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October 16, 2008

Animating the Underdog in Film and Stage Roles



Zoe Kazan spends most evenings on a Broadway stage these days, but if she didn’t, she might instead be found handing out leaflets for Save the Whales, carrying grocery bags for elderly women or looking for a losing team to console with juice boxes and cookies.

And if she were to meet Masha, the terminally unhappy character she plays in “The Seagull,” she might enfold the mournful girl in her arms and feed her chicken soup. “I feel a need to rescue,” Ms. Kazan said on a recent sunny afternoon in a coffee bar near the apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, that she shares with a friend from Yale.

Even as a child she befriended the outcasts and “broken birds in her class,” she said. When she read “Oliver Twist,” she wanted to adopt and mother the poor orphan. And when another girl bullied her in preschool, she came home and told her mother, “I’m going to teach this girl how to love.”

“That’s my response to being bullied,” said Ms. Kazan, who is 25 and has a pale, heart-shaped face and big blue eyes set off by dark brows.

Her sympathy for the underdog is what attracts her to roles like Chekhov’s Masha, who opens “The Seagull” by saying, “I’m in mourning for my life” – and it may be one reason she plays them so artfully.

In a rave review of the production, which stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that “Ms. Kazan, who just gets better with every performance, tastily brings out the self-lacerating perversity in Masha’s defeatism.”

Ms. Kazan recalled her audition for the director Ian Rickson in a Los Angeles hotel room. When she walked in, two other actresses were already seated, dressed in miniskirts. She was wearing a long black dress and boots. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get this part,’ ” she said. As for Mr. Rickson, after meeting Ms. Kazan, he knew she was well suited to play Masha in the American production. “There can be a lot of pressure on young actresses in today’s culture to represent themselves in certain ways: manipulable, attractive, overeager,” he said recently by phone from London, recalling the audition. Ms. Kazan, by contrast, has “a fierceness of intelligence and independence that’s really important.”

Ms. Kazan, who graduated from Yale in 2005, did not expect to begin auditioning right away. She had intended to continue at the university’s school of drama. Then she met an agent who persuaded her to try acting first.

As it turned out, she never did go to drama school, and her success over the previous year is one that even experienced actresses would envy, appearing in three plays in addition to this Chekhov revival.

In one of them, “Things We Want,” she met Paul Dano, who has been her boyfriend ever since (and with whom she shared some lingering kisses outside the coffee bar that afternoon). Having his support while performing such an emotionally draining role has been wonderful, she said, adding that you cannot play such an addictive depressive personality (Masha is constantly reaching for a glass of alcohol or a vial of snuff) without touching on similar sentiments in yourself.

During that same period Ms. Kazan has also worked on four movies. A fifth, “Revolutionary Road,” which is due out in December, could be her breakout. This Sam Mendes film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Wheeler and Kate Winslet as his wife, April, is a classic story of stifling suburban conformity during the 1950s. Ms. Kazan plays Maureen, a naïve secretary with whom Frank has an affair out of boredom and spite. In the Richard Yates book, Maureen is “a figure of ridicule,” she said, but she was determined not to play that “preconceived notion.” She watched Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot,” and Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment,” to capture their sense of innocent vulnerability and loneliness.

Yes, the name Kazan – the director Elia was her grandfather – has opened doors more quickly for her, she admits, but she maintains that her accomplishments are all her own. When an article about her in The Los Angeles Times provoked a letter writer to claim Ms. Kazan was only getting ahead because of her family relationship, she said: “I felt really hurt by it and bad for the person. It was self-defeating,” as if the letter writer had convinced her of her own inability to achieve without insider help.

Ms. Kazan’s parents, Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan, are both screenwriters, but, she said, they tried to give her a normal non-Hollywood childhood. She had no idea her grandfather was famous until she was 13 and a new teacher asked if she was related to the director. “No,” she replied, “his name is Papou Elia,” Greek for Grandfather Elia.

Only when she came home and related the conversation to her mother did she learn just who Papou Elia was. They watched some of his films, “Viva Zapata!,” “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Tennessee Williams would become one of her favorite writers.)

Self-reliance was the key word in her household. Her parents, did not permit her and her younger sister to watch television, saying the commercials would rot their brains. If she wanted to know something, she said, they took her to the library to look it up. If there was a problem at school, they would talk it over with her but would not traipse down to the principal’s office to fix it. And she and her sister could dress as they pleased, which resulted in her spending a year wearing a pioneer outfit with a bonnet. (She attended a “hippie dippy school,” she added.)

On this afternoon she was wearing red-and-white checked overall shorts, a turquoise T-shirt and red moccasins. Her parents also believe in political engagement, Ms. Kazan said. Before she left for Yale, her father told her that if she got arrested or expelled for protesting, she shouldn’t worry, he would support her.

She is still extraordinarily close to her family. She describes her sister, Maya, as her best friend. “I’m so homesick,” she said earnestly.

The whole family is gathering in New York for Thanksgiving. Ms. Kazan, who loves to cook and often spends her Mondays off in the kitchen, making the recipes that her mother sends by mail, plans to help prepare the holiday feast. She’ll invite some of the play’s British cast members for the American ritual.

To read the complete article, click on the following link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/theater/16zoe.html?_r=1&ref=theater&oref=slogin

RELATED SLIDE SHOW: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/10/16/theater/20081016_KAZAN_SLIDESHOW_index.html

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