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Zoe Kazan: Five Plays in Two Years—and Loving It

About the author:
Growing up in an artistic family can be helpful to a young actor’s career, but Zoe Kazan could change her name to Zoe Smith and she’d still top the list of young leading ladies on the New York stage. Five demanding roles in only two years? Kazan has demonstrated remarkable range in playing a precocious schoolgirl in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a tragically troubled teen in 100 Saints You Should Know, a sexy girl-next-door in Things We Want, the object of a middle-aged man’s obsession in Come Back, Little Sheba and now Masha, the lady in black who’s in mourning for her life, in the Broadway revival of The Seagull. Kazan—the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan and daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord—is something of a chameleon onstage, and her willingness to embrace the dark side of her characters adds to her allure. Amazingly, the 25-year-old actress has also managed to film roles in five upcoming movies, including Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. What have the last two years been like for this talented young actress? Kazan shares the highlights with readers.

Two years ago, interviewed me as a “Fresh Face” for my New York theater debut as Sandy in the New Group’s off-Broadway revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But I wasn’t supposed to be onstage that fall; I had worked hard to get into the M.F.A. program of my choice, to begin that September. Instead, I made the difficult decision to turn down graduate school in the hope of getting work. At the time, I had an agent, but no job in sight.

When Jean Brodie came along, I felt so lucky to be working, and working in the theater. With drama school out of the picture, I knew if I wanted to earn my chops, I needed experience onstage. So I’ve spent 10 of the last 14 months acting in four different plays: 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons, Things We Want at the New Group, the Broadway revival of Come Back Little Sheba, and currently, Ian Rickson’s Broadway production of The Seagull.

Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know came eight months after Brodie. I was 24 and cast once again as a 16-year-old. But playing Abby, an angry girl desperate for love and disregarding of consequences, was anything but easy. I had never done comedy before, or played someone with that much rage. I got some attention for my work in this part, but at the time I felt lost. Luckily, I was working with some of the most generous actors around: Jeremy Shamos, Lois Smith and Janel Maloney. If I was funny or true in that part, it’s because I had my eyes and ears open to the work being done around me.

During the run, I started rehearsing Things We Want. This show was a no-brainer for me: Jon Marc Sherman had written a funny, sexy, heartbreaking play, and Ethan Hawke had assembled a cast that included Josh Hamilton, Peter Dinklage and Paul Dano. Obviously we had a lot of fun I’ll never forget Pete surfing across stage on a chessboard, but the best part was that Ethan wouldn’t let me get away with anything. Women get infantilized or objectified a lot in this business, and—let’s face it—I was wearing a schoolgirl skirt in that show. But Ethan refused to let me use a little girl’s sexuality to play the part. He insisted that I stand up and take responsibility for myself as an adult and as an actor. It changed what I felt capable of doing onstage.

Come Back, Little Sheba was my Broadway debut, which I rehearsed while performing Things We Want at night. For me, the great pleasure of this production was working with two amazing women: S. Epatha Merkerson, rightfully Tony-nominated for her performance, and Brenda Wehle. It’s hard to make a life in the theater; even if you can make a living at it, the schedule is arduous and friends and family can fall by the wayside. Not only are Brenda and Epatha amazing actors, but they are kick-ass women with full lives. I admire them in every way.

I now spend my days and nights at the Walter Kerr Theater, where, after 2.5 weeks of rehearsal, we are mounting Ian Rickson’s production of The Seagull. Even though I’m playing Masha, one of theater’s great depressives, I am, to paraphrase the play, “as happy as a child.” This play is like the most amazing jungle gym, and Ian has set us free to play. Every night the text and my castmates surprise me. Even the audiences surprise me. I never understood why Chekhov called the play “a comedy in four acts,” until after our first preview. Come and see for yourself!

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