Zoe Kazan Is Reimagining the Rom-Com Heroine — and Herself

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Zoe Kazan has the end of the world on her mind, but not for the reason you might think, or at least not primarily for the reason you might think. Four years ago, she was reading an article about weird things you can buy in New Jersey. She came across a mention of robots designed to be used at conventions that can hand out pamphlets and engage in conversations with attendees. As she read this, she thought, Well, I have to put that onstage.

Last year, during a break in her film schedule, Kazan remembered this notion and started writing a play around it. The play is titled After the Blast, and it’s about a near future in which humanity lives underground, having fled ecological catastrophe and nuclear disaster; in which fertility is strictly regulated and an eventual return to “aboveground” is whispered of reverently, not unlike how people today talk about Heaven; in which residents of the underground world are routinely tempted by “sims,” i.e., simulations of experiences that are no longer available to them, such as watching an actual sunset; and in which new generations of children, born underground, are congenitally blind and require robot assistants to guide and comfort them. The main character, Anna, is a depressive whose husband, a closet “sim” enthusiast, is pressuring her to apply for permission to bear a child; to help her pass the required interviews, he gets her a robot to train. She kind of falls in love with it.

As a play, it’s a departure for Kazan, whose earliest plays, Absalom and We Live Here, are realist familial dramas and whose most recent work, Trudy and Max in Love, is a two-hander about infidelity. “I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and I was coming off a pretty bad bout when the idea came to me,” she says of the inspiration for After the Blast. “Though I didn’t realize that was what I was trying to write about. But after I wrote the play, I was like, Oh. Okay. Sometimes the real thing I’m trying to write about reveals itself very late, even to myself.”

Then there was the advent of the reason you might think Kazan has the end of the world on the brain. In November, she spent Election Night watching with, among others, her good friend Lila Neugebauer, a theater director. Shell-shocked, the two friends agreed to meet for an early-morning walk the next day in Prospect Park. “During that walk,” says Kazan, “she said to me, ‘We have to get your play out this year.’ ” Ecological catastrophe, nuclear disaster, humanity retreating to underground bunkers, and the temptation of escape into simulated experience all seemed newly relevant. Directed by Neugebauer, the play will open in October at Lincoln Center.

Dress by Erdem and earrings by Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Hailun Ma/New York Magazine

In the meantime, there’s The Big Sick — a romantic comedy of sorts in which Kazan stars opposite Kumail Nanjiani, the ridiculously likable comedic actor on whose life the movie is based. Kazan plays Emily, who’s modeled on Nanjiani’s real-life wife, Emily V. Gordon, with whom he co-wrote the script. The Big Sick, in theaters June 23, is your typical story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl goes into the hospital for what seems like the flu but turns into a life-threatening medical episode from which you’re never quite sure she’ll recover, while boy spends many awkward waiting-room hours consoling the grief-stricken parents of the girl he recently dumped, even as he faces excommunication from his own strict Muslim family over having dated a white girl in the first place. You know, kind of like When Harry Met Sally … if Harry had been a Pakistani Muslim and Sally had spent most of the movie in a coma.

“I was not looking to do another romantic comedy, but then I read the script,” says Kazan, who has both written and starred in her share of slightly askew rom-coms. We’re discussing this in a park in Brooklyn, not far from where she lives with her longtime partner, the actor Paul Dano, our conversation interrupted only once by a vocally enthusiastic boy on a pogo stick. Kazan is so well suited to the role of Emily — both the meet-cute beginning of the tale and the emotional wreckage after she learns her boyfriend’s ditching her because he can’t even bring himself to reveal her existence to his family — and she shares such an easy rapport with Nanjiani onscreen that you might assume the two of them are old pals going back to elementary school. But she came to the part cold — and she took to it from the start. “There have been a handful of auditions in my life where I’ve walked out feeling like, I think they’d be stupid not to cast me,” she says. “This was one of those.”

Part of the charm of The Big Sick — which was a runaway favorite at the recent Sundance festival and was bought by Amazon Studios for $12 million — is how it starts out as a fairly familiar Apatovian comedy about aimless 30-somethings careening through life (sure enough, Judd Apatow’s producer fingerprints are on it) before it takes a jarring hard turn toward a genuine emotional wallop. The movie, in that way, is intriguingly not what it seems at first — which makes it a perfect vehicle for Kazan, who, at 33, has now spent at least a decade in the public eye. Because she came of age as a screen actress in the twee-saturated aughts, and because her ascent was roughly congruent with that of other then-20-something actresses (and other Zoes) such as Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, and Zooey Deschanel, she’s often, to her dismay, been lumped in as a so-called manic pixie dream girl, a phrase she finds irrelevant and irksome, not least when it’s applied to her.

In 2012, she starred with Dano in a film she’d written, Ruby Sparks, about a writer (Dano) who conjures a flesh-and-blood dream girl from the page — a story intended, in part, to deconstruct the manic-pixie phenomenon yet which was received in some circles as the apotheosis of it. “When Ruby Sparks came out, I had to do so many interviews where I had to explain the film and my politics,” she says. “And I think there was a willful misunderstanding by some people. They thought the movie was trying to perpetrate the thing the movie was deconstructing. And not to make any assumptions, but I think me being 27 years old and petite and big-eyed didn’t help my cause.”

Given her pedigree, Kazan was likely to draw a certain amount of attention no matter what, especially once she decided to go into acting. A decade ago, Kazan was featured in New York’s 40th-anniversary issue as one of “Who’s Who, 2048: Six New Yorkers we’ll be talking about on our 80th anniversary.” “I remember that day really well,” she says with a cringe. “I was a little embarrassed about the concept of that shoot. Posing for a shoot like that is like asking someone to spit in your face.” And 25 years before that photo shoot, she had been born into one of the most famous theatrical families in America. Her parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are filmmakers — both of them have Oscar nominations, and Swicord is the director of Wakefield, starring Bryan Cranston, which is playing now — and Zoe’s paternal grandfather is Elia Kazan, the lionized (and controversial, thanks to his cooperation with HUAC investigations) director of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. So, in her 20s, Kazan wound up on her share of “25 Under 25” and “30 Under 30” lists. “They only made me feel like a fraud,” she says. “And they made me feel old, which now seems so funny to me. I feel a lot more relaxed at 33 than I did at 23, I’ll put it that way.” If you assume that having a famous grandfather serves as either a career albatross or a catapult (or both), she’s actually found it liberating. “Maybe this is a way of gaslighting myself, but I think of it this way: In certain circles, my grandpa was considered to be one of the seminal directors of the 20th century. I’m never going to be that. So I might as well do whatever I want.”

Which brings us back to the robot and the people who’ve retreated underground. Her playwriting career has allowed her an escape hatch from the pressures of acting, even as she continues that pursuit; she’ll appear as James Franco’s wife in The Deuce, the HBO series about 1970s Times Square. But, thanks to writing, she doesn’t have to rely on acting to define her — or allow others to use it to define her. “I wasn’t raised in a family that cared about how you look,” she says. “The fact that I have made my living in acting, where that matters, that really feels antithetical to me as a person.” Her turn as Emily in The Big Sick is both a reminder of what she can do with a role like that and also how infrequently such roles come up for women. “When my first play was produced, I had this sudden feeling that I feel powerful,” she says. “Like, the next time I go into an audition room and it’s me and the same eight girls as always, I will have this thing that no one can take away from me. They can see us all as interchangeable. But I am not interchangeable.”

*This article appears in the May 29, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Styling by Diana Tsui; makeup by Nana Hiramatsu using M.A.C cosmetics; hair by Matthew Monzon at TMG LA. Photography by Hailun Ma.

Zoe Kazan Is Reimagining the Rom-Com Heroine — and Herself