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Interview: Crazy for Zoe Kazan

Zoe Kazan
Chris Azzopardi
Written by Chris Azzopardi

The Big Sick actress Zoe Kazan on her new LGBT-resonant rom-com, fair representation in film and shining a spotlight on gay actors

Why aren’t more gay men professing their love to Zoe Kazan?

I wonder this after doing just that. I dote on the 33-year-old film and theater actress – star of Ruby Sparks, Revolutionary Road and HBO’s Olive Kitteridge – like she’s my best girlfriend. Like we have history. Like we sip cosmos and talk about what it was like to play Meryl Streep’s daughter in It’s Complicated.

I don’t know Kazan, but I love that she’s so committed to being the best LGBT ally she can be that she follows me on Twitter after ending the interview by telling me, “I will say, just FYI, if you ever feel like I’m not being the greatest ally, please write me on Twitter. I really do feel like I want to do the best job I can.”

I love her socially-conscious Twitter feed. Love her latest statement film, The Big Sick, based on the real courtship of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily Gordon, and the turmoil it causes when his family discovers Emily is white. I love her longtime boyfriend, the also supremely talented Paul Dano. And when Kazan tells me she wants to shine a spotlight on gay actors and prefers a gay actor play her romantic interest should she ever play a lesbian role herself, I love that too.

“I have never had a gay man profess his love to me before,” Kazan demures, somehow not kidding.

Universal gay adoration is inevitable as Kazan calls on powerful, white, cisgender filmmakers to make a mainstream gay rom-com, and talks about Dano’s onscreen kiss with Daniel Radcliffe and her very human reason for advocating for the LGBT community.

Growing up in Los Angeles, California, what was your earliest connection to the LGBT community?

I think I was really lucky to – yes, to grow up in a neighborhood that was very diverse and inclusive, and to grow up in a family that had those values. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, not as progressive of a time as now. I’m sure children today have it a lot better. But I went to a really progressive school with a lot of gay teachers and that wasn’t treated special or different.

It just… was.

Yeah, it just was. And I had two teachers who died of AIDS in the early and mid ’90s and that was something that was talked about really openly at my school. The school advocated for them and there was a real warmth and inclusiveness. I grew up a bit outside of the reality of the world at large at that point, so when I got into high school – and, again, this was the ’90s – people would be like, “That’s so gay,” and it was a rude awakening.

Is it fair to say that because of your upbringing you’re woke when it comes to gay issues and queer stuff?

It is to my benefit as a human that everyone has equal rights and that gay people are treated with respect in the world. That’s the way in which it feels like my issue too. It matters deeply to me. So, if that’s woke, then I guess so. Not a word I use personally but, yeah, go for it!

In addition to a post regarding gay musician Perfume Genius on your Twitter – 

Oh my god, I love Perfume Genius. Honestly, all I wanted was to go to his concert and Paul didn’t make it happen. It’s a real point of contention in our relationship right now.

Ha! You are socially and politically active on Twitter as well, with posts about Planned Parenthood, feminism and one regarding the lack of acknowledgement about Pride month from Trump and his administration. It seems like this is a part of you even though you’re not gay.

I care deeply about it. Part of that is, as a feminist, I always sort of rankle when people are like, “I have a mother, I have a daughter” – no, you should care about this because of basic fundamental rights for, like, a huge portion of our population. I feel the same way about LGBTQ relations where, like I said, those rights are important to me as a human.

After this administration came into power in November, one of the first things I thought about was actually what happened to gay people under Reagan – the way he ignored the AIDS crisis and how that resulted in so many more deaths, especially in the gay community. And I really felt this thing of, well, yes, our rights recovered from that and our society recovered, but there was a huge cost and not everyone made it. And I thought of that when people were saying, “We’ll get through these four years.” I thought, “Well, not everybody will get through it.” And I think a lot of Republicans think of Reagan as a beaming icon of Republicanism. In fact, during the Democratic Convention, Democrats kept referencing him as being a good example of Republican values that Democrats also shared and I was like, does no one remember the AIDS crisis? He fucked up.

We tend to forget what history told us.

And also what casual bigotry results in. We’re saying that right now with the rise of hate crimes in this country and what happened to that poor Muslim girl (17-year-old Nabra Hassanen was assaulted and killed on June 18 after leaving a Virginia mosque). I know that’s not the direct responsibility of our president, but I am 100 percent certain that the atmosphere of hate that he has engendered set in those man’s actions.

Let’s talk about compassion, and how your new film, The Big Sick, is steeped in it. As a gay man, I found myself completely empathizing with these characters in ways that I didn’t think I would. For you, how do you think the overarching themes of forbidden love and familial acceptance of another’s partners may resonate with LGBT audiences?

One thing that really speaks so much to me about the film is how much Kumail loves his family. He loves them and part of what is dividing them is a generational divide and their relationship with religion. I would guess that a lot of gay people growing up in really religious communities might feel like their religion could be a source of division between them and their families based on what some Christians, for instance, think of gay people. There’s a part of you that feels like they’ll love you no matter what and there’s a part of you that feels like they might excommunicate you from the family. I’m very moved by the scene in which he tells them that he’s not going to leave his family after he reveals himself to them. It feels really potent to me and I’m glad it spoke to you.

When do you think we can have two gay people as leads in a major romantic comedy?

There’s no reason that time can’t be right now. And considering the current climate in this country politically, vis-à-vis Muslims, this feels as risky a movie as a movie with two gay leads. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But Kumail and Emily were brave and told their own story, and a lot of people took a chance on them and got behind them. And they just tried to do the best job they could of telling their story. They weren’t just striving for representation – they had one story they were burning to tell.

I would just encourage everyone out there who is like, “Maybe my story isn’t mainstream enough,” to just do it. Work really hard. They worked on this script for three years before they brought anybody else on. This movie was started because Kumail was at some stand-up thing that Judd Apatow saw him at and Judd came up to him and was like, “Come in and pitch me every story that you have.” And Kumail went in and pitched and Judd was like, “That’s the one.” We need our allies. Especially people in power like Judd – straight, white men. We need them to step up and be like, “I’m gonna help you tell your story.” So to all the dudes out there in power: I think everybody is hungry to see a story that hasn’t been told a million times, and truly there’s no reason that can’t be right now for many more different kinds of people who are traditionally not as represented in popular culture.

Not to put this weight on you, but you did write yourself a lead in Ruby Sparks, so surely you can just make this happen too, right?

(Laughs) I have to say I do think that my mind is turned more toward, “How can I be more responsible in who I’m putting in the spotlight?” Trying to think about casting that way. Trying to think about my writing that way. But I also think everybody’s gotta do it for themselves. I think back to writing Ruby Sparks and it’s crazy to me that at 25, or however old I was when I wrote that, that I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna get it financed, we’re gonna make this film,” without any sense of, “I shouldn’t be raising my voice.” I think a lot of people struggle with that, and it’s hard to do. It’s not easy. It requires a huge amount of hutzpah, but I think it’s more important now than ever.

To speak out on issues?

And to have faith in yourself. One thing that is really hard for me is, I don’t think I give myself full power of what I already know. I will ask for permission or feel I need someone to come from on high. So, I would just stress that there are a lot of ways to get a film financed and there are actually so many people now who are finding ways to do that through creative channels, so don’t wait for someone to do it for you.

If you were to play a lesbian in a romantic comedy, who would you want to cast as your romantic interest?

Robin Wright. I just love her. Or Juliette Binoche. Some beautiful woman of the generation before me. No – honestly, if I were going to make a movie I would probably find someone who’s actually gay. I think in terms of trying to be a good ally you want to give people an opportunity who don’t have the spotlight on them as much and who don’t have as many opportunities. I think that some people are marginalized for whatever reason for their sexuality and I would probably make an effort in that direction.

Speaking of onscreen gayness: Paul famously kissed Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man. As his longtime girlfriend, how much say do you have as to which gay men he kisses on screen?

Very little! And honestly, I didn’t even know they kissed in that. I really didn’t! And then I saw some clips from it and I was like, “Oh, you guys make out.” And he was like, “No, we don’t.” And I go, “Yeah, you do.” He’s like, “But we’re saving each other’s lives!” He said something that made it seem like it was the purest love. (Laughs) It was so sweet. I loved that movie, and I love that scene! Kissing underwater – it’s so romantic.

You have the best taste in rom-coms. What kind of romantic comedies won’t you do?

I have to say that when The Big Sick came along I was really not looking to do another romantic comedy. Like, I’ve done it. Also, it’s not really what I got into acting to do. I love to do parts that feel more transformative to me – much more of what I’ve gotten to do on stage from what I’ve gotten to do on film. Stuff like Olive Kitteridge is where my true hunger lies. So, when they called me and were like, “We have a script. It’s a romantic comedy. They want you to come in,” I read it and was like, “Oh, this is so good.” It felt like a movie I hadn’t seen before.

You know, it’s hard sometimes when you’re a working actor and you need to make a living. Sometimes a script comes to you and you’re like, it’s a little bit sexist, there’s something kind of racist in here, but I guess I can improv around it or I just won’t say that line. But now I have a much harder, faster rule when scripts come to me and the representation doesn’t feel totally great, and around gay issues too. I just don’t want to be an irreverent torchbearer for something I don’t believe in, especially now.

About the author

Chris Azzopardi

Chris Azzopardi

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. He’s also the proud recipient of an “I adore you, daaahhhling!” from Mariah Carey. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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