From Joel and Ethan Coen, the Netflix original film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part Western anthology in which each chapter tells a distinct and unique story about the American frontier. In the segment entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) meets fellow loner Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and the two start to grow fond of each other on the Oregon Trail, until they’re faced with the sometimes savage realities of life in the American West.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Zoe Kazan talked about how she came to be a part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, what she loved about her character, what makes being in a Coen Brothers movie such a memorable experience, and that the filmmakers are on her list of saying a definite yes to, anytime a project of theirs might come her way. She also talked about how the experience of making Ruby Sparks compared to the experience of making Wildlife, which was directed by longtime boyfriend Paul Dano, and whether she’d ever consider directing a project, herself.
Collider: When the opportunity to be in a Coen Brothers Western came your way, what did you have to do, on your end, to ensure that opportunity became a reality?
ZOE KAZAN: Oh, my god, that’s exactly the correct question. I feel like I just got very lucky on this one, but I did work my ass off, trying to make it happen. When you see their name in your inbox, on an audition sheet, there’s no feeling quite like that one. I did as much preparation as I possibly could, and then I went in hoping that I didn’t get in my own way. I think it’s very easy to psyche yourself out, when you’re walking into a room with your heroes. I felt very lucky, on my call-back, that when I walked in it was Bill [Heck] who I was gonna be reading with because he and I had done Angels in America together. We had played husband and wife, and I knew him so well that I had this enormous feeling of relief. Having one friendly face in that room and one person that I knew how to play with already, really made a difference for me.
Are you somebody who can walk out of an audition and just forget about it and not think about it again, especially when it’s something that you really want, or is that just impossible to do?
KAZAN: No, you can’t do that! We have the weirdest job in the world because acting, on one hand, requires you to be incredibly open and have all of this access to your emotional life and the things that make you vulnerable, and then, on the other hand, the second the audition is over, you have to put all of that away and have this incredibly thick skin and be ready for any rejection. When I went in for my first audition on this, I thought I had not done as well as I could have and I felt despondent about it, walking out. We were still editing Wildlife, in the West Village where Tribeca is, so I walked all the way from like the mid 40s, on the Westside, down to Tribeca, along 7th Avenue, trying to talk myself off the ledge. I saw this pet store, and I went in and held puppies. Paul [Dano] called me and was like, “Why aren’t you here yet?” And I was like, “I’m sitting in a pet store, holding a bunch of puppies.” I was just doing anything to make myself feel better. And then, when I got this part, I put off working on it for three weeks because I was so scared to start. Where do you start, when you have your dream job? And then, eventually, you have to talk yourself into it by going, “Okay, why don’t we just take a look at the lines?”
They technically only had to give you your segment of this story, but were you given a full script to read?
KAZAN: Yeah, I was. I think all of us did, except apparently Tyne Daly, who had a Q&A in New York and said she had only read her section, but I’m assuming that was her choice. So, yeah, I read them all before I went in for my call-back, and it was actually incredibly useful. They really are all one film. The way that they interact and the way that they all relate to the genre, in a slightly different way, it was all good information for how to go in for my call-back.
What was it specifically about your segment and your character that you found yourself most identifying with or connecting to, or that really stood out for you?
KAZAN: Gosh, she was just such a beautifully written character. She reminded me of some of the Chekhov characters that I’ve played. There was something in her that feels like a person who is very rich in her life, but who’s not getting to express it in their current situation. It felt to me like she was full of thought and opinion and strength and sense of humor, but really had no access and no experience with those things, in herself. She had been told, so often, that she had nothing to say and nothing to offer that she believed that about herself. There’s something about watching this person start to learn how to stand on their own two feet, even if it’s just to ask for help. That was such a beautiful thing to read on the page. I felt so protective of her and felt so strongly, like it would be such an honor to be the person who represented her in the world.
I also love the randomness of some of the things the Coen Brothers do, like the fact that you have this dog and even have to carry him around in some of the scenes.