As an actress, screenwriter, and playwright, Zoe Kazan has made a name for herself, but she’s also been freighted, for good or for ill, with one of the most familiar names in Hollywood history. Kazan’s grandfather, Elia, is a legendary figure in the history of American film and theater, a two-time Oscar winner for directing On the Waterfront and Gentleman’s Agreement, and a co-founder of the Actors Studio. He’s also, to many, one of Hollywood history’s villains, having named names in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, during the era of the Hollywood blacklist and Joseph McCarthy. As late as 1999, when Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar, the wounds of his capitulation to anti-Communist hysteria were still fresh enough that several Academy members sat on their hands while others rose to give him a standing ovation.
Zoe Kazan, now 36, has never publicly commented on her grandfather’s legacy, but she broke her silence today at a panel for the forthcoming HBO miniseries The Plot Against America, based on the counter-historical Philip Roth novel in which the anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940. Kazan might have suspected that, given the series’s time frame, the subject of her grandfather would arise, or perhaps the moment was truly spontaneous. Either way, when journalist Whitney Friedlander asked about how her grandfather’s history might inform her approach to the part, Kazan gave an answer that sounded like she’d been preparing for it her whole life. “I don’t want to bring up hard times for you,” Friedlander said. Kazan responded:
You’re not bringing up hard times for me. You’re bringing up hard times for our country. My grandfather did an adaptation of a book by John Steinbeck called East of Eden, and in that book, there is a discussion of a Hebrew word in translation in the Cain and Abel story and that word—and I’m going to butcher it, ’cause I’m not Jewish, which is a whole other question if you want to talk about that—is timshel. Steinbeck translates it as thou mayest, and the question at hand is that God says to Cain, in some translations, you can triumph over sin, and some translations he says, you will triumph over sin. And this character in the book does a kind of deep dive into the actual word in Hebrew and comes up with this thou mayest. Thou mayest triumph over sin. But it’s in the hands of the next generation.
I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partially because of the other people it involved in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life, so I’m not going to go into it, but I will say that I thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history, what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his American-ness tested, and the choice that he made from that. And I thought a lot about my own choices that I’ve made—the way that I choose to live my life.
I think thou mayest choose a different life. And I think that the reason that Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the West in this country is that it’s also about America choosing to recognize who they have been—Cain did kill his brother—but also to recognize that they may choose a different future for themselves. I think it’s meaningful in the book that it comes out of the mouth of an immigrant. So those were the things that were on my mind as I worked on this. It was a profound experience for me working on this—personally, politically, artistically. And I think that’s all I have to say about that. Thank you.
After Kazan finished her answer, some in the audience applauded. Later, David Simon, one of the miniseries’s creators, responded, “I’ve been coming to TCAs now for about a decade. That was the best answer to a question. That was so cool. That had linguistics. That had, like, film history. That was gorgeous.”
Additional reporting by Jolie Lash.