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Zoe Kazan on Creating Character and Choosing Costumes for ‘Olive Kitteridge’

Zoe Kazan on Creating Character and Choosing Costumes for 'Olive Kitteridge'

How far back in your rear view mirror is Olive Kitteridge right now?

Like physically, we shot it a year ago. It’s pretty far back there actually, but it was so meaningful to me. Also, we were moving very quickly and every day felt incredibly present tense because of that. So, it was like going into a storm and coming out the other side.

READ MORE: Lisa Cholodenko on Getting Under the Skin of Frances McDormand’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’

How did you first end up talking about the project?

About three years ago now, Frances McDormand did a staged reading of a play of mine, and afterwards she sent me a copy of the book. Just because I think she thought I would respond to it. So, that was when I first read the book. We had very minimal contact but then two years later, I got the script that I was wishing for. I was obviously very interested because of the people involved, but I also immediately responded to what Jane Anderson had done with her adaptation. I just thought it was so brilliant. If you read the book and then look at the miniseries, they’re incredibly different. And I thought she did a beautiful job of lifting out a strong storyline for the miniseries without losing a lot of the character of the book. 

When we spoke to Lisa last week, she also mentioned that the way she got involved was through Frances McDormand. Did you sense, at the time, how much of a passion project this was for her?

Yeah, I did. Even when she sent me the book for my own pleasure, the way that she wrote to me about it was so strong. It was very clear that this was something she was being a doula for. Very actively bringing it into the world.

Did she already have you in mind for this character when she approached you, you think?

I don’t think so. I don’t think it was a formal approach in any way. I think it was because she thought I would enjoy the book. 

How much work did the New England accent take for you?

It was fun. I worked with a really talented woman, who is an incredible dialect coach. I think actually sometimes playing someone with an accent can really take you back, and I found that really interesting to think about — why she talks the way she talks. 

For you as an actor, finding a physical element like an accent, what helps keep you from going into gimmick?

Just trying to be truthful. I don’t know. That’s a big thing with calibrating my performance — I think it was about not wanting to laugh at her. Not wanting her to be a joke of any kind. So, we were protective of her and loving of her and letting her be her own person. You want people to use the tools to engage your imagination so that you can be on the outside, looking at yourself trying to force yourself to look and feel like a different person.

You’ve done both the big ensemble pieces and also the kind of movie where it’s just you as a lead. What’s the difference for you?

I’m going to say something that sounds bad, but I don’t mean it in a bad way, which is that I think that it’s not really about the size of a part that changes the way I prepare. It’s more about what kind of part it is. Sometimes when you’re hired to act in something, you’re really hired to be like a version of yourself. To bring that personality to the screen and be emotionally present. 

But then there are other types of parts where you’re asked to really be a total different kind of person. And that’s the kind of preparation that feels totally different to me. When I am playing a character that does not require me to totally transform myself, then I feel like it’s a lot more about turning up on the day and being really available and just removing from your min d the shackles of needing to be perfect. You can allow for something like that to happen. I do enjoy the latter more because of the challenge. 

There’s a million things to think about beforehand about body and breasts and waist — you have to do more and think about literal things like how deep does she see and why did she learn to walk the way that she did? It expands my imagination in a way that’s more fun for me. It’s just funny to me that there is really different parts that require different things of you and I tend to be more happier or more excited about parts that require more.

Working with Richard Jenkins — he is, of course, a great actor, and the age difference is such an interesting part of your relationship. When you found out you were going to be working with him, what was your initial reaction?

I was so excited. Richard, to me, is it. He’s been what I admire at the very top tier. I can’t say enough about how happy and excited I was. I also felt very relieved — even if I don’t know what I’m doing, Richard is going to make it easy for me and everything will be fine. I was unbelievably excited and honored to be there and get to act with these people. I find the relationship [between her and Richard Jenkins’s character] so beautiful and so special. There was something so pure about it. 

There’s this ongoing question of whether or not  you two would have lasted as a couple, ended up together. Olive thinks of course not. Do you think you would have?

I don’t know. I think it’s really a beautiful thing, about how Henry describes thinking about Denise in the book. And she has this self-knowledge that she’s very Catholic, that if he had left Olive for her, she would never be able to love him. 

We keep talking about the book — in creating an adaptation like this, do you feel like you went more with the book’s interpretation of things than the script?

No, I just think that the book was really useful, because you can only put so much into an adaptation. I talked with Jane a lot about it because she was on set directing during the rehearsal period. I know what Jane’s intentions were in keeping to the book. So, I felt like I could borrow willfully from the book and just fill out a bit of the backstory for myself. There are parts of the miniseries that are very much like the book and there are parts that deviate from the book. But you can use all of that to help inspire you.

Was it fun exploring the fashions of just a couple of decades ago?

It was! Jenny Eagan, who I can’t speak highly enough of, is really smart about character and stuff like that. She and I had a long talk about what the fashion would be for this small town. My part of it is that we felt like she would be wearing a lot of things that would be recycled — she’s 23 or 24, so she would be wearing things from high school or hand-me-downs. Things that don’t cost a lot of money. Also, chronologically this was before the internet and online shopping became such a thing. So we’re looking at more of a late ’70s vibe. 

There’s a fine line because she’s very child-like in a lot of ways and we wanted to honor that but we also didn’t want to go too far in that direction and have it feel weird. We really tried to find that balance.

I almost always feel like the sheer process of finding the character is really there. That’s what I find unbelievably helpful. I’ll say that I know nothing about this character, then I’ll go to the costume fitting and feel like “You’re wrong! I really don’t think she would ever wear this — she would never put anything on that felt flirtatious!” That information can be helpful. 

It’s almost more like casting, than it is shopping.

Yes, I do think of it like that.

There’s a large ensemble, but your part is one element of it. Was there anyone else in the ensemble you wish you could have gotten the chance to work with?
Well, I’m sad — Bill Murray. [Laughs.] 

But Jesse Plemons is also, of course, fantastic.

I love Jesse! Oh god, Jesse! Jesse makes me so happy. I loved working with him. He’s so good at it. I think he’s one of the great actors of our generation. 

READ MORE: Review: ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Continues the Existential Exploration of ‘True Detective’

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