Exclusive interview by Brad Balfour
With A Behanding in Spokane playing on Broadway through this weekend and with feature films -- including the recent The Exploding Girl -- coming out, actress Zoe Kazan is one of New York's go-to talents.
Though the Los Angeles born daughter of screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and multi-hyphenate Robin Swicord, and granddaughter of late film and theater director Elia Kazan has an insider's edge, this 26 year-old has really established a presence on her own.
While the pixie-faced Kazan doesn't look much older than a pre-teen, she has played a remarkable range of characters from the befuddled pot-dealing Marilyn in Behanding to the epileptic college student Ivy in the New York-centric indie The Exploding Girl. And since A Behanding in Spokane star Christopher Walken got the Tony nomination for best actor in a Drama, the play's been on the hot list all along.
While having a vet playwright like Irishman Martin McDonagh such a fan to cast you in a four-hander along with Walken, Anthony Mackie and Sam Rockwell, is compliment enough, Kazan keeps getting the work. But given all the acting she's done, it's surprising she still finds time to write her own scripts -- something she is getting known for as much as she is for her on-camera time.
Though she has said she didn't know that grandfather Elia was famous until she was 13, the genetic link is obvious. And with more movies coming out this year -- one by director Kelly Reichardt, (Meek's Cutoff) as well as the Josh Radnor directed film, Happythankyoumoreplease (a Sundance Audience Award winner out this August) Kazan will not remain in the public consciousness. And hopefully, through this Q&A, which draws on a roundtable and exclusive one-on-one, she offers some enlightenment on her time on stage and in front of the camera.
Q: You have a particular affection for playwright Martin McDonagh.
ZK: I did one of Martin's plays in college, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and had seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane when it was on Broadway when I was kid and I had read for it before, so I was already a big fan of his. Then I saw a play of his in 2005 and it just blew me away.
Truly, I think A Behanding is the most exciting theater experience, and I wonder if anything will ever top it for me. It's the most extraordinary play and that was the most extraordinary production. So when I head that he had written a new play I jumped at the chance. The fact that we've become friends out of this process is just an added bonus.
Q: It's a pretty dark black comedy.
ZK: Yeah. My dad has similar sensitivities to Martin's. My dad has a very dark sense of humor and definitely that was reflected in the bedtime stories that I heard as a child and the movies that were shown to me.
I have a gothic, and by that I mean Victorian gothic, sensibility myself. So many great stories, so many primal stories have both of those elements -- the humor and the terror. If you look at something like Grimm's fairy tales, or even look at stories in the Bible like Job, Jonah and the Whale, or Noah's Ark. Most of the storytelling that gets absolutely at the root of our civilization has both of those elements.
Q: Having done more than one McDonagh play do you find that you have a good idea of him and his work?
ZK: I was young when I did Cripple; I was in college, I was like 19 or 20 years old, and I don't want to belittle myself, I'm sure I was fine in the part, but it's just completely, completely different than anything that I'm doing now in terms of my command of language and my command of my body. I'm just a different actor than I was.
Q: Did it give you a leg up on understanding him, or do you have to approach it differently with each play?
ZK: It's different every play. He's writing different worlds. It would be one thing if it was all the same world, but the plays have so little in common.
Q: When you're working with a new play that doesn't have a history like something by Chekov. you're really defiining the characters; you are all defining it each night, it's not like something you can fall back on archetypes and things like that.
ZK: In some ways it's both more and less creative than interpreting a part that's been played before. When I was playing Masha in The Seagull, everyone knows my first lines in the play; they could practically say it along with me. Everybody knows who she is and if I deviate from the way that people normally play Masha, it's not going to get lost in the mix. It's like you have a coloring book that's already half colored in, so if you color in the rest. It's fine.
Whereas, if I play Marilyn against what Martin's written on the page no one's going to get to see the play. It's just a very different responsibility as an actor. It is amazing to be in a play with so few people; when we did our first run-through and I saw everybody afterwards and it was just the three of them and me, I thought, "Holy shit. That's not a lot of people to be pushing this boat forward." Being the only girl in the cast, I feel really lucky; they're such great guys and they all take really good care of me and I'm learning a lot.
Q: The only bad thing is you can't step outside yourself and watch yourself in the play.
ZK: It's true, but you can't really do that in any show because you can't watch yourself. You can watch the rest of the play and see how it's going but at a certain point you don't want to do that anymore because it takes you out of your concentration on your character.
Like when I was doing The Seagull, there were large portions of the play when I'd be offstage, and I had to stop watching because when I went onstage I wasn't thinking about Masha, I was thinking about the play as a play, not as the real world I was living in. So I'd go upstairs and I'd put on my music and I'd knit.
Q: Once you've done a play, it's not like each night after it's totally new. Doing a character in a movie is experiencing the experience as it happens. If you don't want to know anything about your character other than your experience of living as it's happening you can do that. Does the theatrical familiarity make it easier or harder to come at it with the freshness of the experience as it unfolds?
ZK: Like you have to have perspective on it?
Q: On the one hand it's a good that you know the play so well that you go in and do it, but how do you make it fresh every time? With a movie, you don't have to read the book, you don't have to read anything but your part, and can come into the movie like it's all new to you as it is happening to you.
ZK: I always read the whole script of whatever I'm doing, even if I have just a little scene, just to get the sense of where I belong and what the tone of the piece is. So there's not a huge difference for me in what I know and don't know.
It is different though because you're doing the same thing every night, night after night, eight shows a week, weeks on end, for months at a time. That does get -- I don't want to use the word -- monotonous, but it can become practiced or it can become rote if you're not careful. You know how sometimes when you're tired and you drive home and you get home but you don't remember how you got there because you've done it so many times you can almost do it in your sleep?
Doing plays sometimes gets like that where you through a scene and all of a sudden you're like, "Did I say that line or did I not say that line? Did that part of the play already go by?" It can become disorienting in that way. And I think one thing that helps that is you usually get bored with yourself, right?
You are aware of what you're doing every night. But my costars Sam and Chris and Anthony, are always infinitely interesting. They're always doing something different even if they're not aware that they're doing it. Whenever I get bored I just plug into the people around me I guess.
Q: You're a writer as well. Does it helps you to work both in film and in theater? Or do you lean towards theater in your writing?
ZK: I grew up mostly exposed to and loving movies. My love of theater is something that came a little bit later in my life. I love plays and feel absolutely passionately about the theater, but in terms of where my imagination goes, I think more cinematically than I do theatrically, and writing a play is a very difficult thing.
It's not difficult for everyone, but for me the thing is getting people on and off stage and writing in a theatrical way, in a way that's specific for the theater and couldn't interchangeably be a short story or a movie. I get a great deal of pleasure out of it but it doesn't come as naturally to me as writing for the screen does.
Q: You'd think it would come naturally just because of genetics.
ZK: Right. Well, that's the other thing. I've been reading my parents' scripts since I was a little girl, like since I could read, since I was five. They gave me their scripts at that age to give them notes on it, so they were exposing me at a very early age to scripts. I've been reading scripts and learning about script structure since I was a little girl, so it's not in my blood but it's definitely upbringing.
Q: Did your grandfather have any influence; did you know him much?
ZK: He passed in 2008. I was 24 then, so yeah, of course he was a big part of my life growing up. As for artistic influence on me, I think every actor working in a naturalistic way now is indebted to my grandfather. So in a professional sense, he has had an impact on me, or his work has had an impact on me. But on a personal level, I didn't ask him for any advice or anything like that.
Q: Is it easier to go from a play to a play, or from a play to a movie then to a play? For some people it's easier to break it up. Once your chops are down and you're going play to play, is it easier to get into that mindset? What works for you?
ZK: I did three plays back to back in the 2007 / 2008 season, and that was a mistake. I shouldn't have done it. I was so tired by the end of it. By the third play, which was Come Back, Little Sheba, I had very little appetite left for it.
It was the only job that I've ever done that felt like a job, and it's not the fault of the play, I love that play, and I had a great cast around me and a really good director, and I'm still proud of my work in that show, but I wasn't curious anymore, I was just tired.
I'll never do that again; I might do two plays in a season, but not back to back and definitely not as much. I think it's easier to go from a play to a move to a play because it's a different way of working and you can kind of get your appetite up.
Q: You grew up in Venice, California; I find Venice an interesting bohemian enclave. Do you feel that was helpful? If you had been more in the high-speed LA, Beverly Hills world would it have changed you?
ZK: I do. I think my parents did a very smart thing. Especially the neighborhood I grew up in, in the 1980s, early '90s, when I was a really young kid, it was such a sheltered way to live. It was not a very affluent community then, and there were a lot of artists.
I was not raised in any way like an LA child. When I got older and went to high school I was exposed to more of that but my parents were very careful about the way they raised us and were really determined that we were going to be like those kind of kids.
Q: It feels like you've done a million movies before you did The Exploding Girl.
ZK: I did a lot of movies that didn't come out for a while, so I don't know because I can't remember at what point that was.
Q: So do you like working on big mainstream films or the indie ones?
ZK: Everybody needs those mainstream ones. I love going to the movies and watching a big cushy movie. I really like getting the big cushy paycheck too, but that's not an issue. Everybody has to do some for the money, but I definitely prefer a smaller scale. Especially coming from a theater background, and because my parents are in the industry, the values I grew up with were values of collaboration and doing something all together.
On the big budget movies you're always squirreled away in a massive trailer and alone, then you're brought to set and have to look perfect and all of that. That's not really what I got in it for.
I love not having a trailer, just being thrown into bathrooms to change and being with your costars all the time and not having a thousand people fussing over you. It seems much more conducive to the work to me.
Q: Of the recent characters that you've played, which ones do you think are closer to you?
ZK: Well, it's funny because, with It's Complicated, Nancy [Meyers] is a screenwriter and a director, my mother's a screenwriter and a director. Her husband's a screenwriter and a director, my dad's a screenwriter and a director, she has two daughters who went to private schools in LA who are friends with people I know; I went to private schools in LA.
There's a lot of overlap between us, and then in some ways there's none. Nancy lives in this perfect world where everything's from Shabby Chic and looks really beautiful and I grew up in this kind of grungy Venice world with my parents and there was never a lot of money thrown around.
In some ways our values are really similar and I totally got who that character was, and in some ways I'm like, "Why remodel that kitchen?"
So when Nancy met me she was like, "You're my girl; you're exactly who I wrote on the page," and I was thinking that's not who I am at all. So it's all about perception.
I feel like probably of all the characters I've played, I don't really feel like I've played someone close to myself on film. I did this play, Things We Want, at the New Group and I feel like that character is probably the closest I've ever played to myself. Even though she's a concert pianist so we have nothing in common that way, she's an artist and her psychology was closer to mine.
But definitely between The Private Lives of Pippa Lee this one, and Happythankyoumoreplease that was at Sundance, all girls are very different from me.
Q: What drew you to the role of Ivy?
ZK: I auditioned for Brad [Bradley Rust Gray, director] almost four years ago for another movie he was making, and he didn't end up getting to make that movie right away. I didn't get cast in it, but he remembered me and I remembered him.
About a year and half after that he called and said, "I want to make a movie with you," and I remembered him because I loved his movies so much in the first place.
I said, "Okay. What's it about?" and he was like, "I don't know. I haven't written it, I have no idea what it's going to be about. I have an idea but I can't tell you about it. Do you want to do it?"
I was like, "Yeah, I do." So we started meeting and have these epic walks around Manhattan. We'd walk for hours. I was doing Come Back, Little Sheba at the time and I actually got bronchitis from walking around with him and had to miss a show. So I blame him for that completely. Like in the middle of January and February these massive eight-hour walks and we would talk about love and life and how we grew up and just kind of getting to know each other, almost like a blind date.
Then I went away to shoot Me and Orson Welles, and when I got back he had a script and he said, "Read it, and if you want to do it, let's do it."
I loved it. Ivy is so unlike me in so many ways, so I was really surprised that he had written this character because Brad's worked mostly non-actors before and written characters very close to the people themselves so they could play them. I was really excited that he had written something so different from myself for me. But it's funny; it was hard for me to talk about Ivy while we were shooting it. We had a lot of shorthand, like he'd come over and be like, "No, no, no, no, no. The way you're breathing isn't right."
We both had a picture of her in our heads and knew what we were aiming for, but we didn't have a lot of coherence talking about her, and it's only been afterward when I look at the movie that I realize what her qualities are. When we were playing it was all much more unconscious.
Q: Did you relate to your character's sense of detachment given that you went to college and had the whole college experience?
ZK: A detachment from home?
Q: Or a detachment from what's going on. Being home on break is a weird situation.
ZK: It is a weird situation. Brad and I talked about that. There's Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's movie, Café Lumière, that we looked at a lot. There's a moment where the lead character comes home in that movie and she falls asleep on the couch, or lies down on the floor, and we thought about that, about what it's like when you come home and it's sort of your home but it's not your home anymore. She's definitely in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood where she doesn't quite belong there anymore but it's still the only home she has.
Brad and I talked about that and about wanting to capture that feeling. But I'm an actress and I think that there is some truth to the stereotype that comes along with that. I'm very emotional and I have very easy access to my emotions, and I hesitate to say it because I'm sure my family is going to laugh at me, but I think I burden other people with my emotions sometimes, like "Take care of me."
Ivy is not at all like that, she's incredibly self-contained, and some of that feeling of detachment that you get in the movie comes from that. She does not want to be a burden to anyone and she doesn't want her illness [epilepsy] to be a burden to anyone. So when the breakup happens she keeps that to herself, she doesn't even tell her friends, and I think there's a kind of strength in that, and I think there's deep loneliness in that. I also think it would be much better for her if she had more access to self-expression.
Q: Did you study about epilepsy?
ZK: Yeah, I did. I don't have a chronic illness but I know people who do and I didn't want to dishonor anybody by doing it wrong. Not just the epileptic seizure itself, but also the psychology behind having something that you have to take care of and that way of taking care of yourself.
I actually read a lot of parenting books for parents who have children who have epilepsy because I wanted to think about the way that she had been raised, especially because her mother's a single parent and I feel like Ivy's taken on a lot of the burden of parenting herself because of that. And also we watched videos of seizures online; not on YouTube, although a little bit of that, but a lot of those are hoaxes.
There are videos on medical sites about epilepsy; diagnostic videos basically. We looked at those and we looked at the brain scans of what happens to the brain during the epileptic seizure, and I practiced it at home. I was really anxious about doing the whole thing because it's so out of your control when you do it and it seemed like such a big part of the movie that I was going to have to tackle. I was really freaked out about it and finally I thought, "This is silly. I've just got to do one, and if I do one then I've done one and I don't have to worry about it anymore."
I was lying in bed and my boyfriend was in the other room brushing his teeth and I was like, "Baby, can you come in here?" So he comes in the room with a mouthful of toothpaste and I was like, "Watch this. Tell me if it looks real."
I do the seizure, and he's standing there with his toothbrush, and I open my eyes afterwards and ask how I looked and he was like, "Never do that again! Are you crazy?"
And I was like, "But did it look real?" and he was like, "Yes it looked real! You're freaking me out!" And I was like, "Sorry, brush your teeth. Go spit."
But I practiced it that once and then I didn't practice it anymore, and we did two 15-minute takes.
Q: It's not like you can go ask an epileptic, "Hey do a seizure for me."
ZK: Yeah, exactly.
Q: You mention that gap between childhood and adulthood and since this was a two character story and that's interesting. I don't know if this was a conscious effort by the director or not.
ZK: I think it was.
Q: One reason it works is because Ivy is so complex. She's not a child but not quite an adult; she has that wide-eyed, childhood, idealistic expression that you do so well. Mark Rendell plays his character the same way, but is a male version, also between childhood and adulthood, idealistic with everything still new, yet he seems to have a much easier time.
ZK: Well he's a boy.
Q: Was that in the script or in the characterizations that you were drawing on?
ZK: It has something to do with the script. It has more to do with their characters than anything. First of all, Ivy's more grown up than Al is; she's just had to take care of herself at a younger age. Epilepsy, like diabetes, is something that you have to take care of; you have to mind what you eat, you have to mind how much sleep you get, what kind of stress you're under.
And to be a young person and to be minding those kinds of things, most teenagers aren't capable of that, let alone someone who has a mother who's not 100% present. So I think that there's a way that she guards herself, takes care of herself, that's much more akin to an adult than anything that Al's had to go through. She does his laundry for him; she takes care of him in an unconscious way, not in a manipulative way.
She's not trying to prove anything by taking care of him; she just takes care of him. And I think that he brings to her, like what the trade off is, is that he brings a lot of childish joy, and I think it's one of the reasons that they make a really great pair, really great friends. The other half of it is that Mark is like Al.
For one thing, Mark's a lot younger than I am. I'm 26, and when we shot the movie I was 24, and Mark was 18. So that's a big age different; we would never have been in high school together. I think when you watch the movie you don't see it because I look young and Mark has an ageless kind of look to him. We could be almost any age within a certain range.
Q: That's a testament to your acting too, because it's not easy to pull that off.
ZK: Yeah, totally. It's funny because Brad said something, and I don't want to age myself too much, but Brad said something to me recently and he was like, "We wouldn't have been able to make the movie now because I've grown up two years since we made the movie. I'm not in a very different place in my life, but I feel older in a way."
And when I talk to Mark now, he's older too. When we met he'd never had a girlfriend, he was living with his parents still, and there's something very endearing about that to me, and I think that informs what you see on screen a little bit too.
Brad has a real sense of decorum as a filmmaker. He thinks about the characters as being people, and I think that one thing he was very concerned about was giving Ivy her privacy. So the breakup scene, the scene where she cries, the seizure, those are all things that he shot from further away and with objects between them.
And he did that very purposefully. Of course as an actor, I'm like, "Put the camera on my face when I'm crying, dude. Don't back-light me and make sure nobody can see my face, you asshole."
But he knew what he was doing and I think that there is more emotional impact because you're given a little bit of distance. Sometimes when you're forced to look at something in close-up all the time it kind of becomes about the acting and not about the character, and I really respect what he did with that. It's just a very different style of telling stories. If you look at It's Complicated, you couldn't have two more different movies.
On It's Complicated, every scene we shot with a wide-shot, a two-shot, close-up, close-up, medium-shot, medium-shot, over the shoulder; I mean she got coverage on every kind of coverage you could possibly want.
So the way that movie cuts together, it cuts together in a much more conventional way. You get into the scene on the wide-shot and then you go in, and you go in, and you go in. We didn't have the money to do that, so part of what is happening is that there are solutions having to do with economy.
We just didn't have the time; we shot this in 17 days, so if he could get it in one shot that was a wide-shot he would get it in the wide-shot. But because of that he had to make specific decisions before he edited about what he wanted it to look like.
In some ways it made my job much easier because I only had to do it a couple of times. Especially with the seizure; only having to do that a couple of times was a godsend because it's really exhausting. And other times I was begging him for another take.
Q: When you're in between being a kid -- dependent on your family -- and being an adult, on your own, there's a bohemian ideal where you don't have to be doing things for a job. Do you think the film is communicating to the audience about that period of life?
ZK: Ivy has to work; she helps out at her mom's studio during her break. She's not going to have a lot time where she just gets to sit at home and figure her life out; she doesn't come from that socio-economic background. But I do think that when you're in college, especially when you're on break and you don't have any homework, it is a feeling of being a kid again. Like summer break or spring break, suddenly you're not a grownup living at school, having your own life.
I remember this so clearly, being at school and taking care of myself; I feed myself all my own meals, put myself to bed whatever time I want. Then I come home and my parents are like, "Where are you going? What time are you going to be home?" and being 19 years old and being like, "I don't have a curfew at school." And I do think there's some of that liminal space.
Q: Does being a New Yorker now...
ZK: I've been here five years.
Q: For living in such a crowded city, feelings of loneliness can pervade because everybody's doing their own thing. Did that informed the role for you.
ZK: In New York, there's a sense of being alone in a crowd of people all the time. I grew up in Los Angeles and I think LA is a much lonelier city than New York is. You're alone in your car or your house, people don't really go out in the same way that they go out in New York, so if you don't know anybody in LA I think you're much lonelier.
In New York it's much easier to be alone than it is in Los Angeles because you can always go to a bar or a coffee shop or go to Film Forum and there are people around you and you feel like you're in a community. But I think that when you have that much availability to people and there's still no connection, that's the kind of space that Ivy's in. Her mother isn't really taking care of her and her boyfriend isn't really available to her.
She's self-sufficient, but I think she's lonely, and I can definitely understand that. There are times when being on the subway, like when you're depressed, it's physically painful because there's no privacy, there's no space. Like after her breakup when she's taking the subway home, there's no space for her to be alone and cry, and I think that there is a kind of prison of publicness that is happening in the movie.
Even when Greg calls her when she's at that party, or having the seizure at that party, the door is open, there are people walking by. There's a sense of there's no place for her to be alone.
Q: What did you hope this film conveys to an audience?
ZK: I hope people can see past Ivy and Al's youth to the [see the] universality of the story. It's about loneliness and learning how to connect with other people. It's about the thing of not being willing to know your own heart or not knowing your own heart. I do think it's specifically about young people and about a very young stage of life; I hope that it has more to offer than that.
Q: Was it weird working with your boyfriend Paul Dano in the upcoming Kelly Reichardt film, Meek's Cutoff?
ZK: It was really normal actually. There was another actor that was supposed to play the part Paul played and the actor had a visa issued but couldn't come at the very last minute. Like literally two days before we were going to shoot Paul came in to do it and I think he was more nervous about it than I was.
We met doing a play together, so we had worked together before, so I knew how he was as an actor. But it was actually an incredible thing because it was a very grueling shoot.
We were in the middle of nowhere, like in the desert of Oregon six hours from civilization.
We had no cell service, very little internet, and we were in these incredible salt flats with all this alkaline dust. It was like two hours from our motel to the set everyday over literally no road, just over dirt, with dehydration and sunstroke, then hypothermia.
We had such grueling conditions, so to have someone there with me who I loved, who at the end of the day would just be content to help me get some food and help me get to sleep was great.