Garage Magazine

You Will Love Zoe Kazan in 'The Big Sick'

Our cover star talks to GARAGE about playing Kumail Nanjiani's romantic interest in this deeply touching (and very funny) film.
June 27, 2017, 12:30pm
Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani. Photograph courtesy of 'The Big Sick.'

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For the 12th issue of GARAGE, we featured the lovely Zoe Kazan on one of our covers, as photographed by Inez & Vinoodh. Kazan appears in a new romantic comedy, out this month, called The Big Sick. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon based their original screenplay on their real-life love story: Nanjiani's family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan when he was a teenager. With them came the expectation that their children would enter arranged marriages. When he falls in love with Emily Gordon, an American, he's faced with confronting his family's more traditional values. I won't give too much of it away, but after Gordon falls dangerously ill, Nanjiani soon learns to stand up to what's most important to him. Kazan plays Gordon—and she's a delight to watch on-screen. I spoke with her over the phone recently; a condensed and edited version of our conversation appears below.

VICE: How did you approach playing the role of Emily?
Zoe Kazan: Having the film based on real-life experience lent the whole project—for lack of a better word—a real sense of authenticity. It gave credibility to certain events or emotions in the story. You know, often with a film, a producer gets on the phone and says, "Would they really do that?" And in the case of this film, we could say, "Yes, they really did!" In fact, there are things about their true story that would not have even made sense for the film had we followed it perfectly. For example, in their real-life story, they got married three months after she got recovered.

As for the role, I find Emily to be a very compelling and a deeply wonderful person. I was drawn to her immediately. When I first got the job, I thought to myself, This is great; I'll study her and transform myself. But it just wasn't like that because I soon found out that she and I were very much alike. Too alike. She was even wearing the same shirt that I own, and I realized it was a moot exercise. Then it became a matter paying attention to how she is in the world, what her values are, and making sure that everything on the screen is in line with that. It became really helpful having her there as a resource—being able to go over to her and ask her directly, "What was this moment like for you?" Even though the story is highly fictionalized, I wanted to know what it was like for her when she woke up from the coma, and she told me how much the tracheal intubation hurt her throat, and how it took her months to recover her voice. I would have never known that. And I was able to use that in the film.

I found you so compelling in this film. We need to fall in love with Emily—just as Nanjiani does—before she undergoes an induced coma and essentially disappears from the screen. When Emily emerges from it, she meets a changed Nanjiani. What do you think allows Emily to give love a second chance? What did you have to consider emotionally as an actor?
That part of the plot came out me saying over and over in the room that she needs a second act. Everyone else in this story has a second act, and she slept through hers. Usually for a character, the second act is what leads them to change. I kept saying she needs her own process, because her priorities were rearranged by this illness. So with one of the drafts, we folded it into the story. But I also think—without giving away too much of the plot—that it was important for her to articulate the more complicated feelings she had about the relationship. It's important when she says that she can't be the reason Kumail is not with his family anymore. She had to think that through.

And frankly, she's dealing with her physical illness. When she woke up, everyone around her was ecstatic and just so happy she was awake, for them it's this cause for celebration—but she was really miserable. She was dealing with her illness for the first time and in a lot of pain and had undergone multiple surgeries. That motivates some of her reluctance to jump back into a relationship.

The film is a love story in the simplest sense, with some great comedy woven throughout, but it has received a lot of praise for the way that it honestly portrays the life of a Pakistani American. As someone working in the film industry, what do you think of representation in film? It seems to me that independent films are more ahead of this than Hollywood, but Hollywood is trying to address it more and more. (Big question, I know.)
The issue of representation in film is usually a conversation about employment and the discussion is about whether we are working with actors of colors and writers and directors of colors, and that's a very important conversation to have. But what's most important is that we have a diversity of stories being told. When you have stories of white straight affluent people, there becomes a kind of monotony that reinforces stereotypes in our culture. When we open our arms to a greater diversity of storytellers and stories, we end up with stories on the screen or page or that reflect how America actually is. We live in an increasingly divisive country, and we have been for a long time. What a lack of diversity does is create a monolith of who we see on-screen, and it's a false mirror of ourselves. What an audience sees on a screen changes what they think. I was listening to the podcast Hidden Brain, and the host Shankar Vedantam interviewed all of these social scientists; they were discussing biases against Muslims. There were studies that showed that when people are showed images of Muslims portrayed not as terrorists, they are more likely to think highly of Muslims.

Has making this movie changed you?
As I get older, I become more aware of the disparity and privilege and injustice in the world. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, as well as in a very liberal household where diversity was prized, and I went to schools that were fairly diverse, too—but I made a very naïve assumption as a young person that there was a greater sense of empathy and fairness in the world than there is. As I get older—and I'm not saying that was long-lived—my experience becomes deeper and my understanding becomes greater. It's made me a lot more passionate and more vocal about championing voices unlike my own. But I'm also allowing my own voice take up the room. White women have a greater platform than women of color, absolutely, but we have much less privilege than most white men. That this is my story and my voice and I'm going to keep raising it and not let anyone shame me. This is something that I feel much more strongly about than I ever did ten years ago.

What's striking to me is that I read so many books growing up, and I found diversity in literature quite easily. Take, for example, Jhumpa Lahiri's short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Her book confronts many of the same issues of that Kumail's character has to face with his family in The Big Sick: the obligation one has toward what is considered home, the way the second generation will invariably respond to a new country differently than the first. But her book was published in 1999. It is striking that this film is being released in 2017, almost a decade later.
I'm with you on that. Historically, novels have gone before and have been able to go further than what we see on film. Look at what James Baldwin was writing about and what the movies were showing on the screen at the same time. The disparity is enormous.

Did you watch I Am Not Your Negro? I thought it was terrific.
I did. James Baldwin is an important person for me; he always has been to my family. We all read his books growing up; he had a larger-than-life presence in our life—I mean, actually, because my dad has a portrait of him in our house. But yes, I've long been a reader of James Baldwin.

Did you anticipate the reaction this film was going to have?
I felt so drawn to this project when I first read the script, but I had no idea how the rest of the world would react. At that point, too, all the pieces hadn't come into place. They were still making changes to the story, and Holly [Hunter] and Ray [Romano] hadn't come on yet—but I knew I hadn't seen this before. And that's very unusual. When we were making it, we had something special. We had a very long rehearsal process because we weren't going to have that much time on set, and Michael Showalter, our director, was incredibly calm. When we didn't make our day, there was a feeling in the room of plenty and warmth and empathy and that all of our voices were included. So I felt that this was all pointing the film in the right direction, but there's no way to know how it will be received in the world or how it will turn out.

I'm incredibly excited that critics are writing about the movie the way they are because I can't imagine something I feel more passionate about than what I'm putting into the world right now. It's not polemical, it's not trying to tell you how to think, it's not preachy or political—it's just trying to tell this very specific story that is about is about this Pakistani man and his family. I want my relatives whose politics are different than mine to see it because I think they'll really love it. I think there's something that has its arms-wide-open attitude to everyone. It has this warmth that makes me feel like it'll be more likely for people who might feel politically different from me to take a chance on seeing it.

And what do you have coming up that you can tell us about?
I've written a play that is going to go up in Lincoln Center Theater at Lincoln Center in October. It's speculative fiction: It's about a world in which we have destroyed our environment, and we have to go underground. It's not dystopian or utopian, and I'm really excited about it—we're lining up a really wonderful cast right now.

Will you act in it?
I'm not going to be in it. Lila Neugebauer (she recently directed Annie Baker's The Antipodes) will direct it.

I can't wait to see it. Congratulations.
Thank you. I actually wrote it before the election, and I've been working on it for five years, so it's nice to finally have it out there in the world. Part of the play is about living in an interactive world with artificial intelligence, and I don't like to think of myself glued to my phone, but I realized I have a very emotional relationship to my phone: when I leave my house, I feel naked. This play came out of that uncanny feeling.

This happened to me, I was on a flight the other day and my palms got sweaty because I couldn't check my phone.
It's worth exploring whatever it is that has all of us glued to our devices. But it's also about what's happening in the world right now; I'm always convinced something terrible will happen, and I won't know because I won't have my phone. I didn't have service when Paul and I went out to Fort Tilden the other day. I got really anxious that something bad would have happened and I wouldn't know about it—it's not good. It's like an abusive relationship.