In the thick of awards season, “The Big Sick” star Zoe Kazan maintained the kind of multi-tasking she’s known for. In this case, that meant stumping for the Michael Showalter comedy, while also preparing for the New York city premiere of her latest play, “After the Blast.” Kazan is no stranger to juggling projects, but the timing of these two very different obligations was still ambitious, considering that both projects resulted from years of work and personal investment.
A veteran of the film industry at just 34 – her film debut was the 2003 feature “Swordswallowers and Thin Men,” which she starred in two years before graduating Yale with a degree in theatre, and that’s to say nothing of her familial pedigree, which includes a pair of directors: mother Robin Swicord and grandfather Elia Kazan – Kazan is usually looking for something new. Her current slate speaks to that variety: she’s got the Lena Dunham-helmed feature “Max” in the can, she appeared as James Franco’s wife in HBO series “The Deuce,” and she’s prepping for the Coen brothers’ much-hyped Netflix series, “The Battle of Buster Scruggs.”
Still, there was at least one thing she wasn’t interested in doing again: another rom-com. Then came “The Big Sick,” which she would end up having more in common with than she could have ever expected. Kazan knows from rom-coms, having starred in a slew of them in the last decade, including Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated,” Josh Radnor’s debut “happythankyoumoreplease,” Michael Dowse’s “What If,” along with little-seen others, including “Some Girl(s)” and “The Pretty One.”
“When my agents first called me and were like, ‘There’s this romantic comedy,’ I was like, ‘Not another romantic comedy, I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I’ll do anything else,'” she said with a laugh. “I’ve had enough of that. I can’t pretend to fall in love with someone again.”
Then she read it. “It was wonderful,” she said. “I’ve never seen this before. I want to be in that room. I want to be with those people. The whole thing has just been a big surprise for me.”
One surprise? Its backstory. Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film tracks the pair’s real-life romance (with, of course, some creative license), one marked with cultural clashes between their different families, professional stresses, and the life-threatening illness that nearly killed Gordon early in their courtship. “Silicon Valley” star Nanjiani was on board to play the big screen version of himself, and he and director Michael Showalter were looking for someone to play Emily. It was a tall order, and a personal one.
Kazan could relate to the creative impulse behind writing herself into a screenplay. She produced her first one, the off-kilter rom-com “Ruby Sparks,” alongside her long-time partner Paul Dano, and the pair also starred in the film together. A nifty spin on the manic pixie dream girl trope, the 2012 film provided plenty of proof of Kazan’s unique worldview and her ability to turn even the most expected of stories into something fresh. Yet working with her real-life boyfriend on a movie about a romance – even a fictional one – came with its own awkward surprises.
“I know that that was very tense for Paul and I, because it put our relationship on display in a way that we should have anticipated, but didn’t really,” she said. “When you’re so enmeshed in making something together, in a way the boundaries between your work life and your personal life disappear. After we had brought ‘Ruby Sparks’ into the world, of a sudden we didn’t know what to talk about at the dinner table.”
She wondered if something similar might be in the cards for Gordon and Nanjiani. “Once I met Emily and I saw the two of them together I was like, ‘Wow, this is an enormous thing to be so vulnerable with,'” she said.
Her fears were quickly assuaged, however. “Just watching the way that they’ve taken care of each other, and taken care of their relationship, and taken care of themselves and this very odd thing of putting their life into fiction, I’m so impressed with them,” Kazan said. “I feel so lucky that my life got sewed up with theirs in this way.”
The actress was also taken with the freedom the pair afforded their collaborators, and found both Nanjiani and Gordon to be extremely open to the input of others, including Kazan, Showalter, co-stars Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and producer Barry Mendel. Despite the personal nature of the story, the knew she could make the role her own.
“I think one of the ways in which Kumail and Emily were very generous in writing this story is that they did end up writing it away from their own individual experience,” Kazan said. “That conversation of like, what is ‘true’ and what isn’t? There are many, many things in the film that aren’t factually what happened in life.”
She added, “That is tremendously vulnerable and tremendously generous. When I showed up and saw that they had their arms open like that, it made me open my arms too, and put a piece of myself into the film.”
The film was an immediate hit at Sundance, sparking a bidding war with Amazon emerging as the winner, thanks to a hefty $12 million bid. The film hit theaters in June, thanks to a deal with Lionsgate, and has so far made over $40 million just in ticket sales, good enough to land it a spot as one of the year’s highest-grossing indies. It’s emerged as Amazon’s best hope for an awards contender, so far landing nominations from SAG, the Independent Spirits, the Gothams, and the Critics Choice Awards, which singled out Kazan for a Best Actress in a Comedy nod.
“I’ve made so many independent films,” Kazan said. “I’ve made films that I’m very proud of, that didn’t get this kind of reaction and attention and accolades and love. I feel like it’s all icing at this point, because the real thing is that we made something that we’re really proud of, and that feels like it’s good for the world or something.”
Kazan takes her time with her projects (she estimated that “After the Blast,” which opened in October, took about four or five years of off and on work before it was ready to be staged) and often finds that a prolonged creative period allows her to dig even deeper into the more personal side of the story. While “After the Blast” hinges on a handy bit of stagecraft – set in a post-apocalyptic future, it features a fully functional robot character that steals the show – Kazan’s emotional connection to the story roots it in the kind of honesty she’s known for both in her performances and her writing.
Kazan’s next big undertaking will likely benefit from what she learned from both “Ruby Sparks” and “The Big Sick”: a new film made alongside Dano. The actor made his directorial debut on the family drama “Wildlife,” an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 book of the same name, which will debut at Sundance next month, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan.
When the actor-turned-director fell in love with Ford’s story about a broken family, he told Kazan he wanted to turn it into his directorial debut, though writing the script wasn’t originally in the cards.
“Then, he was unemployed and I was employed. He started looking at the book and said to me, ‘I think I want to take a stab at adapting it myself,'” Kazan remembered. “I was like, ‘Yes, do it.’ Then he did, and he gave it to me to read, I was like, ‘This is not a screenplay.’ It was hilarious to me, because he’s read so many screenplays. I don’t know what he thought he was handing me, but it was a treatment, basically.”
The pair soon began working on the script together, trading drafts and picking up the work when they were between acting jobs, often setting it aside for months at a time. “In some ways, I think our writing process would have been a lot shorter if we didn’t both have other jobs that we had to do, but I think it also helped give us some perspective,” Kazan said.
With the film just weeks from premiering, it’s one more project Kazan can cross off her growing list, one still dominated by the awards season expectations of “The Big Sick.”
“I backburner things for a long time,” Kazan admitted. “It’s like putting a magnet in my imagination. For a number of years, little filings will accumulate for that magnet. I’ll overhear a conversation, or I’ll read an article, or certain kinds of thought gets attracted to that thing. Eventually, the magnet is full and then I write it. I’ve got a bunch of them right now…This is the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to look at all the other little magnets in my brain and be like, ‘Who else is ready? What’s next?'”
“The Big Sick” is currently streaming on Amazon and available on home video.