Writer’s soul caught in actress’s body
INSPIRATION can come in many forms. No one knows this better than actress/playwright/ screenwriter Zoe Kazan, who has a discarded mannequin to thank for breathing life into what is now her latest film, Ruby Sparks. Kazan wrote the quirky comedy, her first feature, and – with Paul Dano, her boyfriend of almost five years – also produced it and stars in it.
“I’ve always loved the Pygmalion myth, from Greek mythology,” Kazan says. “That one in particular has always been evocative to me. I was walking home one night. We used to live by the Macy’s in Boerum Hill (Brooklyn), and there was a discarded mannequin in the trash. I thought it was a person, and it scared me. I thought of that myth. I thought of the sculptor in his dark studio, thinking he sees the statue move.
“I thought, ‘Well, that must be the germ of that,”’ Kazan continues.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, what would I do with that myth?’ I went to sleep and woke up in the morning. Not unlike Calvin in the movie, I had a dream and woke up with the seeds of them in my mind and the idea, the first third of the movie, really clear. I started to write it down, and then they kept talking to me.” Calvin (Dano) is the story’s protagonist.
He penned a great first novel, but his second has eluded him for a decade. Then, in his dreams, he envisions a pretty, smart, ethereal woman named Ruby Sparks (Kazan). He starts to write about her, the pages flowing effortlessly from his typewriter – yes, he still uses a typewriter.
Then, mysteriously, Ruby shows up in his home, in the flesh, in love with him and real.
What’s Calvin to do? Confusing matters further, as he continues to write about Ruby, she changes to match the words he puts to paper.
He can control her – what she says, what she does, who she is.
Now, really, what’s Calvin to do? Chatting about the release with a handful of reporters in a suite at a Manhattan hotel, Kazan appears to be enjoying her moment in the spotlight. A petite 28-year-old with bright-blue eyes, she’s sporting a black blouse and hot-pink shorts, not to mention a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on her left elbow.
She’s energetic, refreshingly candid and unusually well-spoken.
Though she wrote the lead roles for herself and her boyfriend to play, she says, there isn’t much of their actual relationship in the film.
“There’s not a lot of me and Paul in there,” Kazan says. “I think we wouldn’t be able to have acted in it together if there was, and I don’t think we’d be able to watch it if there was a lot of us in there. So that’s a blessing, and something I was pretty conscious of in writing too.
“How it affected our relationship,” she continues, smiling. “I keep saying, ‘It’s like we had a baby and its name is Ruby Sparks.’ We’ve gone through something. It’s made us closer and it’s also tested our relationship. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s not easy to work so closely with your partner, to live together and spend 18 hours of the day concentrated on something other than your relationship.
“It’s not unlike having a newborn baby,” Kazan says, “where you’re not sleeping enough, not getting enough alone time, and there’s something else that’s more important than you, that you’re caring for its needs. So it was both a challenge and, at this point, a pleasure.” Kazan describes Ruby Sparks as a charmed project. She drafted a script and gave it to Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, producers of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which had costarred Dano. Soon afterward that film’s co-directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, entered the picture.
Finally Fox Searchlight Pictures, which had released Little Miss Sunshine, agreed to finance and release Ruby Sparks.
So how close is the finished film to what Kazan initially envisioned for Ruby Sparks? She starts to speak, stops and then starts again.
“It’s interesting,” she says, “because I rewrote the film for nine months for Jonathan and Valerie and, in the process of that collaboration, it ceased to feel like my movie and began to feel like ours. So, by the time we started filming, I felt totally relaxed about all the decisions they were making.
“I think sometimes it can be hard to let go of control – obviously, I wrote a whole movie about it,” Kazan says, laughing. “That creative thing, it’s hard to give it over sometimes and just say, ‘Whatever you do is going to be fine.’ It was really easy (in this instance) because I knew the movie they had in mind.
“Now I feel that it’s not exactly the same as what I first had in mind, but it is exactly what we had in mind by the time we started filming,” Kazan continues, stressing the “we.” “There are things that are so surprising, like the first time I heard the score, for instance. It’s so much bigger and more emotional. It’s not an indiemovie score. It’s not a plunk-plunk acoustic guitar and some sad indie songs. It’s so big and so emotional and so cinematic.
“That’s not at all what I was anticipating, and it’s so much better than anything I could have come up with.” Kazan will be a fresh face to many people. She was born in Los Angeles and is the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, as well as the granddaughter of playwright Molly Kazan and the legendary director Elia Kazan.
Since 2003 she has amassed an impressive array of stage, film and television acting credits, including the Broadway productions of Come Back, Little Sheba (2008), The Seagull (2009) and A Behanding in Spokane (2010) and such features as The Savages (2007), It’s Complicated (2009) and Happythankyoumoreplease (2010). On television she guest starred in an episode of Medium (2007) and played the recurring role of Jonathan’s girlfriend Nina on Bored to Death (2010).
Kazan cops to a lovehate relationship with acting and writing. As she explains in an entertaining semi-rant, she would never wish show business on anyone. On the other hand, she treasures writing. The amusing thing is that, while some people with her pedigree would dive into the family business and others would run in the opposite direction, Kazan did neither.
“For better or worse, I’ve always been a self-actualised person,” she says.
“I’m self-directed. I think it’s a type of hubris or something, but I never thought about my family. I was a kid who was full of stories, and I was writing before I could spell. I’d say, ‘Ma, how do you spell “the?” How do you spell “cat?”’ I’d make her spell every word out for me, because I had a compulsion to write.
“I remember seeing my first play,” Kazan continues.
“My mom took me to see Gypsy on Broadway and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It was completely clear to me.
“So it never felt like I was on their turf,” she says. “At one point, I was 7 or something, and my mom said, ‘I never want you to think that you can’t do what we do.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t think about you at all.’ “I don’t know, it’s very simple for me.” Now comes the semi-rant about being an actress-writer.
“They’re both really hard professions,” Kazan says. “I wouldn’t want my children doing them. I think they’re awful. My sister is starting to act, but I just think it’s the worst idea in the world. If I could go back and advise myself not to do it, I would. I don’t think it’s a fun thing to constantly not know what your next job is going to be. I think it’s just a terrible profession, actually.