Frisky Q&A: “What If” Star Zoe Kazan Talks Femininity & Feminism

zoe kazan interview

I guess, in our post-”Harry Potter” world, a lot of people would be really excited when a new movie comes out starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Alas, I am not one of those people.

When I heard about the cast for the new rom-com “What If,” I was more excited about Zoe Kazan. The Yale graduate does things like tweet about Criterion films and how “Boyhood” reminded her of Truffaut’s Doinel stories.  She a star of stage and screen, appearing in shows like “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie,” and films like “It’s Complicated,” “Revolutionary Road” and ”Ruby Sparks.” In fact, it’s “Ruby Sparks,” which she wrote herself, that made me a Zoe Kazan fan — there’s something very badass about writing yourself a lead role in a movie.

In “What If,” Kazan is a leading lady once again, playing Chantry, a young woman with a boyfriend (Rafe Spall) who befriends her cousin’s aimless pal, Wallace (Radcliffe). As their friendship gets closer and closer, Chantry and Wallace both start to wonder whether it’s possible to remain friends when you’ve got romantic feelings. It’s super emotionally realistic in a way most rom-coms usually aren’t.

Earlier this spring, I met up with a bubbly Kazan to chat about “What If,” rom-coms, feminism, and femininity. Our conversation is after the jump:

Why were you interested in “What If”?

I just thought the script was so clever and funny and good. I was relieved to hear Dan[iel Radcliffe] say [that, too], because I’m sure Dan is offered everything under the sun — he was saying that people assume that actors have a million scripts that come to them that are good and that they’re choosing among them, but it’s actually really rare. Once he said that I was like, “Thank you!” It is, it’s really rare to read something that just leaps off the page the way that this did, so that hooked me immediately. It was kind of a no-brainer once I heard about Dan’s involvement and Michael Dowse, the director, coming on.

Between “What If,” “Ruby Sparks” and “The Exploding Girl,” you’ve done some untraditional rom-coms. Is that kinda your niche now or is that just kind of what’s happened?

It’s absolutely just what’s happened. It was definitely not by design. Of course, in an ideal world you’re moving from genre to genre and it just worked out that way.

You wrote “Ruby Sparks.” Are you interested in doing more screenwriting? Can you maybe tell me more about what it’s like for a woman in Hollywood doing screenwriting?

Sure, I think it’s difficult to be a woman in Hollywood, period. There is a glass ceiling, of course, but I also think it’s just a more slippery ladder for executives, for writers, for directors, especially for female directors, and for actresses, too. It’s not an easy world to be in, so you have to sort of be your own champion. For me, writing is an important part of how I keep myself sane, essentially, and I feel lucky that people have given me the opportunity to have my work produced, but I would do it even if no one did that. It’s sort of my outlet.

Do you have any future things that you’re writing that you want to see onscreen?

Yeah, I’m working on a couple screenplays. I just wrote a new play that was at the South Coast Rep in LA and I’m writing another play now. So yeah, I’m doing a lot of writing, but it always takes a backseat to my acting.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so or if not, what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I do consider myself a feminist. I was raised by a woman [screenwriter Robin Swicord, who wrote "Matilda," "Little Women" and other films] who would consider herself a feminist, so I think I was given certain values from a really young age about equality and about thinking of yourself as an equal, trying to give yourself equal opportunities. … I think it’s hard [to be a girl] when you’re young and I think it’s hard when you’re older, and it’s hard to know always what kind of woman you want to be. I was very disappointed to see the thing about Shailene Woodley saying that she’s not a feminist because I feel like she really is a feminist. I think that the [negativity associated with the] label discourages some women from calling themselves that. I think saying that you’re a feminist is a little bit like saying that you’re a humanist, because what it’s really about is equal opportunities and equal thinking about genders being only a part of your identity rather than something that would define you and define your character. …  I had a hard time when I was younger sort of reconciling my feminism and my femininity.

Yeah, I think navigating traditional femininity can be complicated for feminists. 

I’ve always been a very feminine person, I’ve always loved pink and My Little Pony and things like that. You know for the “Ruby Sparks” press, I wore a Hello Kitty Band-Aid for awhile because I had really hurt my elbow doing a scene in a movie and I had this nasty open wound. So I had bought these Band-aid to make myself feel better about having to change my Band-Aid so often. And I got criticism for it! I felt like, Who are you to tell me what my feminism means to me? Just because I wear a skirt doesn’t mean that I am inviting rape and just because I wear a Band-Aid that has a cartoon character on it doesn’t mean that I’m infantilizing myself. There’s a way that I feel like it’s sort of like blaming the victim to label someone else for them, which I guess means that I shouldn’t say to Shailene Woodley that she is a feminist. But when I think about her movie choices and things, I think, Well you’re doing a lot for feminism even if you aren’t a feminist.

It’s refreshing to hear you say all that, because I ask this question to pretty much every actress that I interview, and you’re actually one of the few who has, in, like, five years of interviewing celebrities, ever really said all that.

Really?

Most people say something to the effect of they believe in women’s equality but they don’t call themselves feminists.

Oh my God, that makes me so sad. That makes me really sad. … Yeah but it’s really fucked up. I think that’s fucked up. I’m sorry, I really do.

No, I agree with you.

You should come see the play I’m working on right now. I’m doing a play at Manhattan Theatre Club that is called “When We Were Young and Unafraid.” [Performances run through Sunday, August 10th in New York City] It’s a new play and Cherry Jones stars as a woman who runs an underground shelter for battered women in 1972, pre-Roe vs. Wade, and it’s kind of about feminism in action. … I play a woman who needs shelter, who is in jeopardy. But it’s really cool to be in this play that actually talks very little about feminism, but is really all about feminism in practice and the ways in which, so many women don’t [know] the ways in which they’re marginalized.  That’s part of why I think people need to be educated and that’s why it’s important to call yourself a feminist [regarding] things like equal pay that people talk about, but also the really simple thing of, like, every woman walks around the world with the danger to be raped. There’s all kinds of violence that’s perpetrated against us from images in the media to the way that dating is talked about … I think we really need to recontextualize the way we think about gender roles.

Well, that was kind of another thing I wanted to ask you. You did “Ruby Sparks” with your boyfriend, Paul Dano. Did you notice that reporters or interviewers were asking you different types of questions than him?

Yes, but I did write that movie, which feels different. … I mean, I think that the parts for men are more interesting for the most part than the parts for women. I mean, you asked me earlier why I did so many romantic comedies. That’s sort of the parts that [are available]. If you don’t want to be the girlfriend in something, the parts that I’ve found that were interesting that were available to me, yeah.

So, it sounds like theatre may have better roles for women in general.

Yeah, theater’s given me the opportunity to do more transformative work ,which is really why I wanted to become an actress in the first place. And also I just did this HBO miniseries [“Olive Kitteridge”] this year that Frances McDormand is producing and starring in. I loved doing that because I also felt that I got to do something more character-based. That’s why I like to act, because I want to play people that are different from me. Which is, it’s fun to do a movie like “What If,” because it’s a great job and everybody’s so nice and I really like the movie, but it’s just not as challenging as an actor. So, to try to balance that out and to find things that are more challenging has been difficult.

Can you talk more about “Olive Kitteridge”? Are you allowed to?

I don’t know! I really loved making it, it was so great. It’s a very special book, people love that book, and the adaptation is really great. Jane Anderson did it, who’s a really great writer and I think Fran optioned it for herself.  I mean, she’s my idol, and getting to work with her was wonderful.

“What If” is in theaters beginning August 8th! Find out more at WhatIfMovie.com

Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter!

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