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Sexual harassment on set is ‘the status quo,’ says Zoe Kazan

Actress and writer Zoe Kazan.
Actress and writer Zoe Kazan.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

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Zoe Kazan is not afraid to address the political with the personal, as an actress and a writer.

This year she stars in “The Big Sick” opposite Kumail Nanjiani, playing his real life wife Emily V. Gordon. Their cross-cultural love story seems particularly poignant at a time when fear of "the other" can drive people to the extreme. And Kazan addresses the fragility of the environment in her stage play “After The Blast,” which just closed at Lincoln Center. In the story, the planet’s few survivors have been forced to live underground.

Actor Kumail Nanjiani and actor Zoe Kazan in
Actor Kumail Nanjiani and actor Zoe Kazan in "The Big Sick."
Sarah Shatz


Zoe Kazan has worked in the entertainment business for a decade now, but with her parents being filmmakers, she’s been adjacent to the industry her entire life. Her dad, Nicholas Kazan, wrote “Frances.” And her mother, Robin Swicord got an Oscar nomination for writing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Together they adapted the Roald Dahl book, “Matilda.” Zoe's grandfather, Elia Kazan, was also an actor and filmmaker. And her life partner is the actor Paul Dano. Naturally, Zoe Kazan has a unique vantage point on Hollywood now and in the past. 

In her conversation with The Frame's John Horn, Kazan opened up about the big topic of the day — the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and beyond. To hear the complete conversation, click the play button at the top of this page or get The Frame podcast via Apple Podcasts. Below are some of the highlights.

Interview Highlights:

On the long history of sexual harassment in Hollywood:

The history of our industry is a history in which women have been sexually harassed, raped, coerced, treated like objects ... treated as if we're not perennials — treated as if every season they need to plant a new crop of bulbs. Those bulbs are women and once you cut those flowers, there's no more use for the plant. Even the fact that we have a concept of a casting couch that people use colloquially is meaningful. The sexual harassment that I had described in experiencing in [The Guardian] is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I've experienced.

I just did this wonderful project in Nebraska and I have a close girlfriend who's also an actress call me while I was there and say, Who is weird on set? Who are you having to avoid? She meant who's sexually harassing you. I said, No one. I'm having the cleanest experience. It's so remarkable. But the fact that's a question we call each other and ask ... 

On everyday instances of harassment:

Someone was asking me, Have you ever experienced someone touching you in inappropriate ways? And I [said], If I started counting the number of times that a man on a movie set put a hand on the small of my back to guide me to set ... which he never would do to a male actor — I can't even count those times. I will say it's not across-the-board. I've worked with unbelievably respectful and professional men. Some of the greatest mentors in my life have been men. I feel unbelievably grateful to them. I don't mean to throw every single person under the bus. But it's the status quo.

On her interview with The Guardian and the risks of speaking out about harassment in the industry:

I felt very vulnerable giving that interview. When [the writer] asked me about sexual harassment, I was very careful about what I said, partially because there's a way in which women, when they speak out, [are] turned into targets. I didn't want to do that to myself. In some ways, I still don't. I still am not willing to say the names of the people I think have been most egregious to me, partially because I just don't want to bring their denial down on me. 

On her dissatisfaction with Netflix and other studios who knowingly hired alleged sexual predators:

When these allegations started coming out against Harvey Weinstein, who I have no personal experience with ... everyone had heard. I have to say, everyone knows. Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey — these are names that, for years, we've heard whispers and stories. You want to look away with some of them. I certainly did with Louis C.K. But you hear them. When I hear Netflix say, We're not going to be in business with Kevin Spacey anymore. I love Netflix. I watch them almost daily. It really ruffles my feathers because I think, if you didn't want to be in business with a sexual predator then you should have never hired him in the first place. The thing that has changed is that suddenly it has become verboten to be in business with people who are being accused of sexual predatory behavior. That's the only thing that's changed. I'm not saying they should keep working with these people, I just find the sanctimoniousness with which they're washing their hands of this situation very hypocritical. 

On the pervasiveness of the problem:

I had a lot of fear when these allegations came out against Harvey Weinstein, that people were going to treat him like the exception rather than the apotheosis of the problem. These women who've come out — women and men who've come out since then about other people — are real heroes because they are making it impossible for us to say it is just Harvey Weinstein. 

On blaming agents and managers for enabling a culture where sexual harassment and abuse can take place:

I wouldn't point a very strong finger at the agents and managers to be totally honest because — maybe I should — it's the whole system. There's a whole system that allowed Harvey Weinstein to do this for 20-plus years. Yes, some of it is agents and managers, but it's also money people, PR agents and the paying public. We live in a patriarchy. It's not just in the film industry that sexual harassment occurs regularly. The whole world is set up in a way where women are not protected, where we are disbelieved. The fact that there are so many rape kits that have gone untested, for instance, is in a very casual way the most literal example of people turning a blind eye ... To point a finger at any one person and say, Oh that manager sent that woman to that meeting — you might as well point a finger at every single one of us.

On her steps for bringing about change:

I think one of the defense mechanisms that I have developed — sexual harassment starts really young, right? I remember being very small and adult men treating me in an inappropriate way. Especially thinking about, as I started to go through puberty, fathers of friends that I went to school with hitting on me at parties, not realizing that I was the same child they had coached on swim team four years beforehand. It's a very complicated thing.

I do think that I have developed, in response to it, a kind of gameness. Like, I'm going to laugh at your joke. And there's a way in which you learn [if] they put their arm around you, you slap their wrist in a flirty way and move away because you don't want to get in more trouble. There's a way that I have used tactics like that to get through uncomfortable situations. I don't think I can explain to men that you could be raped at any moment. I really can't explain what it feels like to know that you are physically small, that men are historically dangerous to women and to feel that you want to get through the world safely. So I think immediately about my own behavior, which is probably another way of victim shaming, to be totally honest. I think maybe the next time I don't reprimand in a kind and flirtatious way, maybe next time I reprimand in a real way. 

Honestly I think that it's largely on the men in our industry and, frankly, in our world, to start examining their own behavior, talking to each other about what's acceptable and what's not. You know, I don't think it should all be on women.

To hear this entire conversation, click the play button at the top of this page. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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