In 2001, Zoe Kazan enrolled in her first semester at Yale. One week later, the Twin Towers were attacked and the granddaughter of the late filmmaker Elia Kazan first encountered the baggage that comes with being part of a legacy. “A reporter called me and said she wanted to talk about the freshman experience right after 9/11,” says the 26-year-old actress, sighing into her cup of black coffee. “But when we met, she immediately started asking me questions about my grandpa.” Although she has been familiar with Hollywood from birth—her parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are both screenwriters—acting has never been about privilege for Kazan, whose first major film role called for her to disrobe in front of Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road. “In our house, if you wanted to act, it meant you wanted to work,” she says. “It didn’t mean you wanted to get your hair done for a living.”
As for the craft itself, Kazan explains its draw. “Finding ways to deflect your pain?” she says. “I get that. I live in an escapist world. There isn’t a whole lot of time where I get to sit around being Zoe, and I think there’s a reason for that.”
But being Zoe doesn’t seem all that bad. The actress appeared in five films this year—among them, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, starring Zac Efron and Claire Danes, Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee alongside Robin Wright and as Meryl Streep’s daughter in the Nancy Meyers’ comedy It’s Complicated—and currently lives in the sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens with her boyfriend, actor Paul Dano. “My taste in men isn’t exactly beefcake Americana,” she says, adding Steve Martin and Philip Seymour Hoffman to her list of celebrity crushes. She and Dano met on the off-Broadway, Ethan Hawke-directed play Things We Want, and recently filmed Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff together, but Kazan says, “If he did something else, I would love him just the same.”
Having grown up on the periphery of Hollywood, did you approach it, at the beginning of your acting career, with any baggage? It meant something more when I used to say I wanted to make a movie. I think that my parents expected me to take it more seriously. If I said I wanted to be a writer, it meant something specific, not some amorphous thing. Wanting to be an actor meant I wanted to work—as an actor—not get my hair done for a living. In terms of what I bring to the table, it’s different than someone who didn’t grow up in the business. It’s not like I’m jaded, per se, but I think that I have a more realistic view about what fame is, how I feel when people praise me in reviews, and how I react when a blog says something mean about me. I’m much less likely to pay very much mind to that kind of stuff, because the goal of the culture doesn’t seem to be anything except entropy: “Lets burn out a star!”
I wouldn’t think that growing up around your grandfather, Elia Kazan, would prepare you for the pitfalls of young Hollywood today. For one thing, I’m not interested in going out and living a young Hollywood lifestyle. The other part of that is, especially after watching what he went through with the whole brouhaha with his honorary Oscar, I feel like that was a real lesson to me, in terms of people building you up and tearing you down. People want to have an opinion about public figures. It seems very clear to me that there is a price to fame, which, might be foreign to somebody whose parents are dentists in the Midwest.
I also think it’s interesting, too, when young actors are congratulated for not turning into Lindsay Lohan. The fact that anyone would devolve into that of personality is absurd in the first place, but the fact that people are praised for not becoming that way is also equally preposterous. I guess it depends on what your goal is as an actor. If you want to be really famous for nothing, and be photographed places, I think that that’s a very different goal than wanting to have enough power to be able to do your work.
But that’s also a part of the business, being seen walking down red carpets. You’re right. I do have to attend openings, get dressed up and not look like a complete slob, but I guess I don’t think of that aspect as being a compromise to my work. It’s an obligation. Plus, I don’t mind getting dressed up and having my picture taken.
I read somewhere that your parents told you to steer clear of dating actors. How did that work out for you? [Laughs.] They say it’s easiest to meet people at work. My experience hasn’t been that much different. I feel like I’ve kept a pretty good balance of friends from the outside of work and friends that I’ve made at work. There are a handful of my friends—Caitlin Fitzgerald, who’s also in It’s Complicated with me, Carey Mulligan, who I did The Seagull with and Peter Dinklage, who I did a play with—they’re like my sisters and my brothers. In terms of dating actors, you know, the stereotype of an actor is a terrible thing: they’re maniacal and obsessed with their looks. But most actors I know aren’t really like that. And I know that I would love my boyfriend now [Paul Dano] just the same if he did something else. But it’s lovely to be able to come home and be like, I had a really tough time with this scene.
You began acting on stage, which is where you met Paul, no? It was a complete fluke that I started in theatre and so it’s sort of funny to me that I’m perceived as a theatre actress, because that was never the plan. But I love the theatre, playing someone every night for months on end, and it playing differently each time. I love being in front of an audience and having that visceral experience. Their breath! Are they cold, or hot, or are they drunk because it’s a Saturday night, or bored because it’s a matinee and it’s raining outside? But in film, I love that you’re not responsible for moving a story forward. It’s just you and the scene. That’s an intoxicating feeling.
Have you had, up until now, a role that has spoken to you more than others? Maureen in Revolutionary Road was very far away from who I am as a person. But every girl knows what it’s like to be with a guy you know is bad good news but you move forward with it anyways. There’s a sort of self-loathing there, and the enjoyment of the affair. I played Masha in The Seagull this fall—she’s so angry, and abuses drugs to escape—I’ve never had a substance abuse problem, but I understand the psychology behind finding ways to deflect your pain. I get that. I live in an escapist world. I get to go to work and pretend that I’m somebody else. There isn’t a whole lot of time where I get to sit around being Zoe, and I think there’s a reason for that.
Can I ask you a question? What’s up with the Nia Vardalos movie, I Hate Valentine’s Day? Oh, man.
I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it, either.
It seems out of place. Everybody has a movie that they might look back on and not be as happy with. I did that after Revolutionary Road. Basically, I went from that movie into nine months of theater. So when I got out of that nine months, I did The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Me And Orson Welles, I Hate Valentine’s Day, and The Exploding Girl…
Sorry to cut you off, but I searched “exploding girl” on YouTube to watch the trailer… thanks very much for that. Ah, that’s terrible! But I’m really proud of that one. Anyway, I really shouldn’t have done that Nia Vardalos movie, not because of how it turned out, but because I needed a break.
It must be really nice to get to that point, when you can be a little more discerning about the projects you choose. My parents said something to me, which I probably should have listened to a little bit more. They said, “If you ever need help financially, we’ll give it to you because we don’t want you to take something really bad just to have money.” I wouldn’t have done that anyway, but I do think there is a great luxury in not having to take a bad movie. I’m just getting there, and it feels great.
Top photo: Kazan wears dress by D&G. Ring by D. Roach. Bottom photo: Dress by Oscar De La Renta. Shoes by Gucci. Photography by Billy Kidd. Styling by Wilson Mathews III. Hair by Sarah Potempa @ The Wall Group. Makeup by Talia Shobrook @ The Wall Group.