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.

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.

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.

African American Flag | David Hammons

The Artist: David Hammons

The Territory: West 125th Street, Harlem, New York. The flag flies above The Studio Museum of Harlem.

Medium+Materials: Dyed Cotton, painted wood pole.
The Inspiration: David Hammons African American Flag was created in 1990, the same year David Dinkins was sworn in as the first black mayor of New York City. This period was by no means a time of racial harmony, but it’s safe to say that the political climate in Harlem was much different than that of the 1920s when Marcus Garvey walked neighborhood streets. The flag is a bold declaration of identity- Hammons took the Pan-African color scheme (used by Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association) to communicate the merged sense of duplicity that exists in being Black. For Hammons, producing the flag was not a question of citizenship, but rather an assertion. Being American and being Black are both one and the same, but Hammons – a man whose work was first provoked by the Watts riots- pays homage to his America, his version of history by melding the Black Liberation Flag with the traditional stars-and-stripes. Instead of the red, white and blue color scheme, Hammons uses black, red, and green, which represent skin tone, blood, and the prosperous wealth his ancestors were forced to leave behind. For some, Hammons’ use of Pan-African colors symbolizes not being considered American at all. But no matter your perspective, the flag has become a way to identify Harlem and its connection to both contemporary arts and the diaspora at large.

African American Flag is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.