Zoe Kazan On the Stereotype-Shattering, Unexpectedly Urgent Comedy of Her New Film The Big Sick

The actress discusses her new film The Big Sick and how the election of Donald Trump made her reconsider her role in Hollywood.

Zoe Kazan - September 2017
Photograph by Bruno Staub, Styled by Ethel Park; Hair by Braydon Nelson for Redken at Julian Watson Agency; Makeup by Georgi Sandev for Chanel at Streeters; Digital Technician: Jordan James; photography assistant: Evan Browning; fashion assistant: Costa Andrinopoulos

When the dramatic comedy The Big Sick premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January, its star Zoe Kazan had just boarded a plane bound for Washington, D.C. Kazan and her family—11 women in total, including young cousins and a septuagenarian aunt—were headed to the capital together to attend the Women’s March on Washington.

Even despite Kazan’s absence, it was an auspicious day for a premiere. “The movie is partially about the Muslim-American experience, and the way that Trump and his cronies have vilified that community I think is really dangerous and a form of violence,” she said recently. “So it felt so good to me to be putting that movie into the world that day.”

The screening was followed by a two-day bidding war among distributors including Fox Searchlight, Netflix, and Amazon Studios, the latter finally emerging victorious and purchasing the Michael Showalter-directed film for $12 million. “When I landed, I got a million texts,” Kazan recalled. “It was really surreal to me. I was just sleeping on an air mattress in my cousin’s basement [in D.C.] while we were selling our film.”

The Big Sick, which is based on co-star and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife and co-writer Emily V. Gordon, stars Nanjiani as a lightly fictionalized version of himself: a standup comedian and Uber driver named Kumail, a first-generation Pakistani immigrant whose parents are pushing him towards an arranged match. At a standup gig in Chicago one night, Kumail meets Emily, a grad student and aspiring therapist played by Kazan, and they strike up a relationship—only, even as it grows more serious, Kumail keeps it from his parents, fearing their disapproval. Predictably, when Emily finds out she blows up, leaves him—and then falls unexpected ill. Enter Emily’s parents Beth and Terry, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who are just as wary of Kumail, having heard the saga from their daughter, as his own parents might be of Emily.

Yet Kumail, Beth, and Terry grow close over days and nights in the hospital sitting vigil over a comatose Emily. And despite its somber subject, the film treats the xenophobia levied at Muslim-Americans with a touch of levity: A heckler at Kumail’s standup set demands he “go back to ISIS,” and during a tense lunch in the hospital cafeteria, Emily’s father Terry asks Kumail his opinion on the 9/11 attack.

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, 2017. Photo courtesy Amazon Studios.

“Anti,” Kumail responds. Long beat. “We lost 19 of our best men,” he quips.

The joke is both funny and discomfiting. “The film is very casual in the way that it treats a family that is part of America that other people would treat as ‘other’. It’s part of the American portrait,” Kazan told me. “The film itself I don’t think is political, but I think it’s very meaningful to have it come out in this political moment.”

Still, The Big Sick, in its life-imitating-art-imitating-life way, has dovetailed with the political reality. On May 4, as Congress passed Trump’s American Health Care Act, a bill that would begin to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Kazan sat curled in a chair in a Manhattan photo studio, quietly musing about how her role in the movie forced her to confront the privilege of having access to affordable, high-quality health care throughout her life.

“That’s the unspoken thing about this story: hospital care is incredibly expensive,” Kazan said. “It’s something I’ve taken for granted it a very real way in my life.”

In the months following her diagnosis about a decade ago, Gordon spent countless hours on the phone with insurers attempting to unravel payments. According to Kazan, Gordon is now insured as a member of the Writers Guild of America.

That’s particularly salient on this day, I observed.

“Yes,” Kazan said emphatically. (Later, she tweeted, “I hope the 53% of white women who voted for Trump are ready to pay out of pocket for their pregnancies & cancer screenings.”)

Kazan and Gordon grew close over the course of making The Big Sick. “I expected it to be really strange to be on set with her, making out with her husband,” Kazan said. “And it just wasn’t. It was as normal as that can be.”

On the first day they met, at a hotel bar in Los Angeles, Gordon wore an Equipment shirt, white and dotted with tiny stars, that Kazan also owns, setting the tone for their relationship.

“Having her on set was so wonderful, especially in a room dominated by men—even though they’re super enlightened men. It was really nice to have a female advocate,” Kazan said. “The way you had crushes on older girls when you were in elementary school—that’s how I feel about Emily.”

Following the election, Kazan, who is the granddaughter of the director Elia Kazan, briefly considering giving up acting in favor of activism. Now she says the toxicity the Trump administration has directed at women has only made her more conscious of the kinds of roles she accepts and the projects she takes on. “It has, in a way, redefined for me what standards I want to hold a script to,” she said.

This also includes seeing her own projects through to completion. The day after the election, she went on a walk in Prospect Park with a friend, the theater director Lila Neugebauer, who mused that a play that Kazan has been working on now for six years, which she described as “about a world in which we’ve destroyed our environment,” should probably go up in the next year. This fall, After the Blast will open in New York, with Neugebauer directing.

While balancing her own stage and screen work, Kazan is also in the editing room for Wildlife, an adaptation of the Richard Ford novel she and her longtime partner, the actor Paul Dano, optioned and produced, with Dano directing and Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal starring. (“It makes me really want to direct myself,” Kazan said.)

Also this fall, Kazan will appear in the new David Simon HBO drama The Deuce, playing James Franco’s Italian-American wife with shady mob ties. Like many of her recent projects, it was a departure from her usual fare, but a challenge she relished.

“The voice on the page was really strong,” she recalled of her initial attraction to the part. “She’s not actually powerful in the world, but she finds herself to be powerful.”

To prepare, she watched films like Goodfellas, but that wasn’t where she found the part. “Honestly, they put me in this crazy Nancy Sinatra wig,” she recalled. “That did a lot of the work for me. I put that on, and I was like, ‘Oh, I know who this bitch is.’”

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