‘It’s Good For The World To Have This Movie In It’: A Conversation With Zoe Kazan
Zoe Kazan has, for the duration of her 10-plus-year acting career, managed to fly relatively under the radar. Though she's worked steadily and starred in more than a dozen well-received indies — including 2013's offbeat rom-com What If, Kelly Reichardt's brutal western Meek's Cutoff, and Kazan's own Ruby Sparks — she's the kind of famous that allows her to wander the streets of Brooklyn unbothered, speak out about politics without stirring boycotts of her latest film, and find the time to write and star in plays both on and off Broadway.
All of that may change this Friday with the release of The Big Sick, which inspired a fiery bidding war at Sundance and is already one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. Real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily Gordon wrote The Big Sick based on their unorthodox courtship, which included, but was not limited to: vehement cultural clashes (Kumail, born in Pakistan, was expected to marry a Muslim woman), threats of familial disownment, a fraught breakup, a sob-filled stand-up routine, a mysterious illness, and a medically induced coma. As Emily, Kazan spends a solid chunk of the movie either completely unconscious, enraged, or confused; it's a testament to her performance (as well as Nanjiani's, who plays himself) that the movie is, on the whole, raucously funny and sweet. MTV News caught up with Kazan at New York's Four Seasons to talk about making Nanjiani uncomfortable during her audition, writing a postapocalyptic play in Trump's America, why she doesn't like being called “quirky,” and the terrifying insecurity of creative careers.
You told Vulture that you thought it'd be “stupid” if you weren't cast in this role. Why?
Zoe Kazan: Well, it's the kind of thing that you say and you're like, Oh, I never should have said that in print. [Laughs] Because it sounds so terribly egotistical. You know, it only happens a handful of times in your career, where you walk out of an audition feeling like all the stars aligned, my preparation paid off, something magical happened in the room. I've gotten really lucky and I've gotten to work a lot, and I would say it's only happened, like, two or three times, where I've walked out and been like, This was the right thing and the right choice and they should just cast me.
What kind of prep did you do to play a real-life person who was also the person in charge of casting you?
Kazan: Honestly, for this, I knew that they were going to ask me to do some improv. So I just tried to go in there as confident and relaxed as possible. I really memorized my sides, I knew them backwards and forwards, and sometimes that's all you really need. By memorizing them, your imagination engages even if you're not plotting out every little thing that you're going to do.
Any particular improvised lines that you remember or that made it into the film?
Kazan: I know that the line in the film [after our first date] where Kumail says, “We haven't even had sex again yet,” and I say, “I'm not that kind of girl, I only have sex once on the first date,” and then I say, “And a hand job” — that was definitely improvised in the audition. I was basically just trying to make Kumail blush. He's not at all prurient or prudish, but there is something in him that's very gentlemanly. I saw him do stand-up in L.A., and he was talking about his first time masturbating, and to talk about it, he had to turn his back on the audience at some point because he was so embarrassed. I find that quality really endearing, and I just felt like I wanted to make him as uncomfortable as possible [laughs].
How did Emily and Kumail relieve the inevitable pressure of you having to reenact their own love story in front of them, and with one of them?
Kazan: It's a very strange situation to be with the actual person, playing his actual wife, recreating their courtship. I think that, unlike my audition, where I was trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible, on set I was trying to make him as comfortable as possible. I honestly think it's a much weirder situation for him than it is for me. He's essentially doing a historical reenactment of his own life.
Early on in your career, you talked a bit about about how you disliked being described as “quirky.” Do you feel like you've broken out of that space as an actress, that people no longer put you in that box?
Kazan: Yeah, I don't love the word “quirky.” I don't feel like my choices ... I think it's a word that's a catchall. I think it has more to do with me not being conventionally, like, perfect-looking than it has to do with my acting choices. Like, “We don't know why, but we like her!” I think actresses that get labeled like that just don't fit into a box for whatever reason. Maybe I'm wrong. Or maybe it's a way of saying, “We don't know how to characterize this person, so we're just gonna throw 'quirky' on there!” It's a word that doesn't stand in empathy with the person, it stands in judgment of them. It's a very externalized word. I don't think a lot of people are like, “I'm just quirky!” Or if they [are], it's a stage they're going through as they figure out who they are. I never felt like I was choosing roles that were quirky.
The Big Sick, in particular, feels like a game-changing role for you. Does it feel that way on your end?
Kazan: I ran into [director] Michael Showalter on the subway, and we rode into the city together, [and] on the way he was saying he's never been a part of something that's been so actively embraced before. I feel that way, too. So many people have written about it in a really personal way, and people have reached out to me saying they've been touched in a personal way, and it feels wonderful to be a part of something that's reaching people like that. I hope that a lot of people see the film, because I think it's good for the world to have this movie in it. The role didn't feel like an immense departure for me, but I felt like it was an opportunity for me to approach a romantic role in a very real way. I felt empowered by my collaborators to not try to be cute, or try to be charming, not worry about the comedy — just try to play this woman. I feel like a lot of my work on stage, I've gotten to play a wider range of characters than I have on film. This feels closer to who I am than stuff I've played on stage, or, like, Olive Kitteridge.
You have a new play coming out in New York this fall, After the Blast. As I understand, it's a postapocalyptic story about a woman who falls in love with a robot ...?
Kazan: Sort of! The play takes place 80 years after we've gone underground — we've had to retreat underground because we've destroyed our environment. Fertility is controlled, and it's about a couple who's on their last attempt at fertility. The husband brings home a robot for her, and that's the play. It's speculative fiction.
In October, right?
Kazan: Yes. At LCT. Which is the upstairs space at Lincoln Center.
Kazan: I can give you directions. How to get there from the lobby. It's a little confusing. You go to the third floor.
OK, I'll see you there. Did you write this pre- or post-Trump?
Kazan: I wrote it pre-Trump. I mean, Trump was alive. He was born. He was a reality TV host. I thought of it, like, maybe five years ago, and then because a lot of it was world-building stuff, I put it on the back burner. Every time I had an idea for it, I'd write it down. And by the time I sat down to write the play, last spring, I had a 60-page document of thoughts and snippets of scenes. I wrote it really quickly last May.
You've been very vocal politically on Twitter both before and after the election. I'm curious, as a writer and an artist, whether you feel this urge or pressure to have your writing be political now that Trump is in office.
Kazan: It's a good question. I don't feel like I possess a particular political intelligence, and when I read work that does, I feel like somebody else is going to have the right political thing to say. As a citizen, I feel an enormous need to respond, and immediately post-election, I felt like, What is my work worth? Should I quit what I'm doing and go work on the 2018 election now? How is what I'm putting into the world meaningful? I think everyone is always asking themselves, How is my work meaningful, how is my life meaningful? As I get older, I feel like who I am as a person and a citizen is more important than who I am in my work. But I do think it reframed slightly for me, how much I have to care about a project in order to want to do it. Sometimes, obviously, you have a take a job for money. But I think I'm quicker now when I get a script that's, say, borderline misogynist, I'm not going to go in for it. I'm thinking more about what I'm putting into the world. I was already thinking about it, but the stakes got a lot higher. It makes something like [The Big Sick] all the sweeter to put into the world — a piece of art that treats the Muslim-American experience like a quotidian American experience is always valuable, but particularly in this landscape.
I don't feel like it's a time to be shy about raising my voice, and I don't think that the things I'm raising my voice about should be alienating. If it's alienating to a “fan base,” then I'm not responsible for that. Most of the things I'm talking about are essential human rights. I don't think it should be political to say that children should be able to have lunch at school when their families can't afford to feed them properly, or to say women should have access to basic health care, or that Muslims deserve equal protection under the law, or police shouldn't be killing black people and getting away with it — it shouldn't be a political thing to say. A lot of people on the right standing behind Christian values should be standing with us, because equality is a basic tenet of Christianity.
But somehow we live in a world where that stuff is political, so especially in such a public-facing industry, it's significant that you speak up about it.
Kazan: I just don't care that much about how famous I am [laughs]. I care a lot about our world, and [whether] our planet [will] survive. It seems really low-stakes how many Twitter followers I have, in the grand scheme of things. In 80 years, who will care?
When we're living underground.
Kazan: Yes, exactly.
On a lighter note, you also share these great little snapshots of your long-term relationship with Paul Dano, who you refer to as “PD.” Is that to enhance the mystery or is it a character-limit thing?
Kazan: It's a character limit! Also, it's just a shorthand. I don't feel like I'm tremendously open — my privacy is still really valuable to me, and I think if I felt, like, super hounded by paparazzi, I would shut that shit down. But because we live a really private life in general, there's some part of me that doesn't feel like I'm exposing that much.
You guys wrote a movie together that's coming out soon, Wildlife. What was your writing process like as a couple?
Kazan: Yeah, it was the only thing we've written together. It's based on a book by this author Richard Ford, who just published a memoir about his family that's really wonderful. Paul fell in love with his book, and we optioned it ourselves, and he took a first pass at writing it. He asked me for notes, and then our note session devolved into an argument really quickly [laughs]. I was like, “I think this will be better for our relationship and our movie if you let me rewrite this.” He was like, “Done, do it.” So I did. And we just traded drafts back and forth. It was very streamlined. Part of the reason why is that he wanted to direct it from the start, so it was always his vision. Now when I look at the script, I can't tell who wrote what; it's very integrated. But I have a lot more writing experience than Paul has, so to be able to put that experience to use in exercising his vision was almost an acting exercise: How would I write if I were Paul? When I look at it, it feels so completely his, but it's also mine.
You've only starred in one of your own scripts [Ruby Sparks]. Why?
Kazan: A lot of what I've had produced are plays, and I just don't want to do that. It's different than a movie, where you only have to act the scenes the one time, and you have other collaborators helping you make it better, so you don't feel as obsessed with your own mind. Plays you have to do every single night, and the thought of that is agony to me. There are days when you hate your own work, and you don't want to be confronted with that, have it coming out of your mouth or listening to somebody else say it to you. There are days you want to leave the theater and get a drink.
I'm also not that interested in writing for myself. That's not where my impetus as a writer comes from. Lena Dunham or Miranda July, those people are sort of thinking about their work in a slightly different way than I do, where their whole body is a seed of what they're creating. I can't imagine watching Miranda's movies with anybody else playing her role, she's so integral. But for me, it feels more like every story is really individual. If I thought of something else, or thought it should be my body representing it, I'd fold my body into it. But most of the time I'm writing to get something out of my body. Every piece of writing I've done has been something where I feel like I need to get this out of me, whether it's a seed of something personal or an anxiety that turns into a play or an image that's in my mind and haunts me that I'm trying to investigate.
Do you remember the first play or script you ever wrote as a kid?
Kazan: There were so many. I just went through my childhood attic last year with my sister. I'm not an expert, and I don't mean to put myself in that category, but thinking about Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000 hours, I was like, Here are my 10,000 hours! In a way, you normalize your own childhood to yourself, so I never thought about how much I wrote as a kid. So I was there, confronted with it — so many notebooks, so many tiny plays. Every week we put on a play. We had a big futon, so my sister and I would use the futon as our stage, and I wrote little skits and made her faint because I found it so funny.
How much of that, in your opinion, was due to being born to this family of professional filmmakers [Kazan's parents, Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan, are writers and directors; her grandfather, Elia Kazan, was an Oscar-winning director] and how much felt like just raw desire?
Kazan: There are people a lot smarter than me investigating nature versus nurture who would have a lot to say about that, but I think it's an enormous privilege to be born into a family where my parents had enough time to read to me and listen to my stories and foster my imagination. It's a privilege to have time to investigate your imagination. And not to have, like, an amount of stress on you as a kid that prevents you from maturing creatively. If I was born into a household with anxiety about money, I wouldn't have had as much freedom to be in my own world. So it's impossible for me to divorce the privilege of my childhood from the other things.
I will say they were horrified when I wanted to be an actor. It wasn't a showbiz-y family, and my parents are real introverts who don't go to a lot of Hollywood parties and are most comfortable in their pajamas in our sweet little home. Part of the reason I wanted to be an actor and not just a writer is because I felt much more extroverted than that — I love to be around people, and feed off people's energy, and collaborations. If I hadn't had their example, I wouldn't have been so serious, but I also wouldn't have wanted so much to find another creative outlet.
They were actually horrified?
Kazan: Oh, yeah. I was 14. They were basically like, “This is a very hard life, and you have to be really serious about it, and show us that you're serious about it. You can't drop out of school.” They strongly encouraged me not to act professionally until I finished college, which I didn't. And I think they should have been horrified! It's a really hard life. I'd be really scared if I had a child who wanted to be an actor. When my sister decided that she wanted to act, I was so nervous for her. She's doing great, but I have a lot of friends at every level of success as an actor, and we all go through periods of time where they feel like their worth isn't within their own control.
That's a horrible feeling for an adult to have. Most adults get to a point in their careers where they feel secure, where they have a body of work behind them that will ensure longevity, and for actors, it's just not like that. You're basically always a temp, going from job to job. My friend Betty Gilpin is in Glow, which comes out this week; she did three TV shows last year, and this year she had a couple months where she wasn't working. I was like, “Betty, if anybody who was, like, a banker had done any of the work you'd done in the past nine months, they'd be in Tahiti on a beach!” We're the only ones where it's like, as soon as you finish this job — you must have that too, as a journalist.
Kazan: It's a crazy thing. And as we get older, it's like, “Gotta stay on that treadmill!” And I'm sure you have a schedule like [mine] that's insane, and as soon as you try to do your taxes, it's a fucking nightmare.
Whoa, I do not do my own taxes.
Kazan: Me neither. It's too many forms. “Here are my 70,000 forms. I have no idea.”
I would be in jail.
Kazan: I would be in jail, too.
Do you feel like you've reached a point where you can relax?
Kazan: I think it never goes away. It never goes away. I think even probably the people we look up to the most, and think are on the Mount Olympus of actors — they're still experiencing nervousness.