She's the bomb: Zoe Kazan

The up-and-coming actor goes off with a bang in The Exploding Girl.

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You can tell pretty quickly when a young actor—especially one who’s been designated the Next Big Thing—has been coached in the ways of Media Management 101. Zoe Kazan is not one of these people; she is not a stay-on-message type. The 26-year-old will talk about how early exposure to images like Cary Grant carrying Ingrid Bergman down a staircase in Notorious gave her a “big lesbian crush” on cinema. She’ll freely admit to thoroughly enjoying Armageddon (“Really, sometimes you’ve just gotta see Bruce Willis drillin’ the shit out of a meteor”), and will flex her arm muscles, toned from scurrying up a drainpipe she’s handcuffed to, six times a week on Broadway, in Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. Kazan has no problem copping to being pissed off that certain hypocritical celebrities didn’t clap when her grandfather—filmmaker Elia Kazan—received an honorary Oscar. Ask her about the perils of low-budget filmmaking, and you’ll hear a hilarious story involving a boom mike, a small car stuffed with people and a Russian accent.

It’s her ability to convey volumes of information with nothing but a look, however, that’s been Kazan’s secret onscreen weapon, which has allowed her to quietly steal scenes from costars as diverse as Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road), Zac Efron (Me and Orson Welles) and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated). And it’s that loaded, wide-eyed stare that turns her lead role in The Exploding Girl, a little independent film from director Bradley Rust Gray and the undisputed highlight of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, into a compelling argument that Kazan is one of the best young actors working today. Her character, Ivy, is a college student who returns home to Brooklyn for spring break; during her vacation, she’ll listen to her boyfriend slowly break up with her the phone, and hang out with her cute, geeky friend (Mark Rendall). Given that Ivy is epileptic—a fact that’s disclosed very early on—there’s also a ticking-time-bomb element, so that, as her emotional stability starts to crumble, it’s not a question of if so much as when she’ll combust.

Kazan’s involvement with the film began with a failed audition—and a fanboyish memento. “I had auditioned for Brad for another movie,” Kazan says, sitting in the Oscilloscope Laboratories’ downtown offices. “I really wanted to work with him and his wife [filmmaker So Yong Kim, best known for last year’s Treeless Mountain], though I wasn’t really right for the part—we both knew it. Still, I ended up making this sort of collage project for Brad and So, which was like a notebook filled with stuff. 'Hey, I made this for you guys, your project really inspired me....’ Then I didn’t get the part, which only made the whole thing more embarrassing. But a year and a half later, Brad called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. After we’d gone about a block, he asked, 'So, do you want to make a movie with me?’ And there was a pause, and Brad goes, 'Well, okay, I haven’t written it yet...and I don’t know who the character is, and I can’t tell you anything about it. Will you still do it?’”

“Did she mention the notebook thing kinda smelled weird?” Gray laughingly inquires, calling from his apartment in Brooklyn. “The main thing was that she went the extra yard in terms of being actively invested in what I’d written; I knew she’d be into the idea of constructing a character with me from scratch. After she first said she’d do the movie, we’d go for these long walks once or twice a week and talk about her life...I was just familiarizing myself with who she was as a person. And it became a very collaborative effort while I was writing it; she came up with Ivy’s name.”

Her contributions didn’t end there, naturally, since the guerrilla aspects of clandestine filming on busy Fort Greene streets allowed for a lot of off-the-cuff moments, like Kazan’s playful dig about her costar’s shirt while they walked back to their marks. Still, it’s Kazan’s silent, solo moments—the way she stares off into space while sitting on a rooftop, or smiles gently while crushing on someone offscreen—that imbue this intimate character study with such an organic sense of life being captured onscreen. “It isn’t a plot-driven film,” Kazan says. “A lot of the momentum basically starts and stops with how you hold the audience, so in that sense, it’s similar to a theater piece. But I’m just happy to be a part of what Brad, So and these other moviemakers are doing with American cinema right now. It’s so incredibly exciting, and...” She’s about to go on, then stops. Her look of happiness says the rest.

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