The 'Zoe Kazan' Style of Zoe Kazan

Getty Images

“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
. 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. 

WATCH: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan & Their GBF Star in 'The Walker'

“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.

NEWS: The 2015 Primetime Emmy Nominees Revealed!

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
and later co-starred in the 2012 fantastical love story, Ruby Sparks, which Kazan also wrote. 

Getty Images

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. 

WATCH: 'What If' Stars -- Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan -- Reveal Relationship Deal Breakers

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: