No one could have conjured a character like Zoe Kazan out of thin air.
As her familiar surname suggests, Kazan is the latest talent to emerge from the line of show business luminaries, including her grandfather, director Elia Kazan (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), her father, screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and her mother, writer-director Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”). After launching a bright, busy career as a rising film, television and Broadway actress, as well as an accomplished playwright, Kazan makes her screenwriting debut with “Ruby Sparks,” having crafted a Pygmalion-esque tale of a literary wunderkind facing writer’s block (Paul Dano, Kazan’s real-life boyfriend) who creates his ultimate dream girl (played by Kazan herself), but finds that trying to keep control of his creation is just as complicated as any real life relationship.
With another coupling at the helm – the husband-and-wife directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of “Little Miss Sunshine” acclaim – Kazan’s tale adroitly balances its fantastical premise with the messy realities of romance. “This movie is not at all biographical, which I think should surprise no one,” says Kazan. “It is very personal. I'm very interested in how people treat each other in their relationship, define each other, imagine each other, and what that process of love entails. It's something I contend with presently and also in the past. It's just interesting to me. Even thought the story is not mine, all the feelings are mine.”
Did you feel like something special was happening for you with this material, both writing and acting in it – which is what the movie is kind of about, too?
I felt from the very start of my collaboration with Jonathan and Valerie how lucky I was to be in a position where I was working with people who's ideas about the material were the same as mine. Most of the time I think I have an experience where I have a great time making a movie and then I'm not as happy about it. Sometimes I think people slack off when they're having a great time, but everyone was working really hard. It felt really special when we were shooting it. It really felt like a labor of love for everyone. I just don't trust that feeling to mean that the outcome is going to be something that I feel really proud of, but I really trusted Jonathan and Valerie. I felt like no doubt that they were going to make a movie that I would love. It feels like we got really lucky in all these ways and I don't know how that happened. I'm just really proud of the movie that we made.
Coming from a showbiz family, were you always sure that this was the direction you were going to go in? Or did at some point you think you were going to do something completely outside of the family business?
I did not have that rebellious spirit in me! But part of it is that I didn't think about it as being something that they were in that I needed to rebel against. I always wrote, was always writing plays for me and my sister to act in, and then as soon as I started acting, that became my complete obsession. It didn't feel like I was following in their footsteps. I really felt like I was finding my own path, and that it just happened to be one that other people in my family had walked down, if that makes sense.
Did coming to this film with as much acting experience as you have make it easy to not be precious, in a possessive writer-ly way, about your performance, or your co-stars’? Were you open to everyone bringing what they could to your characters?
Yeah. I was really excited. I think for people who are creative, one of the great joys is when you really trust who you're working with and you can just take a step back and say, 'Okay, you do your job now and I'll do mine.' That's how I felt on this, and I was really eager to have these characters belong to someone else and not work on them any more and give them that full life that comes when an actor steps in. I don't know whether it's my theater background, whatever it is, but on this piece I felt that it was very easy to let go.
Between the writing and acting, is there one that's easier to switch on when you need it, or one that requires more work and discipline?
I know that for me, years of acting class and years of writing and not showing it to people, just doing it for my own edification and experience, made me better at what I do. I feel like I'm a better actor than I was two years ago, than I was two years before that, and that I hope to just get better. That's sort of the goal, to get better at what you do and feel like you're making something that you're proud of. So I think acting takes a lot more space in my life because it determines my schedule. You act on your schedule. You act on other people's schedules, and writing sort of takes a back burner because it's something that I can squeeze in on the sides. Increasingly, this year, I haven't had any time to write. I really fault myself for that because I haven't made the time. Up to this point I've sort of been able to juggle it more naturally and now I'm thinking I'm going to have to start thinking about how I want to prioritize.
Did you have any trepidation that by starring in this with Paul that people would try to graft elements of the story on to who you two are underneath?
Well, the story is so far-fetched. It takes such a magic realist leap that I think we'll maybe avoid some of those pitfalls. I think we're both actors who like to do new things all the time. Neither of us are people who try to look for the same part all the time. So hopefully that will help us avoid some of the fat. I was really concerned about people putting a spotlight on our relationship, I guess and that's something that I'm still concerned about, just because it's a lot of pressure. I think that can be really challenging for couples. But it was worth it to make our movie.
Your writing voice was really distinct, but there was a little bit of the premise that made me think Woody Allen might've done a movie like this. Was that ever in your head?
I love Woody Allen, and yeah, 'Purple Rose of Cairo' was definitely an inspiration for me, not in any specific way. I wasn't thinking about it when I started this, but as I was rewriting it and we were talking about the kind of movie we were going to make, that was one that came up because it's another movie where the sort of magic is never explained. I actually was looking more towards Woody Allen as a sort of model for what Calvin is doing with Ruby. Woody Allen has made all these beautiful real women, but I feel like he's sort of invented his own type, like he created that woman in his cinema and then she propagated in the world. I mean, in some way, literally, the way that they dressed, Diane Keaton in that movie, inspired a whole way for women to dress. I think there's a type of girl that exists sort of because he started worshiping her. For me that's so important to how I think of Ruby, which I think that Ruby is not the sort of perfect girl. She's not the ideal woman. If I was going to write about an ideal woman I would cast Angelina Jolie. She is fetishized by Calvin. She's a real person who he tries to put in the box of his love. That's just such an interesting thing to me, like what did Woody Allen do to Diane Keaton by putting her in that role. Did she inspire him or did he inspire her to become this sort of icon that she became, or someone like Mariel Hemingway. For me she will always be defined by that part. So, what did he do to her? I'm just so curious about that relationship. I think that thinking about that kind of inspired me to think of [Dano’s character] Calvin.