As we meet in a well-appointed corner of London’s Soho Hotel, it’s clear this is the perfect time to talk to Zoe Kazan about her new movie. “I’m halfway through my day” she confides cheerily, having warmed up with some early interviews but not showing any signs of ‘press fatigue’. There’s also never been a better time to meet her, career-wise. For years the versatile actor and writer has found success in films that put a different spin on relationships – What If, happythankyoumoreplease, and as the title character of Ruby Sparks (which she wrote with her boyfriend Paul Dano). However, her new film, The Big Sick, seems to be a breakthrough both personally and for mainstream cinema as a whole.
Kumail Nanjiani stars as a man of Pakistani descent who falls in love with Emily (Kazan), a white American woman. Kumail’s anxieties about what his traditional family will think of the relationship causes a rift. However, when Emily suddenly falls into a coma, the bond he forms with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) reminds him of why he fell for her. “I really fell in love with it, I’ve never read anything like it before,” Kazan says of the script, written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. “That is so rare; it really made me want to be a part of it.” An added plus was the involvement of a cast of acting veterans. “When Holly Hunter got cast, I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be lucky enough to be able to work with her’, she’s been my hero forever.”
The film is based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s own experiences as a couple and, as such, Kazan has the added pressure of playing a real-life person who is watching her on set, acting opposite her husband. Some performers may have found that intimidating, but the California native shrugs philosophically. “To be totally honest, being an actor in general is a very strange profession,” she says with a grin. “I think I’m used to suspending my disbelief, so it was actually not that strange for me. I also think Emily and I were very simpatico from the moment we met… instead of having something that divided us, it was like ‘OK, she’s mine, I’m hers, I’m helping represent her in the world, she’s helping me represent this character. We’re both going to be the guardian of this character, and we’re going to work this out together’.”
The film’s husband-and-wife writing team reflects her own experiences working with Dano. “I think, honestly, we’re very alike in what our work means to us,” she says of their 10-year relationship. “So when we’re united working on something, it doesn’t matter that we’re talking about work, because we’re still in touch with our relationship. It’s harder when, say, Paul’s doing War and Peace in Russia and Lithuania, and I’m shooting films in the US and couldn’t visit for long stretches of time. That’s a lot more taxing on the relationship than writing something together or acting in something together.” It’s not necessarily a long-term arrangement, however. “I always feel like we’re never going to do it again! I’m always like, ‘This is the last one!’” she says, chuckling. “I’m not seeking to be in a professional relationship with my partner. I want to protect our privacy; I want to protect our ability to be intimate with each other.”
In America, The Big Sick has been getting Film of the Year-level reviews (currently 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) and has defied the Hollywood blueprint for a successful movie. Kazan smiles modestly when asked about the reaction, and credits audiences embracing a new type of story. “I know as a movie-goer, I’m really tired of seeing the same thing over and over,” she says. “So when a movie comes around like Moonlight for instance, or if you see the success of Get Out this year. Both of those movies I felt I’d never seen before, and I think audiences show up for those movies.”
The film has also been praised for its positive portrayal of Muslim identity, and for featuring strongly written female characters – both rarities in mainstream cinema. “The important thing is telling stories about women who are older, about actors of colour, about people from all walks of life, religious backgrounds, and cultural backgrounds,” she says with enthusiasm. “The culture is richer, and we as people are better for having those stories told.”
Despite these successes, she recoils when asked if successes like Wonder Woman represent a turn in the fortunes of women working both in front of and behind the camera. “No, I don’t think it’s a turn,” she replies sternly. “If you look at the statistics it’s not better, it’s much worse than it was 20 years ago. There are far fewer movies above a certain budget with a female lead. Another of my favourite films from last year was Arrival, it was such an interesting film and the only guns in it were fired off screen. It reminded me of films like Contact that I grew up watching with a strong female lead, where her being a woman was not ignored by the narrative and it was not the point of the narrative either. So I hope studios take the successes of these films to heart. I fear they won’t.”
While The Big Sick will no doubt be the highlight of Kazan’s onscreen work this year, the 33-year-old has a number of exciting writing projects on the horizon. On stage she has written off-Broadway production After The Fall, opening in October. There’s also big-screen drama Wildlife starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan – another collaboration between her and Dano, who also directs. “He’s in the editing room now and watching him do it made me feel like it was much more possible for me to do it too,” she says when asked if she wants to direct herself. “But no plans right now.” Indeed, with all her current success, Kazan can be forgiven for not rushing any plans and enjoying the moment. “We’ve all been grateful to audiences [for embracing the film],” she beams. “It’s expensive to go to the movies, especially people with families, having to get a babysitter. It’s a big deal. It means a lot.”
The Big Sick is released in the UK on Friday.