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The Exploding Girl

Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki

Story : On a summer break from college, Ivy (Kazan), a young epileptic woman, struggles to balance her feelings for her fledgling boyfriend while her friend Al crashes with her for the season.

Opens March 12, 2010

Interview with Actress Zoe Kazan

(Q) : It feels like you’ve done a million movies since you did this.
(Zoe Kazan): I did a lot of movies that didn’t come out for a while, so I don’t know because I can’t remember at what point that was.
(Q): So do you like working on big mainstream films or the independent ones?
(Zoe Kazan): Everybody needs those mainstream ones. I mean look, I love going to the movies and watching a big cushy movie. I really like getting the big cushy paycheck too, so that’s not an issue. Everybody has to do some for the money, but I definitely prefer a smaller scale. Especially coming from a theater background, and because my parents are in the industry, the kind of values I grew up with were values of collaboration and doing something all together.

On the big budget movies you’re always squirreled away in a massive trailer and you’re alone, and then you’re brought to set and you have to look perfect and all of that, and that’s not really what I got in it for. I love not having a trailer, I love just being thrown into bathrooms to change and being with your costars all the time and not having a thousand people fussing over you; it seems much more conducive to the work to me.

(Q): What drew you to the role of Ivy?

(Zoe Kazan): I auditioned for Brad [Bradley Rust Gray, director] I guess almost four years ago for another movie that he was making, and he didn’t end up getting to make that movie right away and I didn’t end up getting cast in it, but he remembered me and I remembered him. And about a year and half after that he called me up and he said, “I want to make a movie with you,” and I remembered him because I loved his movies so much in the first place. And I said, “Okay. What’s it about?” and he was like, “I don’t know. I haven’t written it, I have no idea what it’s going to be about.

I have an idea but I can’t tell you about it. Do you want to do it?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do.” So we started meeting and we would have these epic walks around Manhattan. We’d walk for hours; I was doing “Come Back, Little Sheba” at the time and I actually got bronchitis from walking around with him and had to miss a show. So I blame him for that completely. Like in the middle of January and February these massive eight-hour walks and we would talk about love and life and how we grew up and just kind of getting to know each other, almost like a blind date.

And then I went away to shoot “Me and Orson Welles,” and when I got back he had a script and he said, “Read it, and if you want to do it, let’s do it.” And I loved it. Ivy is so unlike me in so many ways, so I was really surprised that he had written this character because Brad’s worked mostly non-actors before and written characters very close to the people themselves so they could play them. I was really excited that he had written something so different from myself for me. But it’s funny;it was hard for me to talk about Ivy while we were shooting it.

We had a lot of shorthand, like he’d come over and be like, “No, no, no, no, no. The way you’re breathing isn’t right.” We kind of both had a picture of her in our heads and knew what we were aiming for, but we didn’t have a lot of coherence talking about her, and it’s only been afterwards when I look at the movie that I really realize what her qualities are. When we were playing it was all much more unconscious.

 (Q): Of the recent characters that you’ve played, which ones do you think are closer to you?

(Zoe Kazan): Well, it’s funny because, with “It’s Complicated,” Nancy [Meyers] is a screenwriter and a director, my mother’s a screenwriter and a director, her husband’s a screenwriter and a director, my dad’s a screenwriter and a director, she has two daughters who went to private schools in LA who are friends with people I know, I went to private schools in LA. There’s a lot of overlap between us, and then in some ways there’s none. Nancy lives in this perfect world where everything’s from Shabby Chic and looks really beautiful and I grew up in this kind of grungy Venice world with my parents and there was never a lot of money thrown around.

So in some ways our values are really similar and I totally got who that character was, and in some ways I’m like, why remodel that kitchen? So when Nancy met me she was like, “You’re my girl; you’re exactly who I wrote on the page,” and I was thinking that’s not who I am at all. So it’s all about perception. I feel like probably of all the characters I’ve played, I don’t really feel like I’ve played someone close to myself on film.

I did this play, “Things We Want,” at the New Group and I feel like that character is probably the closest I’ve ever played to myself. Even though she’s a concert pianist so we have nothing in common that way, she’s an artist and so her psychology was closer to mine.
(Q): Did you study about epilepsy?
(Zoe Kazan): Yeah, I did. I don’t have a chronic illness but I know people who do and I didn’t want to dishonor anybody by doing it wrong. Not just the epileptic seizure itself, but also the psychology behind having something that you have to take care of and that way of taking care of yourself. So I actually read a lot of parenting books for parents who have children who have epilepsy because I wanted to think about the way that she had been raised, especially because her mother’s a single parent and I feel like Ivy’s taken on a lot of the burden of parenting herself because of that.

And also we watched videos of seizures online; not on YouTube, although a little bit of that, but a lot of those are hoaxes. There are videos on medical sites about epilepsy; diagnostic videos basically. We looked at those and we looked at the brain scans of what happens to the brain during the epileptic seizure, and I practiced it at home. I was really anxious about doing the whole thing because it’s so out of your control when you do it and it seemed like such a big part of the movie that I was going to have to tackle.

I was really freaked out about it and finally I thought, “This is silly. I’ve just got to do one, and if I do one then I’ve done one and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” So I was lying in bed and my boyfriend was in the other room brushing his teeth and I was like, “Baby, can you come in here?” So he comes in the room with a mouthful of toothpaste and I was like, “Watch this. Tell me if it looks real.”

So I do the seizure, and he’s standing there with his toothbrush, and I open my eyes afterwards and ask how I looked and he was like, “Never do that again! Are you crazy?” And I was like, “But did it look real?” and he was like, “Yes it looked real! You’re freaking me out!” And I was like, “Sorry, brush your teeth. Go spit.” But I practiced it that once and then I didn’t practice it anymore, and we did two fifteen-minute takes.
(Q): It’s not like something you can go ask somebody; “Hey do a seizure for me.”
(Zoe Kazan): Yeah, exactly.
(Q): Do you relate to your character’s sense of detachment given that you actually went to college and had the whole college experience?
(Zoe Kazan): Detachment from home?
(Q): Or just detachment from what’s going on. And just being home on break is a weird situation.

(Zoe Kazan): It is a weird situation. Brad and I talked about that. There’s this movie, “Café Lumière,” that we looked at a lot. There’s a moment where she comes home in that movie and she falls asleep on the couch, or lies down on the floor, and we thought about that, about what it’s like when you come home and it’s sort of your home but it’s not your home anymore. She’s definitely in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood where she doesn’t quite belong there anymore but it’s still the only home she has.

So Brad and I talked about that and about wanting to capture that feeling. But I’m an actress and I think that there is some truth to the stereotype that comes along with that. I’m very emotional and I have very easy access to my emotions, and I hesitate to say it because I’m sure my family is going to laugh at me, but I think I burden other people with my emotions sometimes, like “Take care of me.” And Ivy is not at all like that, she’s incredibly self-contained, and I think some of that feeling of detachment that you get in the movie comes from that.

She does not want to be a burden to anyone and she doesn’t want her illness to be a burden to anyone. So when the breakup happens she keeps that to herself, she doesn’t even tell her friends, and I think there’s a kind of strength in that, and I think there’s deep loneliness in that. I also think it would be much better for her if she had more access to self-expression.
(Q): It’s funny you mention that gap between childhood and adulthood because basically this was a two character story and that’s interesting. I don’t know if this was a conscious effort by the director or not.
(Zoe Kazan): I think it was.
(Q): But you can see her mother is not really as involved and doesn’t even kiss her goodbye when she goes back to college. And we never meet her boyfriend’s parents, so basically it’s a two character. I think that one of the reasons it works is because Ivy is so complex. She’s not a child but she’s not quite an adult; that wide-eyed, childhood, idealistic expression that you have so well there.

With me though one of the things was the character that Mark Rendell plays is kind of the same way, like a male version. He’s also between childhood and adulthood and also idealistic and everything is still new, but he seems to have a much easier time.
(Zoe Kazan): Well he’s a boy.
(Q): Yes. And I didn’t know if that was intentional or not, if it’s saying girls at that particular age…

(Q): Was that in the script or was that in the characterizations that you guys were drawing on?
(Zoe Kazan): I think it has something to do with the script. I think it has more to do with their characters than anything. First of all, Ivy’s more grown up than Al is; she’s just had to take care of herself at a younger age. Epilepsy, like diabetes, is something that you have to take care of; you have to mind what you eat, you have to mind how much sleep you get, what kind of stress you’re under. And to be a young person and to be minding those kinds of things, most teenagers aren’t capable of that, let alone someone who has a mother who’s not 100% present.

So I think that there’s a way that she guards herself, takes care of herself, that’s much more akin to an adult than anything that Al’s had to go through. She does his laundry for him; she takes care of him in an unconscious way, not in a manipulative way. She’s not trying to prove anything by taking care of him; she just takes care of him. And I think that he brings to her, like what the trade off is, is that he brings a lot of childish joy, and I think it’s one of the reasons that they make a really great pair, really great friends.

The other half of it is that Mark is like Al. For one thing, Mark’s a lot younger than I am. I’m 26, and when we shot the movie I was 24, and Mark was 18. So that’s a big age different; we would never have been in high school together. I think when you watch the movie you don’t see it because I look young and Mark has an ageless kind of look to him. We could be almost any age within a certain range.

(Q): That’s a testament to your acting too, because it’s not easy to pull that off.
(Zoe Kazan): Yeah, totally. It’s funny because Brad said something, and I don’t want to age myself too much, but Brad said something to me recently and he was like, “We wouldn’t have been able to make the movie now because I’ve grown up two years since we made the movie. I’m not in a very different place in my life, but I feel older in a way.” And when I talk to Mark now, he’s older too. When we met he’d never had a girlfriend, he was living with his parents still, and there’s something very endearing about that to me, and I think that informs what you see on screen a little bit too.
(Q): I’ve noticed there aren’t really any close-up shots in this film. There are medium shots and long shots. Is there any element that you found working with Brad that was fascinating when compared to other directors?
(Zoe Kazan): I have to disagree with you a little bit. I think that there are a lot of close-ups in the movie, it’s just that when he’s not shooting in close-up he’s shooting from very far away. So in the house, a lot of that stuff is close-up; in the car, a lot of that is close-up; anytime they had a tripod on us basically, we had a lot of close-ups. In the city scenes they made a choice to shoot from very far away to have a more observational feel.
(Q): Let me change that. I think that some of the emotional scenes were taken in medium-shot. That’s what I meant. People usually get a close-up when they shoot an emotional scene.
(Zoe Kazan): I think Brad has a real sense of decorum as a filmmaker. He thinks about the characters as being people, and I think that one thing he was very concerned about was giving Ivy her privacy. So the breakup scene, the scene where she cries, the seizure, those are all things that he shot from further away and with objects between them. And he did that very purposefully. Of course as an actor, I’m like, “Put the camera on my face when I’m crying, dude.

Don’t back-light me and make sure nobody can see my face, you asshole.” But he knew what he was doing and I think that there is more emotional impact because you’re given a little bit of distance. I think sometimes when you’re forced to look at something in close-up all the time it kind of becomes about the acting and not about the character, and I really respect what he did with that. It’s just a very different style of telling stories. If you look at “It’s Complicated,” you couldn’t have two more different movies.
On “It’s Complicated,” every scene we shot with a wide-shot, a two-shot, close-up, close-up, medium-shot, medium-shot, over the shoulder; I mean she got coverage on every kind of coverage you could possibly want.

So the way that movie cuts together, it cuts together in a much more conventional way. You get into the scene on the wide-shot and then you go in, and you go in, and you go in. We didn’t have the money to do that, so part of what is happening is that there are solutions having to do with economy. We just didn’t have the time; we shot this in 17 days, so if he could get it in one shot that was a wide-shot he would get it in the wide-shot.

But because of that he had to make specific decisions before he edited about what he wanted it to look like. In some ways it made my job much easier because I only had to do it a couple of times. Especially with the seizure; only having to do that a couple of times was a godsend because it’s really exhausting. And other times I was begging him for another take.

(Q): I’m wondering if being a New Yorker now that you live here…
(Zoe Kazan): I’ve been here five years.
(Q): This is a pretty New York-centric film. For such a crowded city there are these feelings of loneliness that pervade because everybody’s doing their own thing. I’m just wondering how that informed the role for you.
(Zoe Kazan): There’s a sense I think in New York of being alone in a crowd of people all the time. I grew up in Los Angeles and I think LA is a much lonelier city than New York is. You’re alone in your car, you’re alone in your house, people don’t really go out in the same way that they go out in New York, so if you don’t know anybody in LA I think you’re much lonelier. In New York it’s much easier to be alone than it is in Los Angeles because you can always go to a bar or a coffee shop or go to Film Forum and there are people around you and you feel like you’re in a community.

But I think that when you have that much availability to people and there’s still no connection, that’s the kind of space that Ivy’s in. Her mother isn’t really taking care of her and her boyfriend isn’t really available to her. I think she’s self-sufficient, but I think she’s lonely, and I can definitely understand that. There are times when being on the subway, like when you’re depressed, it’s physically painful because there’s no privacy, there’s no space.

Like after her breakup when she’s taking the subway home, there’s no space for her to be alone and cry, and I think that there is a kind of prison of publicness that is happening in the movie. Even when Greg calls her when she’s at that party, or having the seizure at that party, the door is open, there are people walking by. There’s a sense of there’s no place for her to be alone.
(Q): When you’re in between being a kid when you’re dependent on your family and being an adult when you’re on your own, there’s that bohemian ideal where you don’t have to be doing things for the point of a job. Is that an important element of the film? And with that in mind, what do you think the film is communicating to the audience about that period of life?
(Zoe Kazan): Ivy has to work; she helps out at her mom’s studio during her break. She’s not going to have a lot time where she just gets to sit at home and figure her life out; she doesn’t come from that socio-economic background. But I do think that when you’re in college, especially when you’re on break and you don’t have any homework, it is a feeling of being a kid again. Like summer break or spring break, suddenly you’re not a grownup living at school, having your own life; I remember this so clearly.
Being at school and taking care of myself; I feed myself all my own meals, put myself to bed whatever time I want. And then I come home and my parents are like, “Where are you going? What time are you going to be home?” and being 19 years old and being like, “I don’t have a curfew at school.” And I do think there’s some of that liminal space.
(Q): With that in mind, what do you hope the film conveys to an audience at large?
(Zoe Kazan): I guess I hope people can see past Ivy and Al’s youth to the kind of universality of the story. If I was going to say what is this about I think it’s about loneliness and learning how to connect with other people. I think it’s about the kind of thing of not being willing to know your own heart or not knowing your own heart. I do think it’s specifically about young people and about a very young stage of life, but I hope that it has more to offer than that.
(Q): Can you talk about what you have coming up next?
(Zoe Kazan): I’m doing “A Behanding in Spokane” on Broadway. I love it; I’m in that until June 6. And then I just did a movie with Kelly Reichardt called “Meek’s Cutoff” that should come out next year I think, and this movie “Happythankyoumoreplease” just won the Audience Award at Sundance.
(Q): Was it weird working with your boyfriend on a movie?
(Zoe Kazan): It was really normal actually. There was another actor that was supposed to play the part that Paul played and the actor had a visa issue and couldn’t come at the very last minute. Like literally two days before we were going to shoot Paul came in to do it and I think he was more nervous about it than I was. We met doing a play together, so we had worked together before, so I knew how he was as an actor.

But it was actually an incredible thing because it was a very grueling shoot. We were in the middle of nowhere; we were like in the desert of Oregon six hours from any form of civilization. We had no cell service, very little internet, we were in these incredible salt flats with all this alkaline dust, it was like two hours from our motel to the set everyday over literally no road, just over dirt, and dehydration and sunstroke, then hypothermia. We had such grueling conditions, so to have someone there with me who I loved, who at the end of the day would just be content to help me get some food and help me get to sleep was great.