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Interview: Zoe Kazan on The Big Sick and Recalling Her Earliest Film Memory

If you haven’t seen The Big Sick yet, stop what you’re doing and seek it out now! If you already saw it, then you’ll know the story is based on the real life experience of Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani when they fell in love, broke up, and then came together again when Emily got sick, was hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma. Nanjiani rushes back to her bedside and cares for her as she recovers, and all the while he’s trying to deal with Emily’s parents and his own parents who are busy trying to arrange a marriage for him and find him a “more suitable” wife.

Zoe Kazan plays Emily in the film. We spend an hour or so talking about our own real-life experiences. She seemed as interested to learn about how I met my other half as I was to here her story. She listens, intrigued, and asks questions about the long-distance relationship I had. Another thign we have in common, is out love for four-legged friends: Kazan swoons over her sister’s foster puppy and we swap photos of our pets as if they are children. We spend a good time talking about life in LA and of course her film, The Big Sick.

Kazan shines in the film. She talks about meeting the real Emily after she was cast and how they instantly got on.  Just for fun, we talk about her earliest film memory and how it was triggered by a film her parents happened to see when she was two years old. Kazan also talks about working alongside some of her heroes and how they inspired her own work.  Not only does she star in one of 2017’s best movies, Kazan also writes screenplays and is a playwright.

What’s the story behind you getting on board for The Big Sick?

I auditioned. It was very normal. I had met Michael Showalter when I did a play about ten years ago in New York called The Things We Want. Showalter was good friends with the guys and I’d met with him a few times before. I actually met with him before I auditioned. We had a coffee and he told me about thestory, but I had never met Kumail until I walked into the audition.

Emily wasn’t there so I didn’t meet her until after I was cast. I knew Barry Mendel and had met him before, and knew Judd but I wouldn’t say the decks were stacked in mine or anyone’s favor. I know it would be daunting if I had written something and was casting someone to play my other half.  It went well and you either think you squeaked by, or else you think, “They should give me this part.” I thought the latter and I’m glad it was corroborated. This is their story and it’s such an inspiration, but you’re playing someone who’s on set and was involved.

It was so easy. From the moment I met Emily I fell for her and she felt like someone who I would know. It was easy from the start because we both worked hard not to make it awkward. I made this effort to align myself with her. She was the first person I saw in my dressing room each day. It felt like we were parents to this character and raising her. We talk about it a lot in the press and it’s true.

Did you make a conscious effort not to imitate her?

It was funny because after I got the part a meeting place was set up in this very fancy bar and I assumed that’s what Kumail and Emily wanted and they assumed that I wanted it. Once we realized that we were in a place that all of us felt uncomfortable in it became easier.

That’s hilarious.

Before I met her I was planning to study her mannerisms and get in there, but then I met her, I saw she was a lot like me. If we hadn’t met through this, we would have become friends. Our speech patterns and mannerisms were already similar.

It’s an actor’s dream to play a real person. You want the challenge of it. All of a sudden, I was in uncanny valley playing opposite her actual husband and playing in this story that they had actually lived through. I thought it would be better to move it a little bit away from her.

Holly and Ray signing on meant they were re-writing the script to tailor it to their voices and they’re so different from Emily’s actual parents.

You’ve worked with Holly, Cherry Jones, Meryl, and you have your own parents in the business. What did you learn from them?

Working with actresses of that generation means more to me than almost anything. All of those women and more, including Ann Dowd, working on stage with Cynthia Nixon, they’re all my heroes. These are people who I grew up thinking, I wanted to be that person and I wanted to be in Amy Ryan’s shoes. If I didn’t have those people to point to, I don’t know how I would have directed myself in this world so to get stand beside them and to pad out my brain with their presence and experience is a tremendous gift. It’s the thing I feel the most grateful for in my career.

Holly is a great example of that. She is someone I’ve always looked up to and so many of her performances mean so much to me. It’s easy to forget that you’re in her presence. She’s so disarming and kind and doesn’t carry her ego as a shield.

I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you if they hadn’t gone before me.

What’s your earliest memory of film?

My parents rented It Happened One Night when I was a baby. I was probably 2 and I remember Claudette Colbert diving off of the yacht and I know that’s my first film memory. For years, as a little tiny girl, I had this image of this woman jumping off this yacht in my brain and I didn’t know where it was from. Then they rented it again when I was 7 and I saw that and remembered. It made such a great impression.

How has theatre helped you?

I’ve done ten or eleven plays in the last decade and that’s a lot of hours of thinking about acting and being responsible for your own work and learning how to maintain a performance over that time. You get your chops that way. You learn to create pace, and you learn how to cry every night in the same place. You’re honing your chops and it’s an amazing feeling to feel that I’ve built this performance.

It’s such a different skill to film and TV because there’s so little rehearsal to film and TV. I have the confidence to prepare on my own. At least for me, I feel I give myself permission to have a big toolbox. Certainly, in the last few years, I’ve thought about my work on set differently and a lot of that has to do with feeling like I have ownership to really plan in advance what I want to do. You have an idea of what you want to do and they shoot it in one. That feeling of being rushed and having to get it right is a lot of pressure, so a lot of the preparation is to prepare yourself to perform in those conditions and working in theatre, I think you learn how to do that.