Ruby Sparks (which you can see on July 25) is technically a romantic comedy, but it’s a far cry from the girl-meets-boy-hilarious-highjinks-ensue-cue-kiss-in-the-rain film we’ve seen about 83 times too many. Instead of worn-out tropes, Zoe drew themes from the plot of Pygmalion to tell the love story of Calvin (played by Zoe's real life boyfriend Paul Dano) and Ruby. Calvin, a young novelist, is struggling to find inspiration for his latest book when Ruby comes to him in a dream. He wakes up to find that this literal dream girl has manifested into a real person. As fantastical as the tale is, the messages behind it ring true for anyone who has ever faced the unbearable demand of living up to the ideal image of a romantic relationship.
We sat down with the 28-year-old star to talk about shopping (anyone who wears items from Beacon’s Closet on the red carpet has our stamp of approval), writing, and what’s next for this more-than-triple threat.
In Ruby Sparks, the character of Calvin literally creates Ruby. Fictional characters might not come to life in reality, but people still try to mold the people that they're in a relationship with. Have you ever done this (or had someone try and do it to you)? What's your best advice for dealing?
"I think the hardest thing in the world is to accept the person that you love for who they are. I think that's a lifelong process because what you're really grappling with is yourself and your own limitations. I do feel like I've been in relationships where I've been lonely because I've felt like they loved some other person named Zoe Kazan who was one shade off from who I actually am. When I was younger that felt like it required something from me, but as I've gotten older, I think I've realized that's just how we function. Everybody has an idea of somebody before they get to know them, you know? You meet someone, you're attracted to them, they smell great to you, and immediately a whole lifetime of romantic ideals just gets poured on to that person. Part of the process of loving someone, or learning to love someone, is that, as you get to know them, you have to strip those ideas away and really be there with the real person."
Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy, but it's different than anything we've seen before. How did you land on this idea? What's your writing process like?
"Yeah, so I was really inspired by the Pygmalion myth. I had been thinking about it and trying to figure out what I would do with that and one morning I woke up and — just like Calvin waking up to to the dream of Ruby — I woke up and Calvin and Ruby were sort of in my head and the first maybe 10 pages of the movie were just there. So I wrote it down and, at a certain point, maybe 20 pages in, I knew what the broad comedy version of this movie would be, but that wasn't really what I wanted to write. I needed more time to think, so I put it away from about six months and then came back to it and wrote it very quickly, maybe two-and-a-half, three weeks. After that, Valerie and Jonathan [the directors] came on and there was a full process of rewriting that took about nine months. I think my favorite romantic comedies are movies that defy the genre. When Harry Met Sally is really a friendship movie. Tootsie is really about coming into yourself. Eternal Sunshine is about loss. They're all categorized as romantic comedies, but these movies are powerful because they contain other things in them. That's the kind of movie I like, so that's the kind of movie I was trying to write.
Did you always see Paul [Dano] as the main character?
"Yeah, you know, very early when I had that first rush of five or 10 pages, I showed them to Paul and he asked if I was writing it for us. At that point, those characters were just so clear and exciting to me that I hadn't even begun to think about the fact that someone was going to have to play them. But as soon as he said that I thought, 'Well, of course that's what I was doing.' I mean, I wrote Calvin 'tall, skinny, glasses.' Who else could I be talking about? From that moment on, I was writing it with us in mind."
Ruby's style is a bit eccentric; for example, she wears neon tights under printed dresses. How would you describe your own style?
"Oh, well, I like playful clothes. I'm a details girl. I like little secret things in clothes. This [points to outfit] is Nina Ricci and I love the butterfly print paired with the flower print. There are a lot of movies I look to that speak to me aesthetically, like Picnic on Hanging Rock or the Gidget movies or Shampoo. I love that '70s California style. I think that, for me, clothes are a way of self-expression. I've basically been the same size since I was 14, give or take 10 pounds, and I have most of the clothes I've worn since then. What I've experienced is that I'll come to hate something and then years later I'll wear it in a new way. I'm always changing. I don't have a uniform. I don't really care about who makes the garment, but I do like things that are well made. I'm small and curvy and sometimes it's hard to find things that fit that body type for some reason, so when I do find something, it's normally something well made."
You've said that, while growing up, your parents let you decide what to wear each day. What was the craziest outfit you ever got away with?
"I dressed as a pioneer for awhile, with a bonnet. I used to always wear a bonnet. That was a big thing. I had like three bonnets and I'd love to wear them, even with normal clothes."
How old were you?
"Oh, like, eight, nine. Maybe ten. There were a lot of leggings worn as pants. I went through a period of time where I thought my collarbones were really alluring and I felt like I needed to hide them, so I wore turtlenecks under everything. That was a weird period. I had this red velvet little gown that my mother cut down to fit us. It was a Halloween item and then it became an everyday item. I don't know. That's why I love being faithful with clothes. It's just whatever mood I am."
Do you have any favorite stores?
"I love Bird. That place is nice, although I've only bought things on sale or maybe Paul has bought me something for my birthday. I love Steven Alan. In L.A., there's a great Steven Alan outlet in Silver Lake. I used to do a lot of thrift shopping, but because of bed bugs, I stopped doing it here and now I only do it in L.A."
How has your style changed since moving from Los Angeles to New York?
"Growing up in L.A., it's always warm, so I never thought about layering. Going to the East Coast changed my style because I started thinking about separates and layering. I used to rely a lot more on wearing a cute dress and now I like to put things together in different ways. That would be a New York influence. In L.A., people are a bit more relaxed about their clothes, the fit of their clothes. Things are a bit looser, things get a bit grungier and it's okay. I think that sort of polish Upper East Side New York thing is less interesting to me. I like things to be a bit more worn in."
You've now written plays, a movie, and you're an actor. What's next for you?
"Well, I filmed three movies after Ruby this year. I'm ready to take a break and get back to writing. Up to this point, I’ve had to less consciously juggle those things. I've had breaks between jobs and I've been able to write during that time, but now I feel that if I want to make time for writing I'm going to have to do that consciously."