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Whether you favor pensive indies or big-budget rom-coms, chances are you’ve seen Zoe Kazan in something recently. Although it’s been only a few years since the 26-year-old actress started landing significant film roles, she’s already covered the waterfront, ranging from Sam Mendes’ dour Revolutionary Road and Richard Linklater’s Me And Orson Welles to the glossy froth of It’s Complicated and I Hate Valentine’s Day. The daughter of Hollywood screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord (and the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan), Kazan has acting in her blood, but her performance in The Exploding Girl suggests it’s in her bones as well. Not much happens in Bradley Rust Gray’s movie, which is by design: As a young woman with epilepsy, Kazan's character can’t afford too much drama. Although she lives in Manhattan and has just finished her first year of college—a place and a time hardly conducive to relaxation or emotional stability—she keeps her distance, seeking out quiet moments in a city that threatens to swallow her whole. Although the movie has little in the way of plot or dialogue, Kazan’s quiet intensity draws viewers in, asking them to watch for flickers of emotion to play across her face. Currently starring in Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding In Spokane on Broadway, Kazan spoke with The A.V. Club about working without a script, the significance of dropped cell phone calls, and why she’s not a movie snob.
The A.V. Club: Your performance in The Exploding Girl seems so simple it’s difficult to take apart. Where did you start with the character, and how did she evolve as you were working on it?
Zoe Kazan: Brad came to me with a very blank slate. He was like, “I have an idea and I’d like you to do this movie and I can’t tell you much about it.” We started going for these very long walks. We would discuss love and life and things like that and never really the movie, and then occasionally he was like, “Do you know anything about epilepsy?” Then I would have a little clue. But I really didn’t know anything about it. Then I went away to shoot Welles, and when I came back from London he had script. I read it and I was really surprised because Brad had worked mostly with non-actors before and has kind of based characters on their personalities and I was really expecting him to do the same with me, but I think he understood that if he had a real actor he could use his imagination more.
So he gave me this fairly shy, sweet, and depressed person to play and I went with it. Because Brad and I knew each other so well by the time we shot—we had been friends for eight months by the time we shot the movie, and I think that was really helpful, because we didn’t talk a lot about Ivy. We had a couple of days of [co-star] Mark [Rendall] and I and Brad and the camera and starting to improv scenes while working on a couple of scenes from the screenplay. And during that process, he and I talked a bit about, “Where does Ivy live inside of herself?” He doesn’t have the communication skills, or didn’t have the communication skills yet, to be able talk to an actor about acting.
So it was like two blind people feeling their way in the dark. The great gift that we had was that we were so familiar with each other, so that he could see something I was doing and say, whereas another director might not know whether or not that was a choice I was making or something habitual from life, Brad could be like, “Oh no, no, no, don’t do that.” And I wouldn’t take it personally. It was like Ivy was right there right inside of me, and we were just trying to let her come through. Now I can say Ivy is a shy person or Ivy is a person who holds her emotions in or Ivy is a person who doesn’t want to burden other people with her feelings. At the time, I couldn’t have told you any of those things, because it was in such a subconscious place. It’s much easier for me now watching the film to tell you what she is like than it was when I was playing her.
AVC: The movie is about inarticulateness, in a way, where a lot of things aren’t being said. It strikes me as similar to some of the conversations you were talking about having with your director.
ZK: No, I wasn’t aware of that similarity. That’s an interesting point. I wasn’t thinking of it being about people’s expressiveness. I was just thinking they’re young. That’s the way young people talk, I think. They don’t know how to talk about what’s going on, especially because she’s not a very emotionally labile person. She is practiced in the art of keeping things to herself. Also, it’s like a slice-of-life movie. It’s a week in the life of these people, and I think that people aren’t that articulate about change. They don’t see it coming. I don’t think that people know when they’re growing up. When I look back, I can say that the summer when I was 19 was a formative time for me. But at the time I just thought I was making tofu every night for dinner and going to work. I didn’t know that it was a huge growing-up time for me. I think that’s true of this week. I think this is a kind of a breaking point for Ivy, letting other people in and learning to be less self-sufficient. She doesn’t know that. Nobody’s walking around saying, “I feel like I’m changing.”
AVC: Her condition dictates that she’s not supposed to drink too much and she’s not supposed to get too stressed out. Her life needs some sort of balance and order. No 19-year-old in the world has that.
ZK: Of the things that I thought consciously about Ivy, I definitely thought about that. I read all these parenting books about how to raise a child with epilepsy, and that was really useful for me because she’s from a single-parent family. She had to be responsible in ways that other young people haven’t had to. Having a diagnosis of epilepsy very young, which we decided that was the kind of epilepsy she had, I think that there’s a sense a sense that you have, like being diabetic at a very young age, that you are responsible for your life. Most children don’t know that. There’s a way in which she’s put other things on the back burner in deference to her survival, in her deference to her health. And she’s got in the habit, like you say, of trying to keep herself calm even when she’s upset. She buries things. She probably has to.
AVC: You make some very interesting choices in the movie. One that stands out is the scene where your boyfriend Greg, who we never see, breaks up with you over the phone, and your only response is “Why?” It’s almost not a question the way you say it. There’s a kind of acceptance. She’s not freaking out. She’s keeping that feeling at bay.
ZK: I’m glad you liked it. I’m actually funny because I don’t remember a lot of the choices. When I watch it I go, “Oh, I did that?” But I actually do remember that. I remember that scene I was testing him. There was some sense of wanting him to be accountable for himself. He’s been so irresponsible with her, that I had a feeling of, “I’m going to make you say it.”
AVC: You shot quite a lot of the movie initially just by yourself. Is that right?
ZK: Part of it was a schedule thing. Mark was filming another film, and we had to start filming before he could come to New York, so we ended up with this week of just me, basically, and a little in the dance studio with the mom, and a lot of the phone conservations with Greg. Yeah, we had this first week and it was really useful actually. They [Gray and his wife, So Yong Kim] have since made another movie with my boyfriend, Paul [Dano], and they did the same thing where they scheduled a week in the beginning. It’s actually a really useful tool, because you get intimate with the camera and intimate with the character. Also, there’s not as much pressure because there aren’t as many scenes that are totally crucial that you’re trying to get when it’s just you on your own. It lets you warm into the character a little bit. I found it useful.
AVC: There’s also a great little moment where you’re calling your mom on the street. The call doesn’t go through right away, and you pull the phone away from your ear and look at it with a mixture of irritation and despair. It’s such a mundane detail, but it really resonates in terms of the daily disconnections in all of our lives that sometimes add up to a larger feeling of alienation. Is that actually what happened? You were making the call and it didn’t go through?
ZK: Oh, yeah, that’s what happened. It’s just such a perfect thing—she can’t reach her mother. Her mother is there for her and we’ve never seen her reach out for anybody and she’s reaching out for someone in this moment and she can’t get the phone to fucking work. I remember being like, “Dammit.” I think one thing Brad did really well—there’s not a lot of improv in his movies. There are scenes where he would say, “Go gather Al’s laundry” and I would really be gathering Mark’s laundry and then find that little tape recorder in there and turn it on and that was just all a happy accident. The thing that I say about Brad is that he is really good at orchestrating those happy accidents. He’s really good at setting up situations where the character can come through. It’s kind of a classic thing that they teach you in your writing classes in college, that you want to show, not tell. He gives a lot of opportunities for you just to show, to reveal, to have the feeling that these characters are real.
AVC: So much of the movie is those little passing moments, like the way your eyelids flutter in the last scene. Those things are a part of our lives, but most movies don’t give you a chance to breathe that stuff in.
ZK: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. It was a wonderful acting opportunity and challenge for me to have to feel like someone is watching me so closely that anything I do will be recorded. It gives you freedom not to project anything, not to try to act anything, and that was really fun for me.
AVC: There are a number of scenes where the camera is positioned across the street from the actors, or a passing bus drowns out their conversation.
ZK: Obviously that was a choice of Brad’s. He was looking very much at Café Lumière as inspiration. I think he was trying to use long lenses in the same way and paint a portrait of a girl inside of a city. And New York is such a busy city that there’s no way to capture that without getting the rest of the ambience around her. We had a great sound guy who went after every single noise to give Brad the opportunity to use everything that was around us.
AVC: She’s a city kid, but the movie begins and ends with her driving down these leafy green roads, which you get a feeling might be a better environment for her.
ZK: Yeah, it might be. I do think there is something bucolic about New Paltz, which is where we were shooting that stuff.
AVC: You’ve written several plays yourself, and your parents are writers. How different is it to do a movie like The Exploding Girl, where there’s very little in the way of script, and a dialogue-driven romantic comedy like It’s Complicated? Does it even feel like the same job?
ZK: Yes and no. Being in a Nancy Meyers movie and doing this movie are like the two opposite ends of the world. I’m used to very low-budget situations. In The Exploding Girl, we were literally changing in Starbucks because we didn’t have trailers. Not everything I’ve been on has been that low-budget, but I’m much more comfortable feeling like an underdog than feeling like top dog. I’m much more comfortable with the kind of low-budget environment, where everybody is in it together, a “Can you hold this boom?” situation. Part of that is coming from the theater, where everybody is in the same boat together all the time and hard work is really prized above… pushiness, I guess. But, on the other hand, it’s all the same job.
Working on Nancy’s movie, she was trying to get through the context of the world she was building. She wanted to be emotionally truthful, she wanted it to be funny, she wanted to achieve the project of what she was making, and in that way it’s exactly the same as what Brad does, despite the difference of scale and the difference in intention. So my job is the same in that I’m trying to help them bring their vision to life by doing the best job that I can on my end. In that it’s the same as being in the theater. I go to work every day. My schedule is completely different doing a play than it is doing a movie, and I actually think it’s a much harder schedule because you’ve got to do it eight times a week and you’ve got to do it good eight times a week and with different kinds of audiences who are cold or drunk or tired, whatever it is. And… what’s my point? Anyways, it still seems like the same job. I’m still showing up to work every day because Martin wrote a play and it’s our job to bring it to life. I know that seems like a simplistic way of looking at it, but I was raised by writers so I think about everything I do in terms of a writer, basically.
AVC: Do you miss the audience when you’re shooting movies?
ZK: No, not at all. It just feels so different. It’s such a private experience when you’re doing a film, especially a film as small as the film we were making. It really feels like… I don’t know how to say this. It feels like I’m totally just in communion with my character when I’m doing a film. It feels like a great privilege not to have to worry that the play stays up to pace and that the audience is not bored. That’s an obligation that you have on stage that you don’t have ever in film because that’s the editor’s job, and I definitely don’t miss that.
AVC: You also shot Meek’s Cutoff with Kelly Reichardt, which people were hoping to see at Cannes, although it wasn’t completed in time. What was that experience like?
ZK: I got cast in Meek’s because Kelly saw Exploding Girl at Tribeca last year. I felt really lucky that, even before Exploding Girl came out or was reviewed, it was providing me with opportunities already. I had wanted to work with Kelly for a long time. I think she’s so cool and I love her movies. I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. I’m not a film snob. I love big-budget movies. I love going to the movies and having lots of escapist things. But I think that Kelly is an artist, and I wanted to have the opportunity to work with an artist. She comes from a fine-arts background, and I was really excited to take up the opportunity to do it. Also, I’m a really big history buff, and I love that period of time in American history. I just think it’s so cool and so interesting.
I was kind of on board for the whole thing. I’m glad that I was, because it was definitely an arduous life-imitating-art kind of shoot. We didn’t have enough money or time and Kelly is a perfectionist, so she’s never going to let a little thing like not having enough money or time prevent her from getting her movie. So it was really a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shoot. So fun, but such, such hard work and crazy conditions. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s one of those things where afterwards you go, “I’m really glad I didn’t know how hard that was going to be beforehand.”
Because we really were out in the middle of the desert. You know how they had to cross by a certain time, otherwise the weather would be against them? We were there doing it at the time when you’re not supposed to be crossing, and there’s a reason because suddenly it’s really low degrees outside and sleeting. It’s not often that you get to rough it in the movies. Most of the time, there’s always someone there with coffee making sure you’re totally comfy. So it was fun for me to get to do something a little bit more rough-and-tumble.
AVC: Thinking about movies that let you breathe things in, Wendy And Lucy was very much that. You get so much of that performance. You get to sit with Michelle Williams and just watch her be on screen. You don’t get to do that in life, or in a movie theater, very often.
ZK: That’s true. I think most actors jump at the chance to do something where the camera’s on them all the time. [Laughs] No, where they get to do something that feels likes voyeurism. It’s the ultimate challenge to jump into somebody else’s skin and stay there and stay there no matter what. So much of our shooting on this movie was from across the street or from far away, so we had to stay in character all the time. There’s a bunch of material in that movie that Brad stole while we were resetting or while we were sitting around waiting to shoot and we didn’t know that the cameras were rolling already. That’s kind of fun.