Actor Zoe Kazan describes her new HBO series, The Plot Against America, as "scarily prescient." The show, which is adapted from Philip Roth's 2004 novel, is set in the U.S. between 1940 and 1942, and imagines a world in which aviator Charles Lindbergh has defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the race for the presidency, moving the country toward fascism.
"It's about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction?" Kazan says. "What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?"
The show presents an alternate history in which America does not fight against the Nazis during World War II. Instead, plans have been announced to relocate Jewish families from urban areas to the "heartland," under the pretense of helping them better assimilate into America.
"I think we're seeing it now, even more than when we shot the [show], like the ways that Asian Americans are being treated right now ... and our president getting on stage and saying, 'Chinese virus,' " she says. "Things like that feel like something that could have come straight out of this book."
On taking on the role of Bess, the mother in The Plot Against America, shortly after becoming a mother herself
It's really interesting for me, because I think when, culturally, we talk about, like, a "strong woman" that has become sort of shorthand for like someone who kicks ass and takes names — and this is not that person. She is making a roast chicken and making sure that her kids' clothes are mended properly when they go to school.
But it was really interesting for me to sort of be confronted with this archetype of a mother exactly at a time when I was a new mother myself. My baby was about six months old when I started filming. It [was] really complicated for me, because my body had sort of become totally at the behest of my child. I was breastfeeding and waking up at all hours for her. My love was totally funneled toward this new person, and my experience of my body was really different than it had been before. And your body is your tool as an actor, and so that felt really complicated to me. I felt like I didn't really know how I would begin to separate out my parts again and be able to use my body and myself to act.
And then I was playing this person who in large part is deriving her strength from being really selfless in this very similar way. She's totally oriented towards her children and her husband's happiness, their happiness is her happiness. Keeping her home nice is of tantamount importance to her. And so it was very confronting to me to have to enter into that person and find her strength and find her opinions and find how she was a person and not just a mother and a wife. And it really dovetails for me into a similar re-finding myself within this new role of mother and making those boundaries in a healthy way.
On connecting the story of The Plot Against America to her own family's history — Kazan's grandfather, director Elia Kazan, testified in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, and named names
I don't normally like answering questions about my grandfather, particularly about his experiences with the HUAC hearings, partially because it happened so long before I was born, and I by no means feel like an expert. Partially because it's such a terrible chapter in our country's history, and I feel a morbid fear of getting something wrong and/or hurting further the victims of those hearings or their families, and also because the large majority of my family are incredibly private people who have chosen very private lives. I never want to feel like a spokesperson for them, or that I'm betraying their trust or anything of that nature. And that's why it makes me emotional sometimes to talk about it.
I think that the parallels are right there, and I couldn't help but think of my own family history. ... It's a strong personal connection to the material. I think it probably would have been really disrespectful to what we were trying to make if I didn't bring some of those thoughts and feelings to bear in filming those scenes. ... I thought very deeply about my grandparents and their choices and what it must have meant to them to be in that position, and frankly, it helped me, I think, take one step in my personal maturation.
I think my experiences, especially in my 20s, were so, so very different than those of my male partner that I can't begin to describe, not just in terms of what opportunities were available to us, but also in terms of the way that we were treated. ... The very casual sexism and sexual harassment that I received, which I'm sure is like nothing compared to what some other women have faced, and especially women of color, but I would come home and tell Paul about what this producer said to me or whatever, and he'd be like, "No, he can't have said that!" "Yes, he did! He did!" Ask any of my girlfriends or actresses what they've been through.
On speaking up when she encounters sexism
I feel like I've gained more ability to do so as I've gotten older, and also, frankly, because I need the approval of other people less for both financial and career reasons. Like, speaking up for myself and saying, "I don't feel comfortable doing that," or "I'm not going to wear that costume," or whatever it may be, that has definitely gotten easier for me as I've gotten older.
But within the last few years, I had a producer send me an email saying, "You sure have such a big brain for such a small body." It's stuff like that. I think, "I bet he's not sending emails like that to my male co-stars," but I didn't say anything because, frankly, I didn't want to make him uncomfortable. I still had to work for him for the next few months.
It's complicated. I don't think it's all gonna happen in one generation. I hope to God that I am setting a good example for my daughter. I know my mother set a good example for me. In fact, I think in some ways my mother felt more comfortable speaking up for herself than I did. I hope that progress starts going by leaps and bounds and not by inches.
On how having an eating disorder when she was younger led her to acting
Part of my experience of having an eating disorder was that my feelings felt too big for me to handle, and I was trying to dampen them in some way. And I think that having that experience of my emotions as being a great ocean that I cannot always handle, it is one of the reasons that I wanted to be an actor. I always loved to write. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but the idea of being that divorced from my body scared me, and made me think, all these big, oceanic feelings I have, where will I put them? Having a place to put my feelings has made me a saner person. Acting really functions for me in a cathartic way.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Zoe Kazan, is one of the stars of the HBO series "The Plot Against America," which is adapted from the Philip Roth novel by David Simon and Ed Burns, who also created the HBO series "The Wire." Zoe Kazan was also in the David Simon HBO series "The Deuce." She co-starred in the film "The Big Sick" with Kumail Nanjiani, and she wrote the film "Ruby Sparks," in which she starred with her partner, Paul Dano, with whom she wrote the screen adaptation of the Richard Ford novel "Wildlife." She's from a movie family. Her grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed "On The Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." Her parents are both screenwriters.
Let's start with a scene from "The Plot Against America." The story rewrites a turning point in American history. It's set in 1940 to '42. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has lost the election to Charles Lindbergh, who's considered an American hero because he was the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic. But he's also anti-Semitic. He admires Hitler and won't enter World War II to fight against Hitler. He's an isolationist.
The story focuses on a Jewish family in Newark, N.J. Zoe Kazan plays Bess, a wife and mother of two boys. The family is targeted for a Lindbergh administration program to relocate Jews to the so-called heartland under the pretense of helping Jews assimilate and integrate into America. For this family, that would mean relocating to Kentucky. Bess has been trying to convince her husband, Herman, to join the Jews who've been moving to Canada before it was too late. Although Herman is a passionate Roosevelt supporter and hates Lindbergh, he refuses to leave his own country, but he also refuses to move to Kentucky. Meanwhile, there's an increasing number of attacks on Jews and Jewish stores, and Lindbergh is becoming more fascistic.
In this scene, Bess and Herman have been listening to a radio broadcast by Walter Winchell, the famous syndicated gossip columnist who's been mounting a presidential campaign to oppose Lindbergh and has been attacking Lindbergh on his radio show. Bess' husband, Herman, played by Morgan Spector, has decided to write a letter to Winchell to get him to publicly protest the relocation program. Zoe Kazan, as Bess, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA")
ZOE KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) What are you doing?
MORGAN SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) I'm going to write to him, tell him we need him to speak out. And the government telling companies where people of this race, that religion - where they can and can't work - we let them get away with that, what's next? That's how fascism works.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) You're sitting there writing to Winchell - Walter Winchell?
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Yes, I am.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) And you're predicting that these people will stop at nothing once they know what they can get away with, and yet, you don't think they can do what they want to the mail?
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Come on, Bess. It's one letter.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) It's not just one letter. You're also planning to sue the government.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) As you said, we have rights.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) How can you see what these people are and have so little sense of what they are capable of? We have already had FBI agents harassing us. We have had our children questioned. Let someone else write to Winchell.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Someone else? The next guy?
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Yeah, let the next guy step up.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) And I just sit here on my ass, keeping quiet, waiting for the worst to happen?
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) No. I don't see Shepsie sitting around writing letters, waiting for the worst to happen.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) Not Canada again.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Yes, Canada.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) This is my country.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Not anymore. It is Lindbergh's. It is the Jew-haters'. It is the America Firsters'. It is the people who chase children down the street asking questions and then deport their families to Kentucky - it's their country.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) And if we run, if we quit, then they win. And they do not get to win.
KAZAN: (As Bess Levin) Herman.
SPECTOR: (As Herman Levin) We have done nothing wrong.
GROSS: Zoe Kazan, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your performance in "The Plot Against America." I just want to start by saying, how are you?
KAZAN: Thank you so much, Terry. I'm all right. I have to say it seems really small to complain about anything considering what so many people are going through right now. We're doing absolutely fine. We all have our health. I'm staying at my parents' house with my partner and our child right now. So it's a lot to adjust to, but we're really lucky.
GROSS: So you were on a set in Australia, and your partner, Paul Dano, was on a set in London. Both productions shut down. So now you and your daughter - your young daughter are living with your parents, so you're in your childhood home now as a mother.
KAZAN: I am. Strange, I think especially because we don't know when we're going to go back home to Brooklyn. We've been gone from there because my job started in November, so we've been gone for six months now, and we don't know when we're going to go back because, quote-unquote, "when this is over," I think we have to go back to our respective jobs, or at least that's what I'm assuming right now. But, you know, all of us are living in such a state of not knowing right now, so I think that makes it harder than if I knew, like, OK, I'm going to be living with my parents for six weeks or whatever.
But there's something wonderful, too, about - I mean, it feels like being inside of a dream or something, like, giving my daughter baths in the bathtub that my sister and I used to take our baths in and talking to you right now, sitting on the floor of my childhood closet, where I used to, like, talk on the phone to my boyfriend in high school, you know? So...
KAZAN: ...It's very strange.
GROSS: That's pretty funny. So let's talk about "The Plot Against America." Are there parts of the story about living in an "America First" nation that's becoming very anti-Semitic and increasingly moving toward fascism - are there parts of that story that resonate for you now? And I should mention Philip Roth wrote this in - was it 2004?
KAZAN: Yeah, I think that's right - 2003 or 2004. Yeah, I was kind of taken aback at the parallels that are on the page. I thought, like, oh, when people write about this, they're going to think that David Simon was being, like, ham-fisted in making allusions to our current government and our current situation. But the high majority of them are right there on the page and, like you said, what he wrote more than a decade before Trump came to power. So, yes, it feels, like, scarily prescient in some ways. And then in other ways, he was just looking back at the history of our country. And we had internment camps in this country in World War II, as you know. So I don't know that he was imagining an America that far off from the one that he thought we were living in.
GROSS: What makes you feel most like Philip Roth was prescient in writing this? What echoes today do you most feel from the story?
KAZAN: Roth cautioned David Simon about drawing too strong a parallel between Trump and Lindbergh, and his cautioning was mostly that Lindbergh had once been a great American hero in a way that Trump never has been and the extra power that a person like Lindbergh would have because of his position in the cultural imagination.
For me, the thing that felt - that kind of took my breath away, I guess, is the slow creep that you feel in the book. It's not "The Man In The High Castle." It's not what if fascism was imported into America? It's about what if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction? What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high? Like, what permission would that give the average citizen? And how do people get marginalized in, like, small, insidious ways? I think we're seeing it now even more than when we shot the thing in ways about, like, the way that Asian Americans are being treated right now with the rise of COVID-19 and our president getting onstage and saying, you know, Chinese virus. You know, things like that. It feels like that is something that could have come straight out of this book.
GROSS: I really like your character in "The Plot Against America" and the way you portray her. You know, as we heard, like, your husband in the series wants to take a stand against Lindbergh in a public way - right? - to Winchell. But you think he's putting the whole family at risk. You've been telling him for a while, like, no. You should really get out of America and move to Canada, where you'll be safe. And you're smart. You stand up for what you believe in. But you also know your husband isn't going to listen to you and that you don't really have any power. He's going to do what he wants to do. So I'm interested in the idea of you playing, like, a strong woman who doesn't really have any power.
KAZAN: Yeah. You know, it was really interesting for me because I think when, culturally, we talk about, like, a strong woman, that has become sort of shorthand for, like, someone who kicks ass and takes names, right? Like...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
KAZAN: And this is not that person. She is, like, making a roast chicken and making sure that her kids' clothes are mended properly when they go to school, you know? But it was really interesting for me to sort of be confronted with this archetype of a mother exactly at a time when I was a new mother myself. My baby was about six months old when I started filming. And, you know, it was really complicated for me because my body had sort of become totally at the behest of my child, right? I was breastfeeding and waking up at all hours for her. And, like, my love was totally funneled toward this new person.
And my experience of my body was really different than it had been before. And your body is your tool as an actor. And so it was very confronting to me to, like, have to enter into that person and find her strength and find her opinions and find how she was a person and not just a mother and a wife. And it really dovetails, for me, into a similar sort of, like, re-finding of myself within this new role of mother and making those boundaries in a healthy way. And I do think, in a way, it allowed me to, like - to allow motherhood to be a priority for me in a way that didn't feel at odds with a kind of - well, for one thing, like, the feminist upbringing I was given and the fact that I want something bigger for myself than just in the domestic sphere.
GROSS: Well, I want to hear more (laughter). But first, we have to take a short break. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan. And she's one of the stars of the six-part HBO series "The Plot Against America," which is adapted from the Philip Roth novel of the same name. The final episode will be shown tonight. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "THE SAGA OF RITA JOE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan. She's one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode of the six-part series will be shown tonight.
Are there ways in which the story of "The Plot Against America" connects with your family? And I'm thinking here, like, your grandfather, Elia Kazan, who is, you know, a great director - "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On The Waterfront." He was called to testify in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the communist witch-hunting era, the Joe McCarthy era.
And he named some names of Hollywood actors. He gave up names. And, you know, he was a Greek immigrant. And he was accused of possibly being un-American. It was the House Un-American Activities Committee. And, of course, in "Plot Against America," the Jews are basically considered by President Lindbergh to be un-American, because if they weren't un-American, why would they have to be relocated in order to better assimilate into America?
KAZAN: That's right.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you were thinking about connections between the story and your family, specifically your immigrant grandfather or grandparents.
KAZAN: Yeah, grandfather. My grandmother was, like, a Mayflower American.
GROSS: Oh, wow (laughter). OK.
KAZAN: Yeah. Yeah, of course I was (laughter). I think it's a really apt question. And I want to say that I don't normally like answering questions about my grandfather, particularly about his experiences with the HUAC hearings, partially because it happened so long before I was born and I by no means feel like an expert, partially because it's such a terrible chapter in our country's history. And I feel a morbid fear of getting something wrong or hurting further the victims of those hearings or their families. And also, because my family - the large majority of my family are incredibly private people who have chosen very private lives. And I never want to feel like a spokesperson for them or that I'm betraying their trust or anything of that nature. And that's why it makes me emotional sometimes to talk about it.
I think that the parallels are right there. And I couldn't help but think of my own family history. And, I mean, frankly, I think I wouldn't be much of an actor if I didn't think about it, you know? It's a strong personal connection to the material. I thought very deeply about my grandparents and their choices and what it must have meant to them to be in that position. And frankly, it helps me, I think, take one step in my, like, personal maturation. And actually, playing this role and working on this material sort of helped me take steps into, I think, a more adult viewpoint.
GROSS: How did playing the role make you take steps to a more adult viewpoint of your grandfather? And what is that viewpoint?
KAZAN: Well, I think what I'm trying to talk about is being able to have love for him and also think critically about his actions. I don't just mean to criticize his actions. I mean to think critically about them and to let a more complicated reality exist in my mind. You know, I was on set playing scenes with Winona Ryder, who's playing my sister, who my character, Bess, loves very much and also really believes that her sister is not just betraying their people but also endangering her family.
And, you know, it just allowed me space to explore critical thought and draw those parallels that, I think, are there to be drawn. And I think it's just - I think, probably, a more adult viewpoint is one that allows contradiction and allows contradiction to exist without being resolved. I can't...
GROSS: So you're not seeing...
GROSS: ...Your grandfather now in terms of, like, he was just your loving grandfather or he was a bad guy because he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. You see his position as being more complicated, more ambiguous. And you're trying to kind of embrace the full 360 degrees of his actions, as opposed to just seeing one view or another.
KAZAN: I guess so. I mean, I think it's more complicated than that. But yes, I think that's one way of putting it.
GROSS: Put it better for me (laughter).
KAZAN: I mean, Terry, when I was a little girl, I didn't understand that my grandfather was a famous person. And as I got older, I came to understand sort of that he was a famous director. And watching his movies for the first time with my parents at 10 or 11 or whatever, like, that was a lot to take in right there. And then, you know, when I was 15, he received his honorary Oscar. And there was a lot of protest over that. And it was very visible. And classmates were asking me about it at school. And at that point, we had never - I had never studied the HUAC trials in school. I knew very little about them. This is really pre-Internet in a lot of ways.
So, you know, my father, who is always trying to tell me the truth about things, was very, I think, factual with me and level with me about what had happened. I appreciate, in retrospect, how clear he was with me. But when you see protesters, you know, protesting the grandfather you love, that's a complicated thing to take in and understand as a child, right? And I think, as a result, it has been very - it was, for a long time, very difficult for me to think critically about it. I think I often thought, like, oh, one day, I'll - like, one day, I'll be able to think more critically about that, but not now.
And I think that, over the years, like, I came to a more complicated viewpoint. So it's not like this was, like, a sudden tearing away of the wool from my eyes or anything. But this is the first time that I allowed myself a lot of time and space to think about it and, like I said, to be going to work every day and working on scenes where using those feelings, those complicated feelings, helped feed the scene. But yeah, I think a complicated rumination was something that I probably needed to do. And I was really grateful to have the opportunity on this.
GROSS: When you think of the complications of when your grandfather was called before HUAC and asked to name names - he's been so criticized for having given up names. Do you wonder what would've happened to your father and to your grandmother had he not named named and - names, and had he either been sent to jail or had his career crushed as a result? Like, what impact would that have had on the family? Do you think about that?
KAZAN: Of course I think about it. I think about it because I think about what happened to the families of the people whose names were named. And I think about it because I think about the untenable position that he was put in. And I think about it because of what he did. Yeah. I mean, I think it's probably the moral thing to do to consider what would've happened on the other - if a different choice had been made. But I also can't imagine - right? - because it's unknown.
GROSS: Right. If you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan. And she's one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode of the six-episode series will be shown tonight on HBO. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "SYMPHONIC SUITE (FROM THE FILM ON THE WATERFRONT): ADANTE - PRESTO BARBARO PRESTO BARBARO")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Zoe Kazan. She's one of the stars of the six-episode HBO series "The Plot Against America," adapted from the Philip Roth novel of the same name. She was also in the HBO series "The Deuce," she co-starred in "The Big Sick" and the Coen brothers movie "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." She wrote the screenplay for the film "Ruby Sparks" in which she starred with her partner Paul Dano. Kazan and Dano wrote the film "Wildlife," adapted from the Richard Ford novel of the same name.
I think you're really good at playing period roles. In "The Plot Against America," it's the early 1940s. You're very convincing in it. In "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," which is set in the 1860s or thereabouts, you're very convincing in that, too, and it's a whole different style of speaking. It's a much more formal and more distanced way of talking. So I want to play a clip from that film and then ask you about speaking in that period.
So you're on a wagon train on the Oregon Trail with your brother Gilbert, except he dies early on, and then you're left alone. And you and your brother owe a lot of money to the boy who's been helping you on the wagon train. But your brother didn't leave you any money, and now you're broke and have nothing to pay with. You've started to befriend the younger of the two wagon masters. And in this scene, he's talking to you and he tells you he has a crackpot idea that might be helpful to you. So here is the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS")
KAZAN: (As Alice Longabaugh) So your crackpot notion?
BILL HECK: (As Billy Knapp) Yes. Before I expose it, may I ask something?
KAZAN: (As Alice) Certainly.
HECK: (As Billy) What possibilities do you look forward to in Oregon?
KAZAN: (As Alice) I don't quite know. Gilbert knows - knew someone there, a Mr. Vereen who owns an orchard or maybe more than one orchard and a cartage company. He was vague about his connection with Mr. Vereen and about his own prospective position. I don't wish to slight my brother's memory, but he could exaggerate the nature of an opportunity. And Mr. Vereen's interested in myself, I fear that may also have been speculative.
HECK: (As Billy) I see. So this is no definite prospect of marriage, no contract.
KAZAN: (As Alice) No.
HECK: (As Billy) Well, idea then is this, and I submit it in respect, Ms. Longabaugh. I propose to assume your brother's debt to the hired boy and to ask you to marry me.
GROSS: And that was Bill Heck with my guest Zoe Kazan. Can you talk a little bit about trying to figure out how you should sound playing somebody in a wagon train in the 1800s?
KAZAN: When I auditioned for that role, I asked if the Coens had, like, a specific kind of dialect in mind. And they were like, yeah, from, like, Ohio-ish. You know (laughter), it was very unspecific. So I tried - I listened to, like - I think they said western Ohio. And I tried listening to, like, news reporters on YouTube from that part of the world to know what that might sound like now, and then I kind of just made some stuff up. But the Coens' language is incredibly specific, and I do think that the language tells you a lot about how the lines should be said.
GROSS: Do you like speaking in that more formal language of the past?
KAZAN: Yeah, I love it. I mean, Terry, you know, my first roles in New York were all on the stage. I did a lot of, like, Chekhov and stuff that is more canonical, and that's sort of what I cut my teeth on in school. And, you know, like, working on Shakespeare in school taught me so much about how to use my breath and, like, how to follow a thought to the end of the thought instead of the end of the sentence. And working on that stuff makes you not just a better actor but it, like - it teaches you something about the way people think.
GROSS: Do you mark your scripts so that you know where you're going to breathe?
KAZAN: Not when I'm working on stuff like this, but I do mark my scripts in terms of, like, thoughts. Like, just listening to that, I breathe a lot in the middle of sentences in that little passage that we just listened to. And part of that is that Alice, the character I'm playing, is not used to speaking in public or being asked her opinion on things.
And I think the way that I read the language - like, I think she's recalibrating all the time. She's also, like, a real pleaser, and I think she's taking a lot of her cues off the other person. And she's also a very nervous person, so she's, like, overcoming her nerves all the time. So she's taking a lot of breaths because she doesn't know how long she's going to be speaking. Like, you know, our brains help us take a breath that's big enough for the thought that we want to have, and I think she doesn't really know how big the thought she wants to have is when she takes her breath.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan. She's one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode will be shown tonight. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with writer and actor Zoe Kazan. She's one of the stars of HBO's adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America." The six-episode series concludes tonight.
So your partner Paul Dano, he's probably, like, a little bit older than you?
KAZAN: No, he's nine months younger than me.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. So you're basically the same age. But you've spoken about how your experiences as actors are so different because of gender. Like, he has auditioned for a lot of roles that require gunplay (laughter) or at least having a gun.
GROSS: And you have not. And you're asked to cry a lot in auditions or in roles, and he is not. Although I have seen him cry in roles. So I'd like to hear more about - thinking about the gender differences based on your experiences.
KAZAN: Oh, gosh. It's just so different. I mean, look - I think what's happened in the last two or three years with the rise of the #MeToo movement and that movement becoming kind of central in our cultural imagination and Harvey Weinstein going to jail and - that's all great, and I hope that makes a real big permanent change. But I also know that there's, like, years and years, eons of patriarchal construction that supports itself that will try to undo that work.
I think my experiences, especially in my 20s, were so, so very different than those of my male partner that I can't begin to describe, not just in terms of what opportunities were available to us but also in terms of the way that we were treated on sets, like the very casual sexism and sexual harassment that I received, which I'm sure is, like, nothing compared to what some other women have faced and especially, you know, women of color.
But I - yeah, I would come home and tell Paul about what this producer said to me or whatever, and he'd be like, no, he can't have said that. Well, like, yes, he did. He did. And ask any of my girlfriends who are actresses what they've been through.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of something that you consider that kind of casual sexism?
KAZAN: Yeah. I had a co-star say to me in the middle of rehearsal once, you would be hot if you gained 10 pounds, in a room in which I was the only woman, surrounded by male collaborators.
GROSS: Being told by somebody, hey, you'd be really hot if you gained 10 pounds, that's a really loaded thing to say to you. That person might not have known you had an eating disorder when you were younger.
GROSS: So to say that is just really - they might have been totally unaware of how problematic that comment was. Have you ever felt like you could say something about, like, an inappropriate remark or an inappropriate request?
KAZAN: Sure. I think part of the...
GROSS: I'm not trying to apologize for them, but...
KAZAN: No, no. I feel like I have gained more ability to do so as I've gotten older and also, frankly, because I need the approval of other people less for both, like, financial and career reasons. Like, speaking up for myself and saying I don't feel comfortable doing that or I'm not going to wear that costume or whatever it may be, like, that has definitely gotten easier for me as I've gotten older.
But within the last few years, I had a producer send me an email saying, you sure have such a big brain for such a small body. You know, it's stuff like that that I think, well, I bet he's not sending emails like that to my male co-stars. But I didn't say anything because I didn't want to - frankly, I didn't want to make him uncomfortable 'cause I still had to go to work for him for the next few months, you know?
So, you know, it's complicated. I don't think it's all going to happen in one generation. And, you know, I hope to God that I am setting a good example for my daughter. I know my mother set a good example for me. In fact, I think, in some ways, my mother felt more comfortable speaking up for herself than I did.
GROSS: Were you offered roles that you considered to be too cutesy about real serious (laughter) issues that you felt were just kind of reducing complicated emotions to inadequate comedy?
KAZAN: Yeah, I probably (laughter) auditioned for a lot of roles that I thought were pretty thinly written that I thought, like, I'm just going to bring my all to it and I can make this into something. And it was this - it was, in some ways, a very strange experience of feeling like - that I was walking into a lot of rooms trying to convince them that I could be someone that they would want or want to hire, that I could be adorable, and I could be lovable, and I could be the girl next door. I could be the daughter. I could be the adoring wife. I could have three lines where I just say, honey, are you OK?
And, you know, that's a lot of energy and time - right? - like, doing your makeup and your hair and picking out an outfit and taking the C train to the east - to the west side and then walking all the way out to West Side Highway to audition for "Law & Order" or whatever to play a dead body that they find (laughter). Like, that's a complicated period of time in, I think, any actor's life, and it can last a really long time.
Yeah, I felt like, wow, I was raised to think that, like, my mind was valuable and that, like, the way I looked didn't matter, and I spent half this day trying to curl my hair and put on lip gloss and put on a pushup bra to go into a room to convince some people that I was good enough to say, you know, this half-page of dialogue because I really need to pay my rent, and also maybe this job will take me somewhere - question mark. Like, it's really demoralizing to spend a lot of time like that, especially when, like, you know, there are other things you can do with your brain.
GROSS: So the real question is did you get to play a dead body on "Law & Order?"
KAZAN: No, I didn't even get that job, Terry.
KAZAN: No, not pretty enough, not good enough (laughter).
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan, and she's one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode of the six-part series will be shown tonight. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Zoe Kazan. She's one of the stars of the HBO adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode of the six-part series will be shown tonight.
You've spoken about in the past how you've dealt with depression through your life. And I think this is - while we're all, like, isolating and isolated and anxious and worried, it's kind of like a very fertile ground for depression.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if, like, you're having to deal with depression coming back because of the anxiety and fears surrounding the pandemic.
KAZAN: No, I...
GROSS: And not being at home.
GROSS: I mean, as much as it's great to be with your family it's always nice to be in your own home, which you're not right now.
KAZAN: Yeah. You know, I'm very lucky in that I feel like my mental health is in pretty good shape right now. But also, frankly, I don't know that I really have time to check in with myself (laughter) or let myself have a deep awareness of, really, how I'm doing because - you know, we don't have any child care help right now. My parents are both still working because they're screenwriters. And my partner and I are trying to give each other a few hours a day to write. But we're really, like, you know, with our kid all the time. She's almost 20 months, and she's extraordinarily active. And, you know, we're really lucky because we normally employ a nanny who gives us time to ourself, and we're without that right now.
So to be totally frank, I don't really know 100% what's going on with me mentally (laughter) because I'm so tired at the end of the day. I, like - we eat dinner. We clean up. And then we get in bed. I do the crossword puzzle. And I go to sleep.
GROSS: Can I ask you about the eating disorder and how you were able to...
GROSS: ...Get past it? Do you connect that with the depression?
KAZAN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And you said that, you know, the eating disorder wasn't because you wanted to, like, look thin, that...
KAZAN: No, I've always been small.
GROSS: Because it sounds like you've never been that preoccupied with how you look, with clothes...
KAZAN: No, that's right.
GROSS: ...And hair and all of that. So what was - if it wasn't about, like, having a certain image of, like, you know, fashionably thin and fitting into certain clothes, what do you think it was about?
KAZAN: I mean, I think it was about control, and I think it was about limiting what I was feeling. You know, like, I was very sad. I was very sad, and I was trying to - I don't know. I have a lot of distance from it now because I think I got lucky in a lot of ways, and, like, I really got better. Like, I went to therapy, and I - it worked for me.
GROSS: So if the eating disorder was about gaining some kind of control over your body, how does acting relate to that, if at all? Because as an actor, your body's your tool. It's your instrument, and you have to control it and, basically, make it play a different song than when you're just yourself.
KAZAN: The way that my brain connects it up when you asked that question was that I thought, you know, part of my experience of having an eating disorder was that, like, (laughter) my feelings felt too big for me to handle, and I was trying to, like, dampen them in some way. And I think that having that experience of my emotions as being, like, a great ocean that I cannot always handle is one of the reasons that I wanted to be an actor. Having a place to put my feelings has made me a saner person. You know, acting really functions for me in a cathartic way. So maybe it connects up there.
Terry, can I ask you a question?
GROSS: You can try.
KAZAN: So I was listening to your interviews with Philip Roth before talking to you today, just in preparation. And I thought like, oh, you interview so many people in this really intimate way, and then they pass, and you often, like, re-air those episodes when they pass. And I thought, oh, it must be such a funny experience for you to have this, like, intimate, sort of - touch all these people in this intimate way, and then you're touching, like, really famous people that people are then, like, mourning online. But you've had, like, a one-on-one conversation with all these people.
Like, did you have a feeling when Philip Roth passed of, like, oh, I know him - I talked to him seven times? Or do feel - does a person like that still feel, like, at arm's length to you?
GROSS: Well, it's a bit of both because I know, like, Philip Roth and I were not friends.
GROSS: We never met in person. We just had our interviews. But I just - I really love his writing and felt like those conversations went really well. I mean, I felt like he - he was just so interesting. So when he died, I thought, well - I was very sad. And I thought, I'll never be able to talk with him again, and I'll never be able to read a new book by him again.
GROSS: So that - you know, of course, there's still books he's written that I haven't read because (laughter) his body of work was so large. So that - you know, that's some comfort. But yeah. But you're right. You know, I'm both at arm's length and yet still feel very connected.
And one thing I'll say while we're on the subject of re-airing interviews when somebody died is that this is a really fraught period for our show in the sense that, you know, more people are dying now because of the epidemic. And we've devoted - I don't know - two or three Fridays just to obituaries. There was one Friday when I think we had, like, three obituaries on the show, and that just made me really sad. And, you know, we're bracing for more. And so it's - it makes me feel good that we have the interviews that we can play to help remember somebody who's - you know, whose public life, whose work had such meaning for so many people. So it, you know, makes me proud we can do that, but it just makes me really, really sad.
KAZAN: Yeah. Well, I have to say, I find them to be - when someone passes that I really care about and you re-air one of the episodes, it means a lot to me. And it makes a space for me to mourn, even though I don't know that person.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. Like, we might not really know them, but we know their work, and the work is, like, a manifestation of some of who they are. So it's easy to feel like we know them. And they gave us the gift of their work, so, you know, there's so much to be grateful for, grateful to them for.
GROSS: It's a sad time. Let's be honest. There's just so much sadness in the world right now.
KAZAN: There really is. It's really hard to do all the things that you need to do in a day and have that, like - a very pressureful storm cloud just hanging over.
GROSS: And it's like what you were saying before about being kind of grateful that your toddler is so consuming of your time because it's exhausting, but it's something - you know, something really wonderful and necessary to focus on.
KAZAN: That's right.
GROSS: Because you can't just sit around all day thinking about how frightening the virus is and all the people who are sick and the people who have died and fears that, you know...
KAZAN: And lost their health insurance and lost their jobs.
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, listen - I wish you and your family, your extended family, I wish them well, continued good health. And thank you for taking some time to talk with us. And I really appreciate your work.
KAZAN: Thank you. And to you, Terry, your work means so much to me.
GROSS: Zoe Kazan is one of the stars of HBO's six-part adaptation of Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America." The final episode will be shown tonight.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jennifer Finney Boylan, who's written extensively about her life as a transgender woman. She's written a new memoir called "Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs." It's about seven phases of her life and the dogs she loved during each phase. In her New York Times op-ed column, she's been writing about her life during the pandemic. Boylan was a consultant on two series - "Transparent" and "I Am Cait," about Caitlyn Jenner. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
We dedicate today's show in memory of Gene Shay, who has died of complications from COVID-19. He was 85. Jean was a galvanizing force in Philadelphia's folk music scene for decades. He co-founded the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962 and continued to emcee it until 2016. He hosted folk music radio shows in Philly through the decades on commercial and public radio stations, including WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced. From 1995 until he retired from the air in 2015, Gene hosted a show on the Philly public radio station WXPN.
One of the many stories about him is that, through the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, he helped book Bob Dylan's first performance in Philly. It was 1963. Forty-five people came. And Dylan was paid $150. Thank you, Gene, for the music and musicians you brought us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Well, if you’re traveling in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. If you go when the snowflakes storm, when the rivers freeze and summer ends, please see she has a coat so warm to keep her from the howling winds. Please see if her hair hangs long, it rolls and flows down her breast. Please see for me if her hair's hanging long for that's the way I remember her best. I'm wondering if she remembers me at all. Many times I've often prayed in the darkness of my night, in the brightness of my day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.