Zoe Kazan: Not a Dream, a Surprise

"I’m not manic, I’m not a pixie and I’m not a dream girl."

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Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic via Getty Images

Actress Zoe Kazan attends the premiere of "Ruby Sparks" at the Egyptian Theatre on July 19, 2012 in Hollywood, California.

This week in the magazine I got the chance to profile Zoe Kazan, an actress turned screenwriter who surprises me in every new role, no matter how modest, but who has just written herself a big part in Ruby Sparks. I admired Zakan’s work in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee where she played Robin Wright Penn’s bratty daughter, without realizing she was the same young actress I’d thought was so good in Me and Orson Welles as Zac Efron’s love interest. You’d think I’d have connected the dots by the time she showed up in Revolutionary Road, playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s young mistress, but once again, I went searching the credits, trying to figure out who that scene stealer was. She’s a real chameleon.

Other items of note about Kazan: she’s had a play produced off-Broadway. Both her parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are Oscar-nominated screenwriters. Her grandfather was director Elia Kazan, the famed (and controversial) the filmmaker behind some of the best and most classic American films of all time, including On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. Her boyfriend of nearly five years is the very talented actor Paul Dano (There Will be Blood). On top of all this, she’s the first person to get the husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to make a movie since their hugely successful Oscar winning 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. Not that they haven’t tried, but nothing fell into place until Dano and Kazan showed up with Ruby Sparks.

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It’s a dark comedy about a famous but lonely young writer (Dano, who also co-starred with Kazan as a couple in Meek’s Cutoff) who escapes a chronic case of writer’s block by writing about his dream girl, free-spirited extrovert Ruby. Then she literally comes to life. Ruby has a lot of the elements of what the critic Nathan Rabin dubbed a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: fun, sexy but quirky, imparting some crucial lesson to our hero, yet at the same time, in his thrall. Rabin coined the term in honor of Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, but the label fits just as well on Natalie Portman’s Garden State character or Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer. And Zoe Kazan in Me and Orson Welles, for that matter.

Everything Calvin writes about Ruby comes true; he can make her speak French if he wants. But Calvin is nice and sincere and wouldn’t play puppeteer with his new girlfriend. Or would he? The movie is really about how we project our ideals of perfection onto our mates, setting them up for an inevitable fall; even a dream girl can disappoint.

From earlier profiles of Kazan I had the impression she’d be a great interview, intelligent, open and real. She was all that and more, telling great stories and generously giving me her time, both on that day and by following up with helpful emails. Definitely my best celebrity experience ever. I proposed to march her through Boston on a muggy July day with the intention of having a Swan Boat ride—it seemed right for a woman who wrote herself a Manic Pixie Dream Girl part with a twist—and she obligingly changed into chic little shorts and almost-practical booties for the walk. It was only when I steered her t0ward the ticket counter that she clarified (nicely) that she never intended to actually get on one of them. “Can’t we just look at them?” she says. I wasn’t about to force it, and the idea was starting to seem goofy anyway, in light of how sensible and non-Manic Kazan seemed. We began to walk away, but then I think, she felt she was disappointing me and insisted we go back and get on one of the boats E.B. White and Robert McCloskey made so famous.  Afterward she sent me a James Merrill poem, “The Black Swan.”

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I could have written 10,000 words on Kazan if I’d had the space. Here are a few tidbits that got left out.

She’s well acquainted with the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl and how it might be applied to her, or even lead someone to take her on a Swan Boat ride. (This was her second, by the way. The last time she did it she was two and with her parents.)

“Those types of girls are sort of the same type of person that I am,” she said. “Like I am ‘offbeat’ and I’m not ‘conventional looking’ and I have unconventional tastes and I feel like if I was a character, people would be like: Manic Pixie Dream Girl! It seems crazy to me because I’m not manic, I’m not a pixie and I’m not a dream girl.”

She gets why Rabin came up with it but she doesn’t love what it’s evolved into.

“When he came up with that term I think it was a very useful critical tool to be able to talk about a certain type of institutional misogyny, to talk about how certain writers were creating two-dimensional characters and giving them a third dimension by giving them alternative appeal, like someone’s music taste standing in for a personality trait. However, I think the way that term has been picked up and used is now enforcing the misogyny it was criticizing. I have read critical pieces that have called Annie Hall a manic pixie dream girl or Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby one. That really bothers me. Those are fully fledged people played by really intelligent actresses who are bringing a lot to those roles. It is a way of diminishing their individuality by putting this label on them.”

On meeting Dano in 2007, during rehearsals for the play Things We Want:

“I was having a really great time being 24 and single and taking lots of lovers and he came along and it was like…I have said this to other people. Sometimes I meet people and I feel like they are already on the map. Like if time is fluid and then it is like the train is already there and sometimes you get little glimpses of it. That happened when I met Paul. I wrote in my journal that night, but I was too afraid to even use his name. I wrote in the margin: ‘Danger PD. Must be careful so that life doesn’t imitate art.’ Because in the play we fell in love.”

As they did in life. And now again on screen. She didn’t set out to write a screenplay for them, but 10 pages in, it was obvious to Dano that they should play Calvin and Ruby. This isn’t her first screenplay, technically.

“I wrote two screenplays before Ruby, one in college and one just after.  The one from college I wrote in a week, it was terrible, and I forgot all about it until I was going through my computer last year and happened upon it.  The other I worked on for a long time, but never cracked. Might come back to it someday. They were good to cut my teeth on, though.”

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She cried when she found out Annette Bening had committed to the part of Calvin’s mother; it finally felt real then. But real in Hollywood is always tinged with caution, she said.

“My family is very circumspect about good things happening because they know it is a very changeable business and things can fall apart at the very last minute. You can be in production and something falls apart and maybe even it does get produced it doesn’t get distribution.” For example, when she told her parents that Dayton and Faris had signed on: “They were like we should get champagne, we should celebrate now, because you never know, this could be the only moment we have to celebrate. It’s so funny because it is both pessimistic and optimistic. It’s a way of being like ‘YEAH, for real!’ but then also like don’t count your chickens. It is so emblematic of the mindset that I grew up around.”

Has anyone ever glommed on to her or taken advantage of her because of her famous family?

“9/11 was my first week of college [Kazan went to Yale]. A week after, this girl who was like a sophomore or junior on the Yale Daily News called me and said she would like to talk to me about being a freshman right after 9/11. So I met her at this coffee shop and she started asking me questions about my grandpa. It had been a ruse, and I was so shocked, caught off guard, because 9/11 had just happened. So I was horrified and said I am not going to talk to you about that, my family is really private and ‘no comment’ essentially. She wrote a piece anyway about how I was too ashamed of my grandfather to talk to her about it. It was awful. My first two or three weeks at school and it was in the school newspaper, which felt really big at the time, especially because you’re just trying to make friends. That was a really nasty wakeup call. “

Read the whole story in this week’s issue of TIME.