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The exploding Zoe Kazan — on stage and film

Good grades reflect her homework ethic

Zoe Kazan has her first lead role on film in 'The Exploding Girl,' directed by Bradley Rust Gray. Kazan is currently working on Broadway in 'A Behanding in Spokane,' in which she plays a ditzy drug dealer. Zoe Kazan has her first lead role on film in "The Exploding Girl," directed by Bradley Rust Gray. Kazan is currently working on Broadway in "A Behanding in Spokane," in which she plays a ditzy drug dealer. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
By Elisabeth Donnelly
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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NEW YORK — From the art house to the multiplex, actress Zoe Kazan has been breaking out on screen over the past year. Sporting a variety of hairdos and her big blue eyes, she started with “Revolutionary Road,’’ as Leonardo DiCaprio’s sad-eyed secretarial fling, then played Robin Wright Penn’s daughter in “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,’’ the girlish aspiring writer, Gretta Adler, in “Me and Orson Welles,’’ and Meryl Streep’s daughter in “It’s Complicated.’’

She’s been getting noticed on stage, appearing on Broadway and off in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’’ “Come Back, Little Sheba,’’ and “The Seagull.’’ She’s also a playwright, whose “Absalom’’ premiered in 2009 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.

This spring, she’s been typically busy. Kazan’s currently on Broadway in Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane,’’ starring Christopher Walken, and she carries her first lead role on film in Bradley Rust Gray’s “The Exploding Girl.’’ A quietly striking journey into the inner life of a young woman, the film rests on the emotion flickering across Kazan’s face as she embodies Ivy, a college girl home in Brooklyn on break dealing with a distant boyfriend, a maybe-interested friend, and the daily stressors of living day-to-day with epilepsy. Kazan won the Best Actress award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival for the role.

To the untrained eye, it may look like the 26-year-old Yale graduate has a grand plan for her career, but the actress chalks it up to luck. “I needed to get paid so badly when I started working,’’ she says, lounging in the sunny Manhattan offices of film distributor Oscilloscope Pictures. “I got lucky that Sam Mendes wanted to hire me [for ‘Revolutionary Road’] and not the CW.’’ She’s an overachiever. Perhaps it’s in her blood. She’s the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan and the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord.

The film was the result of Kazan not getting a role in another film of Gray’s. She impressed the director with her audition and a sketchbook she made from the character’s perspective. “I liked that she did this extra homework,’’ says Gray, “and was interested in researching the backgrounds of her characters. It’s something I was interested in, too.’’ After that film fell apart, Gray and Kazan started taking walks around Brooklyn, where she would tell him stories, and from those stories, a film was born: “She said she played a character with arthritis in a play and it was one of the physical things that she worked on and researched. I was intrigued by the idea that her character could have a condition, and that could be something Zoe could research as well.’’

Kazan, who speaks in long writerly paragraphs and comes off like your best-dressed friend in impossible heels and a diaphanous forest-green sweater, threw herself into researching Ivy’s epilepsy. “I wanted to represent it honestly,’’ she says, mentioning friends who deal with chronic illnesses like diabetes and lupus, “I wanted someone who was struggling with something like that to say that’s like me, or I recognize that, or to feel heard, rather than to feel misrepresented.’’

She took out books on parenting children with epilepsy to figure out how her character had been raised and what she’d been told, and the care that she’d have to take of herself with eating, drinking, sleeping, and stress. Kazan collected medical information on what happens to the brain during a seizure and looked at videos of people with epilepsy.

“We did two takes of a full epileptic seizure, from the aura to the aftermath of it and becoming conscious again. I didn’t want to have it stick out like a sore thumb, but it’s also out of my ken and I was practicing little bits of it. Finally I was in bed one night, my boyfriend [actor Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood’’] was in the other room brushing his teeth, and I was like, Baby, can you come here? He came in and he had his brush in his mouth, mouth full of foam, and I was like, Watch this, and did one, and afterward he so flipped out. ‘Never do that to me again!’ And I said, Yeah, but did it look real? He said, ‘Yes, it looked real. Never do that to me again,’ foam dripping out of his mouth.’’

“The Exploding Girl’’ fits squarely within what New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott called “neo-neo realism,’’ referring to small films that serve as “an escape from escapism.’’ Examples would include “the recent films of Kelly Reichardt (‘Wendy and Lucy’), Ramin Bahrani (‘Goodbye Solo’), and Gray’s wife and collaborator So Yong Kim (‘Treeless Mountain’). “The Exploding Girl’’ (shot in digital on the RED camera) observes Kazan in the middle of pulsing city streets, hanging out on a Lower East Side rooftop, and languidly, thoughtfully, smoking a cigarette. While they were shooting, Kazan admits that she was “too close to the character’’ to talk about her, but with some distance, she observes, “she’s a person who’s very controlled with her emotions, a person who doesn’t tell her secrets to anybody. She’s a private person. She’s lonely. When I was doing it I wasn’t thinking about any of those things. I was thinking, how do I get what I want in this scene?’’

While they stuck to Gray’s slim script, there was room in the film for shooting on the fly. “I had to be in character a lot of the time to allow that kind of filming to take place. It was a great acting exercise for me. With film, the fun of it is how deep you get to go. The deeper you go, the more rewards you get; the more unconscious your work is, the more surprises there are for yourself.’’

Kazan speaks precisely and passionately about the craft of acting. For her current stage role, as a ditzy drug dealer in “Spokane,’’ which had the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout writing, “I think she’s the best stage actress of her generation,’’ Kazan admits that “it sounds so actor-y of me, but I put all my energy in my feet, and if you put all your energy in your feet, there’s not a lot left in your brain. There’s little things you can do that make you feel stupider immediately; and a lot of it is just in the dialogue, so if she thinks she’s smart and I just play her as really smart, with energy in her feet, the dialogue takes care of the rest.’’

“Spokane’’ runs until June 6, and after that’s over Kazan’s excited to take a break. But what break, really? She has several films in the can: Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,’’ and Josh Radnor’s “Happythankyoumoreplease.’’ She’s working on a second play commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club, and she’s also “started another play and I have three other screenplays I’m working on.’’

Gray sees Kazan having a long career. “She has a really great range. Ivy has such a different persona from [Kazan], who’s charismatic and outgoing. She’ll be playing really old people when she’s old. She’s writing and directing some of her own plays. Hopefully she’ll be directing some of her own stuff, too.’’

Kazan says she does want to direct someday, but she doesn’t know how soon. “Everyone in my family has a massive work ethic, and I do think if I ever stopped working as an actor I would just want to write.’’ So far, what she’s taking away from her wide-ranging films and chameleonic roles is that, “when you’re young, you have to keep your eyes open. Just shut up and keep your eyes open.’’

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