Zoe Kazan On ‘The Big Sick,’ Breakups, And Getting Political
“I don’t want to alienate people whose opinions are different than mine”
When I met Zoe Kazan in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan last week, I reminded her that the last time we spoke was on November 7, 2016. Kazan was balancing promotional duties for her new movie The Monster with some last-second canvassing on behalf of Hillary Clinton. She, like everyone else, expected her candidate to win, so when I bring up our chat on that day, Kazan talks about it as though it took place in some other dimension. "It does actually feel like we entered an alternate universe," she said. "It's like the universe split that night and we just got on the wrong train."
On social media, Kazan has been a vocal opponent of the Trump administration and its policies. But in recent days, the 33-year-old actress has been using Twitter for a different reason: to promote her excellent new movie The Big Sick. The Michael Showalter-directed rom-com was written by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, and it tells the unlikely true story of how they got together and fell in love under extraordinary circumstances. Kazan plays Gordon's character, who falls into a mysterious coma halfway through the film, just after she discovers that Kumail has been keeping their relationship a secret from his Pakistani parents, who've been trying to set their son up with an arranged marriage. Audiences first fell in love with the movie when it premiered at Sundance last January, and Kazan's comedic heroine is a big reason why.
We spoke to Kazan, who has been in a relationship with the actor Paul Dano for 10 years, about the joy of starring in such a well-liked film, being in the same industry as her partner, and her ill-fated HBO project with Lena Dunham.
Does it feel like a miracle when a movie you make is as warmly received as this one?
I ran into Michael Showalter on the subway yesterday, and he said he has never been a part of something that has been so effortlessly loved or embraced by so many people. It feels that way to me, too; it feels extraordinary. I hope people go see it and I hope people bring people who might be less inclined to go to a movie with a brown person at the center of it. I think the movie is coming to the world with arms really wide open, it's not political. I think in this day and age, it's impossible not to read it without a political bent, but it's not inherently political. I had Trump-voting relatives, and I really hope they get to the movie theater to see it.
When you're looking at a script like this one, do you approach it through the eyes of a writer or the eyes of an actress?
Obviously, I don't turn off that part of my brain entirely. I think in a way, my writing brain makes me even more generous toward scripts because I know how hard they are to write. I think I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I read this script, I felt like I'd never read this story before, and that doesn't happen often.
Do you think anyone could have written a script like this if it didn’t actually happen to them?
I don't think anyone would have thought to write this script. It's beautiful to me that [Nanjiani and Gordon] were brave enough to tell their story, and it's a very vulnerable point in both of their lives. I suspect that part of the reason people feel drawn to it is because they are offering such a true part of themselves.
Did witnessing their interactions influence how you approached the role?
They're very loving to each other, and they're really good partners. So I think if their relationship did not seem so solid, it would be harder to step in and third-wheel their relationship for a little while. It's a very weird thing to play yourself opposite a person representing your wife. Kumail was in a much stranger position than I was in. But no, I wasn't taking anything in a mimetic way from how they are with each other, except that she's a very strong person and gives as good as she gets. That quality was in the writing, and in our improv, I tried to keep that spirit alive.
There’s a very explosive breakup scene at the center of this movie. In your experience, do breakups happen suddenly or is it more of a slow burn?
Jesus, I don't know, it's been a long time since I broke up with anyone. I've been in my relationship almost 10 years. I will say that because of that, I was very young when I was doing all of my breaking up, and I don't think I was as responsible as I could have been if I were a real adult.
Because you’ve been in a relationship for so long, do you ever feel like you get to live out this alternate romantic life in your movies, where you’re either falling in love or breaking up with someone?
I will say 10 years doesn't feel that long for me, so it's not like I feel that far away from that period of time in my life. I don't get how 10 years have passed. Also when you’ve been in a relationship this long, I feel like I've been in 10 relationships with him. I will say it is a very odd thing that you can go to work and spend all day making out with someone and that's totally allowed. That's weird, and it does require a sort of compartmentalization that I don't think is good for a human being to have to do all the time.
Is it difficult or easy to be in a relationship with someone who does the same thing that you do? Is there any competitiveness at all?
It doesn't feel competitive. It's different with a sibling, and it's also different when you're the same sex. I'm in the same industry as my sister—she's an actress—and it's not competitive, but it is something to negotiate. With Paul, he's never beating me out for roles. I actually have a lot of friends who are actresses that I'm in direct competition for roles, and I feel like, for everyone’s sanity, we all just decided to not indulge in a lot of competition. We all really strive to be very supportive of each other because it's such a hard industry. So when someone gets something great, maybe you have a moment that's like, I wanted that, but then something else takes over, like joy for your friend. With Paul, I think that it's wonderful that he can truly understand what I'm going through without me telling him. And when I disappear into a role, it's not an issue and vice versa. It's really hard because of the long-distance stuff. We have gone through periods of times where we saw each other four times in eight months, and that's not good for a relationship, period. So I had times where I was like, I would just love it if I had just fucking found a writer and had someone who was just home all the time.
How do you consume your news these days?
I have a lot of newspaper subscriptions because I'm trying to support the journalists that I depend on. So I'm reading the Times, and New York magazine, and the Washington Post, and The New Yorker. I don't watch the news, and I try not to go on CNN. I feel like some of the news websites are trying to scare you, and I try not to engage in that because I feel like my heart rate is fast enough.
Are you on Twitter obsessively, constantly checking the news?
No. I do follow a lot of journalists, and I tried to do a thing with my Twitter post-election where I consciously tried to follow more people outside of my own community. I used to just follow a lot of film Twitter and then a couple of journalists, and now I made concerted efforts to find more people within the LGBTQ community to follow, a lot more women of color to follow, a lot more Muslim people to follow. I thought I could be listening a lot more actively. That has been a wonderful thing for my feed, and it means that I'm just hearing what people are concerned about in a more direct way, and it's made me feel again that I'm in such a privileged position. And when people say to me, "Maybe you shouldn't be using your Twitter for so much political stuff," I'm like, "This is not a risk for me." I'm an upper-middle-class white girl. I can put myself out there in this tiny way if all these people are being brave enough to put themselves out there who are in so much more of a worse position than me.
Have you found Trump’s presidency to be worse than you imagined or just as you imagined?
I wasn't able to imagine it. The thing’s that's probably worse is how much of a callus I've built up already. Not that it feels normal, but that my outrage is...
Not what it was on day one.
Are you happy to discuss politics during interviews?
I don't understand why some of these issues are political. I don't know why it's political to say black people shouldn't be killed by the police, and then them not have to serve any justice for that. Like that seems wrong at a human level, and I don't understand the political stance on the other side. I don't want to alienate people whose opinions are different than mine because I don't want them to feel like I don't think that they don't count as humans. Because I think that is a part of the rhetoric that's being spread on the other side, and it's just not good for anyone to dehumanize anyone else. I have relatives that are Trump voters, and I don't think of them as being non-human. I do think there’s a baseline of protecting each other’s rights. That everyone's divine right to have privacy over their body and not have their body infringed upon by another human. Like thou shalt not kill. Like, it's basic. Feeling like women should have access to health care is basic, feeling like kids should be able to have meals when they're not being fed properly is basic. It doesn't feel political to me.
Can I ask you about what happened with Max, the HBO show you were making with Lena Dunham?
It's never happening. It was shot, but they're never going to make a series out of it.
Was that disappointing to you?
Because of a whole bunch of things, I replaced someone in that role at the very last minute. And so the whole thing just felt like a really exciting wonderful experience, and I didn't have a dream of what was going to happen to it. I was cast and two days later, I was filming. Lena's my buddy, and it was so fun to make something together, and it was unlike anything I've ever done before. I was sad that they didn't pick it up, but it didn't feel like a huge blow. It was a punch I rolled with pretty quickly. At this point in my career, I think I do roll with stuff more easily than I did 10 years ago. Once I turned 30, I felt like a part of me was like, oh, all the career stuff doesn't matter compared to the experience of my life, like who I am as a person, who I am as a citizen, who I am to my family and friends. I don't have a very thick skin naturally so that reprioritization really helped me feel strong.