zoe kazan on why new rom-com the big sick is stranger than fiction

“I hadn’t read anything like it, which is very rare.”

by Tish Weinstock
02 August 2017, 3:20pm

"I wanted to be in the shoes of people who are very different to me," explains Zoe Kazan, when asked why she got into acting. "Telling stories makes me excited." Strangely, then, it's precisely the opposite situation in which she finds herself in the hit new rom-com, The Big Sick. Zoe plays Emily Gardner, a sharp, zany, intelligent and alluring young woman, a character who could've easily been based on Zoe herself. She was, in fact, based on American writer and producer Emily V. Gordon, who along with her real life partner, Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, wrote the screenplay for The Big Sick, a fictionalised(ish) account of how they met. To complicate matters further, Kumail plays himself in the movie. It's all very meta. "It's a dream for actors to play a real person -- you have someone there to study, you can truly become them," the 33-year-old reflects. "But when I met Emily I realised there was no point really doing that because we're just so alike already and I felt like if I did it, it would be much stranger for Kumail, so instead I just tried to be as flexible as possible, and not worry about the real Emily or who she was originally."

Produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick has the bittersweet charm of 500 Days of Summer, and the rip-roaring comedy of Bridesmaids. It will make you laugh out loud and possibly even quietly sob too. It's a story about impossible love: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy comes from a very strict Muslim family, boy therefore cannot marry girl. Girl then falls into a coma and boy must face girl's crazy parents, played brilliantly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. "I was so surprised when I read the script," Zoe says. "I hadn't read anything like it, which is very rare. It's based on true life events and so it has that stranger than fiction quality, it's a really unusual mix of comedy and drama."

When it came to fleshing out the character of Emily, it was a collaborative process. "The fictional Emily is where the real Emily and I meet. She is not quite the real Emily and not quite me," Zoe explains. "I sort of feel like we are both guardians of that person, we have quite similar values. When Emily couldn't be there, I felt like I had to speak up for her, like in the scene where Kumail shows me his favourite movie, that scene was originally him showing me the movie and Emily loving it, but Emily wrote the scene as her being more critical of what he was doing. Her giving me permission to read it that way ended up with me coming up with the line, 'I love it when men test me on my tastes'."

Born in Los Angeles, the third generation of a film family -- her grandfather was director Elia Kazan, her mother Robin Swicord wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, her father wrote At Close Range, and together they wrote Matilda -- a career in film has always been in Zoe's blood. As a result she has a string of writing and acting credits to her name. Combining her love of the two, in 2012 she both wrote and starred in romantic comedy Ruby Sparks opposite her current partner Paul Dano. "When it comes to writing and acting, I think it's a love of language that informs both," she muses. "Acting always starts with the words on the page. But they feel really different to me. There's a part of me which loves being alone with my imagination. But then there's the other side of me that's very sensual and orientated to the body. I feel like those two halves of my professional life meet those two halves of my personality."

With The Big Sick currently showing in cinemas worldwide, and a couple of plays and writing projects in the pipeline, Zoe Kazan continues to carve out a reputation for herself, both as a highly talented actress, and extremely capable young writer, well outside of her family's shadows. With a commitment to telling diverse and untold stories, Hollywood is lucky to have her.


Text Tish Weinstock

Judd Apatow
The Big Sick
zoe kazan