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Zoe Kazan admits that her last name offers her advantages in the entertainment business. After all, her grandfather Elia was a legendary theatre and film director (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront). Her father Nicholas is a renowned screenwriter (Reversal of Fortune), as is her mother, Robin Swicord (Little Women). But as Zoe demonstrates in her new film, Ruby Sparks – she wrote the script and plays the title character – identity can be a mutable thing.

"My name is a burden, an advantage, and it means nothing – all three," Kazan, 28, said earlier this month. She was carefully dressed in an ivory blouse, black pencil skirt and pumps. Her brown hair was carefully done. And her answers were carefully considered – they rolled out logically and clearly, almost like mini-essays, with beginnings, middles and ends. As Ruby, Kazan widens her blue eyes and makes her voice as burbly as a brook, but in person she is unkooky.

"It's a burden in that people say, 'She's only gotten where she is because of her name,'" she continues. "Which is annoying to hear over and over, especially when I know it not to be true. It's an advantage, because people are more likely to see you for an audition. And it means nothing, because if you don't work hard and have something to back it up with, it can't help you."

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Kazan was raised in a "stable, traditional household" – no TV or video games, no Hollywood parties; her parents were home at 5 for family dinner every night; "the values were all about doing well in school and being a good friend." But when she was in high school, her grandfather received a contentious lifetime-achievement Oscar (because he had answered U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy's questions during the blacklist era, some Hollywoodites thought he shouldn't be honoured), and "the brouhaha" showed her how a name can resonate. Then, while attending Yale University, she realized her name meant "something different" there – she's a descendant on her paternal grandmother's side of a U.S. founding father and a former Yale president.

So Kazan quickly set to work on an identity of her own. After graduating in 2005, she moved to Brooklyn and began acting nearly non-stop, on stage (in, among many others, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie opposite Cynthia Nixon, and The Seagull opposite Carey Mulligan), on TV (as Jason Schwartzman's girlfriend in HBO's Bored to Death) and in films including The Savages and Meek's Cutoff.

While co-starring with Christopher Walken on Broadway in A Behanding in Spokane, she passed a discarded mannequin in a dumpster. She went to sleep thinking about Pygmalion, woke up, and – as if she wasn't busy enough – dashed off the first seven pages of what would become Ruby Sparks. She continued banging the script out by day and doing plays by night. "I bore easily," she says, "and writing became something I needed to survive." By the time she got to the revision stage, she was starring off-Broadway in Angels in America, writing in her dressing room, and pausing only to run onstage for her scenes.

Not surprisingly, Ruby Sparks is about creating an identity – on multiple levels. A novelist named Calvin (played by Paul Dano, who is Kazan's boyfriend in real life) begins writing about his ideal woman. Then one morning she magically shows up in his kitchen. At first, Ruby is the idealized girl of Calvin's dreams. But when she proves to be both less and more than simply his fantasy, he tries to write her "better" – that is, control her – and things take a darker turn. (It opens in select cities on Friday.)

"I used to date men who were older than me, and I often felt controlled by them," Kazan says. "They had an idea of me, and I tried to fulfill that. Whatever their music choices were, or the way they lived, I was more fluid than they, so I was happy to fill in the holes they had, rather than asking them to come to me. But I also realized that feeling loved can be a burden – like, who is the person that you're loving? Is it me, or just some idea of me?"

During the 30-day shoot, the couple experienced many meta-moments. She had written his character; now his character was writing hers. They were living and working together (appropriately, their directors were also a couple, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who made Little Miss Sunshine). They were playing characters who contained kernels of themselves but weren't themselves, and acting out conflicts they hadn't faced but that affected them emotionally. Kazan likens the experience to having a fight with someone in a dream, then still being mad at him when you woke up.

"We're used to this kind of thing," she says. When Dano played a dark character in There Will Be Blood a couple of years ago, he was difficult, Kazan says. "But we're not used to doing it at the same time. I wasn't expecting how hard it would be emotionally. It was like a fever dream. It's this strange portion of our history that we now share, that has nothing to do with our relationship, but is a product of our relationship."

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The subject of young women forthrightly exploring their identity is a fertile one right now, on TV shows such as Girls and The New Girl, and in films like Young Adult and Lola Versus. But Kazan purses her lips at the word "trend." "I think to call it a trend diminishes the impact of what it really is, which is women raising their voices just like they've been doing for generations," she says. "The reason it's being drawn attention to, still, is that it's not the norm. The fact that women directors still have to give interviews about being 'women directors,' or that films like Bridesmaids do really well but that's not reflected in other films that get greenlit by studios, is frustrating. I just joined the Writer's Guild, where being a woman writer puts me in a minority status. I'm a minority in the writer's guild. I find that ridiculous."

Kazan is grateful, though, to be the third generation in her family's business. "Paul and I have this discussion a lot," she says. "I always call [acting or writing] a job. I say, 'I got a job,' or, 'I'm working on a job right now.' He's a first-generation actor. He never uses that word. He once said, 'You're too unromantic about it.' But I thought, 'No, that's what's romantic for me – for this to be my job, not a hobby, but the thing that I make my living and my life doing." It's fluid. But Kazan knows who she is.

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