He chats about the movie, his role and teaming up with his real-life girlfriend.
- What appealed to you about the character of Calvin?
Zoe [Kazan] showed me the script and about five pages in I thought ‘We should do this together’. It was such a gut reaction. I’d read a couple of things she’d written before, a couple of plays, and I knew she was a good writer, and when I first knew I wanted to do Ruby Sparks just a few pages in I didn’t know where it was going.
But it was the chance to do a romantic comedy that I would like to watch, with humour and have it be fun but also with some depth.
As an actor the dynamics of that, with it starting in sort of a lowly place and you think she’s going crazy, then he’s in love and inspired and it’s a real relationship, then it goes to a real low point... That’s a really wonderful journey to take as an actor; there’s lots to sink your teeth into and have fun with.
- You and Zoe are a couple in real life. Do you think she wrote any of you into the character?
I’m sure she did, [laughs] although she says she wanted him to smile more than I do. But I’m sure there are some little things in there, although she would be able to tell you what they are better than I could.
- Did you have any reservations about working with your partner?
Definitely, yes. You have to take care of your relationship and working together can be hard. It’s such an intense experience and there were moments where I’m sure we were both nervous about that, but ultimately we thought we could make a good film together and it would be a good experience to share - and it was.
It wasn’t without its challenges but it was mostly pretty good. Then when we were putting it out for audiences to see it was like ‘We now have to survive this part of it’.
- You’ve bucked a trend, though, because often real-life couples don’t have chemistry on screen
I think chemistry is not guaranteed. You also have to have some good words to work with and you have to hopefully be good actors. The better your scene partner is the better you’re gonna be yourself, and I do think we were able to bring some chemistry to it.
I hope we did, but we also had to work at that. We didn’t kiss for, like, three weeks because we wanted to build up some sort of tension between us romantically and have the first kiss on film be our first kiss in a while. Things like that we thought about a lot.
If you could ‘write’ the perfect partner what qualities would she have?
I like to be surprised by people so I wouldn’t want to define everything about them.
That’s one of my favourite things about Zoe - that she’s always surprising me in some way. I don’t mean with presents; it’s her being smart, challenging or funny. I don’t feel I’d need to stray from what I have with her.
- Beyond music with your band Mook are you a writer yourself?
I used to write songs and I made a little short film this past year which I wrote, but it was just for me and that doesn’t really count in my eyes. I might try at some point. I know I’d like to direct a film at some point and maybe I’ll write it.
- Is there such a thing as songwriter’s block?
Definitely. I’ve had that. You could sit at the piano or with your guitar all day and not come up with something you like or which means something or feels right.
You can always do something but it won’t always mean something. It’s the same with writing; you could sit down and type out words but they might not add up to anything.
- Do you get much time for music and the band these days?
We play occasionally. It’s something I used to do quite a bit and the band is me and three friends of mine from high school so we’re close and I love it but man, it’s hard to keep it consistent.
- Are you a dog lover like Calvin?
I am, although I don’t have one. We had one growing up and Zoe’s family did as well, and if I didn’t travel so much for work I’d probably have one but it would be really hard right now.
You have to go away to lord-knows-where to film for a while and that would be hard on the dog. I like big dogs and Zoe likes small dogs so I’m not sure which kind we’d get if we had one.
- Some people think small dogs are scarier
[Laughs] I do. Zoe laughs at me about that, but it’s true. And we live in New York and I don’t know if I’d want to keep a big dog in Brooklyn, but maybe some day.
- And how was it being reunited with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris six years after Little Miss Sunshine?
We’ve remained friends and I love working with them. They’re really good people and they’re good filmmakers. We thought of them probably after 15 pages into Zoe writing the script.
I didn’t know 100% where the story was going but I said ‘We should send this to Jon and Val’. They were our dream choice and had they not said yes I don’t know what we’d have done.
We really wanted them to direct the film so we feel very lucky they did. I love, love, love them and love working with them, and hopefully I’ll get to again some day.
- Did they say yes straight away?
Jonathan read it first because Valerie was away. He said ‘Give us a few days because I’m excited for Val to read this’. They really liked it, although nothing got super-official and began moving forward for a while, but it was positive right away, which we were so happy about.
Then to get it properly locked-in, although you never know if even then it will work out... Then Fox Searchlight came along and gave us money and we were like ‘We are going to get to make a movie’.
Jon and Val are the most symbiotic unit I know. I think they really see things similarly and they’re in constant dialogue about it. They don’t approach you with two different sets of ideas; they talk, then they come at you with one vision.
I think they bring the best out in each other and they’re good people; they trust each other and respect each other. For Zoe and I to have another couple like that to look up to is a good thing.
- Little Miss Sunshine has had a very successful afterlife on DVD and Blu-ray. Can you understand why people want to watch it over and over again?
Hopefully there’s a certain spirit to the family and there’s somebody in that film that everybody can relate to, whether it’s the grandpa, the little girl or anyone in between.
There’s something about the journey they take that makes it a good ride. I haven’t seen it myself since it came out because I don’t like watching myself on screen, but Zoe watched it at one point because we knew we were going to send Ruby Sparks to Jon and Val but I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again.
- Which role do you most get recognised for?
It’s mostly Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, and strangely this film I did when I was 18 called The Girl Next Door.
For some reason that one has stayed with people too. There must be a DVD copy of it in every frathouse or something in the US.
- What kind of thing do people say to you in the street?
Most of the time it’s nice because they liked the film and that makes the interaction easy and not awkward. Every now and then you get ‘Are you that actor?’ and when you say ‘Yeah’ they’re like ‘What were you in?’
- How do you handle the loss of anonymity?
I’m a private person but I don’t feel afraid to walk out of my door or anything. I get recognised occasionally but not overwhelmingly so.
When it first started happening I felt very awkward about it but hopefully I’m getting better. I get to live my life so it’s OK and hopefully it won’t ever become too obtrusive.
- Do you have a game plan?
I want to do some bigger films so long as there’s some sort of exciting creative element or a good filmmaker behind them. I go see a lot of big movies and a lot of small movies and I only have my own taste to go on.
I read something and often the gut reaction is what ends up sticking. I find I’m moved by something, then you look who’s directing it, so the script and the director are what help me settle on a project.
- Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy with a twist. Do you have any favourite romcoms?
Annie Hall, Groundhog Day, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib films like that.
- And who are the actors you admire?
There are maybe 100 actors I look up to, but my first two favourite actors were Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.
I loved what those guys were doing and since then there have been lots. It’s hard to single people out, which is why I stick with those two guys because they were the first ones I was aware of.
Ruby Sparks DVD & Blu-Ray is released 11th February.