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Zoe Kazan on What If, Romantic Comedies, and Kissing Daniel Radcliffe

To a certain subset of the population, specifically those living in the hippest areas of their respective cities, Zoe Kazan is a modern-day Meg Ryan — the queen of the indie romantic-comedy, starring in five in a row, including the fantastic Ruby Sparks, which she wrote. Her newest one, What If, comes out this weekend. She plays a Canadian animator in a long-term relationship who meets and befriends Daniel Radcliffe, but then things take a romantically comedic turn. Vulture spoke to Kazan on the phone earlier this week about the movie, grand, romantic gestures, and the death of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” (Mild spoilers follow, but considering the type of movie, not really.)

Hi, Zoe.
Hi, Jesse. Can you hear me?

Yeah, I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Yes.

Ok, good. I’m in upstate New York right now, using my parents’ phone, so I was nervous about it.
We’re both on landlines. How unusual is that?

Very.
Don’t you like talking on the landline? Doesn’t it remind you of high school?

Like talking to my high-school girlfriend.
I know! That’s exactly how I feel. We’re having the same experience right now.

You’re experiencing talking to my high-school girlfriend?
Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like for me. What’s her name? That bitch ...

Jenny.
Ugh. Jenny. That’s like the quintessential high-school girlfriend name.

It really is.
[People] used to talk on the phone all night long.

Yeah, I remember falling asleep while still on the phone and everything.
Completely, completely. You could hear [the person on the other end] breathe. And then you go to school the next day and you’re in homeroom and none of that intimacy is there, and you’re like, What? What world am I living in? Nobody talks on the phone anymore.

Do you miss it? I think I’m fine without it. Interviews seem to be the only times I talk on the phone now.
I don’t miss it. But now on the phone, I’m like, Oh, maybe I do miss it.

It is nice, especially if you’re interviewing a person. Friendships could benefit from people interviewing each other.
Yeah, I always feel weird about interviews. But then I did a sort of oral history with my dad [Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and son of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan], doing some interviewing of him, and that was really fun. It made me think differently about interviews.

Wait, we should be talking about the movie.
[Laughs.]

So the first question I like to ask anyone I interview about their movies is: Why this movie, now?
Well, they asked me to do it, and that’s a nice thing. [Laughs.] I liked [What If director Michael Dowse’s last movie] Goon a lot, and I had met Daniel Radcliffe, and thought it would be fun to go make a movie with him. Also, I was kind of burned out [from her role on the upcoming HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge]. I was like, Oh, it would be really fun to go to Toronto where they’re filming it and not have to break down and cry at rape and stuff. I had a surprisingly good time making it. I think artists have an idealistic way of looking at things: We hope for a job to be fun, to pay you, to do well at the box office, and like, do good things for your life, you know what I mean?

It’s hard to have all things at all times.
Exactly. And with this, I felt like I got it to pay off immediately just because I had a really kickass time filming it. And why now? I guess romantic comedies have become watered down in some ways over the last decade. People are sick of seeing a formula. And even just from the casting of this, it’s not formulaic. I mean, Dan and I aren’t Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. We’re like two more unconventional-looking people with strange senses of humor.

You’ve been in a bunch of films in a row that could broadly be considered romantic comedies. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to romantic comedies?
No, Jesse! I’m just saying yes to this because it is what comes to me! [Laughs.] Uhh, yeah, that’s the most honest answer to that question. I loved making so many of them. I probably won’t make another one for a long time. You’ve got to start picking and choosing eventually.

It was the 25th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally the other week, and a lot of people are talking about the future of the genre, if it even has one. Do you have a feeling of where it can go moving forward?
I sort of feel like people should just be writing good movies. I do think it starts with the script. That’s something that we see with When Harry Met Sally for sure. Like, part of the reason that that movie endures is that Nora Ephron just wrote such a fucking good script. So, yeah, all I would just say is: Don’t think it all can be fixed through improv. 

I rewatched When Harry Met Sally a couple of weeks ago, around the same time I saw What If, and they both feature a male protagonist who attempts a grand rom-com-type gesture. In your movie, Daniel flies to Ireland; and in When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal shows up to surprise Meg Ryan on New Year’s Eve. For the first time, it made me question whether the grand gesture is even romantic at all and instead something almost misogynistic, where the guy goes, I’ve decided we’re in love, so now I’m going to tell you that. Do you have a stance on romantic gestures, and what do you think your movie says about them?
I feel like in our movie, Elan Mastai, the writer, was really conscious with those kinds of tropes. One of the things that he said to me was how odd it is to watch our movie be marketed in these very conventional romantic-comedy terms. All the while, he was trying to stand up to those very tropes that our advertising campaign is using to sell the movie. I do think that’s one example of a very recognizable trope that he’s trying to turn on its head. Any super-romantic gesture like that that I’ve experienced in my life has kind of felt unbelievably creepy. Anytime a boyfriend showed up any place I wasn’t expecting — like an ex — I’m like, Okay, that’s weird. Maybe I should be, like, calling someone. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s meaningful because it’s character-based. He’s a person who has been in some ways in denial of his own feelings in order to protect their friendship, because she means so much to him. In some ways, there’s a deeper, sweeter meaning. But last year we watched it, and on the DVD extras, they talk about how they reshot the ending like four times to get the tone right. So, obviously there’s something problematic in it to start with.

Do you think What If would work if your character and Daniel’s just stayed friends?
Yeah, I’d be interested in that version of the movie. Part of what Elan is writing about is that there is no “right choice.” That love is a choice. Because when we meet Chantry, my character, she’s really happily ensconced in her relationship and there’s no way that she’s looking for a romantic connection with Wallace, Daniel Radcliffe’s character. And then her curiosity is piqued and circumstances shift so that she has all this time where she’s alone and her boyfriend is far away and she sort of experiments in a weird way outside of her relationship without stepping outside the bounds in terms of cheating. She has an emotional affair with him. She’s treating him like her surrogate boyfriend. That’s a really tricky thing that I weirdly think a lot of people do. They have these pretend lives — secret lives — where they may not be admitting to themselves what they’re doing, but they’re doing something sort of out of bounds. I think she could have made the decision in the other direction and stayed with her boyfriend. That would be a valid ending. I don’t know if it would be as satisfying to girls. [Laughs.] Little girls. I know if I was a teenager and I saw that ending, I would be like, What is this bullshit? I remember the ending of Casablanca. I was so unbelievably pissed off the first time I saw that.

When we interviewed Daniel Radcliffe a few weeks ago, he called the big kiss scene “cathartic” and he said it “packed a real punch.” How was it for you?
I’ve been in my relationship for so fucking long. I’ve been in my relationship for a million years, so there’s something a little strange and wonderful about the fact that I get to make out with other people and it’s totally fine. It’s also really weird. Sometimes when I go to do a movie kiss, I’m like Do I even remember how to kiss someone who isn’t my boyfriend? Where do you put your hands? What is it like? Someone else’s mouth, when it’s new, is so strange. I do think Dan’s right. Mike Dowse, our director, made a really smart decision putting that at the end of the shoot, because you spend a lot of time with a person and you know that this moment is coming and it means so much to the movie. It does feel like you’ve got to get it right. There’s some strange excitement. It’s a very weird job that I have. You just go in and you pretend to love someone else and sort of do love them because you are playing tricks on your brain all the time. It’s weird.

A couple weeks ago, the creator of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” denounced the expression. You mentioned him in an interview you did with Vulture for Ruby Sparks, and on Twitter, you thanked him. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you thanked him?
I thanked him because he acknowledged how complicated the issue is. Part of my frustration when I’ve had to talk about that a lot was that people were very simplistic in their interpretation of what I was saying, as well as their application of that label. I felt like I was getting misquoted about it, where it looked like I was saying that the term was sexist, when really I was saying that I don’t like the way that it’s applied, and I feel like it’s compounding the problem now rather than illuminating the ways in which female characters were being underwritten. It turned into a way of putting women characters in a box that I just didn’t like. I was grateful that he had written something thoughtful about it. He wasn’t saying, “I never should have thought of this trope in the first place,” he was saying, “Yes, I acknowledge the way in which it’s being misused.”

Photo: Mike Pont/Getty Images