The fresh creative voice of Zoe Kazan is beginning to speak louder than her famous last name. As granddaughter of director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden) and daughter of two celebrated Hollywood screenwriters, the 28-year old actress is filmmaking royalty. But while she was born and bred in Los Angeles and attended a “hippy-dippy”school, her grounded family life – no television, no wild parties – sheltered her from any weight of expectations from being part of the Kazan dynasty. In her late teens, she headed east to Yale; after graduating, she began acting on and off Broadway and penned her own, critically acclaimed, play, Absalom (2009). Onscreen, her roles have included parts in 2008’s Revolutionary Road (as Leo DiCaprio’s mistress) and, opposite real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, with whom she shares a Brooklyn apartment, Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 indie Meek’s Cutoff.
Kazan and Dano (best known as hellfire preacher Eli Sunday in There Will be Blood) star together again in Ruby Sparks, Kazan’s debut screenplay, helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Dano plays Calvin, a prodigious author caught in the grip of writer’s block after publishing a Catcher in the Rye-type novel. Given an assignment by his therapist, he conjures an apparent dream girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), and suddenly his typewriter is clacking away – until one day he arrives home to find Ruby has stepped off the page and into his apartment, wearing his shirt and munching a bowl of cereal. It’s a clever, beguiling meditation on the complications of love, creation and being careful what you wish for.
Dazed Digital: Where did the idea for Ruby Sparks spring from?
Zoe Kazan: Walking home from work one night, I saw a mannequin in a trashcan – I thought it was a real person at first – I went to sleep thinking about it and woke up in the morning with the seeds of this script in my head. I had been thinking about the Pygmalion myth – about a sculptor who falls in love with the statue he’s sculpting of a woman. He prays to the gods that they’ll make her real, and they do. I felt like a woman’s perspective on that story would be interesting, when you know how lonely it feels to be put on a pedestal. I wondered what might happen if a writer’s character came to life – someone who could give him exactly what he thought he wanted romantically. Things get complicated, because when you love someone, you have to love the whole person, not just the parts you’ve idealised.
DD: You and your real-life boyfriend Paul Dano play the leads; how close is your relationship to the one onscreen?
Zoe Kazan: It gets quite confusing to talk about! I showed the first ten pages to Paul and he immediately asked, ‘Are you writing this for us?’ It hadn’t occurred to me, but I think I was, subconsciously. Paul is a very private person and he would never want to act in something if he felt we were being exposed as a couple, so I kept it as far away from us as possible.
DD: Were there any difficulties in acting opposite your boyfriend?
Zoe Kazan: It’s actually easier to go further: you’re not going to embarrass yourself in front of them, so there are no boundaries. You know when they’re lying, they know when you’re lying; it makes the work more truthful. But it does make your personal life harder. I really felt we had to recharge after we’d finished making it.
DD: The film isn’t interested in the magic of how a fictional character might come to life. Did you want to keep it quite grounded in real life?
Zoe Kazan: Yes, absolutely. The magic is never explained. My favourite movies use magic realism to talk about real issues. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; that film is about choice and how we live our lives – it never explains how he’s living this day over and over again, and that’s more interesting than saying it was a fortune teller’s spell or a shooting star. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is a great example; it just takes a leap. I was also thinking about how Woody Allen sort of conjured up these beautiful women. Like, he almost invented his own type by putting Diane Keaton in those roles. Did Diane Keaton inspire him, or did he inspire her to become this icon?
DD: And where does Steve Coogan fit in, as Calvin’s creepy literary agent?
Zoe Kazan: I love Alan Partridge! We somehow managed to convince him to do it. He was the only person allowed to improvise – Jonathan and Valerie usually don’t like improvisation on set, but you can’t cast someone like Steve Coogan without giving them freedom to do what they’re good at.
DD: You’re a playwright as well as an actress. Which comes first?
Zoe Kazan: I act on other people’s schedules, so I’m always stealing time to write: before I go onstage, in a week between work... In some ways it’s a blessing. I’ve never sat down with a blank piece of paper and not had anything to say. I tend to write really fast. I was doing a play in spring 2010 on Broadway and had time during the day and wrote Ruby Sparks in about two weeks.
DD: Can you remember the first thing you wrote?
Zoe Kazan: As a little kid, mainly dumb stories about ducks. When I was six I wrote a poem about the evening star that got published in my school newspaper. I always felt compelled to write but I didn’t think I could do it professionally. Acting is my main passion, but I started acting long before I even knew what acting was, really.
DD: What’s next for you, acting-wise?
Zoe Kazan: I’m about to start filming in Toronto with Daniel Radcliffe, an indie movie called The F-Word, in which we fall in love. I met Daniel years ago, when we were both doing plays on Broadway, I was in Chekhov’s The Seagull and he was in Equus and we had a drink back then, so I’m really looking forward to it.
DD: You’re New York-based – why did you choose to set Ruby Sparks in LA?
Zoe Kazan: LA is the loneliest city: you walk out of your house, there’s no one on the street, you’re in your car alone. I wanted to highlight Calvin’s isolated situation. Also I think I was just homesick; Paul’s such a New Yorker and the theatre scene is there, but I grew up in LA. It’s a beautiful city and you don’t always get to see that on film.
DD: Your grandfather was Elia Kazan, your parents are screenwriters... Can you remember the moment you became aware that you came from this extraordinary family background?
Zoe Kazan: I always knew what my parents did, but in terms of my grandpa, and that my last name was something other than ‘just’ my name, it was quite late. He was Papou Elia to me. I think it was my first day in middle school, my drama teacher asked me if I was related to Elia Kazan, and no one had ever asked me that question before. I really didn’t understand. I mean, I knew he was a director and that he’d made films but I didn’t truly understand the scope of it. I came home and my parents showed me his films.
DD: Do you feel under more pressure as a member of this Hollywood dynasty?
Zoe Kazan: No, it doesn’t really figure. People assume it’s this huge thing – it’s actually much bigger in people’s imaginations. What does feel special is growing up with people who have made their life in the creative field; seeing the ups, downs, how hard they worked, that example was a real gift. I grew up in this family reading really classic literature, indie novels... Even though, as a kid, looking at my parents behind their desks all day didn’t look like too much fun to me!
DD: What are you reading at the moment?
Zoe Kazan: That’s a little embarrassing. Stephen King. I’ve never read any, I’m such a snob. And this year I read Carrie and it blew my mind, and now I’m on this total kick. He’s a brilliant novelist and it totally took me by surprise. So now I’m reading Pet Sematary. It’s about the least cool thing I could possibly be reading!
DD: In keeping with the storyline of Ruby Sparks, can you name us some fictional characters you’d like to bring to life?
Zoe Kazan: I’m such a nerd, but it was probably my number one fantasy as a kid – that I could somehow make Jo March or the Artful Dodger, or whoever it might be, come to life and be my friend! There are a lot of ways to answer the question. For sex, Heathcliff, obviously. But I think instead I’m going to make myself some imaginary friends… For soul and humour, I’d choose Salinger’s Buddy Glass; for a good time, Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse... and for the wild card, I’ll add Nicole Diver from F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. I’d get a bunch of wine, invite them all over for dinner, and I bet something interesting would happen.
RUBY SPARKS is out on October 12
Photo by Amanda Camenisch