Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
July 23, 2012
Some have asked Zoe Kazan why “Ruby Sparks,” a comedy/drama about a male author who considers if and how to change a character he writes and then comes to life as his real girlfriend, doesn’t feature a female writer controlling a man.
“That holds no emotional weight for me,” says the movie’s 28-year-old star and first-time feature screenwriter. “I’ve never felt in a relationship like I was the one with the daydream. I’ve always felt like they had a daydream of me and I was somehow trying to live up to it or fulfill it or dispel it so they could see the real me.”
In the film opening Wednesday, fiction blends with reality as Kazan (“It’s Complicated”) stars as Ruby, a novelist’s character who jumps off the page, and Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) stars as Calvin, the writer who can’t believe the creation he fell in love with has appeared for him to love for real. He then struggles with the realization that if he changes her on the page, she’ll also change in reality. The movie, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of “Little Miss Sunshine,” intriguingly focuses on a relationship far more complicated than that of the usual romantic comedy, which Kazan says often involves male characters who hate the female characters or a woman who is “hell-bent on marriage.”
At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a barefoot Kazan (daughter of Oscar-nominated “Reversal of Fortune” screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and granddaughter of Oscar-winning “On the Waterfront” director Elia Kazan) hops onto the couch and talks about projecting romantic ideals onto a partner, the meaninglessness of the word “quirky” and never considering that Ruby, like some other fantasy creations that come to life in a movie, would go crazy and kill everyone.
Do you think men or women would be more likely to want to take advantage of an opportunity like this, to change their partner?
I think it’s hard to live with someone else. I think it’s hard to love someone truly and to accept them really for how they are. There’s a kind of cliché of women bitching about their husbands or men bitching about their wives, but that difference, that friction I think is part of what makes loving someone interesting. Even if people would change the person that they’re with, I don’t think that they would ultimately like it.
Why is there this fantasy, particularly in movies, of the ultra-quirky girl? I was wondering if the movie would take it to a place where Ruby was so quirky Calvin became irritated with her.
Yeah, I think that’s the broad comedy version of this movie. I was more interested in when you meet someone and you feel attracted to them, you project a lifetime of your romantic ideals onto them. As you get to know them, you have to reconcile that idea that you first had with who the person actually is. And if you’re going to love them, you have to learn to love the real person and not the idea. That’s sort of more what I was interested in. And certain things about Ruby when you first meet her, her sort of mercurialness … or for instance, she’s really independent. It’s one of the things he likes most about her when he meets her—when he invents her. But I think for him it feels like she’s separate from him from the beginning. And then as their relationship progresses her independence becomes threatening to him. And I think that that’s actually a really normal thing. I know it’s happened even within my own relationship now with Paul.
In what way?
I’m a really physical person. I’m really touchy. And it was one of the things I think Paul really liked about me is I’m warm and I’m affectionate, and I think that was different than how he is maybe naturally and he really liked that. And now I think it can be irritating to him to have me be warm and affectionate with other people and he sort of wants that all to himself. And it’s something that we’ve discussed and is a thing in our relationship. But I say to him, “You have to love that part of me” because that was one of the things he first fell in love with. You don’t get to pick and choose. I’m not so interested in addressing the manic pixie dream girl thing. It was more about what happens when you have to reconcile yourself to the real person.
Paul said he’s seen the “SNL” skit, “Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel.”
It is funny, and I’m interested in that line when someone might stop being drawn to someone when they become so—
But she’s not so quirky. I don’t really know what that word means. And I don’t think of Ruby as a quirky girl. She’s an individual person. I’m not conventional looking, and I don’t dress conventionally, but I don’t think of myself as quirky. I have really specific interests and ideas and personhood and I think that word is a dangerous word. Part of the reason that skit is funny is that it’s actually making fun of hipsters. But it’s funny because it’s vague; you can put a lot of things under that rubric.
When you were younger, did you have an imaginary friend, and do you have any favorites as far as people, animals or robots that have come to life onscreen?
[Laughs] Oh my god! That’s such a great thing. Well, I love the movie “Splash.” I re-watched that recently; I don’t know that it holds up.
Well, it’s just a little bit more for kids than I thought it was. “Big” is probably my favorite in the genre of magical realist twists. I love that movie. Or “Groundhog Day.” But in terms of things that come to life onscreen, I don’t know, I love Jude Law in “A.I.” I think he’s really amazing in that movie. I love “Harvey.” I don’t know. What about you?
I don’t know. The most recent is “Ted,” which I would not chalk up as much favorite. But it’s interesting to realize how often it happens.
“Labyrinth.” Because it’s a doll that’s the inspiration for David Bowie.
I guess frequently it’s done in a horror context.
Yeah, exactly! “Labyrinth” is good.
Was there any thought then of having Ruby go nuts and kill everyone?
[Laughs] Wow, you keep bringing up these alternate versions of the movie! No, that never occurred to me! What’s the movie with Chuckie?
Yeah, I saw that a couple years ago. That scared the [bleep] out of me.
With a lot of movies, including “Ruby Sparks,” people’s reactions tend to say a lot about them. I saw a Huffington Post review that claims the movie is a male fantasy, while you say, and I certainly thought, that the movie recognizes the difference between male fantasy and reality and that you’re not in control of other people.
Well, I don’t mean to be an asshole, but I think there’s a part of me that’s like, “Oh, I’m never going to reach that person.” This movie is not for that person. Because I think it’s really, for me it’s so clear how this movie is critical of that male fantasy. I think the movie takes responsibility for it, especially with how far it pushes it. I feel like we go to a really rough emotional place. Here’s the thing is that I think in order to dispel misogyny you have to address misogyny. To act like it doesn’t exist, like men wouldn’t do this--and I’m not saying this movie’s about misogyny--but you know what I mean. There’s no way to address something without in some way taking it on. … I think we all start with an idea of the other person but that very particular male fantasy of a girl, I think it’s, to me it’s beautiful. It’s something I’m interested in. For instance looking at a movie like “Annie Hall,” that movie’s so beautiful but there’s also a part of me that’s like, “What is her internal life? What is she feeling?” It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m not critical of it; I just think that I’m trying to address that head-on. If someone like that woman really misunderstands it, I’m not responsible for her misunderstanding.
Is there anything in pop culture that grates on you when we do see the male fantasy fully encouraged?
I don’t have a soapbox. The only thing I don’t like is the fact that I think people weirdly dismiss feminism. Girls will say, “I’m not a feminist,” and I think, “Yes, you are.” You enjoy the right to vote and you don’t want your husband to make all your decisions for you.” There’s some way that that has been branded as a bad thing or a strident thing. And that’s bad. [Laughs] That’s bad for men and for women. People need to take responsibility for themselves, and whether you want to call it feminism or whether you want to call it humanitarianism, we have to stand up for ourselves. I don’t know. I’m not like a sexual politics soapbox kind of girl. I hate talking about it because it makes it sound like I’ve written a movie with a message and I don’t feel like I have, but I am trying to take some of this stuff head-on and make it textual and not subtextual.
Why do you seem to like writing about dysfunctional families, or just the relationships between families?
I don’t know. I think that having to love someone, being required to, or being you’re stuck with them no matter what, the idea of that of how hard it is to feel intimate. I always think disgust is just on the other end of love. They’re so close. I just think that challenge is interesting to me for whatever reason.
You have movies coming up that you made with Joss Whedon and Neil LaBute, both very renowned writers. How did they influence you?
This is so embarrassing; I grew up really without TV so I never watched “Buffy.” And the only stuff of Joss’ that I’ve ever seen is really in recent years like “Avengers.” So I really like him as a person and I admire what his project is, I like this kickass girl thing he has going on, but I don’t really know very much about the Whedon-verse. And Neil LaBute is such an interesting writer to me. I did “Bash” in high school and I always read his plays and find them so interesting. I thought “Reasons to Be Pretty” was just amazing, but he’s so different than the way that I see the world. We couldn’t see the world in more opposite ways. I wouldn’t even know how to be inspired by him, except that I think he’s a really good writer and I find him really interesting.
When did you and Paul start dating, and how do you solve the stress that comes from being together every second of the day when working together?
I don’t know how you solve that. I think we just had to get through it. I think we wouldn’t do it quite this way again. I am now really grateful that we did because it’s really I think bonded us to make this thing together, but it was definitely a challenge. We started dating in the fall of 2007 so almost five years ago, and we’ve lived together for like three and a half years.
What do you mean you wouldn’t do it this way again?
I mean, we’re really proud of this movie, and I think we want it to stand on its own, so I don’t think we’ll act together again for a really long time. And I think if we do we probably won’t act in something I write again. I would love to write something for him and just have him act in it or have him direct it or write something that he helps produce because he’s got a really great mind for that. It’s too hard. Not too hard, it’s just a very special situation and I feel like it would just be repeating ourselves to try to do it again.
On the Pitchfork Music Festival, which ended the day before the interview: “I knew that a lot of the acts that I had wanted to see had already played. Like Hot Chip and stuff like that. They had already played by the time we got here. And the Taste of Chicago was here yesterday. To tell you the truth, we were so burned out we were like, “Let’s just walk. Let’s just go to Millennium Park and walk.”
On writing for the sake of making Paul Dano do certain things: “People think of Paul as being sort of a dark guy because he’s played all these parts. I mean, you’ve talked to him. He’s a funny guy; he’s got a really dry wit. He’s very adept with his body, so some of the physical humor stuff, just creating opportunities for him to be funny and to show that side of him, that was definitely on my mind.”
On Twitter: “I have a Twitter; I don’t use it. I can’t bring myself to use it. They were like, ‘you really should have one,’ so I got one. And then I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m never going to be the kind of person that can use this effectively,’ so I stopped using it.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “Oh my god, there’s so many. I’m such a junky girl. I love ‘Clueless’ and ‘Mean Girls.’ I’ve probably watched those 100,000 times. I love the third ‘Batman’ movie, ‘Batman Forever,’ the one with Val Kilmer. I know that movie isn’t good. I think it’s because I grew up with no TV and for a little while every summer my parents would take us to Washington State, and for a while the only movies we had there were ‘A League of their Own’ and ‘Batman Forever.’ I loved both of those movies. Oh, and ‘Groundhog Day.’ Those three movies. And so I probably have watched that movie 50 times.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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