and it's like an 80-minute movie, so I knew reading it that there would be a lot of time in the movie that was without dialogue, because there would have to be to make that a feature-length movie. I was expecting the quiet stuff. I don't know how to answer that because all of those scenes have dialogue in them, so there wasn't a lot of time spent just being absolutely silent. Like I said about the way that Brad helped [shape] the character with me, I felt at home being Ivy—especially after that first week of spending time alone with the camera—of who Ivy was, and just letting her sit with me.

PC: One thing I wanted to talk about was the role of New York in this movie. Do you think city living affects relationships, because I felt that Ivy being in New York forced her to solider on.

ZK: What do you mean, "solider on?"

PC: In New York you really can't stand still too long. You have to move on, keep up with the pace.

ZK: I don't think New York is making Ivy as you say, solider on…I think that she's somebody who's had to put away a lot of the darker, more exciting feelings she has because, partially as an epileptic, she's trying not to upset herself all the time. Stress and emotional distress can trigger a seizure. So, I think she's kind of trained herself not to have an emotional response to things. …She's incredibly self-reliant. I think part of it is that she's from a single parent home and she's had to do a lot of self-care.

I think New York definitely plays a part in how Ivy and Al relate to each other. I think that one thing that happens in New York is that because the apartments are so small and because people don't have a lot of outdoor space that they go into public spaces a lot for private conversations. I grew up in Los Angeles, and all of my important conversations in high school and as a kid always happened in someone's car or in their basement or someone's bedroom. We really didn't have a private experience in public space that often. In New York, it's almost the complete opposite. You take public transportation everywhere, there's very little space that's extremely private. People treat other people differently because of that, I think. Everybody is in their own little bubble outside among other people. I think that casts Ivy and Al together more than they would be necessarily in another city or on a drive somewhere [where'd they] have more autonomy….I think maybe Al would have said to Ivy, "Do you like me?" a whole lot earlier, if they had been spending a lot of time secluded.

PC: In The Exploding Girl you play a college student. You played a high school student in Me and Orson Welles. You're in your mid-twenties now, but you perform those roles with such ease. How do you do that?

ZK: I think because I was a precocious child there's a part of me that has more access to childishness than maybe I should for a 26-year-old. First, it doesn't seem that long ago to me. Second of all, I can't get a job playing my own age. People say, "She's too young for that part" because of how I look. So, I don't know when I'm going to get to play more adult roles. I'd love to. In the meantime, these stories are beautiful to me, these coming of age stories. I guess most actresses would love to play younger than they are [laughs].

PC: This is meant as a compliment. You never look the same twice; you blend into a role like Vera Farmiga does. Are you afraid that you may be a victim of your own versatility?

ZK: Yeah, sure, you have to be recognizable in some way in order to make a name for yourself. But the truth of the matter is, I'd much rather be a chameleon than be a movie star. I don't look up to people who are the same in every movie; I don't have any curiosity about that. I do truly feel that the key to this work is curiosity. I feel that every night when I go onstage. On nights when I have no curiosity about the material, when I'm tired or when I don't bother to be curious, then I can feel myself not really doing my job onstage. Similarly on film, I think you have to have a basic curiosity about human beings and the human condition and about what's happening.

There's a reason that people think actors are egomaniacs, but there has to be a certain amount of interest in the self in order, I think, to be a good actor. You have to be curious about what's happening to your body when you cry and what happens when you're ashamed or what happens to you when you're happy. You have to be curious about those things, and that can look like narcissism sometimes, even when it isn't. I just don't have the curiosity about myself as a persona. The only reason I act is to get to be other people, so if that is a damning thing, then fine because I don't really want to be otherwise.

PC: You're acting in films. You have a distinguished stage resume. You're a playwright. Where do you want your career to head?

ZK: It's na├»ve to be like, Oh, I want to be respected, because you don't get the parts that I want to play if you don't play the game a little bit. So, I know that I'm going to have to. One of the advantages of coming from a showbiz family is that I don't have a lot of naiveete or romance about careers. I know that careers are hard work. I know I'm going to have to figure out a way to make money that might involve making more compromises in what material I choose. I hope not. I would love to be able to keep going as I am now except on a kind of bigger scale I guess. I love to write, I'd love to keep doing that and have more of my plays produced…But the bottom line is to keep getting to play interesting parts, because that's the main thing.

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