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A different role in the family biz

Zoe Kazan, unlike her filmmaker grandfather and parents, makes a splash with her acting.

December 27, 2008|Susan King

When Zoe Kazan was preparing to play saucy young secretary Maureen Grube in "Revolutionary Road" -- the film adaptation of Richard Yates' novel about a young couple (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) trying to change their lives in staid 1955 suburbia -- she had definite ideas about her character's appearance.

"I wanted her to look like she went to Sears Roebuck and bought three suits, two dresses, one pair of heels, two handbags and two pairs of gloves, then moved to New York City and gained 5 pounds," said Kazan, whose character ends up having a romantic fling with the New York corporate drone played by DiCaprio.

"The way I was thinking about her sexuality is that it is all accidental," Kazan explained. "She's not getting dressed up thinking, 'I'm going to be a sexy woman at work today'; it's like she's got this blouse and skirt on, and it's pretty sexless, but it's a little tight in the [butt]. So when she walks by, men look at her, and she's unaware of it. I wanted this woman to be totally unaware."

That the 25-year-old Kazan was so specific about such details isn't all that surprising, considering she comes from showbiz royalty. Her grandfather was Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan ("On the Waterfront"), and her parents are screenwriter-directors Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune") and Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Memoirs of a Geisha").

Nevertheless, Kazan, who grew up in Los Angeles, describes herself as "a little theater nut."

"I would read plays and put them on," she recalled. When she tried out for plays in high school, she realized that she wanted to seriously pursue the craft.

Her parents were a bit worried. "It's a tough life," Kazan said. "They knew that. They were concerned at first, and then when I got older and more experienced and they saw I took it very seriously, then they started to get on board."

Kazan studied acting at Yale and graduated in 2005 with plans of returning there in fall 2006 to attend graduate school in drama.

"I thought I'd have a year to better myself," she said. "So I took acting lessons. I proofread for people to try and make money, and my parents helped me out, to sort of subsidize my life."

She also continued writing her first play, a family drama called "Absalom," which she began her junior year in college. "Absalom" is set to be presented this spring at the Humana Festival at Kentucky's Actors Theatre of Louisville.

But Kazan's career path detoured in early 2006, when she did a play reading for a friend that was attended by her current agent. Though Kazan told the agent of her college plans, "she said, 'Work for us a while.' " Kazan got a tiny role in the thriller "Fracture" and quit her studies.

"I couldn't picture going back to school," Kazan said. "I had just done one job, literally, and I felt I needed to be working right now. I found an apartment and looked for a day job."

But instead of landing a day job, she got a starring role in the 2006 off-Broadway revival of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" with Cynthia Nixon. She made her Broadway debut in January in the revival of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" and was in the Broadway revival of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" with Kristin Scott Thomas, which closed Sunday.

Between theater gigs, she's had small roles in such films as "The Savages" and "In the Valley of Elah" and spent this last summer working on several more, including Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" and Rebecca Miller's "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," which will be released next year.

She was tenacious about playing Maureen in "Revolutionary Road," especially after the casting director initially thought she looked too young.

"I said, 'No, I'm not, I'm 23, I am the same age as my character.' And when she saw me [do a scene], she said, 'You are who we are looking for.' "

Though director Sam Mendes wasn't as sure as his casting director, Kazan said, "I wasn't about to take no for an answer. They let me put myself on tape again when I was in L.A. Off of that tape, Sam wanted to see me again."

But this time, Kazan looked different when she met Mendes. "I had gone in every time, gussied up like how I saw the character," she explained.

"Sam said, 'Just come in as you.' We just talked for an hour. It was really like having coffee with someone. I left thinking, 'I might get this part.' And I did. It was really sort of an amazing experience."

And when it came time to play Maureen on screen, the film's costume designer, veteran Albert Wolksy, helped her find the perfect look. "When I met him, it felt like the best kind of first date," Kazan said, laughing.

"The kind where you show up thinking, 'You are the person I waited my whole life for.' The way he worked with me is that he brought in racks of clothing and sat on a chair and said, 'Tell me what you like and don't like about every piece of clothing.' "


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