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Zoe Kazan on the difficulty of shooting the indie horror 'The Monster'

We wound up talking to the acclaimed actress only hours before Trump was elected.

Zoe Kazan and I spoke early on Election Day. The first poll numbers wouldn’t come in for over seven hours. Neither of us voted for Trump. We were both cautiously optimistic, but she was more optimistic than me. She talked about voting at 6:45 in the morning in New York, dropping in her ballot and then bursting into tears.

“I felt so honored to be there,” she says. “I thought about my grandmother, who died in the 1960s. She was such a radical for her time. I thought about all the women and men who’ve made sure all of us can vote. I thought we were so lucky and I really have hope.”

In a way, that worked out: Hillary did win the popular vote, after all. She just didn’t win the vote with the Electoral College: an arcane system created to prevent the American voters from electing someone unfit for the job. (As it were.) The following interview retains some of our conversation on this subject, partly for posterity’s sake, partly because what Kazan said about hope remains relevant, in that we need to fight back against a President-Elect hostile to many people’s concerns and very livelihood.

Oh, but the real reason we spoke with Zoe Kazan? She stars in the new indie horror “The Monster.” Kazan (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Olive Kittredge,” etc.) plays Kathy, a sometimes tyrannical mother whose relationship with her young daughter (played by Ella Ballentine) is fractious, to say the least. One night while driving in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves stalked by a mysterious and very hungry creature. It’s the latest from Bryan Bertino, whose “The Strangers” also combined genre tension with terrific actors playing three-dimensional characters. Not that it’s easy to do a creature feature on the cheap.

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First off, it’s early into Election Day. I’m not sure how optimistic I feel, but I think it’s important to feel hopeful no matter what happens.
Really, what is the cost of feeling optimistic? We have to send good thoughts into the universe today. We have to. I think it’s beautiful to believe we have a country that could vote down hatred for progress. I’ve been sleeping with my copy of “A Wrinkle in Time,” because it’s about love and conquering hatred in a totalitarian regime. I believe in our country.

If she wins, I can’t wait to detox from social media and the news for a while.
I think I’m going to get off Twitter for a month. I’ve been very vocal online, out of my anxieties and my need to create change in whatever way I can. I think it’s time for me to disconnect for a tiny bit after this. Though if he wins, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll redouble my efforts. If he wins, I think I’ll have to work even harder for the country we want.

This sort of works as a segue into the movie, but “The Monster” is about people trying to survive while fearing for their lives. What was it like to make?
It was horrible. It was an incredibly stressful shoot to begin with. We were mostly shooting nights, which doesn’t help your body. Ask anyone who works the night shift. It’s not good for you. We were drenched with water every day. We were freezing. We had crazy wound prosthetics on us. It was very challenging. We didn’t have any money, which means we didn’t have enough time, which meant very few takes. Ella and I had to constantly be at the ready, to give it our one shot, at times. The added element of having to be in a constant state of fear and adrenaline rush wound up really hard on my body. It took me about two months to come down. My back was a total mess. I don’t like getting massages, but I got multiple therapeutic massages while filming this and afterwards.

Did you know it was going to be that difficult going in?
I had no idea how hard it would be. I thought it would be about the challenge of playing this person who’s scared. I thought it would be about these psychological issues. The physical stuff never occurred to me until we were in the middle of it. It was like, “Oh f—, they need more of this.” I got a bronchial infection I didn’t shake for months. If I ever read a script that reads, “They’re drenched the entire time,” I’ll say, “Pass. No thank you.”

Still, it’s a horror film that, like Bertino’s “The Strangers,” focuses as much on the characters and the actors as it does the scares.
I felt that way when I saw “The Strangers.” Bryan made a lot of smart decisions with casting and editing and what he did with the music. I really like a horror film that doesn’t rely on gore. One of the reasons I signed up for this is I felt he was capable of making another film like that.

It helps that there are flashbacks to their lives before. It’s not just 90 minutes of two people trying to survive the night. I’m imagining those were shot separate from the night stuff, though.
We shot almost all of those scenes first. That was the easiest and most fun part of the shoot, because we didn’t have any other physical challenges. It was like making another indie movie. You’re still working at a really fast pace, but it was still within the realms of my comfort zone. Then we went way outside my comfort zone.

Kathy is not always a nice character. She’s very aggressive and does not get along with her daughter. Those scenes had to be intense, too, if in a different way.
They were intense. But it’s an intensity you can expect when you look at the page. I feel like I’ve gotten to play more light characters on film while, on stage, it’s mostly tough, rough characters whose lives are falling apart. Tapping into that darkness is one of the reasons people like me want to become actors. It’s a way of exorcising the demons. That’s an intensity actors crave. The other one [the “Monster” shoot] is just about having to survive.

Do you tend to prefer the horror films that are more like this: cerebral, thoughtful, about characters or ideas?
I have a pretty high bar when it comes to horror. Most of the movies I enjoy within the genre are movies that don’t rely on gore. I have a really hard time with violence onscreen. Even movies I can really respect, like “Halloween,” because it’s a slasher film, I don’t have a great stomach for it. Even though I have huge respect for Eli Roth, I don’t want to watch a “Hostel” film. I don’t want to watch people’s limbs severed. I lean more towards “Don’t Look Now” and “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” or even films like “Repulsion” or a whole bunch of Brian De Palma films — “Carrie” and “Sisters.” But I like horror movies. I like going to be scared.

I actually find that I don’t get “scared” at a lot of horror movies. The ones that scare me the most are about real, actual, everyday problems: climate change, disease, college debt.
[Laughs] Yeah. Films that engage my anxiety are too much for me right now. I need to not go there. But I agree with you.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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