The Pretty One opens theatrically this Friday, and it’s always worth noting when a new Zoe Kazan film is released. I’d say no actress gives more feeling when playing underdogs than the immensely talented Indie star, which is why we always fall in love with her characters. This was true two years ago when she played the lead in The Exploding Girl, a jilted young woman with epilepsy. She deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now Kazan (who also wrote and starred in Ruby Sparks) brings tremendous sensitivity (and a lot of humor) to two characters with identity issues in Jenée LaMarque’s debut feature, a light comedy with a touch of sadness. The two young women are identical twins: Laurel, a wallflower who remains home to look after their widower father (John Carroll Lynch), and the dynamic Audrey, who is a successful realtor and has men chasing after her. When Audrey is killed in a car accident, Laurel assumes her identity as her way to cope with her loss and also experience being “the pretty one” finally. She doesn’t even tell her grieving father that she is the one who is alive. Laurel moves into Audrey’s apartment, takes her job, and deals with all of Audrey’s acquaintances–including Basel (a bearded Jake Johnson from TV’s New Girl), the quirky neighbor Audrey detested but Laurel is attracted to; and her boss’s husband Charles (Ron Livingston), with whom Audrey broke off an affair. She then has to face the dire consequences for her deception. The following is a roundtable I took part in with the personable Kazan and LaMarque (who gave birth in August). I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Jenée, I didn’t see your short, Spoonful, which is also about sisters and a death in the family. So did this evolve from that?
Jenée LaMarque (pictured, left): It does share the sister aspect, and it’s sort of darkly comedic in a similar way. It didn’t come from it but it has a similar tone.
DP: Can you tell us a little about the writing process for this?
JL: This was actually the first screenplay that I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft when I was pregnant with my daughter who’s now five, so it’s been quite a journey. During the process, I went to AFI and studied screenwriting. I wrote most of the draft of the script when I was in film school, and then continued revising and writing afterwards. So it was a long process. One of the wonderful boons for the movie was Zoe, who is not only a great actress and very funny but also an incredibly talented screenwriter. She contributed a lot as a writer and storyteller.
Q: Zoe, talk about your part in the collaboration.
ZK: I asked Jenée for something which was above and beyond. I asked her to sit down and talk through the entire script with me. We had the luxury of having the time to do that. I came out to L.A. multiple times and we would sit down and I would say, “Where did this line come from? ” Or: “How funny is this supposed to be?” Or: “Is this moment supposed to be sad?” And we really talked through every moment of the script before we ever shot it, so I had a good idea of what Jenée wanted. And also, during that process, if I got to something that I felt was not going to sound right coming out of my mouth, I would ask to talk about it. Jenée was great about making revisions and also sticking by her guns when she thought we could make something work or if I didn’t understand what her intention was. We did a good job of balancing that.
JL: I think Zoe and Jake Johnson also had great chemistry and could improvise off one another. There are some scenes where the way they communicate is very playful.
ZK: She really encouraged us to do that.
JL: Yes, I really wanted them to follow the structure of the script, but along the way to improvise and make it their own. The moments that I find the most fun are those that I didn’t plan to happen. The improvised moments are funny and real.
ZK: Having that freedom was really cool, because often first-time writers are really cautious about every word in their scripts. I know that I was cautious with my first script for Ruby Sparks. We always tried to do justice to the script, so it was never about trying to make the script better. It was just about letting organic things happen.
Q: Zoe, because you were the screenwriter on Ruby Sparks, were you particularly attached to that movie?
ZK: Yeah, that was a very special experience because that was the first time I had written a script and I’d never been involved in something from start to finish like that before, and I was making it with my boyfriend [Paul Dano] and [the directors] Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris], who’ve known him since he was a teenager. It really felt like a labor of love in a different way. But every time I do a movie, I think it has to be worth investing in completely and I need to love it like it’s coming out of me. I didn’t start writing because I felt I always needed to be in charge but because I felt like I had stories to tell. I do that through acting, too. When I read Jenee’s script, there were parts of me that I felt like I could address through her words better than I had been able to express them through anybody else’s words before. I think Jenée and I both connected on a personal level to the loss experienced in the film. I felt like that was a part of me that I wanted to be able to express. That was a really cool thing. For me it was about connecting to Jenée’s world. She had a very specific vision. She knew what she wanted to do with the camera; she knew what she wanted in terms of tone. That’s something that in a first-time director is really rare.
DP: And did you connect to Audrey or Laurel?
ZK: I connected to the idea that these twins are sort of two sides of one coin. There’s a kind of duality to both characters that was intriguing to me. Audrey is very forward and very confident but is also feels some self-hatred. Laurel is buried inside of herself but has creativity and joy underneath that. I hadn’t been asked to do a lot of really sexy stuff on film before, and that’s a big part of my life–I’ve always been a really sexual person. I went through a period of time when I was “sleeping around,” and I honor that part of myself, rather than calling it immoral. And I was able to show the part of me that still feels like a gawky 13-year-old. There’s a part of me that’s never going to feel pretty, that’s never going to feel like a grown-up, and I liked being able to give life to those parts and say they’re beautiful too and worth looking at. I was just thrilled that Jenée wanted these things, and I was really trying to connect to that.
Q: Playing the twin sisters, did you think of other actresses who’ve done the same?
ZK: I grew up on Hayley Mills’ The Parent Trap becausethat was one of my mom’s favorites from being kid. I loved that. And, well, Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. She’s so good in that movie it’s crazy! After doing what we did in our film, I can’t believe an 11-year-old could do what she did. I watched a lot of movies for inspiration, including a couple of Jane Campion films. Jenée turned me on to some videos this woman made of identical twins who are posed in the same clothes and the same place. Jenée gave me a reading on twins, explaining what it’s like to lose an identical twin–that was probably more helpful than those movies.
Q: Since you play both twins, did you find it hard to perform opposite yourself, particularly with getting the timing right?
ZK: It was really hard, we had to work on that together.
JL: It’s difficult. It took three times as long to shoot the scenes where she was playing both characters. She acted off of a body double, and it was about trying to create a connection between the two of them. There’s a lot of math and calculating. It’s challenging because you create a performance for one twin and then you have to do a second performance.
ZK: And if my body double did something accidentally with her hands that was in the shot, I’d have to match that in my performance. That was hard because it limited me, and I probably became a little Napoleon on set. Do not do that with your hands! Because you’re trained as an actor to be really generous with your scene partner and vibe off of what they’re doing, but I’d watch her with half my brain going, is that going to be in the shot? That’s kind of a challenge. I got so much better at the technical aspects of building scenes after doing that.
DP: In The Exploding Girl and this film, you play young women who underestimate themselves. Did that appeal to you on a personal level and did you identify with them?
ZK: Yeah. I have to put on makeup for a living, it’s part of what I have to do. I grew up essentially an enormous book nerd and I never felt I was the pretty one. I always felt like an odd duck. I think there are parts of yourself that you put away to become a grown-up. You protect yourself. But it’s really wonderful in your acting to be able to bring those things out. I’m not a very shy person but there’s a shy part of me and being able to let that part be is a relief. For instance, on The Exploding Girl, I didn’t wear makeup throughout that whole movie, I did my own hair and those clothes were mine. There’s a release in feeling that you’re not the girl and don’t have an obligation to be pretty. I really felt that on this one. We all go home and throw on sweatpants and take off our makeup and put up our hair up and we look like opossums. There’s a part of all of us that doesn’t feel good about ourselves and this movie deals with that. Audrey went out and convinced the world that she was beautiful and sexy and an adult. But there’s a conundrum because all those insecurities also exist in her–in us–so how do we reconcile that?
JL: There’s the side of us that feels insecure and scared and doesn’t want to take chances and believes we don’t deserve anything. But there’s also the side of us that’s brave and goes out there and takes risks and maybe puts on makeup. There’s value to both sides. I’m not saying that if you’re brave all your problems are going to be solved. That’s not what this movie is saying. I think women deal with that sort of duality and ask, Where do I fit on the spectrum of being a woman?; and Am I going to choose to wear makeup or am I going to not choose to wear makeup? I hope that people honor both sides.
Q: Zoe, what’s next for you?
ZK: I’m just writing a bunch of screenplays right now. And, oh yeah, I wrote a play.
Q: What’s it about?
ZK: An affair.
Q: What about you, Jenée?
JL: I’m also working on a couple of screenplays. I really focused on this movie for the last five years. It’s such an honor to finally be putting it out in the world.
ZK: I’m going to brag about Jenée for a second. After this film came out of Sundance, her script got put on the Black List and was a big deal. I think, Jenée, you’ve had a lot of pressure on you, and now it’s really cool that you’re going to be creative again.
JL: Thank you, Zoe, I’m really excited about that.