Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano are the stars of Ruby Sparks, a clever love story about, among other things, identity and the balance of power in relationships. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Ruby Sparks opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.
Dano plays Calvin, a novelist who imagines and then writes about the girl of his dreams. One day, that girl shows up at his house. He has willed her into existence.
Ms. Kazan plays the girl, Ruby. Kazan, 28, wrote Ruby Sparks; she and Dano are a couple in real life, too, so in some ways there may be art imitating life around here. The couple was in Toronto recently to promote Ruby Sparks, and Kazan talked about working with her partner.
For one thing, she's aware that real-life couples often have no chemistry together on the big screen, because, "There's very little tension there," says Kazan, "And we'd been together four years then, five now, and you don't have that butterfly feeling any more. You have other, deeper feelings, but that first frisson isn't there in the same way."
Making sure that first rush of love in a new relationship was apparent for Calvin and Ruby, she says, involved acting exercises for her and Dano.
"We did a lot of little tricks, like, we didn't allow ourselves to touch each other on set. The little things you do -- leaning into a shoulder or putting out a hand -- we didn't let ourselves do that, so I think that built up a little longing between us, and I think that helped bring it up to the screen."
Kazan is the daughter of two screenwriters (Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord) and the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan. She grew up, not surprisingly, very interested in storytelling and quite sure she'd be a writer when she grew up.
"Then when I went to high school, I auditioned for a school play and my life totally changed. I did a complete 180 and became obsessed with acting and wanting to be an actor. And I stopped writing altogether."
She went on to roles in such films as The Savages, In the Valley of Elah, Me and Orson Welles, Revolutionary Road, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, It's Complicated and Meek's Cutoff. She also appeared in theatre, starting professionally in an off-Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Kazan made her Broadway debut in 2008 in Come Back, Little Sheba.
Kazan rediscovered her interest in writing in college, when the Yale graduate took a poetry course with Sandy McClatchy. "McClatchy was awesome, and I started to feel maybe I still loved to write, so I took a playwriting class and that's where I started my play (Absalom) that ended up at the Humana Festival -- my first produced play. That reawakened something in me. I still don't think of myself as a writer. I love writing, and I feel compelled to write, but it's not a part of my identity in the same way."
Moments later, she adds, laughing, "I think that's a way of taking the pressure off myself."
As for that gilded family history, Kazan says it wasn't like that growing up. All her friends' parents were in the business, and her perception was that it was hard work. "It didn't seem as if there was anything glamorous about it. And I think that was one big advantage, that I never had any romantic idea of what it meant to work in Hollywood or this industry. I thought of it as a kind of workmanlike place."
The understanding that her last name had clout came later. "It wasn't until my grandpa got his honorary Oscar, and then there was a big brouhaha about that ... I mean, I knew who he was in a larger sense, but it never had any impact on me until then.
"The nice part for me, the time it's something special, is that I had the example of having parents who made their living doing something creative."
Did Paul Dano know his actor girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, was such a great writer?
The actor, 28, says, "We met doing an off-Broadway play about five years ago, and she was writing plays at that point and I read some of them and thought they were very good. I was very impressed," says the star of Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. "We weren't totally 100% dating yet, and I remember having that impression and thinking, 'Oh, s---, this girl can write.' So, yes and no, I knew. You know, one thing is that Zoe continually surprises me, which is a great thing, so I'm not saying I expected her to write such a great script ... but at the same time I felt I was probably one of the only people who did know she could do that."
Dano, an actor since childhood, says of Ruby Sparks, "One of the hardest things for me, as an actor, is that a lot of the time you're not creating your own work. So it was gratifying to be a part of generating this film, doing it in a way that we could make the film we wanted to make."