By JASON ZINOMAN
Published: September 23, 2011
AT the end of a 90-minute conversation Jesse Eisenberg announced that what he really would like to do is write a musical. To which Zoe Kazan responded, “That’s the most impressive thing you’ve said this whole time.” Mr. Eisenberg answered back by listing other comments he had made. “Musical theater totally trumps that,” she retorted.
Merrick Morton/Sony — Columbia Pictures
Ms. Kazan, 28, and Mr. Eisenberg, who will be 28 next month, trade barbs in a way that only people who run in the same circles would. These actors have known each other for years. They are both slightly built New Yorkers known for intelligent performances dramatizing eccentric anxiety. Mr. Eisenberg is more famous because of blockbuster movies like “The Social Network,” but Ms. Kazan has more experience onstage, starring most recently in the revival of “Angels in America.” But they both give the impression that they are younger than they are, of being indie even when acting in Hollywood or on Broadway. Now they have something else in common: They have each written a play that has a debut next month.
Ms. Kazan’s “We Live Here,” a dysfunctional-family drama set before a wedding, opens atManhattan Theater Club on Oct. 12, the same day that Mr. Eisenberg’s “Asuncion” begins previews at the Cherry Lane Theater. Mr. Eisenberg stars in his comedy, a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, as a naïve blogger whose ideals clash with his life experience. On a recent morning they chatted with Jason Zinoman over coffee. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. It’s a cliché for actors to say, “I want to direct,” but less often do I hear them say, “I want to write a play.” Why did you do it?
ZOE KAZAN I always wrote. My parents are writers. It just seemed like something people did. I took a writing class in college, liked it, and my first year out of school I couldn’t get a job, so I wrote a play. I never wanted to be a playwright. I just didn’t say no to any of my interests. I don’t have any hobbies.
JESSE EISENBERG People ask me what my hobbies are in interviews, and I always say biking. But all I bike for is to get to rehearsal more quickly. I have no hobbies either.
KAZAN Way to go. I bet you and I would make fascinating dinner companions.
EISENBERG Pure narcissism. We could have separate dinners alone.
KAZAN I am my own wife.
Q. Jesse, tell me about your play.
EISENBERG It’s about a writer obsessed with big issues but who doesn’t do anything about them. I do what I like to do, explore parts of myself that I am embarrassed by. I grew up in an apolitical household. I never left the country. When I became an adult, I started traveling and became interested in politics, and I probably talked about things in a silly, ignorant way. So I explored this in myself and exaggerated it for comedic effect.
Q. How exaggerated is it? One of the main characters, the one played by you, gets mugged and then sympathizes with his attackers.
EISENBERG I was mugged one night in New York and slammed into a concrete pillar, and I did an interview where I said I completely understand why they attacked me. It was a poor, black neighborhood. Someone sent me an article saying: “You ignorant idiot. It’s more offensive to defend these people. It’s more racist to defend them.” He’s right, and that is the impetus for the first scene.
Q. Jesse’s play deals with a relationship between brothers, while yours is about an equally fraught sibling relationship.
KAZAN I have a sister who I am close to. I was interested in the idea of the sister relationship in general. I wrote a first draft in fall of 2009. MTC commissioned it, and they gave me some money. When I was acting in “A Behanding [in Spokane],” I was going in five hours early and working on it there.
Q. Did Martin McDonagh [the author of “Behanding’] give feedback?
KAZAN He read it.
EISENBERG [Imitating Mr. McDonagh] How come no one gets his head sawed off in this?
KAZAN You don’t know, Jesse, you haven’t read it.
EISENBERG Listen, I read the play, but I think you left out a page where someone gets his tongue cut out and stapled to his eye.
KAZAN I guess I don’t really seek notes from a broad range of people. It’s more like we were becoming friends, and I was going early and he was like: What are you doing?
Q. Jesse, who do you give work to?
EISENBERG If I think my play is bad, I’ll send it to my mother because she only gives me compliments. If I think it’s good, jeez, I don’t know. My mom calls me every 16 minutes, and she says: “That’s great sweetie. You’re my favorite child out of the three of you. Why are you not president?”
Q. Zoe, you grew up with two screenwriters as parents.
KAZAN My parents will sit down at the dining-room table and give notes on each other’s scripts. It’s the worst thing in the world. It’s like the house is burning down. It’s awful for my sister and me.
EISENBERG You should give your script to my mother. She would be real encouraging.
KAZAN I would love that. Then maybe I would be her favorite child.
Q. Which is the biggest challenge for you as a writer: character, plot or language?
EISENBERG Aspects of each. It’s a cop-out of an answer. At each point I come to a problem with a plot point or character, it seems insurmountable. Or is it unsurmountable? Not to be surmounted? So language is my answer.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
KAZAN I think action should be revealed through character, so if you have a plot problem, it’s probably a character problem. It’s fun and easy to write language, but there were things I loved that I had to get rid of because they are no longer carrying their weight.
Q. Does the fact you are actors have any impact on the amount of trust you have that your cast will find the right subtext in your lines?
KAZAN My rewriting process has been a lot about taking away the explicit and letting the subtext speak for itself. Sam [Gold, who is directing the play] is pushing me to be brave in pursuit of that. I think it’s hard for an actor.
Q. One thing that struck me about both your plays is that in an age when plays are becoming more cinematic in structure, yours are not.
KAZAN We both work in film, so if we are going to write a play, why not write a play?
EISENBERG There’s something strange about theater. My characters consistently demonize elitism, but of course it’s taking place in a theater where only so many people can see it. I’ve been in silly popcorn movies — the kind of thing that as an actor you might feel embarrassed about — but those movies reach many more people. In a play you’re basically performing for rich people.
Q. Broadway was once the ultimate in success for a young dramatist. How do you think of it now?
KAZAN Broadway is different now than in our parents’ generation. The number of straight plays opening there now is so small compared to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. I see many more plays Off Broadway by dint of ticket price and what’s being produced. If it costs more, it has to reach a larger audience. That’s why there aren’t more risky plays on Broadway.
EISENBERG I don’t consider Broadway for us — as theatergoers. I never even consider going there to see something.
KAZAN I want to see “Book of Mormon,” but for $400? Look, [turning to Mr. Eisenberg] for 60 bucks, 65 bucks I can see your play, right?
EISENBERG $75, actually. Listen I know someone who can get you in.
KAZAN $75? I’m not going to see your play.
EISENBERG Hey, I was in a zombie movie.
Q. Zoe, you also wrote a movie called “He Loves Me” that is supposed to come out next year. What is it about?
KAZAN It’s a magic realist romantic comedy. Paul [Dano, who is her boyfriend] plays a Jonathan Safran Foer-type writer who has writer’s block. He has one big novel and can’t follow it up. He starts to dream about this girl and then magical high jinks ensue. But it’s rooted in reality and comes from my experience. I was in relationships in my late teens with much older men and always felt like a piece of clay. But when I got older, I wasn’t so fluid as a person anymore. My relationships got better but harder. I wanted to write about that.
Q. Jesse, you just finished shooting a Woody Allen movie currently titled “The Bop Decameron.” Why do actors always adopt his mannerisms when starring in his films? Is it because his humor is so influential or is it in the cadences of the lines?
EISENBERG Those two plus a third reason, which is that after each take, he’s giving you notes and his voice is so iconic and funny and specific. Its impossible not to [imitate it]. You also want to indulge fully in being in a Woody Allen movie. He would say, “Don’t be hamstrung by dialogue and say whatever you want.” And I just end up making his jokes. At one point I realized after I did a scene that I made a joke from “Manhattan.”
KAZAN Steal from the best, man.
EISENBERG Just not in front of him. Go down the block first.