A version of this essay appeared in issue no. 12 of Garage Magazine, on newsstands now.
I knew Zoe Kazan long before I knew Zoe Kazan. It was in 2009, the year after I graduated from college and the year before I made my first real movie, that Zoe starred in The Exploding Girl, a deceptively gentle film about a college girl being slowly abandoned by a faraway boyfriend. I remember that, although little actual drama transpired during the course of the film, I could have watched for many hours more than its actual duration. There was one particular scene, in which Zoe, sweaty and mussed like a toddler, awoke panicky from a nap. I didn't understand how someone could look so much like they were actually sleeping and actually coming to. I still don't.
I have since learned that this is the power of Zoe as an actor, as a writer, and as a real-life presence: to make small moments feel big, to knock you off guard with her implicit understanding of human behavior, and to make waking up and carrying on look easy.
I met Zoe briefly at a party where she explained, to a rapt audience, that she was currently wearing everything in her closet from left to right. It took the guesswork out of getting dressed, she said. If she couldn't figure out how to wear something (even a summer item in winter), it had to be donated. This seemed like an impossibly ingenious project, almost Holly Golightly in its creativity and whimsy (she would later tell me on a random weekday that she had "a case of the mean reds") and I wished I was braver about asking her how she accessorized.
In the summer of 2012 I went to see Ruby Sparks, Zoe's first produced screenplay in which she also starred. I watched it at a little arthouse theater in Brooklyn, now defunct, unaware that I was not far from where she and her onscreen/real-life/sometimes creative partner Paul Dano were living at the time. I'm embarrassed to say I felt that immature tug of not necessarily wanting it to be great—not because I didn't want another woman to succeed in our ass-kicking, brutal industry, but because I didn't want to feel the nausea of longing that I could know her and talk to her.
Ruby Sparks made more of an impression than I was prepared for. I marveled at the micro elements—dialogue, casting, the wise costume flourishes—but even more at the macro ones. Without waffling, Zoe's movie single-handedly dismantled one of the most nefarious tropes of the 2000s: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She illustrated how corrosive it can be when men project their hopes, dreams, and needs onto autonomous women and make them into icons against their will. She also seemed to be fighting, powerfully and successfully, against the way men are apt to interact with women like Zoe. Zoe is petite, with big eyes and a mouth like a pink bow. Her voice is capable of going up a full octave when she is excited (mostly around dogs, I would later learn). But her film showed a steely refusal to be made into something adorable, to be kewpie-fied. She was not going to fall into muse territory.
When I saw Zoe a year later at a big fashion event we STILL weren't friends. It was a strange sensation: seeing someone I barely knew and craving her like an ex. I didn't yet grasp that Zoe was as anxious at these events as I was, and I made a fumbling attempt to express my agitation.