by Terry Gross
Actor Zoe Kazan describes her new HBO series, The Plot Against America, as “scarily prescient.” The show, which is adapted from Philip Roth‘s 2004 novel, is set in the U.S. between 1940 and 1942, and imagines a world in which aviator Charles Lindbergh has defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the race for the presidency, moving the country toward fascism.
“It’s about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction?” Kazan says. “What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?”
The show presents an alternate history in which America does not fight against the Nazis during World War II. Instead, plans have been announced to relocate Jewish families from urban areas to the “heartland,” under the pretense of helping them better assimilate into America.
“I think we’re seeing it now, even more than when we shot the [show], like the ways that Asian Americans are being treated right now … and our president getting on stage and saying, ‘Chinese virus,’ ” she says. “Things like that feel like something that could have come straight out of this book.”
On taking on the role of Bess, the mother in The Plot Against America,shortly after becoming a mother herself
It’s really interesting for me, because I think when, culturally, we talk about, like, a “strong woman” that has become sort of shorthand for like someone who kicks ass and takes names — and this is not that person. She is making a roast chicken and making sure that her kids’ clothes are mended properly when they go to school.
But it was really interesting for me to sort of be confronted with this archetype of a mother exactly at a time when I was a new mother myself. My baby was about six months old when I started filming. It [was] really complicated for me, because my body had sort of become totally at the behest of my child. I was breastfeeding and waking up at all hours for her. My love was totally funneled toward this new person, and my experience of my body was really different than it had been before. And your body is your tool as an actor, and so that felt really complicated to me. I felt like I didn’t really know how I would begin to separate out my parts again and be able to use my body and myself to act.
And then I was playing this person who in large part is deriving her strength from being really selfless in this very similar way. She’s totally oriented towards her children and her husband’s happiness, their happiness is her happiness. Keeping her home nice is of tantamount importance to her. And so it was very confronting to me to have to enter into that person and find her strength and find her opinions and find how she was a person and not just a mother and a wife. And it really dovetails for me into a similar re-finding myself within this new role of mother and making those boundaries in a healthy way.
On connecting the story of The Plot Against America to her own family’s history — Kazan’s grandfather, director Elia Kazan, testified in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era, and named names
I don’t normally like answering questions about my grandfather, particularly about his experiences with the HUAC hearings, partially because it happened so long before I was born, and I by no means feel like an expert. Partially because it’s such a terrible chapter in our country’s history, and I feel a morbid fear of getting something wrong and/or hurting further the victims of those hearings or their families, and also because the large majority of my family are incredibly private people who have chosen very private lives. I never want to feel like a spokesperson for them, or that I’m betraying their trust or anything of that nature. And that’s why it makes me emotional sometimes to talk about it.
I think that the parallels are right there, and I couldn’t help but think of my own family history. … It’s a strong personal connection to the material. I think it probably would have been really disrespectful to what we were trying to make if I didn’t bring some of those thoughts and feelings to bear in filming those scenes. … I thought very deeply about my grandparents and their choices and what it must have meant to them to be in that position, and frankly, it helped me, I think, take one step in my personal maturation.
I think my experiences, especially in my 20s, were so, so very different than those of my male partner that I can’t begin to describe, not just in terms of what opportunities were available to us, but also in terms of the way that we were treated. … The very casual sexism and sexual harassment that I received, which I’m sure is like nothing compared to what some other women have faced, and especially women of color, but I would come home and tell Paul about what this producer said to me or whatever, and he’d be like, “No, he can’t have said that!” “Yes, he did! He did!” Ask any of my girlfriends or actresses what they’ve been through.
On speaking up when she encounters sexism
I feel like I’ve gained more ability to do so as I’ve gotten older, and also, frankly, because I need the approval of other people less for both financial and career reasons. Like, speaking up for myself and saying, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that,” or “I’m not going to wear that costume,” or whatever it may be, that has definitely gotten easier for me as I’ve gotten older.
But within the last few years, I had a producer send me an email saying, “You sure have such a big brain for such a small body.” It’s stuff like that. I think, “I bet he’s not sending emails like that to my male co-stars,” but I didn’t say anything because, frankly, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I still had to work for him for the next few months.
It’s complicated. I don’t think it’s all gonna happen in one generation. I hope to God that I am setting a good example for my daughter. I know my mother set a good example for me. In fact, I think in some ways my mother felt more comfortable speaking up for herself than I did. I hope that progress starts going by leaps and bounds and not by inches.
On how having an eating disorder when she was younger led her to acting
Part of my experience of having an eating disorder was that my feelings felt too big for me to handle, and I was trying to dampen them in some way. And I think that having that experience of my emotions as being a great ocean that I cannot always handle, it is one of the reasons that I wanted to be an actor. I always loved to write. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but the idea of being that divorced from my body scared me, and made me think, all these big, oceanic feelings I have, where will I put them? Having a place to put my feelings has made me a saner person. Acting really functions for me in a cathartic way.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.