In the last five years, Zoe Kazan has drawn attention for her stage roles in The Seagull, where she befriended Cary Mulligan; A Behanding in Spokane, where she played opposite Christopher Walken; and the Off Broadway revival of Angels in America, in which she played Valium-addicted, neurotic Mormon housewife Harper Pitt. In film, she's had a less prominent run, playing Pablo Schreiber's New York–booster girlfriend in Happythankyoumoreplease and the epileptic lead in The Exploding Girl. The granddaughter of Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), and the daughter of two screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Kazan studied playwriting at Yale. Now, at 27, she's having her first play produced in New York, the Manhattan Theater Club–commissioned We Live Here, which is now in previews. She spoke with Jada Yuan in August during a momentary break on the set of He Loves Me — a film that she wrote and co-stars in with boyfriend Paul Dano.
Zoe Kazan: I am so sorry to do this to you, but can I call you back in seven minutes? I’m in line at the coffee place. I was working until 7 a.m. this morning. I just really, really need an iced coffee.
Yeah, sure. No problem.
[Seven minutes later, she calls back.] Now I have iced coffee. Everything is better.
You’re having a crazy-busy couple of months.
Yeah, it’s been really amazing. Honestly, it’s all those clichés, like, “It never rains but it pours.” You know that Aesop’s fable about the bird and the pitcher of water? He can’t get a drink and he keeps dropping pebbles in and then one day the pebbles make the water level rise enough that he can finally have a drink of water? That’s how I feel: like I’ve been dropping pebbles into this pitcher of water for years and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh! All of your pitchers are overflowing.” So it’s been amazing, but I’ve never worked harder in my entire life. I’m literally stretched to my limit and basically anything that is not the play or the movie is getting super neglected.
What specifically is getting neglected? Have any pets that are dying?
No, no animals. Just, you know, the rest of my life: my friendships and my laundry and basically everything else. My coffee intake is going fine, though. That’s definitely being attended to.
And I guess having Paul on set helps your relationship not fall apart.
Uh, yeah. I guess? [Laughs.] I’m joking. I mean, it’s incredibly stressful to be working a thousand percent with the person you love. We’ve done it before, so I was prepared in some way for what it would be like, but it’s hard. He’s the lead of this movie and I’m the second lead and also the writer, so I’m really stressed and he’s really stressed. We never fight on set. On set, we’re, like, 100 percent happy and collaborative and working. But on the ride to the set we’re sharing a car and he’s like, “We need to go get juice to protect our health.” And I’m like, “No, we need to get coffee.” So we fight over that. And we fight over whose turn it is to shower first — stupid shit that is only a product of us being exhausted and in really close proximity to each other all the time. I’m looking forward to my relationship not being a professional one very soon. But to get to do this with him is pretty amazing and a totally extraordinary circumstance in every way. I have friends who are getting engaged and getting married right now, and if we decide to do that ever, we will know our relationship really works by the end of this because this is a crazy test to go through. This is like a trial by fire. This is like having a baby or something. I feel like I’m in labor, or in the first months of parenthood, like we have the bawling infant on our hands. I know I don’t actually know what that feels like, and that probably feels a thousand times more stressful than what I’m going through, but this is the closest approximation I have to that so far.
How long had you been working on your movie?
I like to sit on an idea for a long time, so I had this idea for it in the summer of 2009 and I wrote about twenty pages of it and put it away. And then I was doing a play in the spring of 2010 [A Behanding in Spokane] and I had a lot of time on my hands during the day because it was an 80-minute play. So I thought, Well, this would be a good time to pick that back up. So between March and May of 2010, I wrote the first draft. Paul and I knew our directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, socially because Paul had done Little Miss Sunshine with them. They're pretty notorious for being picky and developing projects and then not doing them. So I was a little nervous going to them, and I didn't want to make things weird socially. But we sent it to them in August and by October we were in rewrites. And then Fox Searchlight came on in April and made our dreams come true and now we're in production. So it’s been less than a year since Jon and Val got the script and we’re wrapping the movie. That’s so fast. My parents are screenwriters. They’ve had really good times and not so good times in their lives, and I know that what’s happening right now is pretty much the fastest it’s ever going to happen, and with the nicest people.
The movie is about a writer, right?
Paul’s a writer. So I am writing Paul writing me. Paul’s a guy who’s got pretty bad writer’s block and is pretty unhappy in his personal life and is really lonely and he starts to dream of a girl and he starts to kind of write this romance, and then shenanigans ensue. I don’t want to give away too much.
But you might be the girl he’s dreaming of?
Yes, I play this girl. It’s like a romantic comedy with a magic realist twist.
Is it more important to you to succeed in acting or writing?
That’s a really tricky word. Succeed. What do you mean?
You said you kept dropping pebbles into a bucket of water, but what bucket were you trying to fill? To become a screenwriter or a major actor?
I guess I have a couple different jars of water. I definitely don’t think of myself as a writer, which is probably something that I need to start doing. I wanted to be a writer when I was a little kid, but starting at 14, when I started acting in school plays, I was like, “That’s it for me. I love that.” And that’s still sort of how I feel, which is that acting is my first love and writing is something that I started doing because it was a huge part of my mind that I was basically neglecting. In college, I took a bunch of writing courses. And when I went out into the world and was trying to get acting jobs, there would be these huge slots of time where I wouldn’t have work, where my only self worth was coming from whether or not the casting director liked me or whether I got called back. A lot of actors go through that and it’s really demoralizing, because you’re spending your whole time thinking about what other people think of you, instead of getting to do your work and feeling good about yourself because you’re being productive or creative or anything. So I was in a stage where I was kind of trying to make myself feel self-actualized, I guess. And that’s when I started writing again. And that is the period of time that yielded my first play and sort of got me writing again in general. And now it’s a huge part of my life. Obviously. Because of the way this year is turning out, I know that I don’t have to take a shitty acting job anymore, necessarily, because I have this other thing that I can do to fulfill any artistic impulses I have, and also to make money. Which is shocking to me, but awesome.
That you could make money at writing?
Yeah. I mean, I am. So I guess I can. I just feel like it’s opened avenues for me. I don’t have to go in for every terrible movie that I get the audition for. I’ve been in the position for a long time where I have not been making choices but having choices made for me in terms of what I participate in, and I feel like now I have a little more leeway. Sometimes I think that acting is not — let me put it this way: There are a lot of people who do what I do, who are actors. But we’re not all doing the same job. I can’t tell you how many interviews I gave when I was first starting out when people would be like, “So, you don’t seem like the Lindsay Lohan type, like out partying.” And I’m like, “That has nothing to do with what I do. My lifestyle has nothing to do with what I do. Being famous has nothing to do what I’m doing. I am in a play Off Broadway. I am getting sandwiches at Lenny’s and going to work.” You know what I mean? There’s a kind of way that actors are all lumped together and seen as this vague mass of fame-hungry, swag-wearing, drug-using, eating-disordered people, and I sometimes get sick being lumped with that group. Sometimes I feel like it’s not a job that’s gonna be good to me in the long run. It’s really hard to have to think about how you look, and how people are perceiving you, and sometimes I don’t want to participate in that. And before I didn’t really have an option to not, and now I feel like I have more of an option. If I ever feel that acting is just soul-sucking and I don’t want to do it anymore, I could stop. Or if I have a year where I feel like nothing I’m being offered is interesting to me, I can just write. So before, I was like, “Maybe I’ll go be a pre-school teacher,” on days that were hard. And now on days that are hard, I just go to my computer and invest in this other really big part of my life.
You wrote your first play, Absalom, during and after Yale, and then it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. It was well-received, correct?
I really don’t read reviews, so I didn’t read them — I don’t think it’s good for me to read them, but I know that everyone was really happy around me. I still feel like that play needs a lot of work, and I never felt totally happy with the play itself. If I ever wanted that play to be mounted again, I would do a lot more work on it. It’s a play I started in college under my teacher Donald Margulies, and it was a kind of Oedipal, father and son thing, very traditional, very Aristotelian structure. One location, 24 hours, six characters. And my second play is a little less traditional in its structure, but I think still very traditional in its conception and its themes. It’s also a family drama. It takes place in one location. It also has six characters. I don’t know. Definitely both plays are straight-up realist. I’ve learned a lot as a writer since my first play, and a lot of that learning process has been developing this play with MTC. I’m working on a couple new plays right now, and they’re all basically about how do you grow up? How do you overcome your past? How to you make yourself happy no matter what has happened to you? These are the questions I keep coming back to.
What was the inspiration for Absalom?
Well, it was a class assignment. I guess I had all of the hubris of youth, and now I have less of it. [Laughs.] It’s funny, my agent is this big, powerful, wonderful, mama bear agent and at some point she said to me, “You’ll never write a play with the kind of scope of aspiration as your first play and you’ll never write a play where you make as many mistakes as your first play.” And I think that’s very true for me. I was reading all of these big playwrights like Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, and I was like, “I’m gonna write a big, fat play!” You know? So I took on all these things that I really know nothing about, like fathers and sons and brothers. I don’t have brothers. I’m not a boy. I don’t know really a lot about that. And all of the characters were, like, 45 years old, and I was, like, 20, when I started writing it. So I definitely admire the hubris with which I started it. So that’s what the first play was about. I can’t read it now, but maybe in a few years I will.
What is the new play about? What inspired it?
It’s about a family where there are two sisters and there is a very complicated past and the two sisters aren’t close. It circles around this weekend before a wedding. None of the scenes are true. It’s not autobiographical in that way. But I have a sister who I’m very close with. I dedicated the play to her. I just think that that relationship for me is the most important relationship that I’ve had in my life. It’s the closet and it’s the most difficult and it’s the most wonderful. Like, if the world was ending and I could save one person, I would save my sister. We grew up very close and all of the struggle and all of the wonderful things that that entails. And I kind of wanted to write about that. And there’s a way that plays about girls and plays about [struggles to say the words] women’s issues are, like, marginalized or thought of as softer or less muscular, and I wanted to write a more muscular play about something definitely on the feminine end of the spectrum, subject-wise. It’s also about, How do you survive your personal history? Both my parents are people who had, for various reasons, some challenging things in their childhoods. And I had challenging things in my childhood. And I know a lot of people who have had bad things happen to them and they turned out to be really responsible, interesting, not-fucked-up adults, and I am trying to become a not-fucked-up adult. And I think that when people use personal tragedy as an excuse for bad behavior, I understand it, but I find it hard to believe that people can’t overcome what they’ve gone through. I know it’s hard. I’m still trying to become a better adult. But I also think it’s our life’s work to do that, even though it’s hard. So that’s kind of what I wanted to write about and what I’ve been thinking about. And that’s, I guess, the kind of backbone of the play, even though the play is not ostensibly about that.
About overcoming the past?
I mean, it is, but it’s also about a lot of other things. And hopefully it’s really funny, or at least funnier than my first play.
Did people laugh watching your first play?
I don’t know. I was so in agony. I would like sit — I’m very flexible — and I would sit in this sort of, like, pretzel shape in the audience, completely contorted with my hands over my face, even on days when it was going really well. I find it very painful to watch, partly because I’m used to being onstage, and as a stage actor, you can gauge where the audience is and what’s going on. You almost have this third eye sort of roving and seeing, “Okay, the pace just slowed. I’ve got to pick this up.” Or, “This moment didn’t land. I’ve got to adjust here.” In the audience, you can’t do any of that. You’re going, “I would adjust if I could,” but you can’t, so you have to just keep sitting there. So honestly I don’t know if people were laughing. But I’m really hoping that they will this time.
Are you going to watch this play, or did you learn your lesson?
You have to watch. You have to get better.
Does Paul know you’d save your sister over him if the world was ending?
I don’t know. That’s really tough. He has a sister. I’m pretty sure he would save her. I think it’s a primal relationship. I mean, my sister and I shared a bed for the first ten years of my life. We grew up in rooms that adjoined with an open doorway. I’m pretty much as close to her as a person can get and yet she’s still a complete mystery to me. I think unfortunately for fire-related scenarios and other people involved, I don’t think I would think twice about it.
I am. Her name is Maya. She’s three years younger than me. She’s in the process of figuring out what to do with her life, like most 24-year-olds.
How would you compare your screenwriting and playwriting experiences?
I find playwriting to be incredibly difficult compared to screenwriting. Part of it is that I grew up watching movies and not watching plays. I read a lot of plays as a kid, but I didn’t see that many plays, so I feel better-versed in film history and film structure. I just think it’s easier to think in pictures. You don’t need as much dialogue. You don’t need to get your characters from A to Z. You can literally just cut A to Z.
Are your parents helping you with the writing part?
No. What do you mean?
They’re screenwriters, right? Have they given you advice or was it just that they did it and you thought you could?
I grew up in a household where they were talking about structure of movies and what happens in first act and what happens in second act and what happens in third act and where those things should happen. I was probably attuned to that from an early age. I read my parents’ scripts from the age of 5, on. And not in some weird, “Let’s train you to be a writer” kind of way. But my family’s really close and I was interested in what mommy and daddy did for a living. So when mommy and daddy had a script that wasn’t totally age inappropriate, they would let me read it. And we would talk about it. And I know that is the extraordinary part of my childhood — not the fact that my parents are screenwriters, and that they’re in the business — just what was being talked about and how it was being talked about. And then when I got older and started writing school, I would talk to my parents about what I was writing, and they would talk to me about when they had a similar problem. My mom has this lecture that she’s given at schools about structure, and at some point I had her sit down and give me that lecture. So all of that has definitely added up to an education of sorts. And that is the extent of my parents’ involvement in my writing. Mostly because imagine your mother giving you notes. I really don’t want to engage with that. I love my mom so much, but she’ll look at my shoes wrong and that’s a bad day for me. It’s rough already, I don’t need them looking over my shoulder, too. But they’ve been incredibly sweet and supportive. They came to set with my grandma this week. My grandma flew from Florida and she’s, like, 83 and awesome. They all came to set and my mom took pictures. They act like nerdy parents. I love that aspect of it. Because in that way, they’re just totally normal, and not screenwriter parents. That’s pretty cool. And my mom, when she read my script, she cried. That’s a good moment. They don’t tell me that they’re proud of me a lot because they don’t want me to get a swelled head, I think. So it’s things like that when I’m like, Oh, she’s really proud of me. That’s awesome.
All right, I think I ought to let you have your second nap of the day. Have a good trip home.
Thank you. I’m so excited to be back in Brooklyn. I want to just lie down on my couch and smell my pillows. I mean, what do you miss about home? It’s the feeling and the house and the smell of the air. I want to go for a walk around the neighborhood and stop by all of the people that I normally say hi to on the way. Go for walks. Fall in New York, there’s nothing better, right?
Right. Well, thanks for talking to me.
Thank you! I’m sorry I said “like” and “awesome” so much. I mean, honestly, my vocabulary is fucking destroyed by using my brain in all these different ways. I’m like an infant. I cannot speak.