Belfast Telegraph

Actress Zoe Kazan: 'Emily and Kumail were very brave in making a film about their own lives... I wouldn't want to do that'


While her writing and acting roles to date have far from gone unnoticed, it's Zoe Kazan's starring role in upcoming hit The Big Sick that is really set to put her on the map. She tells Gemma Dunn of her admiration for her co-stars and reveals why their 'positive' story is what the world needs right now.

Zoe Kazan may hail from a Hollywood dynasty, but far from cashing in on her lineage - her grandfather was the influential director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront) and her parents are successful screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord - the third-generational actress has long been determined to shout louder than her famous last name.

And the louder she yells, it seems, the more the industry bigwigs are willing to sit up and listen.

Since graduating from Yale University over a decade ago, Kazan - against the advice of her parents - has carved a career in showbiz, from starring in Broadway productions such as The Seagull and A Behanding in Spokane, to making waves on the screen in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and the HBO adaptation of Olive Kitteridge (for which she received an Emmy nomination).

She's even proved the pen doesn't fall far from the tree, earning her stripes as a successful writer with stage plays including the critically acclaimed Absalom in 2009 and fellow off-Broadway hits We Live Here and Trudy and Max in Love; and screenplays that span the award-nominated fantasy drama Ruby Sparks and film adaptation Wildlife, which she co-wrote with her boyfriend of 10 years, actor Paul Dano.

Though, it's 33-year-old Kazan's latest outing - a starring role in Sundance Film Festival 2017 favourite, The Big Sick -that's about to propel her to new heights.

The charming off-type romcom, produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V Gordon, follows the real-life courtship of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (played by Nanjiani himself) and grad student Emily (Kazan), after she heckles him at one of his stand-up sets.

But drama ensues when their assumed one-night stand blossoms into the real thing and Kumail is not only left to deal with the fallout from the cultural dating divide rejected by his traditional Muslim family, but also a medical crisis when Emily is beset with a mystery illness.

Much to Kazan's delight, it's a script she'd never seen before. "There's something in it that seems really original and I think it saves it from some of the tropes of the genre," she says of the critically acclaimed indie.

"I think the love part of it has a wide definition; it's about familiar love and love between friends. It's not that narrowly defined.

"I was very impressed by the deftness of tone Kumail and Emily achieved - it's emotional, funny and scary all at the same time," she adds.

"I looked at videos of them online and felt that I understood who they were. And when I auditioned, I loved the feeling in the room. There was a strong feeling of people wanting to go to work."

And as one glance at her CV will show, Kazan is not afraid to get her hands dirty.

Starring role: Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick

Holed up in a London hotel suite, the brunette star - sitting cross-legged in a kooky leopard-print dress and metallic gold heels - is warm and engaging, dishing out compliments mid-chat.

But she's not to be underestimated. Recent admissions regarding on-set sexism (Kazan told The Guardian one story involving a director and his unacceptable proposition) should be applauded, as should her remarks on the lack of 'interesting' roles for women and her candid essay for the New York Times chronicling her teenage battle with anorexia, published last November.

Would she be happy, then, to see her life played out on the big screen, much like her Big Sick co-stars?

"No, I would not want to!" she says instantly. "Would you?

"I was talking to Emily about it, because she's never done press like this before, and it's very strange, especially when it's about your own life.

"Emily and Kumail were very brave in putting themselves on the page," she continues. "And also generous in that they were giving a lot of their humour and a lot of their personal stories to this movie. They're really making art out of their lives.

"In that spirit, I felt that the script was challenging me to bring as much of myself to the table as possible. Unlike some parts I've played, this role wasn't about transformation. It required me to drop into my real self and use my personality and use my emotions and have an easiness with myself in the part."

The deep sense of responsibility, she reveals, was eased by her instant connection with Gordon.

Starring role: Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick

"Emily is the kind of girl that I would have a crush on in school. She is just so kind and smart and funny, and she put me at ease very quickly," she recalls. "And I also felt like I kind of knew her already. Meeting her, it's so dumb, but she was wearing a shirt that I already owned and I felt like, 'Ah this is a good sign, we're already in the same place'."

"It speaks to me; I have to say it feels really wonderful to put something with a positive and humanistic portrayal of Muslims into the world right now.

"It feels really important," she reiterates. "It's really funny and doesn't have a polemical message and so it's not like being forced to eat your greens..."

Next on Kazan's radar is her fourth produced play, After The Blast, an off-Broadway post-apocalyptic show set in the wake of total environmental disaster.

It's a personal process, she says, that remains forever individual to the story she hopes to tell.

"I wouldn't say there's that kind of blanket statement in my plays," explains Kazan. "But in general, being able to go home and take all my hair and make-up and stuff off and just go into my imagination with my computer... that direct line to my creativity has really, I think, saved me," she finishes, smiling. "Between jobs, especially."

  • The Big Sick opens in cinemas on Friday, July 28

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