Not yet 30, Zoe Kazan is already living up to her considerable Hollywood pedigree as playwright, screenwriter and actress
Author SAM POLCER
IN THE NEW ROMANTIC COMEDY Ruby Sparks, the latest from the directors of the 2006 sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine, a lonely novelist named Calvin finds his words are more powerful than he could have imagined when one of his characters comes to life. Even better, it seems, she instantly embodies whatever he writes for her. Speaks French? Check. Cooks meatloaf? Check. Thinks and feels for herself? That’s up to him.
While there’s more than a hint of male wish fulfillment to this setup, Ruby Sparks was actually penned by writer-actress Zoe Kazan, who also took on the job of playing the film’s titular dream girl (opposite her real-life boyfriend, Paul Dano, no less).
Given Kazan’s background, it’s little surprise that she pulls it all off. The 29-year-old Yale grad is the daughter of two successful screenwriters and the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. She’s written two plays, including off-Broadway’s We Live Here, while honing her acting chops on stage and screen: Among Kazan’s four upcoming films is The F Word, in which she stars opposite Daniel Radcliffe.
Play recently caught up with her to talk about bringing Ruby Sparks to life, co-habitating with one’s co-star, and how it made perfect sense to cast Antonio Banderas as a hippie named Mort.
In writing the character of Ruby, how much of yourself did you put into her? There are definitely elements of me there, but Ruby’s a lot more easy-going than I am. I can be quite intense; my work is totally consuming. She’s in pursuit of happiness, and not very ambitious. She’s in it more for the experience than for some sort of end goal, which is actually something that I admire about her. I kind of wish I were more that way!
Speaking of, I hope Paul Dano isn’t as tightly wound as his character, Calvin. Paul is more relaxed than Calvin. There are things that are similar—I think there are shades of Paul in Calvin’s obsessiveness—but there’s a darkness in the character that Paul can portray while having less of it in himself. He has a really great sense of humor.
Putting a freewheeling girl with an uptight guy can come off like standard operating procedure for a romantic comedy. How did you set Ruby Sparks apart? There are a lot of things in the movie that use the clichés of romantic comedy in order to explode them. Like the montage—I think of that as being within the vocabulary of the romantic comedy, and I always knew I wanted a montage in this film.
The first-date montage, where Ruby and Calvin go to a zombie film festival and play video games? Yeah, there was a lot of discussion about what might be in that. I think what we ended up with is a kind of funny, tongue-in-cheek good time.
Looking at the rest of the cast, most people wouldn’t have thought Antonio Banderas an obvious choice for Calvin’s lovable hippie stepfather. [Laughs.] No, they wouldn’t. I mean, the character’s name is Mort—we weren’t exactly thinking “tall, dark and handsome” in casting. And now it’s one of the things that I love most; his delight in his body and his ease with himself make him so much more threatening to Calvin than if he had been some kind of schlubby hippie.
And Annette Bening is wonderful as Calvin’s mom, a golf pro turned free spirit. She’s such a hero to me and someone whose work I have admired for so long. When she signed on, I cried—it was the first moment when I felt like the movie was real. And it was cool to have someone who has played so many tightly wound characters in the role of someone who made a life change and became happier and more relaxed.
I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of actresses who are in the generation before me, like Robin Wright and Meryl Streep and S. Epatha Merkerson—you get to watch these people and learn. And by the way that Annette conducted herself and the way that she worked, she taught me a lot.
Ruby Sparks is your baby—was putting directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in charge of it a difficult decision? No, it was the easiest decision in the world. They were sort of people I had thought right away when I started writing. And when I showed Paul some pages very early, he said we should send this to Jon and Val [whom he’d worked with on Little Miss Sunshine], and our producers said the same thing almost immediately. Thinking of Jon and Val for the film when I was writing it became a kind of pole star to navigate by. And we were just incredibly lucky that they came on and said yes. I can’t imagine making the movie with anyone else.
Did the fact that they’re a husband-and-wife team play a role during production? They’re the most intensely, incredibly symbiotic couple I’ve ever seen. I don’t understand how they work, because it seems like some kind of miraculous arrangement. They work together, they live together, they raise their children together, they have a company together—and I’ve never seen them fight! It’s a little like working with one mind divided between two people.
That was really useful for me as a writer, because I felt like the male and female perspective were going to be represented from that end of the camera. And for Paul and me, it was wonderful to have an example of people who had done what we were attempting to do for the first time.
Speaking of that, what was it like to act opposite your real-life significant other? Having a personal relationship definitely helped Paul and me in our work. I was able to go further emotionally. A lot of times when you’re doing love scenes or other intimate scenes, like fights, you’re working with someone you met days, weeks or even minutes ago. Having been together for four years helped us go further faster, once we got past the initial strangeness of behaving in a completely different way together.
It’s hard to work with the person you love. It’s not for the faint of heart. But a year later, it’s this great project that we took on together, one that was difficult and wonderful and eventually made us closer.
In the film, Calvin’s fastidiously clean apartment takes on, um, a different vibe after Ruby shows up. So I have to ask: Who’s messier at your place? Oh, me. Definitely me. Although I will say that neither of us is a paragon of neatness.
Is there another screenplay in the works? I’m finishing a new play and then I’m going back to writing the screenplay that I had to sort of put away because of all the acting work this year. But I just wrapped my last movie, like, two weeks ago, so what I want to do more than anything is sleep.