Playwright, actress, and screenwriter Zoe Kazan has been seen — or not seen — in blink-and-you-missed-them indie films such as “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Happythankyoumoreplease” as well as in small roles in more mainstream fare such as “Revolutionary Road” and “It’s Complicated.” But the 28-year-old Los Angeles native is also the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) and daughter of scripters Nicholas Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), which just about makes her Hollywood royalty.
And now, perhaps inevitably, she’s written her first movie, “Ruby Sparks,” a romantic comedy directed by “Little Miss Sunshine”’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in which Kazan co-stars with her longtime beau, Paul Dano. She plays the title character, a young woman who is literally dreamed up by Dano’s previously best-selling but now struggling writer, Calvin, and comes to life once he commits his dream to a page. An instant love affair is born.
But there’s a hitch: Whatever Calvin types, Ruby becomes, a convenience that tempts him when their romance isn’t rosy. The film is both magical and realistic, lovely and heartbreaking — a noteworthy debut.
Kazan talked to me about melding fantasy with reality, the tough parts of relationships, and how sometimes you just want a big piece of red meat.
Olszewski: What’s interesting about the film is that it’s clearly a fantasy, yet its themes are so grounded in the routine challenges of relationships.
Kazan: It was really important to me that the movie does have its fantastical elements. It’s basically all a big metaphor, so we just wanted it to feel real. That was something that Jonathan and Valerie and I talked about really early on, to feel absolutely that Ruby was a real person.
Olszewski: Not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
Kazan: That’s not my favorite term. I was never looking to do that. I wanted her to feel real so that when he starts to tamper with her, [you] feel the moral impact of that.
To me, the magic in the movie is just a way of talking about what really happens between men and women in terms of control in a relationship, and how do you love the real person and not just the idea of a person? I think that when you meet someone, you necessarily fabricate all kinds of ideas about them because you don’t know them yet. And then sometimes you have a rude awakening.
I think that is a really hard lesson to learn. When you realize I can’t pick and choose. I don’t get a multiple-choice person. The person they are is like this pearl inside of an oyster shell. You can’t discard the shell and take the pearl.
Olszewski: This is your first screenplay. How much control did you have over it once you started filming?
Zoe Kazan: Paul and I are both executive producers on it, and I think Jonathan and Valerie were really open to us collaborating and having a lot of input, which was great. Once we got them to say that they would direct it and got their enthusiasm on board, then I didn’t need to retain any control because they were making exactly the movie that I wanted to make.
Olszewski: Obviously Calvin’s typewriter is a noticeable prop. Was that important to you?
Kazan: It was important to me. I really wanted to tie him into his house. I wanted to isolate him as much as I could, and the typewriter you can’t bring out into the world the way that you can bring a laptop.
Also, a typewriter is only for writing, while a computer is an outlet to the rest of the world — Facebook and the Internet and porn. People can spend their whole lives in front of the computer and they’re not lonely. But in front of the typewriter it is just you and the page. So I really wanted that physical thing, and I wanted Ruby to come out of paper and not gigabytes.
It’s also a romantic writing instrument. It’s what Hemingway wrote on. And there’s this [theory], I forget where I read it, but the way people think changes based on their writing utensil. You can actually see the difference in the meter and how long sentences are. And there’s something so percussive about the typewriter. You’re hearing its voice come back at you as you write in a way that’s just not true of a computer no matter how hard you hit those keys.
Olszewski: Did you feel any pressure with your family background to get into film?
Kazan: You know, I think if anything my parents wanted me to do something else. That seems to be the common line in Hollywood, like, please don’t go through what we go through. My parents are really successful and they still go through bouts of not being able to get their movie made, or having things fall apart or the wrong director comes along, and they take their name off the movie because it is unrecognizable to them. It’s actually just a really terrible profession. I wouldn’t want my kids to do it. But at a certain point you’re, like, compelled. I’ve written from the time I could hold a crayon, and as soon as I knew what acting was, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I’m a pretty single-minded person, so it really didn’t feel like a choice.
Olszewski: Do you have a preference between writing or acting?
Kazan: To me it feels like two sides of one coin. Though for a long time I thought that I didn’t want to write professionally. It was just something I was doing for myself. And at this point, obviously, that is no longer the case.
I think doing both sort of takes the pressure off both. If an acting job doesn’t come along for a while, I have something else I can do. Or if I decide that I don’t want to write for a while I just don’t have to, I don’t have to make my living doing it.
Olszewski: You were born in L.A. and now you live with Paul in New York. I remember your character in “Happythankyoumoreplease” was really anti-L.A. Do you feel that way?
Kazan: Definitely not. I’m with a veteran New Yorker. Paul was born and bred and probably will die in New York. He loves it, and I really like it, too — don’t get me wrong. But I really get homesick for L.A. and I don’t get to spend a lot of time there. I keep saying I think I shot the movie in L.A. partially because I was homesick.
I feel like L.A. gets a really bum rap the way it’s depicted in movies. It’s this place where it’s all about the movie industry and everybody is so shallow. I grew up in a very normal L.A. I feel much closer to nature there than I do in Brooklyn. The beach is right there, and the mountains, and there are great hikes. I find myself living in a healthier way there.
Olszewski: In the movie, Calvin repeatedly bristles when he’s referred to as a genius. Is that something that’s happened to you?
Kazan:Oh, no! I just really hate that word. I think people have gifts, but I feel [success] has so much more to do with what you love and how hard you’re willing to work at it. I really believe in self-improvement. My own feeling about myself is I know that I’ve gotten better the more work I’ve put in. The whole concept of “genius” is, I think, a way of actually belittling what somebody accomplishes, like, “They were just born with this genius.”
It’s a word that was thrown around with my grandpa, and I always felt, yeah, but he was also incredibly hard-working and incredibly driven and passionate. It feels like a way of excusing people’s success. And [in the movie], it’s another way of isolating Calvin. It’s another way to make him feel lonely, by praising him, putting him on a pedestal.
Olszewski: Was it challenging to work with Paul?
Kazan: We met doing a play together five years ago, so the first Paul I met in some ways was “Working Paul.” So I knew how it was to work with him as an actor and I had a lot of confidence in him and a lot of excitement to do that again. But it was much more tense to play a couple. Having the whole movie resting on our shoulders. I think we were very tired and like underfed and overworked for two months. You do 12-, 15-, 16-hour days and you get to this point where you think, “I need steak.”