Interview: ‘Ruby Sparks’ Zoe Kazan Talks About Her Screenwriting Debut and Her Worst “Soul Sucking” Survival Job
We could all learn a bit from Zoe Kazan.
Even though she had a resume a lot of us would kill for – she’s appeared on Broadway (A Behanding in Spokane, The Seagull), TV (Bored to Death) and Film (Revolutionary Road, It’s Complicated, Meek’s Cutoff) – the actress started to write because not only was she “bored” from all the time off in-between jobs but because she was “creatively unfulfilled,” she told me. “I’ve gotta do something that makes me feel like my self worth comes from my self and not from whether a casting director likes me,” she went on to say.
With that, she wrote her first play, Absalom, and now, her first screenplay effort, Ruby Sparks, is in theaters. The film stars Kazan and Paul Dano (her boyfriend of 5-years) and was directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
The film is about a young novelist (Dano) who is suffering from writers block. When the enchanting Ruby Sparks comes to him in a dream, he frantically starts to write out his idea of a perfect woman, but gets the ultimate surprise when a week later, she turns out to be real.
The film is not your typical romantic comedy and that’s what ultimately works for the film. It’s smart, funny and at times sad and dark and the film is wonderful.
I talked to Zoe recently about the film, if it’s harder to act in something she’s written and what was her worst survival job.
Ruby Sparks is in theaters now.
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
Do you ever have somebody in a Q&A that just asks something and you’re like, “You totally didn’t get the character.” Or, “You totally didn’t get the movie.” Or just something like, “This reminds me of Mannequin.” And you’re like, “No, it’s nothing like Mannequin other than a person coming to life.”
Zoe Kazan: Yes, Mannequin, Stranger than Fiction. But, you know, people say these things to me and I think, “Well, I understand…” Or Weird Science, that’s the other one. Where I think, “Ok, I get it. I get what you’re responding to. But I think that this movie is so different from that.” But, you know, I love that it’s subjective. You know? That people take different things. That’s interesting.
Does that frustrate you to have critics that… like, maybe you would understand if a critic didn’t like a few things, but if they just totally thrash the movie and you’re going, “Really? Like, what?”
Zoe Kazan: But then I just think that this movie is not for that person. You know, the movies that I really love I don’t think are movies that are easily digestible. Like a movie like Harold and Maude for instance. Like, I love that movie. It has a very strange tone. It’s exactly itself. And I think that this movie is exactly itself. It’s not… it doesn’t… it’s sort of genre bending, it doesn’t fit easily into one category. I think not everybody’s gonna get it, not everybody’s gonna get it on the first viewing. But then I go into, like I said, I go to audiences and I see so many people really get it, connect with it, you know, amused by it, and I think, “Well that, that means a lot more to me actually.” And then you have critics who really get it too. If you make a movie that everybody likes then your movie probably isn’t that challenging.
Why did you actually start to write? Because I know you’ve written a couple of play… What was the reason you started?
Zoe Kazan: It really was out of boredom to be totally honest. I had written my whole life, but never thought I wanted to be a a professional writer. And I had taken writing classes in college that I really loved and I’d started a play in one of those writing classes. And I was out of school and I had started my acting life and I was basically getting a job like every 4 months or something. And then maybe that job was a play and it would last a few months or maybe it was a movie and it would last a few weeks, but then I would be unemployed again. And I was like doing, you know, day jobs for money but I was feeling really creatively unfulfilled.
So I thought, “I’ve gotta do something that makes me feel like my self worth comes from my self and not from whether a casting director likes me.” So I picked up that first play that I started in college again and that play became my play Absalom that was produced at the Humana Festival in 2009. And then once I sort of opened those doors it was like the flood gates opened and all these ideas came through and now it’s a huge part of my life.
What were the day jobs that you had to pay the rent?
Zoe Kazan: Oh my God, well the really bad one was there was this online service where they hired kids that had graduated from the Ivy Leagues to edit people’s application essays for graduate school and college. And you were paid by how quickly you turned it around. And most of the people who apply for this service are people that don’t speak English as a first language. So it was like a lot of broken English and trying to make people… and I felt like it was really morally bankrupt. Like, I thought what I was doing was probably really wrong but it was a way that I could make, you know, I could define my own hours. Anyways, that was the worst one. That was the one that really made me… that was soul sucking.
When you were talking about plays, it made me think… I hope you said this, and I don’t know why this pops in my head. But when you did a play, you did a play with Christopher Walken, right?
Zoe Kazan: Yeah.
Did you say, “My dad wrote At Close Range.” Like, I always think that that would be fun to do when you’re doing movies. Like, on the set of this you’re looking around, “Oh there’s Elliott Gould, there’s Annette Bening.” Like, you’re doing a movie with these people that are legends. Do you ever say things like that?
Zoe Kazan: No, you know, actually with Chris, Chris knew that my dad was Nick and actually Chris told me that he had worked with my grandpa as well. So he’d worked with 3 generations of my family, which was really pretty cool, in a play called J.B. He was… that was like, I think, his first job or one of his first jobs.
Yeah, you know, I feel like you’re so lucky, especially with someone like Elliott Gould that’s been around for so long and you don’t know how long he’s gonna keep working. Like, you know, he’s been somebody I’ve just admired my whole life. And to get to, you know, have him speak my words is, you know, definitely a thrill of a lifetime. Yeah.
Is it harder to act in something you wrote? Are you more critical of yourself?
Zoe Kazan: You know what? I actually think it was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. I think it would be very difficult to act in something I wrote on stage because then you’re doing the same thing every single night. You’re hearing your same words like, I think that would be really painful. But on this, you know, like first of all, I had rewritten the script for 9 months with Jonathan and Valerie. So I felt… by the time we went… I mean, not with them but for, you know, they gave me notes and I rewrote to those notes and then they’d give me new notes and we’d been through a process like that for about 9 months by the time we started shooting. And by that point I just felt like this is our movie, not just my movie anymore. So that was helpful. That makes it easier to let go of something. And then, you know, I thought it was gonna be really weird to be like hearing my words come back to me and speaking them to someone. But actually it ended up really, really normal.
Do you ever have a situation where Paul says, “That line’s not working.” And you’re like, “No, that line perfectly works.” Or is it something where when you get along you can sort of talk about it in a creative way?
Zoe Kazan: We never fight at work. We’ve always had a really easy… we’ve worked together before and we’ve always had a really easy time working together. There would be moments on set where he wouldn’t be saying a line exactly as I’d written it and I’d go over to the script supervisor and be like, “Make him say it the way I wrote it.” And then she’d go over and she’d be like, “Um, it’s of not about.” And he’d look over at me and I would like look somewhere else like, “Dooh dooh dooh.” [laughs]
At what point in growing up did you say, “You know what? This is what I want to do with my life.”
Zoe Kazan: I don’t know. Very early I guess? I think, you know, I was saying that I wanted to be an actor probably when I was like 5 or 6. But my parents didn’t take it that seriously. And I always wrote, like I said, but I never really wanted to be a writer. And then I was like a freshman in high school and auditioned for a school play and came home was like, “Guys, I’m an actor.” And they were like, “Oh no.”
What was the play?
Zoe Kazan: It was called The Dining Room.
I did that play!
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, yeah. It’s like a play people do in high school. No it’s actually a really good play. But…
A. R. Gurney.
Zoe Kazan: A. R. Gurney, that’s right. Pete Gurney. He’s a really good writer. And it’s a fun play to do, because you play like multiple parts. Yeah, it’s fun. I don’t know, yeah. I just… I’ve always been pretty self directed as a person and pretty willful. So once I set my own mind on something, I go after it.
You have a perfect cast. I loved everybody in the film. Did you have people in mind and did you kinda say to Jonathan and Valerie, “Hey, this would be a great person.”
Zoe Kazan: The only people we had in mind were me and Paul to be totally honest. I had written about 5 pages of it and I showed it to Paul, which is something I normally do when I’m writing, and he asked if I was writing for us to act in. And I hadn’t thought of it, and as soon as he said it, it seemed like, “Ok, yeah. That’s totally what I’m doing.” Like, it became completely clear to me. And then from that point on it felt like actually us being cast was a way of talking about what kind of movie we wanted to make.
Like, you know, I’m not… I don’t mean to be disparaging on myself, but I don’t look like Kelly LeBrock so you know immediately it’s not… it’s not about, you know, it’s not Weird Science. It’s not about a fantasy woman, it’s about a real girl. You know? And it’s, you know, the kind of actor that Paul is and the kind of movies that he does, it’s kind of a way of talking about the kind of film we wanna make?
So when we sent it out to producers, if they weren’t interested in making it with us then we weren’t interested in making it with them. And the same thing with the director. And, you know, everyone else was just a wonderful surprise that Jonathan and Valerie came up with. Like people, you know, someone like Antonio [Banderas] is not at all who I had in mind when I wrote that part.
Yeah. Great casting.
Zoe Kazan: And it’s amazing casting. I’m like, of course that guy would irritate Calvin more than anyone.
And when he takes off the mask, the big reveal.
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, it’s so great.