Zoe Kazan is all aglow over 'Ruby Sparks'

Actress Zoe Kazan attends the "Ruby Sparks" special

Actress Zoe Kazan attends the "Ruby Sparks" special screening at Sunshine Landmark in Manhattan. (July 11, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

It still comes up in conversation, but actress, playwright and producer Zoe Kazan, 28, is a lot more than the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan. Her diverse list of screen performances include "Revolutionary Road," "The Savages," "Meek's Cutoff" and "It's Complicated." She appeared on Broadway, opposite Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell in "A Behanding in Spokane" and was part of the 20th-anniversary production of "Angels in America." Her play "Absalom" premiered at the Human Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 2009. Now her screenplay for "Ruby Sparks" -- in which she plays the title role -- hits the big screen (it opens July 25 in Manhattan and Aug. 10 on Long Island), directed by the "Little Miss Sunshine" team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The film stars Kazan's partner, Paul Dano, as a onetime wunderkind author who writes his dream girl and then has her come to life. Complications ensue. To discuss them, Newsday contributor John Anderson sat down with Kazan in Manhattan.

How'd you come to write a male fantasy movie?

Well, I think maybe it starts out that way, but I don't think it's a male-fantasy movie -- it's a movie in which a male has a fantasy, but I think it's a lot more about how we grapple with reality. How do we accept people for who they are? In the end, it's a movie about relationships -- we all start out with an ideal of love, and then somewhere along the line you have to love the real person in front of you.

The story involves Paul's character, Calvin, changing Ruby's behavior by writing changes into her story. Every time he edits Ruby, aren't you playing a different character?

In a way. When he starts to change her, she goes from being a totally real person to being a shade off from who she was. She experiences it as mood swings, which is kind of funny, but it's a profound shift. And that stuff was fun to do. It wasn't difficult: We all have days when we wake up feeling inexplicably sad, for instance, or have one aspect of our personality take the lead for a year, and then you wake up and say, "Why have I been so slutty all year?" So it was fun to play different facets of someone.

Did you write it with yourself in mind?

The idea came to me very strongly and I saw these people very clearly and wrote it all down immediately upon waking, like five pages. I showed it to Paul, and he said, "Oh, you're writing this for us." And it hadn't occurred to me: I was so focused on the people speaking to me that I didn't even think of us, really, but once I saw it, I said, "Oh yeah, I am," and after that I had us in mind. Most of the time when I'm writing, I'm just trying to get out of the way of what's coming to me.

Just like Calvin?

I think actually Calvin's experience was a lot like what I'm describing, that Ruby is just speaking to him, that she's her own person and that she's somehow visiting him -- he doesn't feel like he's fabricating her.

You and Paul are executive producers on the film. What did that entail?

I've always written as a secondary thing to acting, and when I wrote this I was in the middle of doing "A Behanding in Spokane" on Broadway, and then I had two weeks off and started rehearsals on "Angels in America," so when I was writing and rewriting and sending it out to directors, I was crazy busy. So I gave the reins largely over to Paul in terms of getting it to producers and financiers, and he was really pushing me and being my sounding board and right-hand man. It takes a lot to get an independent film made right now, so we were going way beyond what we'd ordinarily do. It's the most active he or I have ever been in making a movie happen.

The movie features people like Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan. How'd you get so many big people in so many small roles?

Honestly, Jonathan and Valerie are lovely, lovely people, some of the loveliest people you could hope to work with, and they inspire a lot of excitement and confidence in people. Like Matthew Libatique: He shoots "Black Swan" and then wants to do our tiny movie because of Val and Jon. They bring out the best in people. They met with Annette, and in their first meeting, she said he wanted to do it. Antonio was a very out-of-the-box choice -- his character's name is Mort. But it was genius.

What's it like being a Kazan?

It's not something that ever seems important to me until I'm asked to talk about it. I think having the example of people making their life in a creative field is priceless. Having people who value creativity in a child and fostered it, that's unusual. That to me is more unusual than having a famous last name. The name has had very little impact on my life. But having parents who fostered creativity has had a big influence on my life.

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