Journalistic pieces about Zoe Kazan tend to start out by noting that she’s Elia Kazan’s granddaughter, and her parents are screenwriter/playwright Nicholas Kazan (Oscar-nominated for Reversal Of Fortune) and screenwriter Robin Swicord (Oscar-nominated for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). The implication is that she’s part of a filmmaking family, and that her stage acting, playwriting, and acting in movies from Revolutionary Road to Meek’s Cutoff to The Exploding Girl is just the natural next step in her family’s legacy. If so, it makes sense that with the new film Ruby Sparks, she also steps into screenwriting. Kazan’s boyfriend, actor Paul Dano, stars in the film as Calvin, a frustrated novelist who finds inspiration by creating a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, who then turns up in real life, played by Kazan. Briefly, the film is an effervescent indie fantasy about a man who gets to define everything about the woman in his life, but it becomes gradually darker as Calvin gets increasingly frustrated by Ruby, and keeps rewriting her. It’s a smart, painful story about control, perception, and wish-fulfillment in a relationship, helmed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Kazan recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about biology vs. fantasy, getting inspiration from Pygmalion and a mannequin, and why she thought being a writing career would be too boring to pursue.
The A.V. Club: You’ve repeatedly said in interviews that Ruby Sparks’ story was inspired by your love of Pygmalion. What about Pygmalion interests you? Why was that a story spark?
Zoe Kazan: I’m reading this book right now by Robert Johnson called She. He was a psychologist who wrote this book in the ’70s about female psychology, and there’s some dated stuff about it, but one thing I really like that he says… He’s unpacking the Psyche myth in that book, and he’s talking about myths and saying, like, basically, they’re story in their purest form, and the reason they’ve been carried down to us is that they hold psychological resonance, or psychological truth. So I have the idea of a man having an idea of a woman. This resonated emotionally with me, based on previous relationships I’ve been in. I’ve had a feeling that there’s this person called Zoe Kazan, and the person I’m with loves her, but that person is not me. It’s sort of five shades off from me. And I don’t know what made me loveable to them, but I was trying very hard, when I was a younger woman, to live up to that image, or fulfill it. And then I was shocked by how far off some of their assessments were.
I had a boyfriend once, my best friend, and he said, “Zoe doesn’t want to be happy.” And I was totally taken aback by that, because I feel like I’m such a happy person. And I’m trying so hard to be happy. I think emotionally, it just really resonated with me. The script used to be called He Loves Me. I felt like love can be such a burden sometimes. It can be such a bittersweet thing to feel like, “Well, he loves me, so what do I have to complain about? But I feel so lonely.” To feel like being loved is sometimes one of the loneliest feelings in the world, instead of one of the best feelings in the world. So I guess my brain had been rhapsodizing on that, and then one night, I was coming home from work, and we used to live near a Macy’s, and there was an abandoned mannequin in a trash pile, and I thought it was a person. And I had that uncanny experience of feeling frightened by the surreality of an object, and I went to bed thinking about it, and woke up with this in my head.
AVC: The Pygmalion story has been told over and over in different ways, and it always seems to be a man creating a woman. There’s a power dynamic there that Ruby Sparks specifically explores. Would it work if the genders were reversed?
ZK: I don’t know. The flip answer is that it’s not fantasy for women to create a man—it’s biology. You know, women give birth to sons and raise them, and even though men can father a daughter, it’s not quite the same thing as having it come out of your body. And I think the female creative urge is intrinsically biologically linked to our ability to give birth to a child, even if we’ve never… I’ve never given birth, but I feel like it’s part of our psychology. I mean, Simone de Beauvoir wrote about that in The Second Sex, and I agree with some of her assessments. But I feel like the urge to alter the world is specifically masculine, and I think we just come from a very different place, both in coming to love and in coming to creativity. I’m sure someone could write that story, but it’s not the story I feel compelled to tell.
AVC: There’s a lot of resonance here with modern indie romantic comedies and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal. Were you inspired by any of those in particular?
ZK: Well, I’m very curious about—obviously this is one of the seeds of this, was looking at movies from Annie Hall, where I think [Annie] is a fully fledged, three-dimensional person, to something like (500) Days Of Summer, where I felt like—not that she wasn’t three-dimensional, but that the men writing that movie were looking with a very specific angle at that girl. And I was curious, “Where is the rest of her life? What is her internal life like?” Because you were just seeing her from the point of view of the relationship, whereas you saw the rest of his life. So I was curious about that imbalance, and also curious about what happens when a man writes his female—I’m not going to say “ideal”—but counterpoint. What happens in that process? That was really interesting to me, and I think I was trying to explore in some way by making it textual, rather than subtextual, in the movie.
AVC: What was interesting about Ruby Sparks to you as a character, in terms of playing her?
ZK: I really wanted her to feel as real to the audience as she feels to Calvin. I don’t think Calvin is a sociopath. I think he’s a normal person. So I think it would be sociopathic for him to fall in love with her because he can control her. I think he falls in love with her because she feels real to him. She sort of arrives to him. Almost like he meets her. And she is a product of his imagination, there are things he devises for her to be, or to be like, but I think she’s mysterious to him. And she feels very real, even before she shows up in his house. And that’s what I wanted the audience’s experience of her to be, and that seems like a challenge to me, to play somebody who is really specific and feels like a whole person, but is also obviously unfinished in some way, because he can continue to manipulate her. And that was something I worked with John [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris] on, to make sure there was always that sense of her reality.
AVC: You’ve said you workshopped the script with them extensively after they came onboard. What did they bring to the script?
ZK: It looked really similar before and after them. There were some things that were different, but not very many, plot-wise. There was a slightly different ending. There are a couple things you could point to that are superficially obvious. But mostly, they have a very strong sense of story and a very strong sense of the audience’s emotional experience. And I know less about that, because I’ve never written a movie that was produced before. So there were a lot of things about making the highs higher and the lows lower. It was also a process of them coming to feel authorship and ownership of the movie, and for me, starting to understand what movie they wanted to make. I think I’m a little more cynical than they are; they’re more romantic. There were things where I felt like we were bringing our sensibilities to each other, and even if a line never changed, I think we discussed every line in the movie. There are whole chunks of pages that never had a change on them, but we broke them down and talked about the way I saw them in my head, and the way they saw them, and it was kind of a way of getting to know each other as much as anything.
AVC: You have usually smaller, more internal instincts as an actor. Writing a character that’s this big, and sometimes deliberately overplayed because that’s part of the character, was that difficult for you? Was it freeing?
ZK: Well, there’s some comedy stuff in here that’s a little broader. You know, like when Ruby starts to be manipulated, the stuff you’re talking about. And I find that really fun to play. I don’t like to repeat myself, and a character like Ivy in The Exploding Girl is a very restrained person. It’s not only about the acting style, it’s about what kind of person she is. And Ruby is more extroverted, and I think one of the things I like about her is that she’s not apologetic. She takes up space and takes ownership of herself, and it’s not like she has to be the center of attention all the time, but she’s very comfortable in her body. That was fun for me to get to play.
AVC: When you started scripting this, were you specifically writing it for yourself? Was there ever a question of having somebody else play these roles?
ZK: No, when I first started writing, the inspiration came to me very strongly, and I really saw these people and heard their voices. I wrote down maybe the first five pages and then showed it to Paul [Dano], and he said, “Are you writing this for us?” And I was kind of taken aback, because I hadn’t even been thinking about it as a movie, really. I hadn’t made that jump to who would play these parts. And as soon as he said it, I thought, “Well, that’s obviously what we have to do.” But I tried to forget about that as I wrote, partially because I didn’t want there to be too much of me and Paul in there. I wanted these people to really stand for themselves. And partially also because I felt like they were speaking so loudly to me, I didn’t want to get in their way. Like, I never wrote an outline for this script. I knew where it was going, but I tried to let the specifics of it surprise me and delight me and challenge me. And there were times where I was like, “What? Where is this movie going?” And then later I shaped it more with Jonathan and Valerie. But no, I think I was just trying to let them speak for themselves.
AVC: People could read this film, depending on who they are, as just a light, magical-realist fantasy about a depressed guy who doesn’t know what he wants in a woman. Alternately, it can be read as a full analysis about how people act in relationships and what they want out of them, or as an analysis of an artist’s relationship to art. Was there a struggle at any point to make sure the story worked on a lighter level as well as a deeper one?
ZK: Well, that’s part of what I think Jonathan and Valerie bring to it. It’s part of the reason I thought of them right away for this, is that I loved the delicate balance of tone in Little Miss Sunshine, and how you can have someone die in the middle of that movie, and it stays a comedy. And I thought they brought a lot of heart to that movie, too. Like, you identify with all those characters at different points, and there are real stakes, not comedy stakes. So I knew they could bring that deftness to this. I definitely was thinking on all those levels. I think people go to the movies to have an emotional experience, so I wanted to make sure it stayed emotional and not intellectual as you were watching it. But I hope people walk away and talk about things. I like that it operates on multiple levels, and I hope it makes people look at themselves and their relationships, think about some of the questions that the movie’s posing.
AVC: Since you started your acting career, people have talked about you as part of a famous dynasty, and implied writing would somehow come naturally to you as part of your DNA. Growing up, did you feel there was an expectation that you would become a filmmaker as well as an actor eventually?
ZK: No. I always wrote, but I did not want to be a writer sitting in my house my whole life. I’m a really physical person. I really love people. I love to meet people. I’m curious about people. So looking at my parents—my parents have a lot of friends, but they spend all day in their offices with their computer screens, and that did not look like fun to me. So I ran, I think, in the opposite direction. And then when I was in college, I started taking writing classes and really loved it. And when I got out of college, I would have these swaths of time where I’d be between jobs, or I’d be doing a play at night and I would have nothing to do with my day. And when I get bored, it’s like the worst parts of me come out. I really veer to self-destructive tendencies quickly. [Laughs.] So I was like, “Okay, I need to find something to do with my time that feels meaningful, and is not just me going to the gym or drinking or whatever.” So I picked up a play that I started in college, which became my first produced play, Absalom. So that’s how I started writing again. And I still feel I would much rather keep writing as something I take pleasure in and that I do because it is fun and challenging and pleasurable for me, than to have it become a job. So that’s sort of where my balance, my focus, is right now.
AVC: Was there a reason for this to be a film rather than a play?
ZK: Yeah. I think movies have much more magic than the theater. Theater can be a magical experience, but movies thrust their subjectivity on you in a more profound way. Sitting in the dark, watching an image that’s bigger than life, and the things you can do with editing and camera and music that sort of help the audience take that imaginative leap… You know, in theater, you have some of that at your employ, but not as much. And I just received pictures [while writing Ruby Sparks], and the first picture I received was of Ruby backlit by the sun [as she is in her first appearance in the film]. And I thought, “It’s like the gun in that early Western pointed at the audience, or when the train came barreling down in that early silent movie, and everyone screamed.” I wanted “Woman!” coming at the audience like a gun, you know? I just wanted that really enforced, subjective point of view.
Tomorrow: The A.V. Club speaks to Paul Dano about starring in Ruby Sparks, what his four-year relationship with Kazan brought to the film, and how acting is like sex for him.