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Zoe Kazan on Her ‘Vulnerable’ Role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan.
Zoe Kazan. Photo: Getty Images

Some spoilers below for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

After a few minutes of conversation with Zoe Kazan, it is clear that she hails from both the stage and the Ivy League. That might sound like a coded diss when used to describe most people, but at least in this instance, it isn’t. She embodies all of the most positive qualities implied by those two milieus: the erudition without the pretension, an omnivorous curiosity without the dilettantish-ness, sensitivity without the preening artiste’s put-on airs. The actress’s first foray into feature-length script-writing, the meta-drama Ruby Sparks, used the magical-realist hook of “what if a novelist’s thinly written heroine sprang to life?” to deconstruct the male artist’s tendency to fetishize his female subjects. One gets the impression that she spends as much time thinking about art — what it is, how it works, what it means — as she does actually making it.

This fall has been a red-letter season for Kazan on fronts both professional and personal. After all-but-universally-praised appearances at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and New York’s film festivals, her latest writing effort, Wildlife (a collaboration with her partner Paul Dano, who also directs the film), has come to theaters awash in awards buzz. This weekend, she pops up on the other side of the camera as an imperiled frontier woman in the Coen brothers’ Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And behind the scenes, she’s quietly taken on the role of mother, giving birth to the couple’s first child at the end of August, away from the peering eyes of the press.

Vulture checked in with Kazan as one of the biggest years of her life began to wind down, discussing her soul-nourishing time shooting in Nebraska, the perks of mixing work with love, the importance of privacy in the age of total exposure, and one transcendent moment from an Asian-export DVD’s behind-the-scenes extras.

How did you come to join this project? Am I right to assume that the Coen brothers were an instant sell?
Yeah, I didn’t have to look any further on the email than the words “Coen brothers.” That call doesn’t come very often, so I was like, “Please, please, get me in.” Then I read the sides, and I felt a deep gong of recognition, like, This could really be my part. It’s very rare to read a well-written script, and even rarer to find one with a part for you that could be really compelling. A lot of the time, you wonder what they’re looking for and think that maybe you could fit into it. On this one, and this hasn’t happened very often in my career, Olive Kitteridge was another one, but I knew this girl. She was for me. Then you just hope like hell that it goes your way because it’s such a heartbreak when it doesn’t.

In the tradition of the Western, the woman holds a specific place, and your character speaks to that. The women would wait for their husbands to return home from dangerous adventures, and your role both does and doesn’t follow that template.
I saw her like a bird in a cage, and then the cage door unexpectedly opens, and she doesn’t quite know how to fly out. She’s been told her whole life that she’s wishy-washy and can’t speak for herself, that she’s an idiot without good ideas, and she has a negative self-view as a result of it. The story witnesses her starting to take her first steps out of the cage, and feeling the air on her feathers. She gets a new sense of herself.

Not to delve too deep into the plot, but speaking in the abstract — do you see a difference between being a victim and a casualty?
I don’t think she’s either. I think fear is standing in her way, the fear of stepping out into the unknown, fear of the mysterious Other; and if there’s something in this that’s her undoing, it’s fear.

This isn’t your first Western. Did you bring anything you learned during your time on Meek’s Cutoff to this production?
Mostly, just the research. Going into Meek’s, I had a lot more time to prepare. I had the summer before we started shooting off. I read a ton about the Oregon Trail, women going west. I read their journals, read about the Donner Party. But because we were in the editing room and the rest of postproduction on Wildlife right before, and because this part was much more challenging, a lot of my preparation was on the language and character work. So it really came in handy to have that primer of historical context already in place.

Do you think there’s something about you as an actress that lends itself to the genre?
I don’t know! I love a bonnet. I was like a little kid who wanted to be a pioneer, that would be my choice playing dress-up. Maybe I seem old-fashioned or something. I hadn’t given it much thought.

Actors invested in the craft of cinema will often look at working with directors like the Coen brothers as a learning experience. What would you say you picked up?
Oh, so much. That was on par with the opportunity of getting to play this part. I hadn’t really realized how many of their collaborators they’ve returned to throughout their career. They’re extremely loyal, and one of the things that creates on set is an assumption of trust. You know that every single person doing their job has total authorization. Talking to Mary Zophres, the costume designer, was like talking to them in extension. Everyone’s on the same page, even when the weather’s not going well and things could be tense, that keeps a relaxation on set. I realized that if I ever make films, it’s a good thing to start finding collaborators and putting trust in them to do their work, not micromanaging.

And aside from that, just watching them bring their sense of humor to bear, that was rewarding. There’s a featurette on the extras from the DVD release of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, where he’s shooting with Song Kang-ho in this really serious scene, interrogating this guy. He slams his fist on the table, and when Bong calls cut, he bursts into laughter. I thought that he must be on the razor’s edge, and I realized that the Coen brothers bring that same energy. They’d laugh at a really intense take because it brought them pleasure. Whenever you hear them laughing on set, you know you’re in the right area.

It sounds like trust played a big role on this set, and I saw online that you went way back with your co-star Bill Heck.
This is going to sound Pollyannaish, but even if this hadn’t been a Coen brothers movie — an obvious apex moment in anyone’s career — it still would’ve been one of the most meaningful jobs of my life. First of all, the material was so beautiful. I felt deeply connected to it, like the more I gave to it, the more it’d give back to me. It felt like it’d be endlessly mysterious and endlessly interesting and like I’d never fully get it right, which is an exciting feeling. And then to be in Nebraska, a beautiful part of America I had never been to before, with nothing in my life to focus on but doing this. And then to be there with Bill, who had played my husband in Angels in America for six months, and it was really hard. It’s a demanding play. I felt like we had been through something emotional and difficult together. That we could reunite after these years and build something new, on a new level of understanding for each other, it was … I recognized him by his back. I saw him from behind coming into the audition space, and I knew it was him immediately. I felt relaxation go through me, like, If it’s me and him, it’ll be okay. I get nervous to work with my heroes, and as an actor, you’re made to be sensitive a lot of the time. I was feeling overwhelmed at the time, so having someone I could call at 8 a.m. and ask to run lines with me for hours, it made me feel like I really had a partner.

Did you give much thought to how your segment figures into the rest of the film?
Yes, do you want to hear about my grand theory?

God, yes.
This will be spoiler-filled: I think the chapters are inextricably bound to one another, and I know there were rumors online about this being a series, but it’s all one thing. This is all it ever was, the script I received to a T. They were never going to split them up, and I think they’re indivisible. Each chapter prepares you for the next. The first warns you that this will be a good time, and people may die, but we’re going to have some fun. We’re in the realm of entertainment! By the third one, “Meal Ticket,” that expectation has been reversed. If this is entertainment, that amusement comes with a great price. And by this point, you’ve watched the death of each protagonist. Okay, all the protagonists have died; it’s gonna be a dark film. Then comes the fourth segment, Tom Waits’s, and he reverses that pattern. There’s a note of hope there, and then “The Gal Who Got Rattled” runs the longest, getting you the most invested in these characters, before ending on a solemn note. The last one comments on everything that’s come before, using this sort of dream logic to connect them all. Like a roomful of Caravaggios in a museum or tracks on an album, we see all these expressions of a single obsession. You get to live in the artists’ brain for a couple of hours.

I saw Wildlife up in Toronto, and it reminded me quite a bit of Revolutionary Road, in which you had a small role. Is there something particular about the subject material — disintegrating relationships, mid-century America — that you find interesting?
Being cast in Revolutionary Road was kind of like Buster Scruggs, in that I’d have done whatever Sam Mendes was asking about. That was one of the very rare times in my life where I read the script and felt like I saw my part. Maybe this says something about me, but I watched A Place in the Sun and wanted to be Shelley Winters. I feel drawn to vulnerable characters. Playing an ingenue is less interesting for me, in general. The crumbling marriage theme is entirely incidental, but I find the constriction of women to be great fodder for drama.

As you get older, you start to play more mothers. The only things that can happen to you, suddenly they’re in scripts about being a mother or wife. One thing I love about Revolutionary Road that I think is also true of Wildlife is that it takes that idea of being forcibly cast and making it the character’s problem. She doesn’t want to be seen only in a domestic role.

As you and Paul have gone on the press circuit for Wildlife, have you run up against people minimizing your contributions and assigning him full authorship, or has that not been much of an issue?
It’s a complicated thing to understand, how to think about authorship. Paul didn’t take a “film by” credit, partially because I told him I thought it was douchey. [Laughs.] No, not really! I mean only that it’s complicated. I feel like on an independent production like this, it’s very hard to say one person made this film. Once you go through making a movie, our editor deserves the “film by” credit, our producers deserve the “film by” credit, everyone does. You feel the enormous weight of every single person’s contribution, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. I think that Paul probably deserves more credit than he thinks he does, though. He’s always reminding me to let myself take credit, and I’m always passing it on to him. It was his baby from the start; he found the book and fell in love with it. I love it, too, but partially because I love him, and I see so much of him in it. I felt like I was helping him give birth to this thing.

On the other hand, I took an executive producer credit because there’s no real way to put a credit on what we did with this film. We lived with it for five years, pushed it up a big hill. Paul did most of the pushing, but I was beside him. I thought about how the wives of so many filmmakers have gone uncredited and unpaid for their contributions, Alma Hitchcock being my first example, and I know that if I ever direct a film, I’ll make Paul a producer on it. He’ll earn the credit, too, I can promise you that.

Some couples that consolidate their personal and professional lives find it makes things simpler, but it’s been a minefield for others. Have you found it to be more one way or the other?
Acting together was really hard, and I don’t know that we can do that again.

You started acting together in the theater a while ago, yeah?
Yeah, that wasn’t hard. It’s gotten tougher over time. When you sew your life together with someone else’s — I remember coming home from my first day of work on this movie called The Exploding Girl, first lead part I had in the movie. I was coming home after a really long, exhausting day. I knew there was no food in the house and I had a 5 a.m. call the next day. I called Paul like, “I really need you to have food ready for me.” The next day, I came home, and he had bought groceries for me to make dinner. I think I said, “I feel like I haven’t been totally clear. I want to eat the food, and then go to sleep.” We’ve learned how to take care of one another, and when we’re both in acting mode, there’s nobody to hold down the fort at home, even if that just means ordering Thai food. There’s nobody to buy toilet paper. To work a 17-hour day, then get in a car together to go home where you sleep in the same bed, it’s a lot. But the other end of that is that I’ve always got a first reader who’s incredibly generous and understands my tastes and thought processes. He knows my bad habits.

I read that you and Paul recently started a family, and chose to mostly keep it to yourselves. Is privacy an essential part of the lifestyle you’ve built together?
I think we value privacy partially because you’re trying to protect your creativity, and it has to come from somewhere personal. Having a private life is an incredible privilege, and must be protected in order to allow your unconscious to belong to you. Have you read Willa Cather’s work? You should read O Pioneers!, I reread it before going to Nebraska. What really struck me was how she had buried in that book her relationship to her own queerness. It comes out in the wildest, most unexpected ways. That’s a perfect example of how the unconscious bears fruit, to provide self-expression without resorting to autobiography. That’s the part you can share with the public. You can find a home for a piece of yourself you don’t have to carry around anymore.

Zoe Kazan on Being ‘Vulnerable’ in Buster Scruggs