When Zoe Kazan walked in to audition for the role of Maureen Grube in Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Revolutionary Road, the tragic Richards Yates novel about 1950s suburban angst, the casting director gave her a swift, appraising glance and declared her too young.
After all, Ms. Kazan—with her big hopeful blue eyes, puffy cheeks and cherubic, heart-shaped face—looked too sweet to play the unfortunately named secretary who puts out for married Frank Wheeler, played by 34-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. But Ms. Kazan, who was then 23 and a year out of Yale, was determined. “I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘I’m going to know this person,’ and then you end up dating them,” said Ms. Kazan on a recent afternoon at Cafe Colonial on East Houston Street, as she picked at a salad of hearts of palm and grilled chicken. “Well, I sort of felt that way about this part. I thought, ‘This one is for me.’”
At the time, Ms. Kazan—granddaughter of the late director Elia Kazan (her parents are screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord)—already had impressive acting credits. After appearing opposite Cynthia Nixon in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, a few small roles in major films followed: The Savages, Fracture and In the Valley of Elah. She’s currently playing Masha, the vodka-swigging depressive in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
When the Transom lunched with her, Ms. Kazan’s brown hair looked like it had just been taken down from an up-do from the previous night’s Seagull performance. Dressed in black jeans, a plaid shirt, red loafers, glasses and one of her boyfriend’s stained sweaters (which she’d found on the floor that morning), the actress has little in common with Revolutionary Road’s tragically naïve Maureen.
“She’s such an innocent. She really doesn’t know what’s going on and has a very different idea of what’s happening than Frank does,” said Ms. Kazan. “I think I’m definitely better-educated, savvier and, you know, more cosmopolitan than that girl.”
Despite three auditions, in which Ms. Kazan read a scene where her character downs a few expensive martinis (she later ends up in bed with Mr. DiCaprio), Ms. Kazan’s age remained a point of concern. Mr. Mendes invited the actress for a 9 a.m. chat at his office in the meatpacking district.
“I was so nervous that I woke up at 6 in the morning and walked around Lower Manhattan for hours before going in there,” she recalled.
Each time Ms. Kazan had auditioned for Mr. Mendes, she’d dressed up and done her makeup ’50s-style. This time, the director instructed her to come dressed as herself. They were just going to talk, he said. Maybe they would do the scene again; maybe not.
Over a croissant and coffee, Mr. Mendes—whose wife, Kate Winslet, plays Mr. DiCaprio’s wife in the movie—asked Ms. Kazan why she wanted to be an actress.
“I told him the truth, which was that as a kid, I had a kind of excessive empathy,” said Ms. Kazan. “I felt for a lot of people I didn’t know, whether they were characters in a book or I was riding the bus with my nanny. I was like this big, walking heart. So I started acting as having a place to put that.”
His curiosity piqued, Mr. Mendes asked what Ms. Kazan thought of Maureen.
“I think sometimes Yates’ misogyny gets in the way of his empathy,” the actress recalled telling Mr. Mendes. “My main intention in approaching Maureen, as I explained to Sam, was not to judge her, not look down on her, but give her a real chance, you know?”
During that meeting, they never actually got to do the scene again; Ms. Kazan got the part.
In the film, Ms. Kazan pulls off the character well. Her frightened, large eyes play to her advantage; she laughs crassly; and she looks perfectly abandoned when Frank leaves her naked, barely covered by a sheet, and tells her she’s been “swell.”
“It’s been cut down to just a topless scene now, but I’m glad for, you know, my parents’ sake,” Ms. Kazan said (she’d done an excruciatingly long nude scene in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). “Also, it was a really hot day when we were shooting in Maureen’s apartment in Harlem with no air-conditioning, and we were all sticky and blotchy. These were just not the best conditions for, like, a nude scene.”
After they finished filming the scene (and Ms. Kazan had donned her robe), Mr. DiCaprio hugged her and told her she had done “a good job.” But Ms. Kazan—whose boyfriend is There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine star Paul Dano—wasn’t too star-struck.
“My crushes were more like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Downey Jr. I actually used to write him letters in prison, like, ‘Please sober up, you’re such a good actor,’” she said, laughing. “Not that I ever sent them. Yeah, I was a little weirdo.”
Ms. Kazan grew up in Venice Beach, Calif. These days she lives in Carroll Gardens (Mr. Dano lives nearby), and isn’t rushing to return to her hometown.
“I love coming home from Times Square and have it be really beautiful and green and having children and families around. If I could stay in Brooklyn all day, I would,” she said. “I think being a young actress in L.A. is not so much fun. I don’t look down on it, but it’s a lot of waiting around. If you’re waiting around in New York, you can walk outside and there are thousands of things to do. In L.A., it’s so isolated and it’s so much more competitive. Also, the whole body image thing—I would rather not engage.”
Ms. Kazan’s grandfather—the famed director of such celebrated films as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront who passed away in 2003 at the age of 94—rarely discussed his films or Ms. Kazan’s planning to become an actress with her.
“We mostly talked about, like, food and backgammon and baseball,” recalled Ms. Kazan. “I wasn’t really aware that he was famous until I was about 12, and even after that, it just never seemed that important.”
But Ms. Kazan was present at the 1999 Oscar ceremony where Mr. Kazan, who had “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the blacklist era in Hollywood, was awarded a lifetime achievement award. (Actors Warren Beatty, Meryl Streep and Helen Hunt cheered; Nick Nolte and Ed Harris sat with their arms folded; Steven Spielberg clapped but remained seated.)
“I was 15, with a mouth full of braces and a really bad haircut. It wasn’t exactly a glamour event for me,” she said. Getting serious again, the actress confessed, “It was odd. In the L.A. newspaper, there was a lot of controversy about whether or not he should even get the award, and that was upsetting. Here was a very old man, who was not 100 percent well, and I just felt like, ‘Don’t pick on my grandpa!’”
After The Seagull finishes its three-month run on Dec. 21, Ms. Kazan plans to take January and February off—her first real break in over a year and half—and spend a little more time with the 24-year-old Mr. Dano. (The two met while acting in Things We Want a little over a year ago; in the Playbill for The Seagull, under Ms. Kazan’s name, is a little note: Thanks P.D. for being my center of gravity always.)
“Actors get a bad rep for a good reason—we could be incredibly selfish, eccentric and weird,” she said. “But it’s nice when I come home and I’m sad and he won’t automatically assume I’m upset about something. He’ll know that I’ve been playing Masha all night. So it will be more like, ‘Let me get you a glass of wine and some food and we’ll calm down.’”
She added: “My parents’ only advice when I started dating was, ‘Never date an actor.’ So when I met Paul, I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I didn’t want to meet you!’”
This reminded Ms. Kazan of one of the few times that her grandfather acknowledged her planning to be an actress and gave her some advice. He was visiting her at Yale and met a boy she was dating—a grad student studying poetry.
“Oh, he’s a poet,” Mr. Kazan said to his granddaughter. “He’s not going to be able to support you if you plan to be an actor.”