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Broadway's Zoe Kazan (Elia's granddaughter) on how to become an actor-slash-writer

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Zoe Kazan We Live Here
Joan Marcus

Actress Zoe Kazan has appeared in some pretty heavy plays — A Behanding in Spokane, Come Back, Little Sheba, The Seagull — and now she’s written one. Part mystery, part family drama, We Live Here follows an academic clan in crisis during one rainy night in New England when secrets are spilled, an arm is bit, and many tears are shed. The actress-turned-playwright (a movie she penned, He Loves Me, is also in post-production) took some time recently to talk to EW about switching roles to write the drama, which stars Amy Irving and Drive’s Oscar Isaacs and opens at off Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club on October 10th.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What came first for you, acting or writing?

ZOE KAZAN: I always wrote. My parents [screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord] are writers, so it made a lot of sense. I was interested in acting professionally and started writing again to keep myself from getting bored when I was in between jobs or in a job that wasn’t interesting. It became a Band-Aid. Then eventually it was no longer a Band-Aid, it was a thing in itself. 

What’s your writing process?

I like to sit on an idea for a really long time. I would sit on something for a year to the point where it’s almost at the back of my mind. I dream about it. Then eventually I get to where I know what I’m trying to write and I’ll sit down and make an outline. Usually I write pretty fast — I think I wrote my screenplay in three weeks — then I rewrite for a really long time.

When did you start working on We Live Here?

I got the idea for it in March 2009 and I wrote down some impressions. In the fall I sat down with Manhattan Theatre Club and they commissioned it. After I had the commission, I was like, “Oh, I actually have to write this play now.” So in the fall of 2009, I was unemployed and my boyfriend [actor Paul Dano] was in Europe shooting a movie, so I wrote it then in probably a month.

How do you describe the play to other people?

For lack of a better term, it’s a family drama. You see a lot of plays about dysfunctional families, but I really don’t think of this family as dysfunctional. They just have to work very, very hard to function. It centers around a weekend when the whole family is home for the eldest daughter’s wedding and the younger daughter, who is 19, does something irresponsible and brings somebody home as her date that she shouldn’t bring home.

We Live Here is about sisters and you’re close with your sister. The youngest daughter dates an older man and you once that at her age you were dating older men. Did your life seep into the play a bit?

Accidentally. Parts of my psychology manifested themselves in ways that I didn’t expect. I’m definitely interested in the sister relationship since I myself am close with my sister. And actually both the sisters in the play are dating older men. I think it’s true that many women date people who are older than them…or maybe it’s just me. But it’s definitely not autobiographical, which is strange to me now because it feels so personal. I feel so protective of these characters — like they’re real.

You’re not appearing in the play yourself. Do you feel that writers shouldn’t act in their own work?

I take my hat off to anybody who can be in a play that they wrote. I’m in a movie that I wrote, so I know what it’s like to act in your own work. Being on stage is already a challenge. I pictured being in a situation where I’m saying my own words every night. It would be some kind of circle of saying my words and not being able to change them. Plus, I’m still learning as a writer and it’s hard to see a play when you’re inside of it. I don’t think anyone would’ve let me do it. Everyone would’ve intervened on my behalf.

What’s it like experiencing previews as a writer as opposed to as an actress?

In some ways it’s similar — previews are a mirror that we hold up to the play that lets us see what’s happening on both sides of the stage. But, it’s definitely more nerve-wracking as a writer than it has been for me as an actor. It’s the part of the process where I have to start letting go and the actors start taking over.

Do you have plans to do more writing?

I’m always writing something, but I mean it when I say that I don’t feel ambitious as a writer. I’m not siting around trying to be the next great writer. I just love to write. It’s more fun for me than pretty much anything else except acting.

Do you have aspirations to direct?

Directing looks like the scariest job in the world. I don’t know why I would do it unless I really felt like I had something that I wanted to say but couldn’t say it any other way. But anything’s possible.