Zoe Kazan Is So Much More Than ‘The Pretty One’

DAME talks with the actress and screenwriter—Hollywood’s first line of defense against the manic pixie dream girl trope.

We urgently need your help.  DAME reports the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. In times of crisis it is even more critical that these voices are not overlooked, but COVID-19 has impacted our ability to keep publishing. Please support our mission by joining today to help us keep reporting.

“The idea of playing the same role twice holds very little interest for me,” says Zoe Kazan by phone from Los Angeles. “I have a kind of horror of repeating myself.” And the 30-year-old actress and screenwriter is making damn sure she doesn’t. We’ve watched Kazan—who went to Yale for theater and is the granddaughter of directing legend Elia Kazan—as Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin’s youngest daughter in It’s Complicated, as a wagon-train pioneer in Kelly Reichardt’s wrenching drama Meek’s Cutoff, and as Ruby Sparks, a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl in a movie of the same name, which she also scripted and starred in with her real-life love Paul Dano.

In The Pretty One, the auspicious debut of new writer/director Jenée LaMarque in theaters now, Kazan pulls double duty playing a pair of very different twin sisters—mild-mannered Laurel who never left home and confident, big-city-livin’ Audrey. After a fiery car accident and an unforeseen mix-up, Laurel assumes Audrey’s identity in a quest to find her own. It’s a film that’s underscored by some interesting issues (like society’s need to reduce women to a single characteristic, à la the title) and New Girl star Jake Johnson ups the crush factor as Audrey’s neighbor. DAME chatted with Kazan about this latest step in her quest for originality.  

How did you prepare to play two very different characters in a single movie?

I knew going into this that it was going to be kind of an extraordinary challenge, so I tried to prepare myself the best I could. I met with Jenée very early in her process, because I felt like I needed to go in armed and not let whatever [was going to] happen, happen on set. Go in with a game plan. I know it sounds crazy, but so much of the time what I find really wonderful and exciting on set is being with actors and not knowing what’s going to happen, and on this, I really couldn’t do that. It may be less creative, but within this context, it felt necessary.

Laurel tries to find herself by exploring Audrey’s identity. When you’re in a part, do you use it to explore yourself?

I think probably yes, or maybe more the opposite. I think that one of the things that happens when you’re acting is you end up sort of finding the character in yourself. You have to ask yourself, where does this person live in me? Sometimes that’s a really painful thing to ask. When I was in college, I played Sonya in ‘Uncle Vanya,’ and in that play she is convinced of her own unlovableness and her own unworthiness. She has a whole monologue where she talks about, “I know I’m ugly, and people always say to me I have such beautiful eyes and such beautiful hair, but they only say that to people who aren’t beautiful,” and that really stuck with me. I feel like playing that part changed me forever, and that there’s some part of me that will always now feel like Sonya.

You’ve had some notable stage roles in plays like ‘A Beheading in Spokane’ and ‘Angels in America.’ What do you get out of live theater that you don’t get out of your film work?

I think the thing of being live in front of an audience, and having that communication flow between you and them, that’s a really strange and beautiful osmosis that happens. I can listen to them and be like, Oh, they’re a little drunk tonight or they’re cold out there or gosh, we better speed this up because they’re getting bored. But on the other hand, the kind of work you can do on film, where you can forget about the fact that you’re performing, and that’s kind of the apotheosis of what I want as an actor.

When you work with your partner Paul Dano, do you feel like that helps your performance or are you working harder to reach out beyond your real life relationship?

I found it harder actually. In some ways, it’s easier because there’s this enormous trust and we know each other so well and there’s sort of like no place I can’t go with Paul in the room. But, on the other hand, working on this movie for instance, I was meeting Jake within the context of these roles we were going to play and these characters and this love story, and because of that I think I could make this imaginative leap where I could love him and see him as the character. Whereas when we were making Ruby Sparks, I felt like, I look at Paul, and I would see the character but I would also see the person I live with and the person I love and the person I fight with and the person whose hair I’ve held back while he pukes. You’re looking at that person too, and it’s kind of a beautiful thing and it also makes it harder to disappear.

We urgently need your help! 

Covid-19 has dramatically impacted our ability to keep publishing. DAME is 100% reader funded and without additional support, we can’t keep publishing. Become a member at DAME today to help us continue reporting and shining a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism.   Please become a member today!

(If you liked this article and just want to make a one-time donation, you can do that here)

Become a member!