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Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan: Indie darlings

They’re adorable, talented, and in love — but we like them anyway. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan talk about life, acting, and inching into the spotlight with the buzzed-about little romance that Zoe wrote for them, ”Ruby Sparks.”

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Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano click together like Legos, the extroversion of one locking into the introversion of the other. Where she is gregarious and forthright, he is shy and self-conscious. (This is made especially clear when he says, ”I’m feeling very self-conscious right now.”) While she will happily expound upon the details of their joint Netflix account, his Raphaelite features twist into an uncomfortable knot when dealt a personal question. For instance, when I ask if he thinks their five-year relationship will be subjected to new pressures now that they’re starring together in Ruby Sparks — an R-rated comedy written by Kazan herself and hitting theaters on July 25 — Dano pauses a moment, then answers as cautiously as humanly possible. ”I don’t think it would be good of us to presuppose that something is going to happen with this film,” he says. ”I think you just have to take it as it comes and try to have a good time.” When she hears this, Kazan all but shouts at her boyfriend — ”Oh my God, that’s such a line! It’s so boring!” — and playfully punches him in the leg.

Ruby Sparks has generated such good buzz that, at the risk of contradicting Dano, it’s clear that an awful lot is going to happen for him and Kazan. The film was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team who worked with Dano on the sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine. Dano plays a former wunderkind author named Calvin who’s suffering from such a profound case of writer’s block that his shrink suggests he try writing about an imaginary character who likes his dog. In response Calvin concocts a fictional girlfriend from scratch. Through a stroke of magical realism — and a few more strokes of his typewriter — Ruby (Kazan) steps off the page and into Calvin’s life. Early on, Ruby is more a bundle of unlikely quirks than an actual person — she skips around the house singing ”Skinnamarink,” has never heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and boasts a personal style that’s trés, trés French New Wave. But when she starts developing an identity of her own and living between the lines, Calvin must decide whether he can accept her as she is or rewrite her back into his ideal.

Dano and Kazan, both 28, are a pretty irresistible selling point for Ruby Sparks: They’re like an art-house Brangelina. But while their relationship has never been a secret, it has yet to be stained by much media ink. Each has done a fair share of interviews for past projects. Still, they don’t have much experience selling themselves as a package deal. Seated on a corner couch in a photo studio — the high white walls looming up like blank pages — they’re realizing how hard it can be to control your own narrative, not to mention the words others use to define you. They clearly dread being written off as a ”cute” couple. With her slight build and moppetish hair, it’d be particularly easy to tag Kazan that way — but she’d rather not have that condescending pink bow stuck on her career. ”I don’t feel cute,” she says.

The L.A.-born Kazan has cinema in her blood — her grandfather was director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and both her parents are screenwriters (her father, Nicholas, was nominated for an Oscar for 1990’s Reversal of Fortune). But her first real gigs didn’t come until after graduating from Yale in 2005. Kazan won small roles in In the Valley of Elah and Revolutionary Road, and made a name for herself on Broadway with Chekhov’s The Seagull, among other productions. Her own play We Live Here was mounted Off Broadway last fall. As for Dano, he grew up in Wilton, Conn., and snagged his first major Broadway role at age 11 in a revival of Inherit the Wind opposite George C. Scott. Ever since, he’s done rich, varied work on film, most notably in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood.

Dano and Kazan met in 2007 after both were cast in the Off Broadway play Things We Want. In the spring of 2009, Kazan moved into Dano’s studio apartment in Brooklyn. ”You’d have to go in the bathroom to be alone, and it was in a basement, so we didn’t get a lot of light,” says Kazan, before shooting a look at Dano. ”I know you think about that time as being very romantic.” They’ve since moved into a bigger place in the neighborhood — and even played husband and wife, in 2011’s existential Western Meek’s Cutoff.

In 2009, when Kazan began working on the screenplay that would eventually become Ruby Sparks, she came to rely on Dano’s input. ”Paul would come home and he’d be tired, or he’d been out drinking,” she says. ”And I’d shove some pages in his face and yell, ‘You’ve got to read this!”’ It was only when Dano got to page 5 of one draft and asked her, ”Are you writing this for us?” that she realized she was. When Kazan and Dano first began pitching the script, they were informed that they weren’t famous enough to carry a film on their own. ”I do think Zoe could have sold her script and probably made a good chunk of change and all that,” says Dano. ”But then you don’t know how many fingers are going to go into the pie and whose hands it’s going to get into.”

Ultimately, they were able to make the movie on their own terms. The process, Kazan says, was like having a baby: ”Nobody’s getting enough sleep, nobody’s getting enough sex. There’s this other thing that’s more important than you that you’re putting all your attention on.” But according to both their directors, the strain didn’t show. ”I think they love watching each other work and seeing each other excel at what they do for a living,” says Dayton. To which Faris adds, laughing, ”On the set they were two actors doing their job. But in between scenes, they’d be all over each other.”

Dano and Kazan are proud of the work they’ve done on Ruby Sparks. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to get them to say an unkind word about anything on their résumés — with the exception of Too Young to Be a Dad, a 2002 Lifetime movie in which Dano played a 15-year-old who gets his girlfriend pregnant. When I mention the movie, Dano and Kazan say, ”Wow” simultaneously — he’s mortified, but she’s delighted. ”I bought the movie used and it’s on our DVD shelf,” Kazan says. ”But Paul won’t let me watch it.” Dano buries his face in his hands in mock misery: ”I was underage! I didn’t know any better!” But he quickly corrects himself, not wanting to sound negative. (A couple of days later I receive an email from him in which he apologizes for being difficult — he wasn’t — and offers to answer more questions.)

Because I know they love to collaborate — and because they worry about how they’ll come across in print — I ask them if they’d like to contribute to this very piece. We brainstorm a few possible openings, and I mention something Kazan said earlier in the interview: ”I don’t feel cute.”

Dano perks up. ”How about this?” he says, then suggests the following: ”’I don’t feel cute,’ Kazan says. And then pretend that I said, ‘Well, I do,’ and everybody laughed.”

”We all laughed uproariously,” adds Kazan. ”And then I did something cute with a hula hoop.”

Role Call

Paul Dano
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

As the older brother of pageant contestant Olive, he (mostly) maintained a vow of silence.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

He earned a BAFTA nomination for portraying preacher Eli Sunday and his twin brother, Paul.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

In last summer’s misfire, he played Harrison Ford’s ne’er-do-well son, an alien abductee.

Zoe Kazan
Revolutionary Road (2008)

She was the young secretary who fell prey to Leonardo DiCaprio’s wandering charm.

It’s Complicated (2009)

She played one of the three grown kids of divorcés Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.

The Exploding Girl (2010)

In this mumblecore standout, she was an epileptic college student juggling her feelings for two guys.

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