Zoe Kazan is having a moment. As the screenwriter and star of Ruby Sparks, twenty-eight-year-old Kazan is making a play for Hollywood stardom, and she's doing it in the company of boyfriend and Ruby Sparks co-star Paul Dano. The Kazan name has no doubt opened doors but also dropped a weight of expectations: Zoe's grandfather is the legendary director Elia Kazan, and her parents are screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (both have also directed a feature film). But Kazan has worked to earn her own reputation, as a sought-after stage actress (Broadway credits include A Behanding in Spokane, The Seagull, and Come Back, Little Sheba; she also recently headlined the Signature Theatre Company production of Angels in America). On film, Kazan has played feature roles in Revolutionary Road, Me and Orson Welles, It's Complicated, and Meek's Cutoff (with Dano), and on TV, she logged four episodes of HBO's Bored to Death. I spoke to Kazan at her San Francisco stop on a multi-city press tour, first at a screening event at the Delancey Street Screening Room, then again during an interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Kazan explained the intricacies of playing the title character of Ruby Sparks, the "dream girl" of the writer (Dano's Calvin Weir-Fields) who has conjured her up.
Groucho: As the writer: the parable about relationships is really potent. I think most people will probably attach to that part of the story, but I wanted to hear more about what you said about the Pygmalion myth. There's this history in literature of male authors defining women, and the "princess myth" and the femme fatale, these kind of characters that are damaging, potentially, to women and also to men in how they relate to women. So I guess I want to know: what was your experience of that prior to writing the script, and where do you think that stands now, in literature as well as in movies?
Zoe Kazan: That's a really good question. I really appreciate the question. I just want to start by saying that—we've said this before, but, y'know, it's not a thesis, right? So anything I say, I want you to take with a grain of salt because it really was the characters sort of talking; I wasn't thinking about my sexual politics. But I will say my first experiences of love relationships were experiences where I felt like I was walking into just a land mine of preconceived notions. And being a very young person, I didn't have the fortitude or sense of self quite yet in my life to make myself known in opposition to those preconceived notions. So I felt like I did a lot of sort of living up to whatever was being laid out before me. And I dated a lot of very romantic boys who read a lot of literature. So at a certain point—y'know, reading books like—even books like Lolita at an early age and thinking, "Oh! I see what you're doing, um, to me." And not really knowing that there was an alternative? And I think then I got a little older and I read The Second Sex, and started thinking about the way that I was being looked at. And started thinking about even portraits of women that I think are really honest and beautiful, like Annie Hall, and thinking, "Okay, do I think this is honest and beautiful because I'm living in a post-Woody Allen world? Or do I think it's honest and beautiful because he was looking at the woman he loved and writing her down? Or was he writing down something that he was getting from some higher power, and then Diane Keaton was living that myth somehow? I feel like it's a very complicated thing, and it does feel particularly to me like it's male-directed towards women. And I think that that's why we've inherited that myth, in a gendered way. People keep asking me why I didn't reverse the genders, and I feel like, to me, that's just not my story that I have to tell. It would actually be, for me, weirdly, less feminist to tell that reverse story, 'cause that's not my experience at all. On the other hand, I also think that there's something gender-less about what we're trying to talk about, because we all start with that idea of the other person; when we're getting to know someone, we always start with an idea, and then slowly the real person emerges. So, yeah, those were the things I was thinking about. I don't know where it stands now, but that was where it hatched...
Groucho: So I expect your process as an actor is probably intuitive, as it is as a writer, but can you talk a little bit about how you went about getting in the right frame of mind, I guess, to play Ruby?
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, it's interesting. Most of the time when I'm acting, I do a lot of kind of preparation that's all about getting into my creative centers. Like I was saying last night, a lot of sort of character backstory and stuff I feel doesn't help me as much as engaging my body's creativity, because that's, y'know, my main tool—not to get too craft-y about it. But with this, I had already done a lot of that imagining. So I didn't really know how I was going to approach it. And then, there was so much work involved in pre-production that did not have to do with actually acting it that I kind of—
G: Put it out of your head until you got there.
ZK: Almost. I was, like, two weeks out, and I started—I thought, "Okay, I've got to read it like I didn't write it." So I started doing that, and then of course reading it like I didn't write it, I saw holes in it that I hadn't seen before, because I hadn't been looking at it from Ruby's perspective. So then I called Jon and Val [Ed.: directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris] and said, "Here's a list of scenes I need to rewrite." Just to—there were things like when Ruby first shows up in his house, she used to be a lot more blithe, a lot more oblivious to what was going on with Calvin. And I thought, "Well, if I was in a relationship of a few months, and my partner started acting this way, I would think it was really weird. But I didn't even have that thought until I started preparing to act it. So it was just stuff like that that—it actually became kind of cyclical: y'know, the acting informed the writing, and the writing informed the acting. And then once we started doing it, it was very easy: I knew who she was. She had been speaking to me for so long. It was just a matter of opening all the doors.
G: Was it useful—Val and Jon were talking about the playlist they handed out to cast and crew. Some actor like to listen to music or look at images to get in the mood.
ZK: I dooo, but y'know what? To be totally honest, again, I think that's a way—especially with images—that's a way of engaging the actor's imagination to feel as if they had written it? Y'know, to feel authorship of it in a certain way. And I really—
G: Yeah, you cut out the middleman here.
ZK: I did. I cut out the middleman. I will say that Paul uses music quite a lot, and sort of likes to put himself in a kind of bubble zone before he films. I'm much happier if I'm joking around with the cameramen and sort of in my body.
ZK: Yeah, yeah. More extroverted, as a way of—I don't know; I just get in my head so easily. I need to stay grounded in my body as much as I can...
G: I was talking with the directors about: to me, the scene in Ruby Sparks that is pivotal, or defining, even though it's a fun snd funny film, is the scene in which Paul Dano's character—I described it as tantamount to rape—
ZK: I don't want to give away too much to your readers!
G: No, but he exposes a violation of your character—
G: We'll say. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of that scene—I know it changed from the script, and even on the set evolved.
ZK: Mm-hm. Again, I don't want to give away too much, so I may be a little circumspect in talking about this, but we always knew that if we were going to make a movie in which a man has power over a woman, that we were going to have to expose the darkness of that, as well. I always had a scene in that place in the movie that was very much like what ended up on screen, but the specifics of what we would have him and her do felt muddy to everyone. They felt abstract. And just as in a relationship, we know how to push each other's buttons, beacuse we know each other so well. At the beginning, I feel like we didn't know Calvin and Ruby's relationship well enough to know exactly what buttons needed to be pressed in that scene. So shotting really informed it. And then Jonathan and Valerie made a list of actions, I made a list, Paul made a list, we sat down, we did some choreography, we picked what we wanted to have happen, and then shot it the next day. So it was kind of a long time in the making, and coalesced quickly once we decided that we could actually start to make those decisions.
G: And how long did you shoot that scene? It's so intense—
ZK: It was like—it was one night. I think actually we ended up—I think there was something on the schedule before, but I can't even remember. There's an argument before that scene; I think we shot that argument, and then we shot that scene, that night.
G: 'Cause it was only a thirty-day shoot: it's very fast.
ZK: Yeah. Yeah, we had to pack a lot in. We only had three weeks in that house, which may seem like a long time, but the most of the movie takes place in that house.
G: Right, right...the other thing that—there's a big thread in the film about therapy.
G: And obviously it's a very psychological study, even though, again, a lot of it is light. What are your feelings about therapy in real life?
ZK: Therapy saved my life. I've been through, I think, eight years of therapy. I haven't been in a while. I haven't, for the last three years, gone, but it was definitely something life-saving for me.
G: The therapist in the movie is heroic.
G: Played by our friend Elliott Gould.
ZK: My favorite...
G: The notes process is something I wanted to ask about, 'cause I think people tend to hear people complaining about notes, because it's usually about executives. And of course, it's very common in the theater world, when developing a play, to go through a notes process—
G: You've described this as a positive one.
G: So can you talk a little bit about that and also maybe give an example of where notes were extraordinarily helpful, from the directors—
G: In developing an aspect of the script or a scene.
ZK: Well, you know, Jonathan and Valerie have mentioned many times over the course of this press tour that my ability to rewrite really impressed them. But for me it really feels so natural, and I think a lot of it has to do with being an actor and being used to receiving notes from directors. But the idea of something being finished, or being inviolable, is really foreign to me. It feels like: of course you have to be in conversation. Especially because, from the very first time I spoke to them, and they gave me sort of their first round of notes, I felt like we totally saw the same movie. So it made it easier for me to take a leap of faith when they would give me a note, and I would think, "I don't know about that." If I felt really strongly, I would say, "I don't think that that's right." But most of the time...me feeling uncomfortable about it didn't mean anything except I hadn't looked at something that way yet. Or sometimes they would give me a note, and it would sort of—their solution would not seem right to me, but their note would highlight a problem that I hadn't seen before, and then I would come up with a different solution to it. So I think that that is sort of what I mean about the note process being good. It's hard for me to pinpoint one thing because a lot of their notes had to do with not wholesale changes—although there were those as well—but most of them had to do with "Can we bring up the emotion in this scene?" and, like, making the highs higher and the lows lower, and the curves a little trickier and just—they're very good about audiene experience? They have a kind of finger on that pulse. And I learned volumes from them about that.
G: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a life partner, or a boyfriend...also having that person be your work partner?
ZK: Mmm. Yeah, it's interesting. Um, people told us not to do it.
ZK: Because they think it—it has a pretty bad track record. But it also has a good track record in that so many of my favorite films are—I mean, like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, or Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes, or, y'know, Woody Allen and any number of women, I find that that intimacy sometimes pushes people to do deeper work. And I think that that's true for me and Paul. It wasn't without its challenges. Y'know, we could get pretty cranky on the drive home after a fourteen-hour day, but—
G: Yeah, I'll bet, yeah.
ZK: It's worth it.
G: Yeah, yeah...I appreciate when actors who have success on film remain committed to the stage. And I just wanted to ask, is there a role on stage that you're waiting for somebody to ask you to do?
ZK: There are so many. Um, there—I might—I don't know. I would love to go back to working on stage, but I'll tell you I find it incredibly difficult. It's not harder as an acting thing; it's harder on my life—like that schedule, for some reason, just makes me go completely crazy.
G: You referred [last night] to the "crazy week" of Hell Week for Angels in America.
ZK: Yeah, and just the thing of you're doing the same thing every night; it starts to feel like No Exit to me. Like, "I'm never going to leave this circle." So especially after doing Harper [in Angels in America] and having such an immersive experience doing that, I really would only want to go back for the right thing. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.