Actor-Playwrights Write Their Own Ticket

By Harry Haun
October 12, 2011

Jesse Eisenberg and Zoe Kazan join the recent roster of high-profile actors-turned-playwrights turning their attention to the stage.



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Suddenly, last summer they started surfacing all over the New York theatre scene: well-known actors gamely making their first flying leaps into playwriting.

In July, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor Zach Braff presented his first attempt at playwriting, All New People, at Second Stage Theatre. Now, we discover a domestic dramedy by Zoe Kazan called We Live Here world-premiering at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I the same night that Rattlestick Playwrights Theater starts previewing at the Cherry Lane Theatre a political-triangle antic from Jesse Eisenberg titled Asuncion.

October's two newly-turned playwrights are also newly-turned 28 as well, and both are rising high in the Hollywood firmament as the result of recently acclaimed work.

Eisenberg's fascinating facsimile of Facebook kingpin Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" won him the Best Actor nod from the National Board of Review and an Oscar nomination, prompting more films ("Predisposed" and Woody Allen's "The Bop Decameron").

Kazan's acting Off-Broadway earned her nominations for a Drama Desk Award and a Lortel Award, and a whole season of it (2007–2008) got her the Clarence Derwent Award, giving her the clout and nerve to produce and star in her first screenplay, "He Loves Me," directed by "Little Miss Sunshine" duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It wrapped two days before rehearsals began for her play.

Like her grandfather Elia, Kazan tested the theatrical waters as an actor before trying on other hats (he became, famously, a director and, ultimately, a novelist). To wade deeper into this gene pool, both of her parents are screenwriters: Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune") and Robin Swicord ("Memoirs of a Geisha").

"I have a hard time thinking of myself as a writer," Zoe Kazan admits. "It was never part of my identity. When, at 14, I auditioned for my first school play, I came home and told my parents, 'I know what I want to do with my life.' A lightning bolt hit me. First and foremost, I'm an actor, but I've always written, and I derive great pleasure from it."

Eisenberg glibly and quickly pretends not to see all of this as opening new windows. "God has closed so many other doors. I wanted to be a wrestler, a basketball player, a banana...," he shrugs, mocking a hopeless sigh. "So few things worked out."

Writing roles for himself seemed the thing to do since no one else was. "I wrote Asuncion in less stable times, when I hadn't worked for about a year. I got so panicked I wrote a musical and another play. It's not just downtime. If you were sure you'd work in six months, downtime wouldn't be so painful. It's the added insecurity that each time you do something it ends and you've got to go procure something new."

Zoe Kazan

That long wait between takes — or, worse, work — is what made a writer of Kazan, too. "There's downtime even when you're acting all the time," she points out. "Last year, when I did Angels in America, I didn't really have any time to write, but A Behanding in Spokane was 80 minutes, and I'd have the whole day ahead of me to preserve my energy, so I'd go to my dressing room hours early and write."

We Live Here shows what happens when a woman "brings home the worst possible date to her sister's wedding." That idea came to her in the image of a girl at a piano, but this evaporated as she started writing scenes. "This play comes out left of center for me. It's not autobiographical. None of these people are people I know. They all came to me in the night out of my dreams. But there are parts that definitely draw on my own experience. I'm close with my sister, and a sister relationship is central to this."

[Editor's Note: In the version of this article that appears in the October Playbill magazine, Kazan was misquoted saying that We Live Here is "a romantic comedy with a magic-realist twist." She was referring to the new film "He Loves Me."]

Although she swears she had no hand in the casting, her play is outfitted with friends: Jessica Collins, Betty Gilpin, Oscar Isaac, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Irving and Mark Blum.

For Eisenberg's play, "the inspiring germ is: How do dogmatic freaks reconcile their politics with the real person in the room?" he says. "That's both a theme and a plot. You have to bring that character on." In this case, it's a Filipina woman (Camille Mana) who comes between — and challenges the open-mindedness of — a blogger who condemns U.S. imperialism (Eisenberg) and a Black Studies PhD candidate (Justin Bartha). "She has to be there for a reason, and they have to have preconceived biases about her."

Seconding that motion, Eisenberg names the woman, and the play, Asuncion. "It's Spanish for 'assumption,' which refers to the assumption of marrying, but the play's about assumptions you make of other people so it serves that purpose, too."

Bartha, who specializes of late in plays by actors (Braff's All New People, now this), may soon join these hyphenates. "Gee, I hope so," says Eisenberg. "He's a good writer himself. I've known him for a long time so I keep encouraging him to finish them. He has written 99 percent of 17 scripts. For him, it's just finishing them."