For certain offspring of cinema icons—the Fondas and Barrymores and so on—the road to Hollywood stardom comes toll-free.
Not so for Zoe Kazan.
With fair skin boosting the expressiveness of her big blue eyes, Kazan resembles a slightly more cherub-faced Jennifer Connelly. And yet, after a string of critically acclaimed performances on the stage, as well as a handful of supporting roles alongside A-listers like Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio in studio films, the granddaughter of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan is only now making serious noise in Tinseltown.
Kazan, 28, is the star and screenwriter of Ruby Sparks, an outré romantic comedy directed by the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. She plays the title role of Ruby, a manifestation of a struggling star novelist’s so-called ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’ who mysteriously comes to life. The novelist, Calvin Weir-Fields, is played by Paul Dano—whose corrupt preacher famously squared off against Daniel Day-Lewis’ morally bankrupt oilman in There Will Be Blood. Off-screen, he plays another role: Kazan’s boyfriend of five years.
“I’m such an over-sharer so I always show Paul my writing as I go along. I showed him it five pages in, and he asked if I was writing it for us, and then I thought, ‘That’s clearly what I’m doing,’” says Kazan in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But then I tried to put it out of my head because I didn’t want to get in the character’s way.”
At first, all is lovey-dovey between Ruby and Calvin, but the rosy façade begins to tear when she’s introduced to his mother, an earth goddess-type played by a fabulous Annette Bening, and hippie-stepfather (Antonio Banderas). Soon, Calvin becomes a control freak, emotionally manipulating his quirky creation into doing his bidding.
“It’s about how we define and see each other,” says Kazan. “The relationship exists in a magic bubble and when it starts it’s like two avatars meeting: my idea of you and your idea of me. And this thing happens when you get to know each other where the idea and the real person needs to be reconciled.”
Kazan grew up in Venice, California, the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha). Her grandfather, of course, is Elia Kazan—the auteur behind cinema classics Splendor in the Grass, On the Waterfront, and many more. According to Zoe Kazan, she has “just normal, grandpa memories” of the director, who died when she was 20. When asked about his controversial legacy—having fingered a number of filmmakers during Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings—she replies, “I don’t really have an opinion I want to share.”
Despite her Hollywood lineage, Kazan’s home life wasn’t all glitz and glamour.
“People really do make the assumption that I had some weirdo Hollywood upbringing, but my parents are incredibly down-to-earth people.”
“People really do make the assumption that I had some weirdo Hollywood upbringing, but my parents are incredibly down-to-earth people who worked really hard to raise us in a way that was healthy,” she says. “We had family dinner every night.”
When Kazan was 6 years old, her mother took her to see the musical, Gypsy, on Broadway. As the curtain came down, she turned to her mother and said, “This is what I want to do—and I didn’t mean stripping,” she says with a laugh.
One of her favorite cinema memories was seeing Casablanca for the first time, and she soon became a massive fan of Ingrid Bergman’s (her favorite Hitchcock film is Notorious, as is mine). Her first love, she says, was Humphrey Bogart.
After high school, Kazan wanted to go to an acting conservatory, but her parents didn’t approve. Instead, she attended Yale University, where she was a member of the Manuscript Society—a “secret” group reserved for exceptional students. While at Yale, she dove head-first into acting, appearing in up to six plays a year. Her grades suffered as a result. Kazan also took playwright classes with Pulitzer Prize winner Don Margulies, and the play she developed in college, Absalom, premiered in 2009 at the Humana Festival.
She graduated Yale in 2005 and tried to break into acting, appearing in the 2006 off-Broadway play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, opposite Cynthia Nixon. Her first film role was in the 2006 thriller, Fracture, playing the assistant to Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot lawyer. Her Broadway debut came in a revival of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, which earned her raves from theater critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times. Despite her theater success, Kazan had a very difficult time booking gigs in television and film.
“The truth is: I just couldn’t get a job in film or TV!” she says. “If you’re pushing three rocks up a hill, the first thing that moved for me was the theater rock, and once you’re getting work there it’s easier to get work in that medium. I was auditioning for the worst TV shows in the world, and if one of them had gone, I would’ve been overjoyed. I’d be sitting around in auditions waiting to be rape victim no. 3.”
A personal turning point came in 2007, when she starred in the play, Things We Want, directed by Ethan Hawke.
“It was a life-changing thing for me,” she says. “First of all, I met Paul [Dano] doing that play. But Ethan is really inspiring to me because he doesn’t say ‘no’ to any part of his life: he acts, directs plays, makes music, writes novels. At any point in his career he could’ve been pigeonholed, but he’s really defined his life for himself, and I look up to that so much.”
More scene-stealing supporting roles followed, including as Leonardo DiCaprio’s mistress in the critically acclaimed film, Revolutionary Road, as well as Meryl Streep’s capricious daughter in It’s Complicated. Her first starring role came in the 2009 lo-fi indie Exploding Girl, about a young epileptic woman on a summer break from college. Kazan appeared in every scene of the film, and won Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival for her understated performance.
The idea for her screenwriting debut, Ruby Sparks, came when Kazan was walking home from work one evening.
“We used to live by a Macy’s, and there was an abandoned mannequin in a trash bin, and it scared me,” she says. “I thought of the Pygmalion myth and the sculptor in his dark studio turning his head and thinking he saw his statue move, and then I thought about what I’d do, and I woke up the next morning with the seeds of this in my head.”
Kazan initially had some reservations about casting her real-life beau, Paul Dano, in the role of her onscreen lover-tormentor. After all, who would want to become a horrible Hollywood cliché—a la Shanghai Surprise or Gigli.
“It is stressful to be spending all day, every day together working alongside each other and not spending as much time on the relationship as you should,” says Kazan. “We definitely had our quarrels at home, but it was totally worth it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” She pauses, adding, “I was not looking to date an actor and I happened to fall in love with one.”
After Ruby Sparks, Kazan will star in the “paranormal romance,” In Your Eyes, written by Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers), as well as the romantic drama, The F-Word, alongside Daniel Radcliffe, which starts filming in two weeks. But most of all, she’s excited to get to work on her next screenplay.
“I’m always writing and I have a few projects that I’m in different stages of,” she excitedly says. “I can’t wait to sit back in front of a computer and write!”