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Zoe Kazan on 'Our Brand is Crisis' and having no time for movie theaters

"Our Brand is Crisis" actress Zoe Kazan talks about growing up speaking Spanish, getting away from rom-coms and wishing she could find time for "Sicario."

Zoe Kazan tends to play serious or, if it’s a rom-com like “What If,” quasi-serious. But in “Our Brand is Crisis” she gets to play LeBlanc, a character whose primary function is as a comic foil. LeBlanc is the crafty right-hand person of Sandra Bullock’s political advisor, who’s lent her services out to a probably crooked Bolivian pol (Joaquim de Almeida), whose political race isn’t going so well. It’s based on a 2005 doc of the same name, though it’s been fashioned into a satirical comedy that milks laughs out of Ugly Americans foisting American ideals upon other countries.

First off, one thing unusual about this — other than it’s a studio film about politics — is that it was directed by David Gordon Green, of indies like “George Washington” as well as the odd stoner comedy like “Pineapple Express.” He brings a real personality to it.

The thing that surprised me the most about working with David is how relaxed he is as a director. He’s completely laidback, which is not an adjective I would ever use to describe any director I’ve worked with. It goes with the job description that you’re tearing your hair out and freaking out. He’s just not like that. That created a really happy atmosphere. The one time I saw him lose his temper was when people weren’t working as hard as they should be. He’s incredibly hard-working and incredibly calm.

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LeBlanc is unusual for you, because she’s mostly a comedic character.

That was part of it — the idea of getting to play this enigma. I had also accidentally done a lot of romantic comedies. I was just tired of that genre. I liked the idea of being able do something about a bunch of people using their minds. And there was getting to speak Spanish in a movie. It’s a language I grew up speaking, which I never get to use.

How did you wind up growing up speaking Spanish?

My mom was a Navy brat, and their family was stationed in Barcelona for a portion of her childhood. My mom spoke Spanish. And then my parents are both writers and worked full-time seven days a week. So they hired this woman to come and not nanny me but raise me. I became incredibly close to her. And she doesn’t speak any English. So I grew up speaking Spanish with her.

Given your character primarily serves as a translator, I assume your grasp of the language is what got you the role.

I auditioned for the part. I had to improvise in Spanish in the audition. I think everyone thought I was much better at Spanish than I actually am. My accent is good; it fools people.

So you’re no longer that good at Spanish?

My Spanish is not as good as it used to be.

This is technically a political film, but it’s more along the lines of “Veep” or “In the Loop,” where it’s not a specific party that’s being criticized but the game itself.

I don’t think there are overt politics to the film, and I think that notion is partly what the movie is about. These people are people who are working in the political field who are not doing it because they’re passionate about this or that cause. It’s because they’re passionate about winning. In that way it could be any industry in which there are winners and losers.

Did you still absorb some of the politics that rise out of the situation of an American political machine in South America?

I watched the documentary, which is more overtly political. I thought about what the film is saying about how we’ve exported not just our democratic system but the way our elections are run. I left it at that, because a lot of what my character is responsible for is something that happens in any industry, which is using knowledge to gain advantage.

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This is also a rare studio movie with a big star that’s about serious ideas. In fact, it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t star Sandra Bullock and have George Clooney as a producer.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that gets made, usually by hook or by crook. It might get made by having George get behind it, or it’s made in the independent sphere and it gets made for a lot less money. I wish there were more that was really interesting, but to be totally honest, there are enough films that are interesting and worth our time that nobody sees or that don’t get a sufficient run in the theater, or they do get out there and we just don’t manage to make it to see them. I don’t necessarily think there’s a paucity of great movies being made. They just don’t always get seen. I know it’s possible. If you look at “It Follows,” that got a great audience, and that’s a pretty unusual movie.

At this point, though, it’s just assumed that something that’s not huge can get at best a handful of theaters in a few cities but otherwise just go to VOD.

I was just asked what was the last great film I saw in a theater. I couldn’t remember the last time I went to the theater, because the way my life is is not conducive to me having a great movie day ever week. It’s become so easy to say, “I’ll just watch this thing that’s on Netflix from 20 years ago, because I know it’s good, rather than paying the $15 and taking a chance on a new film.” I mean, I haven’t seen “Sicario” yet. It’s exactly the kind of movie I say I want to see: a movie that’s about something, that has a strong female role. And then it’s like, “Oh, that movie exists and it’s in theaters right now. And I haven’t found a way to see it.” That’s shame on me.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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