Zoe Kazan on Fighting Donald Trump, Living With Anorexia, and Her Relationship With Paul Dano
Kazan, winning rave reviews for her role in Love, Love, Love, is also fighting the president-elect’s bigotry, combining acting and writing, and speaking up about her eating disorder.
Bartlett’s brilliant comedy-drama follows a British family—in which Kazan plays the daughter—through 40-plus years of big and small history, and the big and small hurts that shape it, informed by the political and cultural cross-currents of intervening eras.
On stage, the 33-year-old Kazan—whom I met backstage on a recent weekday evening, before a performance—skillfully embodies an all-too believable stroppy, anguished tangle of teenage energy, whose selfish, lackadaisical parents cannot see the harm they are doing to her and to themselves.
Rose, who we both laugh at and feel for, comes to be a moral fulcrum for the craziness she grows up around, her eventual maturity appearing careworn rather than warm.
Kazan’s English accent is impressive, and she says that Bartlett helped in rehearsals by asking her to put more “embarrassment into her body when I was young—that was all I needed, the key. Later she becomes more at ease with herself. She is very forthright. She isn’t doing a lot of mitigating behavior to get her way, she is not playing sweet. She doesn’t have game.”
Kazan grew up in Los Angeles in a family of blue-chip Hollywood stock: the grand-daughter of screenwriter and director Elia Kazan and daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord.
A rigorous multi-tasker herself, she is also a writer—most recently of a movie, Wildlife, which she has written and produced with her partner, the actor Paul Dano, who is also directing it.
The pair—who met performing in the 2007 play Things We Want, directed by Ethan Hawke—have been together almost 10 years, and live in Brooklyn. Kazan herself has written three plays which have been performed: Absalom, We Live Here, and Trudy and Max in Love.
Although Kazan has appeared in mainstream fare like It’s Complicated, she is best known for roles in indie movies, including The Savages, Meek’s Cutoff, and Ruby Sparks, which she wrote the screenplay for, leading to two prestigious award nominations.
“It’s just what happened,” she said of the indie route her film career has taken thus far. “It was what was available to me, and the roles that were really interesting to me. There are fewer films made at a studio level I like than were made 15 years ago.”
Most recently, Kazan has been notable on social media for her criticism of Donald Trump, and for writing a piece in The New York Times, in which she eloquently wrote about her experience of suffering from anorexia around the age of 18.
“The causes for my eating disorder ran along the usual lines: depression, an inability to express my rage, a desire to exert control, a desire to feel less, a desire to have my body express the things my voice could not,” Kazan wrote. “That, and I had gotten in the habit of believing it was better to take up less space.”
The wry tone and plainspoken honesty evident in her article and on her Twitter account is also refreshingly evident when we met.
“At 16 I was very lonely and very enmeshed in my family life,” she said when I ask how she compared to Rose. “I only had a couple of friends. I was really lonely in high school, really serious. I wrote all the time. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be actor. I was very serious about both. I didn’t like it when people didn’t do their reading in class. I was self-conscious because I had braces, so I didn’t smile in pictures ever.”
She had a lot of friends in elementary school and middle school, but at high school didn’t feel she connected to many people. When her friends—older than her—would leave it meant one less friend. “I felt set apart in a funny way I can’t explain.”
Today she has “wonderful friends,” but laughs that she feels set apart from people in other ways. “I’m definitely a bit of a workaholic. Earlier in my twenties when everyone was going out, I felt I had to go home and do a rewrite. I always have lot of things going on at once. It takes some people longer to get into their work. I felt serious about work before I was even getting work. I was very precocious, and wanted to be an adult when I was younger.”
Growing up so familially aligned with showbusiness wasn’t that big a burden or boon for Kazan.
She went to small private schools in Los Angeles (before later attending Yale), and so “everyone I knew had parents who worked in movies whether that be costume designers, editors, grips, and entertainment lawyers. It didn’t strike me as anything very different. People I knew had famous parents. The fame of my grandfather seemed in the past compared to those parents going on to movie sets.”
Kazan herself wanted to be an actor. “I didn’t have the Hollywood dream. I didn’t want to be an actor like Brad Pitt. I auditioned for the school play when I was 14 and came home and was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.’ It was more like a falling-in-love experience. I had that thing inside of myself, without which you can’t get through the terrible rejection that comes with being an actor.”
Kazan said she has a lot of energy, hence the multiple projects—screenplays, other writing—she takes on, which help fill the periods of downtime, “the terrible waiting game,” between roles coming up.
She wrote the anorexia article, she said, in 45 minutes. The piece draws a concordance between her eating disorder and her experience of being spooked by what seemed like ghosts.
In the piece she wonders—after reading Stephen King’s introduction to Carrie—if her own maturing body and mind somehow helped manifest the hauntings in some way.
“I do wonder if it came from inside me,” she said of her ghostly experiences. At Yale, the shower and CD player would come on by themselves. Back at home lights would flicker on and off when she entered or left a room. “That house definitely had a hauntedness about it,” she said, with various noises and presences. In The New York Times, she wondered if this marked “the birth of my powers,” which sounded very Carrie-like. But maybe not. “I’m a real scaredy-cat. I didn’t like having that feeling,” Kazan said, laughing.
About her experience of anorexia itself, Kazan said, “Now I’m really healthy. I feel as if I have some kind of superpower. A lot of actors spend a lot of time worrying about their bodies and weight. For me, I went to a really dark place and worked so hard to get out of it, I was well by the time I was 22.
“First of all, it takes a long time for your body to recover. Your metabolism slows down because you don’t feed yourself. Your body holds on to keep what it gets. I was heavier the first few years afterwards because my metabolism is not what it is now.
“Online, though, I see people tagging pictures of me as ‘thin-spiration’ and weight loss. I find it really odd: the weight I lost between 22 and 25 was my body restoring itself to its natural shape. Now I don’t weigh myself. I don’t work out apart from keeping my heart healthy: I walk basically. Because of all of that, my relationship with food is much healthier than it would have been had I not gone all way to dark side and come back.”
So many actors are permanently on a diet, said Kazan. “I’m lucky. I’m slim. I am lucky that I’ve never been told by my agents that I had to lose weight. When I met my now-agent, I told her, ‘You can’t ever tell me to lose weight because I won’t respond well to it, and I’ll fire you if you tell me to.’ Going through my eating disorder allowed me to put certain boundaries up that I wouldn’t have known how to put up for myself otherwise.”
That isn’t to say Kazan hasn’t felt other pressures. “How many times have I been told, ‘You’re not pretty enough.’ That sucks, but you don’t have any control over that. You get told, ‘You didn’t get this part ’cos they wanted a different look.’ That’s the code-word.
“I can be very hard on myself about the way I look, but feel like, ‘Just don’t.’ I’m so grateful for my health, and to have my brain back. That’s really the thing when you’re sick like that: it takes up all that space. I didn’t think I’d get my brain back entirely. I reached a point where I’d been eating healthily for years and still there was this shadow hanging over me: ‘Remember, remember, you had an eating disorder.’ Every bite. I never thought it would be gone. I thought I’d have to live with it, like an addict.”
Kazan will “never say never” when it comes to surgery or Botox, but said resolutely that she didn’t want the kind of acting work that seemingly necessitates such interventions.
Instead, she wants to emulate the example of actors like Frances McDormand, her co-star in the HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge (for which Kazan was nominated for a Primetime Emmy), as a character actor.
“I’ve done, like 11 plays in New York,” said Kazan, who made her stage debut in 2006, in an off-Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, opposite Cynthia Nixon. “That’s where the meat of myself is. If I can stay presentable enough that people don’t mind looking at me on screen, that’s great.”
Given her anti-Trump writing on social media, a question about how Kazan was feeling post-election resulted in her placing her head in her hands, visibly upset.
“How am I feeling?” She paused, voice clotting. “I can still hardly read the news. It’s really hard. It’s upsetting. I’m not being loud and speaking up in order to be a person who’s loud and speaking up. I’m doing it because I don’t feel I have any other choice right now.
“If we don’t raise our voices, we are inviting something so dark into this country I can’t begin to fathom it. The way people are talking about Hitler is totally apropos. The way Trump is trying to marginalize and dehumanize certain people in this country is criminal and un-American, and as a country we’ve always struggled and strived to live up to the ideals our country stands for.”
Kazan’s mother, she said, thinks America exists in the gap of where it wants to be and where it is. Kazan said, “I can’t fathom that the country where we want to be is the country where Muslims have to register, or are not allowed in this country, or where gay people have their rights revoked or women have their rights revoked or black people and Jews are targeted or considered sub-human.”
Her voice clotted again. “I think about Reagan and how many people died between the beginning of AIDS and him saying the word. I lay those deaths at his feet. I do think people won’t survive the Trump presidency and I worry for them.”
She is most concerned about the environment. “Our rights will recover but our planet will not, and I feel something very precious is being taken from us every day, and he is far more dangerous than the media is reporting on. I have very little hope right now but a tremendous amount of fight left in me. I don’t see any reason to stop. We have to be our own watchdogs right now.”
About Ivanka Trump, Kazan thinks she is “probably the smartest of the family, but I cannot imagine being so power-hungry you’d sacrifice other people’s rights to make more money and have more power.”
Kazan thinks Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have chosen to be central to her father’s bid for power. Her father, Kazan accepts, “is hard to say no to, but Ivanka converted to Judaism. She agreed in doing that to take on the rights of those people, and yet there are neo-Nazis coming out of the woodwork every day and scrawling swastikas on playgrounds and her father still hasn’t said anything about these hate crimes.
“Yes, I hold her accountable and frankly I think feminism that peddles to affluent white feminists is not true feminism, and that’s what her whole brand is reaching towards. She’s not talking about anyone who looks any different than her.”
Kazan said she hopes people “keep speaking up for their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens,” and calling their representatives. “We have to keep holding him accountable any way we can. Seeing other people speaking up makes me feel not alone, and being not alone is critical when people are saying our voices don’t matter and our lives don’t matter and when our rights don’t matter.”
Kazan takes much happiness and creative nourishment from her relationship with Dano. He will return in December from a three-month stint filming Wildlife in Oklahoma.
They wrote the film together, adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel about a boy in 1960s Montana, “right on the cusp of adolescence, trying to hold his family together as it falls apart,” as Kazan put it. The editing room beckons when Dano returns in mid-December.
“He’s tremendously important to me. I wasn’t looking into getting into a decade-long relationship when I was 23, but he’s my family now,” said Kazan. Marriage “isn’t high on my list, we’re not religious. But it’s really nice to make a life with him. It’s been surprising to me, how many benefits there are to being with someone for so long. I would not have guessed what it would feel like.” Sharing a similar working life is positive, although there is so much overlap, Kazan said, it can be nice to put some distance between their work and home lives.
Dano prefers living in New York, which is why she does, Kazan said, smiling. She misses her family in L.A., the weather too. “I have a romantic view of L.A. and call it home because that’s where I’m from. I feel intimately connected with it. I go there and feel at home, even though I’ve lived in New York for 10 years and own a home here. I smell the air there, the eucalyptus trees, dust, and ocean and think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m home.’”
Next, Kazan will appear in The Big Sick, a romantic comedy by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon about their courtship (Kazan will play Gordon, Nanjiani himself).
After making a pilot with her good friend Lena Dunham, Kazan also hopes to work with more women. “I don’t have anything against men, but the older I get the more I feel the responsibility and desire to engage with other women, and to try and help them have their voices heard and have them help me get my voice heard.”
As for the criticism often leveled at Dunham, Kazan said: “She’s very powerful, and that’s why people are so hard on her. I think if this election has taught us anything it’s that misogyny is alive and well in this country, and smart, powerful women get a lot of rough treatment, especially by the media.
“I hope the Democrats run a woman again. It’s incredibly misogynistic to say that because misogyny itself played a part in the results that we should play into that by responding misogynistically.”
Kazan also has nothing but scorn for Colin Jost, who, as part of last weekend’s “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live, made a “joke” which many have criticized as blatantly transphobic. “The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week that gives users 37 different gender identity options. It’s called, ‘Why democrats lost the election.’”
“I think SNL is being very irresponsible, and I think they were during the election,” Kazan said. “I think they promoted a false equivalency between Hillary and Trump. Maybe there is an equivalency for wealthy white men like Colin Jost. I don’t think there is an equivalency for the rest of us.”
A longtime fan of the show, and “what Seth Myers did on ‘Weekend Update’ which he’s taken to his own show,” Kazan said she has given Jost and co-host Michael Che “a long window of time to prove themselves and I no longer want to watch it because I feel like they’re irresponsible.
“I feel like a lot of media outlets have been tremendously irresponsible, even places like Fox News which I don’t hold to a very high standard. But I think they purport to have serious news shows, and have very serious reporters working with them—and I think it’s a disservice to those reporters to let someone like Sean Hannity get up there and spread false news.”
It is time to get ready for tonight’s show, and Kazan apologizes for opening her heart so volubly. There is no need to, of course, and—tonight at least—it has at least been the best kind of warm-up for the curtain rising in less than half an hour on her angry, but morally resolute Rose. At last, something to thank Trump for.
Love, Love, Love, is at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NY, until Dec. 18. Book tickets here.