JEEPERS creepers. It’s a bright autumn day in London and every time the sunlight streams in from nearby Hyde Park, Zoe Kazan’s defiantly large blue eyes promise disco ball effects. The peepers recall a young Elizabeth Taylor but Kazan’s family tree makes the late Liz look drably anonymous by comparison.
It took time for Kazan to realise just what’s in a name. She was already at middle-school when a teacher’s question alerted her to the importance of her lineage: “I couldn’t understand how they knew my grandpa’s name,” she says. “I knew that he carried a lot of personal power. If he said anything, my aunts always came running. But I guess a lot of grandpas and families have that. It wasn’t surprising to me that he was powerful. But it was surprising that he was famous.”
The granddaughter of On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan, a descendant of founding fathers Jeremiah Day and Roger Sherman and the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord insists that her Hollywood upbringing hasn’t spoiled her. She grew up around people working in the industry, she says, but not around showbusiness.
“Honestly, I think people would be shocked if they knew how we were raised,” says the 29-year-old. “We were completely sheltered. My parents didn’t make a lot of money when I was born. Later, when they had some success I guess we were comfortably middle class. But we were still raised according to very simple values. We weren’t allowed to watch TV unless it was the Olympics or something. We weren’t allowed to play videogames. And because my parents could be home for dinner every night, we always had dinner as a family.”
She smiles: “But people see the name and assume or imagine all sorts of things.”
But there must have been some movie action at home, surely?
“Well they did write from home until we got too noisy,” says Kazan. “I know they tried to keep all the frustrations and disappointments of the business hidden, but we knew anyway. I was ultra empathic as a child. Probably to my detriment. I remember being little and seeing my parents after bad reviews and I would know without anybody saying and I would feel so bad for them. Or conversely, I remember my dad getting nominated for an Academy Award when I was seven. And I remember feeling so happy for him and worrying endlessly about his suit.
Does she remember seeing her first Elia Kazan picture?
“Viva Zapata. It’s not his best movie. And its a little dated. It feels of its time. For me, the strangest thing about watching that movie is seeing his name come up. I had such a sense of pride just seeing the name there. Wow, that’s my grandpa.”
Nowadays, Kazan, a Yale graduate, has plenty of opportunities to see her own name in lights. An accomplished actor who invariably attracts glowing notices, Kazan has lately followed her parents into the family guild. A junior-year college project evolved into Absalom, her first play, in 2009. Her debut screenplay, Ruby Sparks, arrives in Irish cinemas this week with comparisons to a Younger, Funnier Woody Allen attached.
“I did think about The Purple Rose of Cairo in the writing,” says Kazan. And Groundhog Day. I love movies that present a slanted version of our own universe. That’s what I wanted to do with this.
The film, which stars Kazan and her real-life partner, Paul Dano, refashions the Pygmalion myth into a delightful feminist fable. Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with writer’s block when he creates Ruby (Kazan), a kooky, pretty, fantasy girl. Imagine his surprise when she actually turns up in his kitchen. And imagine his dismay to find she has plans that don’t necessarily include him. Will Ruby win out? And will the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl finally get her revenge on the maledominated movieverse?
“My mom is a feminist and we were raised that way and encouraged to be attentive to sexual politics,” says Kazan. “We read The Second Sex growing up. All that stuff. It was only after I started having relationships myself that I realised just how non-traditional my parents’ marriage is. They share all tasks. They share everything. But with my first relationships, I found myself being expected to behave in an almost subservient way. It was shocking. I couldn’t believe how traditional the roles are for so many people. My girlfriends would sometimes say to me ‘God, you’re so lucky: he loves you so much!’ and I would think to myself: ‘I’m so lonely. I feel like a doll.’
“I haven’t seen a lot of things from that perspective, that idea of being gazed at but never seen, that moment when you think ‘I am so strong and so brave inside and you’re treating me like a baby. So I wanted to explore that in a way that wasn’t unkind or alienating for men. Because I love men.”
Ruby offers a new template, too, for the oft neglected girly feminist: “That was definitely part of my problem,” nods Kazan. “I’m very girly. I’ve been girly since day one. There’s not an ounce of tomboy in me. All of my traits are considered girly. I was always the nurturing kid who took in strays and comforted broken hearts. But being girly led to relationships where the guy has a very strong idea of me, but its an idea thats only appropriate for a doll. Just because I’m girly doesn’t mean I’m a lost little girl. I hate that you’re either little lost girl or you’re a bitch who doesnt need men or youre a nurturing, motherly type. I have all those things inside me. Who doesn’t?”
Kazan has been in a relationship with co-star Paul Dano for more than five years. Did she write with him in mind? Should we be worried?
“No. Not worried. No. Not at first. My first impulse, once I was excited about the idea, was to show Paul. So I showed him about 15 pages. And we decided that I was writing it for the two of us. And that helped because I have great faith in Paul as an actor. Once I thought ‘this could be Paul’, it allowed me to write whatever I wanted.”
Was she tempted to tap her screenwriting parents for feedback?
“No. It has to be perfect for me to show them anything. The thing about coming from a really close-knit family like ours is that the boundaries can get a little fuzzy. As an adult I’ve had to make sure I don’t go running to mom and dad for everything.”
Did she and Dano take the work home with them? Did they stay in character for the sake of convenience?
“No. We don’t really take work home. I mean we are very dedicated to our work. And it’s not like we’re sitting around at home saying ‘oh we’re such method actors’. But there is a kind of tunnel vision that kicks in with a movie and the movie becomes the centre of your life to the detriment of your life. Your friends feel neglected. Your family feels neglected. And with two people, tunnel vision is hard.”
So who does the laundry in that situation?
“No one. That’s the problem. This is disgusting but I’m going to tell you anyway. We ran out of toilet paper and we didn’t have time to buy any so we would steal the toilet paper from the set.”
She hides her face and laughs: “We need a mother. A professional mother. We just can’t afford one yet.”
* Ruby Sparks is out now