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.

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