For ‘Ruby Sparks’ actress and writer, it’s all about process of creation


Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano star as Ruby and Calvin in the new film “Ruby Sparks.” (Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight)
July 26, 2012

The girl-woman Zoe Kazan plays in “Ruby Sparks” recalls similar male-fantasy figures from other semi-romantic comedies. Like Natalie Portman’s Girl Who Lies in “Garden State,” or Zooey Deschanel’s Girl Who Vanishes in “(500) Days of Summer,” Ruby is exuberant and confounding, childlike yet sexual.

There’s one significant difference. Kazan doesn’t just play the title character in “Ruby Sparks,” which opened Wednesday. She also wrote her.

“I had written two other screenplays before that I did not want to share with the world,” says Kazan, curled on a sofa in a Georgetown hotel suite. “This was the first one where I really felt like I could see the movie it was going to be.”

Ruby has red hair, while Kazan’s is now medium brown; it’s roughly the same shade as that of her co-star and boyfriend, Paul Dano, who’s sitting next to her. Other aspects of Kazan’s appearance, however, seem utterly Ruby: Her bangs hang well past her eyebrows, and she has a sweater wrapped, oddly, around one of her legs. Near her left elbow is a Hello Kitty Band-Aid.

“Ruby Sparks” is about blocked novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Dano, who invents a female character as a writing exercise. The fictional woman, Kazan’s Ruby, comes to life, to Calvin’s initial delight and ultimate dismay. The novelist is the scenario’s prime mover.

Kazan, the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, says she identified with Calvin because of her own experience of writing.

“Something magical does happen,” she says. “I woke up one day, and these people were in my head and they started talking and I wrote it down. I felt like I was downloading big chunks from somewhere.”

Writing, she finds, is more detached than acting: “I feel like I disappear completely. Even when I’m using bits of my life, it’s like I’m just reshaping them into something new. When I’m acting, I feel like I’m always using myself. I’m using my body and my emotions and my physical experiences, and whatever your physical limitations are that day. Whatever the thing is, you have to bring that. Even if you say you’re not bringing it, you are.”

“With writing, you’re not required to bring yourself in, in quite the same way,” she says. “Calvin says that, in the happiest states, it’s coming through, and not from, you. That’s how I feel.”

Kazan calls the script “personal, but not autobiographical.” The main characters in the movie, which was directed by the “Little Miss Sunshine” team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, contain “very little of Paul and me.”

“It’s not us,” Dano agrees. “It’s not a film where Zoe took things that happened in our apartment and put them in the movie. Of course, there are pieces of us as people in the story. I think that’s always the case, even when you’re playing, like, a serial killer.”

If “Ruby Sparks” is a male-centered movie, that reflects Kazan’s theories on the differences between men and women and how they create. “It’s just a different relationship, I think, because women create with their bodies. They give birth to people. Even though I’ve never done that, I think it’s inherent in my psychology. I could bring a person to life. I just need to get sloppy with birth control.” She laughs weakly, and then again, more robustly.

Kazan calls the story of Pygmalion, the artist who falls in love with the female figure he sculpts, “true and meaningful, in a gendered way. A man putting a woman on a pedestal, and a man in the process of creation falling in love with his creation. It’s like Narcissus looking at himself in the water. It’s about loving your own reflection more than a different person.”

“That’s a very heady explanation,” she adds. “A much less heady explanation is that Calvin and Ruby came to me, and there was no way that I could ever reverse their genders. They were themselves already when the idea sprang into my head.”

Kazan and Dano, both 28, live together in Brooklyn, so Dano was there when “Ruby Sparks” was written. When she showed him the first pages, Kazan recalls, “he said, ‘Oh, you’re writing this for us?’ ”

“We joke about it, like he foisted himself on me. But honestly, I was. It just hadn’t entered my consciousness yet. I had described himself exactly, and myself, and they were so clear to me [as characters] that it didn’t even occur to me what I was doing. From that point on, I was really aware of writing for us.”

“I was so excited,” Dano says. “I got to read pages as Zoe wrote it, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure where it was going, but luckily it was good. I didn’t just have to be a good boyfriend and feign excitement. I was excited.”

In the movie, Calvin can make Ruby do anything he writes — even speak French. “I can basically fake two languages, Spanish and French,” Kazan explains, “and I think French is a funnier language than Spanish.”

Kazan also could write her characters to do whatever she wanted. Rather than flaunt this power, she used it to showcase her beau. “I think Paul’s a really funny guy, and he’s played a lot of really serious characters. So getting him to do things that are comedic was a joy to me to write.”

In a sense, “Ruby Sparks” is a superhero movie, and Calvin is the young man who must learn to balance superhuman gifts with everyday responsibility. “I did think about that,” Kazan says. “Especially about his flexing his powers when he makes her speak French. I think that’s a lot like Spider-Man’s learning to shoot webs.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Ruby Sparks

(104 minutes at Landmark E Street, Bethesda Row and AMC Georgetown) is rated R.

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