“I thought my agents were punking me,” Zoe Kazan tells ETonline about her Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie for HBO’s Olive Kitteridge. Initially a surprise to her, the news came while she’s been distracted with filming her first horror film, There Are Monsters, in Ottawa, Canada since the beginning of July. “There’s something extra sweet about how I was completely out of the loop. After I looked it up online -- because I still didn’t believe it -- I was so happy because of what that show meant to me. It was a real benchmark in my life -- it was a red-letter job.”
Kazan says that there are performances that you are more or less proud of as an actor, and that Denise Thibodeau from Olive Kitteridge was one she was really proud of. As quickly though, the 31-year-old actress admits that she’s extremely self-critical. Playing Denise required her to stretch away from herself instead of giving it the signature “Zoe Kazan” stamp that has become a staple of her previous on-screen roles.
“If I could have more parts that are further away from myself it would make me happy,” Kazan says, which is what may have attracted her to star in These Are Monsters. “The character I’m playing is very far away from myself,” she adds with a grin.
Despite this, the actress seems to still carry a bit of “her” from role to role. In many of her recent films -- Some Girls, The Pretty One and What If -- there’s a quirky lightheartedness to her characters, despite the sometimes deeper emotional rifts they are experiencing.
However, Kazan doesn’t necessarily think the assessment is fair, pointing to her stage work as evidence to the contrary. “A lot of the work I’ve done on screen are romantic comedies and dramedies,” she says. “Those kinds of roles are, by design, roles that you play closer to yourself. Most of the work I do on stage is not like that at all.”
Kazan has performed in 10 stage productions over the last eight years and has gotten to play all kinds of different people -- an agoraphobic Mormon housewife with incessant Valium-induced hallucinations in “Angels in America” and a betrayer-turned-Roman Catholic nun in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”
“It’s not that I like doing stage more than film,” she adds, “it’s that I like doing parts that are further away from myself, if given the choice. For a while, [the roles sent to me] were fitting into one kind of part. I tried to make them as different as I could, but you also have to play true to the material.”
Some very true material -- or as close to truth as fans will get without actually being friends with Kazan in real life -- is Refinery29’s new web series, The Walker, about a gay best friend who monetizes his wingman capabilities. Created by Rightor Doyle and co-starring Carey Mulligan and Betty Gilpin, Walker can be seen as another one of her “Zoe Kazan” roles. The series is a fictionalized account of the real-life experiences the three actresses have shared with Doyle. (Although Kazan is quick to point out that Doyle has never been actually paid to hang out with any of them.) “There’s not a person in Walker that isn’t actually in our group of friends,” Kazan offers.
When it comes to friends in the industry, Kazan doesn’t seem to have a shortage -- but she also doesn’t take them for granted. While she and Lena Dunham haven’t collaborated on anything bigger than a quirky web short for designer Rachel Antonoff, the two have become close over the last year.
“One of the byproducts of this business is that you get to meet so many amazing people,” Kazan gushes. “I love making new friends, but as you get older you sort of end up prioritizing old friends. However, in the past year I’ve made three really close friends who are all women in this industry and I feel so blessed. And I don’t mean that in a hashtag-blessed way. I mean I genuinely feel like I had a special guardian angel this year who knew that my boyfriend was going to be very far away and put a lot of interesting women in to my life. Lena was one of them.”
Her boyfriend is Paul Dano, the BAFTA-nominated actor who has appeared in 12 Years a Slave and There Will Be Blood. Together since 2007, the two both appeared in Meek’s Cutoff and later co-starred in the 2012 fantastical love story, Ruby Sparks, which Kazan also wrote.
While acting is Kazan’s first love, she’s pretty sure she would go insane without writing.
“If I’m a jigsaw puzzle,” she muses, “all the puzzle pieces fit when I’m acting. When I’m writing, I have to rearrange. Like I have to take all the blue pieces and put them over there because there’s no place for them.”
Kazan, whose grandfather is the legendary director Elia Kazan, grew up with two screenwriters -- her parents are Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Nicholas Kazan (Matilda) -- who made their own schedules yet worked constantly. “My mother is a writer and I was always aware that her work meant more to her than just work,” she says.
Because of this, Kazan was instilled with a strong work ethic. Following Ruby Sparks, she’s written three screenplays and one play, which was produced by South Coast Rep, and is tapping away at another now in her ever-scarce downtime.
Looking to push herself further, she’d like to direct one of her screenplays, while giving another to Dano to helm. While the couple has shared the screen twice now, their third possible collaboration will be strictly off-camera. Acting together is no longer an option now that they are eight years into their relationship. “Acting together just puts a strain on the relationship,” she explains. “It professionalizes it.”
Or maybe there’s room for too much truth on screen as she looks to her other upcoming films -- the dark comedy, My Blind Brother, opposite Adam Scott, and Our Brand Is Crisis, a political drama starring Sandra Bullock -- to keep peeling back the layers of this under-the-radar Hollywood ingénue.
Watch ET's exclusive first look at The Walker, now playing on Refinery29: