Zoe Kazan comes from a family of screenwriting and directing demigods, and this week will be her silver screen induction of sorts: the 28-year-old not only took the titular lead in the new romantic fantasy Ruby Sparks, she also wrote and executive produced the film, in which a former wunderkind novelist (played by Kazan’s real-life boyfriend, Paul Dano) struggles to kick a spell of writer’s block before teetering past his sell-by date. Calvin experiences a breakthrough when he begins to fill the pages with depictions of his dream girl, only to have her come to life, and a case of “be careful what you wish for” ensues. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-wife team behind the sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine (in which Dano played the nihilistic teen), Ruby Sparks is a tic-tac mix of fresh and sweet – not unlike the actress herself.
We caught up with Kazan the day before the movie’s release.
Hi Zoe! Where are you calling from?
I’m in San Francisco at the moment, doing some press. We went to Caffe Trieste this morning; it was so delicious. And we also went to Creative Growth in Oakland. It’s the most amazing and beautiful gallery and art center where professional artists help mentally disabled artists.
That sounds very cool. There’s a scene in the movie where you go to Big Sur – are you and Paul going to swing down there?
I wish, but we won’t have enough time. Actually, we couldn’t afford to shoot in Big Sur, so that scene was done in a house in the Hollywood Hills. But Paul and I took a road trip there a few months after we shot and sent [the directors] photographs of us in front of a sign that says “Big Sur.” So we were like, “You can put this in the movie if you want!”
I heard your inspiration for the script came from spotting a mannequin in the trash?
Yes, I was walking home and, you know in New York, people pile up all their trash next to trees. I saw a mannequin sitting on top of a pile. There was this strange, uncanny feeling; I flashed to the myth of Pygmalion, and the sculpture in his dark studio, thinking he sees his statue move.
Pygmalion is Calvin, in this case. You’ve created a very meta circle – you writing this character for your real-life boyfriend, Paul, whose on-screen persona is writing your character, Ruby.
Very early on, I showed Paul a couple pages of the script and he asked if I was writing the storyline for us. When he said that, it seemed like that was exactly what I was doing. But then I tried to put it out of my head as much as I could, because when actors try to write for themselves or the people they know, vanity can come in. The, “Oh, I want to make me look good.”
What similarities did Paul see between himself and the guy in those pages?
It’s the way I described Calvin: tall, skinny, hasn’t seen a gym or the sun in a very long time. And then I had written that Ruby is kind of backlit by the sun.
Is there a certain change in alchemy when real-life couples act on screen? For example, does an on-camera kiss compare to one behind-the-camera?
Kissing in a movie or a play doesn’t feel real – there’s a remove. Even when Paul and I met five years ago, we were doing a play together and falling in love and we kissed on stage before we had ever kissed in real life. When we did kiss in real life, it felt totally different. And when we did this movie, we would finish a take and then sneak a kiss afterwards. On camera, the other person is coming towards you not because they want to, but because the script says so.
Calvin wished for an independent and spirited woman, but when his fantasy came to life, he felt threatened by her. Do you feel this is a common theme?
Yes, it’s one of those funny things. I feel like even with Paul, some of the things that made me attractive to him were the things that now he finds very challenging. I’m a really flirty girl, so I’ll be physically affectionate with a dude friend at a party and Paul will be like, “What are you doing!?” and it’s like, “Dude. This is what you liked about me—that I’m outgoing and affectionate. You can’t only like it in a certain context; that’s against the rules.”
Photos: Merrick Morton / Fox Searchlight