Seeing Double: Zoe Kazan on Transformation and “The Pretty One”

What’s your identity? Beyond the figure you see in the mirror, the façade you fabricate for social media, the friends, and the outside world? Who. Are. You? Zoe Kazan—actress and screenwriter best-known for 2012’s Ruby Sparks—explored that notion with The Pretty One, a once blacklisted dark comedy from Jenée LaMarque that plays with concepts of identity, self-awareness, and duplicity. In it, Kazan portrays identical twins Audrey and Laurel, the latter of which assumes the identity of the former, “prettier,” more popular sister after her untimely death. We won’t give too much away—The Pretty One will be available for your home-viewing pleasure on June 3rd—only that as a creative, tapping into an alter ego is sometimes necessary to meet a desired end. It’s all a part of the journey. In Kazan’s case, the performance played out perfectly on the silver screen. For you, it could be a tale of self, lost then found. Editor Angel Lenise chatted to Kazan about this, and more, including the state of financing for female filmmakers, and the freedom that comes with taking to the stage.

Angel: It’s interesting in The Pretty One how you assume an identity other than your own, similar to what you did with Ruby Sparks. Are you particularly drawn to that type of character?

Zoe: You’re the first person to ask me that—I thought more people would! I think it is such a juicy thing for an actor to do—to get to play multiple people or different versions of the same person, so that was definitely really interesting to me. I think it was also the sort of transformation that happens over the movie as Laurel becomes a different version of herself by pretending to be her sister. I feel like a lot of people do some kind of version of that, whether they’re in their teens or their 20s. They can make a decision about “OK. I’m not going to live my life this way.” People do a mini-version of what Laurel did. “Now, I’m not going to smoke,” or “I’m going to exercise every day.” Whatever that thing is. Even though this is more extreme, I still think that people have an idea that they can become a different version of themselves.

A: How do you feel about that? Becoming a different version of yourself?

Z: Change is something that’s incredibly painful. That is sort of what I think this film deals with.

A: It’s interesting that you describe it as being painful. I read an interview you did with Mary Pols in Time, and she described you as a “chameleon.” Seeing you on screen—it just seems so effortless. How do you tap into that?

Z: I think it has to do with what my appetite is as an actor. People are drawn to acting for different reasons. I think people do it because they want to be famous, or some people do it because they’ve always loved action movies and they want to be in that kind of a movie. There are a million different reasons why people become actors. For me, it had to do with wanting to transform myself. It had to do with loving a very certain type of actor, who was different in every kind of part, and never looked the same. Sort of being able to go to a place that’s so far away from yourself and then come back to yourself and reveal something in doing that—help the audience make that imaginary leap by making it yourself—that’s very moving to me. It’s the kind of acting that I like watching and it’s what I aspire to.

A: I want to jump back to Ruby Sparks for a bit. You not only starred in that film, but you were also a screenwriter. When you were writing the story, did you immediately see yourself in the title role?

Z: I felt really compelled to write the thing. I wasn’t thinking about acting in it at all. I had written one screenplay that I wasn’t that happy with, and I wanted to write another. I got this idea that was so exciting to me to have an idea that I felt really lit up about. So I started writing it, and then I gave the first 10 pages to Paul [as in Dano, her boyfriend], to read, and he said “Are you writing this for the two of us?” At which point, I said “Oh! I guess I am.” I tried to put it out of my mind as much as I could; I didn’t want my vanity to get in the way.

A: How was it working with Paul for that?

Z: It’s so funny. We’ve been in a relationship for years now, and I just love him so much. But, when I think about making The Pretty One, for instance, and getting to act opposite Jake Johnson, that was actually more fun for me in a lot of ways. It’s easier to imagine—I know Paul so well. So we’d be in scenes together, and I’m looking at him as the character, but I also see Paul. The person I live with, who drives me crazy when he does X, and makes me feel happy when he does Y, Z. Then, when I look at Jake, I was just seeing the character. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to be totally immersed with someone you don’t know that well.

A: In The Pretty One, which twin do you feel you most resonate with in real life?

Z: They’re different parts of me. That’s one of the beautiful things about the story, is that we all have these different parts of ourselves, we just sometimes choose to lead with different things. Like some mornings, I wake up, and I’m like, “I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to put my clothes on. No one look at me. Nobody take my picture.” The next day, I’ll wake up and I’m like, “I want to go dancing and flirt with a million boys and then come home to my [boyfriend].” There are a thousand different versions of ourselves all the time, who are at work, and that we just have to, somehow, allow those different parts of us to exist. That’s part of what the movie is about. Laurel, at the beginning of the movie, is really rigid with herself. She only allows herself to behave one way. And by the end of the movie, she’s much more free.

A: This is a rare project in a sense because it not only tells a woman’s story, but it was also written and directed by one. How does that reflect the industry today?

Z: I’m going to give you the real answer, which is going to sound a little jaded—and I don’t mean for it to be. There are a very, very small number of women who can get films financed. And there’s a large group of men who can. And what that creates, I think, is a kind of cycle of feedback that teaches people to write for men instead of writing for women, because you’re more likely to get your film made. There are, of course, exceptions. This film is a film that got made on a micro-budget, so we got to make this movie about a girl’s story. Those stories are few and far between. Which means that the kind of parts that you get to play, in film, start to look more and more alike: the girlfriend, the mother, the wife, the sidekick friend. That is not why I got into acting.

A: I read an interview you did of . You asked him “What do plays give you that you don’t get out of the other parts of your life?” I want to pose the same question to you.

Z: I was saying earlier, I really love transformation. That’s sort of the thing that turns me on the most. If a movie or a TV show doesn’t come along with that kind of part in it for a long enough time, I start to get really hungry to do the kind of acting that I love again. I’m going to do a play this summer, and the part is just so different than anything I’ve gotten to do on film. I think live performance also sharpens you as an actor. Having to be totally responsible for your own performance. Actors never acknowledge this on talk shows or when they win awards, they never acknowledge the fact that their editor has helped them enormously. Every actor is helped by their editor, even Meryl Streep. A bad editor can do terrible things to your performance; a great editor can help you give the performance that you want to give. You’re so in the hands of someone else. When you’re on stage, you’re really in your own hands. It makes you better at your job, in general, to be responsible for yourself in that way.

Kazan can next be seen starring in What If opposite Daniel Radcliffe this August.

Co-working Toward Changing the World: Centre for Social Innovation New York

If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur, the typical office space just won’t do. If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur and trying to change the world in the process, then you really have to take things to the next level. Enter the Centre for Social Innovation. The co-working space and community center is home to nonprofits, innovators, and, of course, social entrepreneurs in New York City.

CSI started in Toronto in 2003, and now has a space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in West Chelsea. David Gise, the director of operations in New York, met with hundreds of people before CSI Starrett-Lehigh opened its doors last year. He said that social innovation is a movement ­– and the wave is coming. “We didn’t realize when we first started down this road how much interest there really was, “ Gise said. “It’s been amazing how fast the community has built and the kind of work that they’re doing all over the world.”

AIF spoke to Guise about what CSI looks for in its members, the importance of social entrepreneurs having the space, and bringing the big idea to the Big City:

Ashley C: What do you do at CSI?

David: I am the director of operations here at Centre for Social Innovation, and I am also the one who brought concept for it from Toronto to New York City. My best friend bought this building in 2011, and expressed an interest in doing something to build community amongst the [6,000] tenants in this building. He asked me if I would be willing to take space to help do that.

In 2009, I wrote a blog post about Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, and I said, ‘You know what, let me go there and see if I can get some ideas as to what we could do here.’ Flew to Toronto, in two seconds, I said, ‘Dead or alive, this concept needs to be in New York City.’

Give up your next birthday and bring clean water to people in need

A: Why was it so important to have this type of space in this city? What did you think it was about New York City that warranted bringing CSI here?

D: I had studied co-working models around the world, and I’ve been to a lot of spaces, and a lot of the spaces have felt very crowded, but there was no vibe. And it was when I walked into CSI, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was that central theme of social innovation and the passionate people that were in that space, putting them all together, there was a palpable intensity and feeling. It was different from any other space that I had visited.

And then after meeting with people in New York City, and hearing how many people were working on these amazing projects, but were working in coffee shops, or working at home, in libraries, and were potentially failing because they weren’t getting the support that they needed, building a home like this for them, where they could come and they could gather and show expertise and knowledge and networks and really build a community, it just made so much sense.

A: Going off of the name, “Social Innovation,” what type of entrepreneurs or thinkers do you feel flourish in this space?

D: Anybody [who is] trying to make the world a better place. We have a very diverse number of sectors within this space. The people that tend to flourish in this space are people that know both what they hope to give back to the community and what they hope to get out of the community, and also that want to be part of a community.

So by coming here, they understand that sometimes it’s ideas that come from different sectors that really help to push their initiatives forward. So it’s not always just surrounding yourself with like-minded people, it’s all these different ideas. So coming in with an open mind, wanting to be a part of something bigger than their initiative alone, has really led to a lot of collaboration in the space.

A: How do those collaborations or that interaction work between the different groups or the members that are here?

D: Basically from the design of the space, which was really designed to maximize the interaction between our members, to the staffing and the way we train our staff. We have someone on staff called “Community Animator,” and their job is to get know everybody in the space, and to help connect the dots. Not only between members, but also to introduce them to programs that are happening within the space that will support their work.

We have volunteers, that are also trained, they’re called “Desk Exchange Community Animators,” and their job is also to connect. So we really place a lot of emphasis on talking to our members and listening to where they need help and connecting them with other members.

But then we also do a lot of events where we get them to connect. We have a weekly salad club where we supply the lettuce and everybody brings an ingredient, and we just have a big communal lunch and everybody gets to talking and gets to know each other. We have waffle breakfasts where we make breakfast together and people get to know each other.

We have one event called “Six Degrees of Social Innovation,” where we not only bring together our members, we also bring together the very diverse ecosystem of social entrepreneurs in New York City.

A: I noticed that on the website, CSI is described as an incubator.

D: So we’re not doing that here yet in New York City. We do have an “Agents of Change” program that we launched when we first started here in New York City, [in which] people applied and we have given them free space to advance their projects. Some of those ideas have really taken off—it’s amazing how far they’ve come with just an idea.

A: Who are some of the “Agents of Change”?

D: We have one organization called Drive Change, and Drive Change created a food truck business to help formerly incarcerated youth. So when she came in, she came in with this idea. We are one of the few buildings in New York City [in which food trucks can come in] and come up the elevator and drive up onto the floor. So we had our last “Six Degrees” event, and she debuted her truck. The truck is now built and operational, she’s now serving all over Brooklyn, and she has hired I think ten formerly incarcerated youth to work on the truck. So what was an idea is now an actual operating business.

A: What do you look for in members?

D: No. 1, they have to show that they have some social mission as part of their mandate. We look to see the issue areas that they’re working on, and for us it’s important that we curate a very, very diverse community of people across all sectors. We look to see that people clearly articulate, like I said earlier, what they hope to give to the community, but also what they hope to get out of the community.

We know that communities don’t work if it’s only take, take, take—that they have to be willing to give back as well. We like people to come in and we meet with them, because we want to make sure it’s a good fit in terms of just the vibe. And it’s a very warm vibe, I’m sure you feel it when you come in. It was intentional—in two seconds you feel that, just goodness that comes out of people when you meet with them, and that’s the right fit here.

Taking Shape: Nnenna Okore at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival

Images of sculptures don’t exactly pop into one’s mind when thinking about dance or performance art. But for acclaimed visual artist Nnenna Okore, drawing parallels between the two art forms is easy to do when you consider their use of motion. Both employ labor-intensive techniques to enter another realm of creativity and form. Like dancers, the behind-the-scenes work of a sculpture is messy. This upcoming weekend, the Nigerian-born artist comes to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) 2014 DanceAfrica Festival as a headline speaker, and will demonstrate her creative process at BAM’s Hillman Fisher Studio. Ahead of her artist talk, ArtInFact Magazine’s Semmi W. got in touch with Okore to learn more about her use of materials, her beginnings as sculptor, and her never-ending fascination with decay.

Semmi: You have a background in painting. What made you want to start working in sculpture?

Nnenna: Right from my childhood days, I was always attracted to the spatially composed, tactile, and organic environments. Then, even as a young painter, I was sculpturally minded. My paintings characteristically had a third dimension with supple buildups of paint, soil, rope, fabric, and other found objects. When these accumulative methods no longer satisfied my sensorial delight, I decided to embark on a full journey of immersing myself in [the field of] sculpture through my graduate degrees.

S: Your artist talk for BAM is part of DanceAfrica—the nation’s largest festival dedicated to African dance. How do you think performance art impacts sculpture or visual arts?

N: When I teach many rudimentary art classes, the first lesson I impart on my students is that they need to master the art of dancing with their materials and tools, in order to become expressive and fully engaged. For without learning to glide or feel the energy of movement, it is hard to free one’s self from the enslavement of fear, rigidity, and closed mindedness.
AIF-Mag_Nnenna-Okore-Working_BAM

S: You are known for using recycled materials. Why do you like working with discarded materials?

N: The thrill is in the ability to create intriguing or meaningful forms from useless articles… it’s equally satisfying to repurposing urban recyclia, knowing that in my own little way, I am drawing attention to problems of excessive production and material wastefulness, in addition to impacting the global discourse on environmental conservation.

S: Do have a favorite material to work with?

N: Yes, I am totally enthralled by paper — old newspapers, recycled print paper, cardboard paper, etc. The range of possibilities with this material, in terms of applicable processes, is limitless. For instance, as a material, it can be folded, twisted, shredded, pulped, braided, sewed, or self laminated. And these attributes keep me totally absorbed.

S: How do you think “green” culture or recycling differs between American cities and urban centers in Nigeria like Lagos and Kano?

N: Well, I can only speak for a place like Lagos, where economic and political challenges prevail and prevent industrial recycling from functioning properly. The shortage of resourses alone promotes a domestic kind of recycling, whereby discarded materials are re-appropriated for household uses. Some examples include, newspapers used as table and book covers; food cans as cooking utensils, and small milk gallons saved for fluid storage, like oils.

S: How do you discern between a great idea and a great project? For artists just starting out, I think it can be hard to differentiate.

N: That’s a very interesting question. As a rule, I try not to impose greatness on an idea from the onset of a creative project, because it is in the making process that the mediums and ideas interact and connect. And this is especially true for sculptural processes, where the result could either hit the mark or spin unexpected out of control. For this reason, I generally refrain from getting fixated with my ideas until its completion. Open-mindedness, also, to an extent guarantees no real failures.

Nnenna Okore will giver her artist talk at BAM’s 2014 DanceAfrica Festival on May 25th.