BWW Interviews: BEHANDING's Zoe Kazan
You may know her from Broadway's recent revival of The Seagull. Or, Come Back, Little Sheba. Or the feature films "Revolutionary Road" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, "It's Complicated" with Meryl Streep and Alex Baldwin, "The Valley of Elah," "Me and Orson Welles"...the list goes on. True, she does bear the famous last name (grandfather is stage and screen director Elia Kazan), but Zoe is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and diverse up-and-comers in entertainment, and can currently be found every night at the Shoenfeld Theatre starring alongside Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Anthony Mackie in Martin McDonough's A Behanding in Spokane, directed by John Crowley.
In Behanding, Carmichael (Christopher Walken) has been searching for his missing left hand for almost half a century. Enter two bickering, drug-dealing lovebirds (Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) with a hand to sell, and a hotel clerk (Sam Rockwell) with an aversion to gunfire. The result is a rollercoaster of love, hate, desperation and hope.
A graduate of Yale University, Zoe made her New York stage debut in the Off-Broadway revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Other Off-Broadway work includes Things We Want, and 100 Saints You Should Know, for which she received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play and a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress. Kazan made her Broadway debut in a revival of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. Following this role, Zoe was named the recipient of the 2008 Derwent Award. Zoe is the only actor to be awarded the Derwent Award for three roles in one year: Come Back, Little Sheba, 100 Saints You Should Know and Things We Want. Zoe returned to Broadway in the New York adaptation of the London hit The Seagull. Also a playwright, Zoe's family drama, Absalom, was produced at the 2009 Humana Festival at the Actor's Theater of Louisville. A second play has been commissioned by Manhattan Theater Club and is currently in development. In addition to "Revolutionary Road," "It's Complicated," "In the Valley of Elah," and "Me and Orson Welles," Zoe's films include "Fracture," "August," "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," "I Hate Valentine's Day," "HappyThankYouMorePlease," and "The Exploding Girl," for which she was awarded Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film by the Tribeca Film Festival.
BroadwayWorld recently caught up with the actress to talk about how she has found success alongside some of the greatest performers in the industry, and, now with some of the run under her belt, just what it's like to be a member of the eccentric Behanding family.
To begin, tell me a bit about how and when you started performing professionally. I know that you had a more traditional liberal arts education at Yale.
Well, I wasn't working when I was in college. But in the course of the next year after I got out of school I did a series of classes and performances and through luck I got an agent. It's a long story but basically an agent saw me perform and recommended to another agent who told me that if I was ever in anything, she would come see me with an eye to represent me. Not long after that I did a play reading as a favor to a friend and off of that I signed with my agent. At the time I signed with her, though, I really wanted to go back to school to get my MFA and was in a place where I thought I didn't really want to work. I just wanted to take an acting classes and try to concentrate on that. But then I got my first job and just didn't want to go back to school after that. It was like cocaine, one taste and, you know....(laughs). Getting an MFA takes a long time, three years, and I just felt after my first gig that I wanted to be working instead.
At what point did you decide that acting was it for you? You grew up in a show-biz family. Did you ever consider pursuing a different path?
No, not really. When I was applying to colleges I wanted to go to a conservatory but my parents wouldn't let me. So instead, I only looked at schools with a great drama program. So yeah, I think even then when I was a kid I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life. You know when you're that young though, it's all theoretical. But I am really happy that I was able to grow up and have a chance to try other things. I look at people who went straight from high school into working or even dropped out of school to work and I think, what do these people know about what they want? I mean, I'm sure a lot of them are kind of natural-born child actors like Dakota Fanning for example. And you think, good for that person - they're an actor, for sure. But sometimes I think... I mean, I'm happy that this is how it turned out for me because I really know now that this is what I want. If I hadn't had the chance to explore other things and going right into acting had been more of an unconscious choice, I think that would've been bad for me.
How did you get involved with Behanding?
Well, I had this talk with an agent who'd come to see me in Seagull, who I had met a couple of times. I learned that Martin McDonough had written a new play and there was a potential role for me according to the breakdown that had been released, and they suggested I go out for it. So I asked my agent to keep an eye out on this show and the auditions. And then right after Christmas of that year, the beginning of 2009, my agent called back and said I had an audition. I was with my family on the west coast at the time for the holidays so I flew back to New York and I went in for Martin and John in New York. And I actually felt like the audition hadn't gone very well, and I offered to go back in and audition for them again, but the casting people said "no, no, no, you're their favorite choice right now." Then a couple of days later they called and said that I had the part, which was really exciting for me because I've been a huge fan of Martin's and of John's for along time.
How long thereafter did the show get off the ground?
It was about a year, actually. I got cast in January of 2009, so between my first casting appointment and the first rehearsal it was a year. I think it took so long because they were waiting to assemble the right people. Sam Rockwell and I got cast first and then there was a big waiting period. It was nice to have the break, actually. I had just finished Seagull I was kind of burned out. I was pretty tired and I really needed a break from the stage. I wasn't really ready to do another play right away. I was kind of making an exception with this show because I'm such a fan of Martin's and because it's a new play that I loved and was really excited about. So the break wound up working out. Plus, I liked that there was so much time to think about the part and get excited about it. By the time we went into rehearsal this January, I was truly stoked.
With Martin McDonough, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell etc., there are so many brilliant, eccentric personalities associated with this show. How has that made this experience different than those of other productions you've worked on?
Well, for one, I had a longer rehearsal process on this than I've had on other things I've done. On The Seagull, we had rehearsal four weeks and then a fifth week in tech. So we didn't have a tremendous amount of time to tinker. On other things I've done, we've had like two and a half weeks to rehearse...During some of those productions I was performing other plays while I was rehearsing those plays, so I feel like it's been an incredible luxury to concentrate on this show and on nothing else. And it's hard, it's really-it's a very tricky play, somewhere between terror and farce. We spent a lot of time working to find the balance. We can't be too scary or it's not funny anymore and if it gets too funny it's not scary anymore. So we kind of have to monitor it very closely. And any time you're doing a new work it takes a much different kind of energy because you're creating it from scratch - it's never been done before. You're trying to be very specific about who the person is - how smart they are, how tough they are, how brave they are. And if you do it wrong, the play never comes into focus. If you do Hedda Gabler differently than people who've gone before you, no one's going to get confused about who Hedda Gabler is. With a new play, you're giving birth to it, and I was really grateful to have the amount of rehearsal time we had because the difference is in all of the detail.
In all of the time that you had before rehearsals began, did you do anything particular to prepare for the role?
Preparing for this role was different than prepping for others, for sure. For instance, when I played Masha in Seagull, I had to consider that she's from a totally different time period than I am. And she's Russian, and has a totally different way of thinking. So I prepped by studying up on Russian culture and history at that time, reading Chekov...I did all those things. If I didn't I was going to leave something out, something that was inherent in the text. And also since we didn't have as much rehearsal time for that show I felt like I had to do a bunch of work on my own. On this show, Marilyn is American and she's approximately my age, so that was a more familiar place to begin. But, she's from a totally different socioeconomic background than me, and she's very different with her body. She also has different hobbies since she's a dealer...(laughs). So my process for this was more play. A lot of the work was in the room and at night, between rehearsals. One thing I felt was really helpful that John does, is that he breaks down every scene and assigns action to it, so that every line gets some action to it. And we do it in a group, sitting around. And it creates a kind of vocabulary. So you know exactly what I'm doing here and what everyone else is doing here because we talk about it. That was very helpful.
Given the diversity of roles that you've done on both the stage and screen, I'm wondering what your process is for choosing your projects and what criteria you have for future roles.
(laughs) It's a good question...and a complicated answer. Because I'm just getting to the point where I can be pickier about what I do. Up until now I've basically just worked to feed myself and pay my rent! There are different reasons to choose different projects. For instance I did the Nancy Meyers movie, "It's Complicated," and it's been great for my career because doing those kinds of things allows me to do more experimental projects that I usually prefer and are more in line with my artistic sensibility but that don't pay much. I like doing both commercial and experimental projects on stage and screen, but feel like I'm always going to be dancing between those two poles to pay the rent. I see my work on commercial film as a kind of window here and there. And with theater parts-I guess at this point, because I've done enough and I've been noticed enough by critics and the media now, that I have more leeway in that area. In the future I guess, I'm interested in doing more new work and classical roles that I haven't gotten a chance at. But you know, that's one of the great parts about doing a lot of theater in New York - I have a lot of friends here in the theater, a lot of friends who are writers, and there are always surprises that come up all the time.
What has been your favorite project or stand out experience so far?
I think it was probably doing Things We Want at The New Group. I feel very at home with The New Group. They were the first theater company in New York to give me a job so I feel they're kind of my theatrical home. I know everyone wasn't crazy about that play but I loved it. I thought it was so brilliant and you know, sometimes you get lucky and a cast all loves each other, we all got along really well. I also think Ethan Hawke is a really good director. It was also the first time I'd gotten to play someone my own age, which was great.
You are also are a writer. You had one show, Absalum, play in the Humana Festival last year. Word is that you have a couple of other scripts that are awaiting production. Is that true?
Well I grew up in a family of writers and for the longest time I was convinced that I didn't want that kind of life when I was a kid. It's a very lonely profession and you spend a lot of time on your own, in your room alone in the back and I felt it wasn't for me. I'm a very physical person and my body and state of being is important to me. I'm more of the type who is always running around, so acting suited me much better. But then in college I took a couple of writing classes and I really loved them and thought "why am I dismissing this? Just because I want to be an actor doesn't mean I can't write too." So I started taking more writing classes. It was in college in a play-writing class under Donald Margulies that I started my first play which ended up being called Absalom and went to the Humana Festival last year. And I worked on that for four or five years on and off before it was ready for production. After Absalom and the Human Festival, though, it was like a floodgate opened and since then I've just been writing a lot, especially now that A Behanding in Spokane is running so I have a lot of time during the day. Actually, my big writing project now is a new play that was commissioned by MTC, so I can't wait for that to happen. I can't say much at this point, but it's in an early phase where I am just now focusing in on what I want to do. I'm really excited about it.
Thank you! So in addition to the MTC project, I have a handful of plays and screenplays that I'm working on, that have started during my off-times or down times when I'm working on a show. It's funny because having come from a place where I was so opposed to being a writer, I am more protective of my writing projects than I am about my acting. Since I don't depend on my writing projects for my bread and butter, I feel like I don't want anybody producing them or doing anything with them unless it's the right person directing or the right person producing. I'm very lucky because I think that's a luxury a lot of playwrights don't get to have.
In addition to the writing, in what ways has your well known show-biz family influenced your career decisions?
You know, my family is not interested in meddling. Of course, I do think that people hearing my last name before I'd done any work were probably more interested in meeting and giving me auditions than they otherwise would have been. But at this point it's not so much an issue anymore since I have a body of real work behind me. But I do feel like I had a lot of luck in terms of coming from a family where theater and film, artistry, filmcraft and stagecraft are valued and that I was exposed to plays at a really young age and exposed to writing at a really young age and movies at a really young age. I think that that was all beneficial for me, for my education. I also have benefitted from having parents who understand what it takes to work successfully in the industry and were willing to support me in those ways. So I always had that comfort. My parents always told me that they didn't want me to ever be in a position where I was taking a job that was going to hurt my career just because I had to eat. That was a really generous thing for them to offer, and while I've eaten my fair share of only bagels and pizza, I fortunately have never taken them up on it.
A lot of times what gets reported about someone's career are primarily the successes - the parts that you have gotten etc. But for all of those people who are aspiring to get where you are but who are not there yet, what advice would you give to them as a successfully young professional in this business. What were some of the moments you experienced that were challenging that you had to push through to move ahead later on?
Oh God, everyday is hard. I know I shouldn't say it's the hardest profession because there are much harder professions, but in terms of the feeling of it being personal, that rejection is personal, your not getting the job is personal, it's the most brutal thing in the world. It's hard, very hard, not to take it personally when you don't get a role or when you won't even be considered for a role. The first year that I auditioned, I got two jobs and that was enormously hard, so hard for me, especially because I think kids of our generation are taught that ‘you're special, you're special, you're special.' And then you put yourself out there and everyone tries to redefiNe You. All of a sudden other people's opinions are defining you. And when you're in a position where you're not getting any work, the only thing that you have to make yourself feel better is that this casting director said you were good, or that casting director said that you did an awesome job and she can't wait to be able to give you a job. I know that for me, I feel like those were the hardest years of my life, the first year, year and a half when I felt like I just wasn't getting the part. Nobody ever really does have it easy, and I don't think that for actors it ever does get easier. Because once you get to a place where you are regularly booking work or being offered roles without auditioning, you get older and you play a mother part and you feel that you should be playing the daughter part or whatever! You really have to go a kind of glass half-full attitude inside. You have to find some way of protecting yourself from other people talking about you and judging you, otherwise you're not going to make it.
Any parting advice aside from ‘keep at it if you want it?'
You know, sometimes I feel like it's such a fluke when somebody does well. I've always managed to have confidence in myself. So when I wasn't working I thought that I should be working. I wasn't thinking, what's wrong with me? I think that that attitude helped me become more successful, I think that was part of why I ended up starting to work. But I also think that you've got to have something else, it can't all be about "The Job." It's so important to have other things that are important to you in your life, otherwise it'll make you crazy. Acting and auditioning can't be the only thing that matters.
A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE starring Academy Award-winner Christopher Walken and stage and screen stars Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan opened on Broadway on Thursday, March 4 and will play a 16-week engagement through June 6. Directed by John Crowley, the production is playing on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE is Martin McDonagh's first play to originate on Broadway.The design team is comprised of Scott Pask (Scenic and Costume), who won a Tony Award for his set design for The Pillowman, and Brian MacDevitt (Lighting), who won a Tony Award for his lighting design for The Pillowman.
For tickets and more information, visit www.abehandinginspokane.com.