I’ve always been fascinated by movies about twins — from Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror to Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers to the Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan versions of The Parent Trap. Zoe Kazan’s (Ruby Sparks) dual performance in Jenée LaMarque’s endearing new film The Pretty One is right up there in the movie twins hall of fame.

prettyone-posterAwkward and decidedly plain Laurel is the total opposite of her twin Audrey (both played by Kazan). Audrey has confidence, style, independence, and a promising career while Laurel still lives at home and spends most of her time taking care of her widowed father (John Carroll Lynch). When Audrey returns home after a long absence to celebrate their joint birthday, it’s yet another visit where Audrey is praised and Laurel is pitied. That is, until Audrey urges Laurel to break out of her shell, treating her to a hair and wardrobe makeover that finally makes Laurel look just like her twin sister. But before the new Laurel can be revealed, tragedy strikes when the twins are in a horrible car accident. Laurel survives but Audrey’s body is burned beyond recognition. After Laurel awakes from a coma, she is shocked when her family tells her that “Laurel” has died. The physical trauma and grief she is suffering prevent her from sharing her true identity and she ultimately makes the decision to change her life by secretly reinventing herself as her popular, vivacious twin.

In a complex balancing act of learning how to live someone else’s life while still maintaining a connection to her own, Laurel goes through a process of loss and awakening. She is indifferent to Audrey’s lover, self-involved Charles (Ron Livingston) who doesn’t want to leave his wife; but she finds herself strangely attracted to her new neighbor Basel (Jake Johnson), who her sister had despised. As Laurel begins to slip into the life she has always wanted but never thought was possible, she must decide between continuing her life as Audrey or revealing herself as the twin everyone thought had died.

I recently participated in a roundtable discussion with the talented Kazan and director Jenée LaMarque.

jenee-zoeZoe, how did you come to this project?

Zoe Kazan: I auditioned for this movie. I was really impressed by Jenée, she really knew how to talk to an actor. It was one of the more enjoyable auditions I’ve ever had, I felt like she was really watching and had very smart things to say which is pretty rare! And I was very excited when I read the script because I could tell it had a real filmmaker’s voice behind it.

It’s such a great performance, I really believed you were two different people! How challenging was that to pull off?

It starts with the script — so much of that was on the page already. There’s such a comic-tragic tone to this story that it reminded me of a Shakespearean romance where there’s this sadness and humor juxtaposed next to each other and a kind of fairy tale quality. Jenée rehearsed with me and we talked a lot about the twins’ bodies and voices. I felt really clear about these people, even in the audition, which doesn’t always happen. There’s a kind of magic that happens sometimes — it felt almost alchemical, like I was somehow in Jenée’s brain!

Jenée LaMarque: She definitely was in my brain! I remember this one moment from her audition so clearly. Zoe had her purse with her and she did the scene with Ron Livingston at the restaurant. She set her purse down and it accidentally tipped over and all this stuff fell out of it. She started gathering it all up and I was just laughing hysterically because she was cleaning it up completely in character! That was one of the many things that got me during her audition. It was really a tall order to find someone who understood those two parts that well.

This film has such a specific look to it. Can you say something about what you were going for in the locations and the costuming?

I’ve been working with this costume director, Emily Batson, for years on this project! We met at South by Southwest, my husband (composer Julian Wass) had a film there in 2010, and we hit it off immediately. What we discovered together, in terms of my directorial vision for the feel of the film, is that it does have the elements of a fairy tale which takes place “once upon a time.” Our desire to give the film a kind of timeless quality guided a lot of our aesthetic decisions. You can’t really nail down when the movie takes place from the costumes or the locations — there are lots of different eras of represented and I didn’t want to use anything that felt really modern.  Emily came up with these different color palettes for the characters. Laurel wears these yellow warm tones and Audrey goes for deeper, sexier reds and purples. It’s really fun thinking of that kind of stuff!

There are lots of interesting issues that come up in this film that apply to all kinds of siblings, not just twins.

Yeah, I think in every family there’s this labeling that happens. But it’s particularly intensified when you have twins because everyone is trying to look for the differences so they can tell them apart. “Oh, she’s the pretty one, she’s the skinny one, she’s the smart one…” They’ll say these things right to the twins’ faces in a way that they wouldn’t do with other people. But I think there’s a bit of irony in the title because the film isn’t so much about the way the outer world assesses your importance and beauty, it’s more about how you view yourself and how that guides your trajectory in life even more than the labels that people place upon you.

There must have been a lot of technical challenges doing the scenes involving both twins when you just have the budget of a small indie movie!

Zoe: I’ve done a lot of work on the stage and I think that really served me here. I did Angels in America in 2010 and I had to play multiple roles in that so that experience helped me. The hardest part was having to match my performance to a performance I hadn’t done yet. We were working with a wonderful double but her performance was not the one I would give. It was great having someone there to play with but I also had to anticipate what I might do once I went on to the opposite side. And there were lots of technical challenges like having to match my eyeline to something that’s not there.

But even beyond that, I think it’s impossible for people to understand how hard it is to make a film, let alone one that you’re proud of! Every step of the way is a victory — writing something you’re proud of, raising the money, getting the right people on board — I just think it’s a huge achievement to push that rock up the hill! My parents (screenwriters Nicholas Kazan, the son of Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, and Robin Swicord) always say, “Celebrate every step NOW, don’t put it off for when your movie wins awards because that’s probably never going to happen!”  Having participated on the other side of the table in getting a film made, I feel like I have a whole different perspective.

ThePrettyOne_Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson

How was it working with Jake Johnson?

Jenée: He has an ease about him that’s so appealing. He didn’t audition for the film, we just offered him the role and crossed our fingers hoping he and Zoe would have some kind of chemistry — you never know! And then they hit it off right away and had great chemistry together. They had all these inside jokes and became fast friends which was very lucky!

Did you do a lot of research on the psychology of twins?

Zoe: Yes. I remember one thing I found really interesting. There’s this Freudian theory that babies go through something called the “mirror stage” when they see themselves in a mirror and realize for the first time that they have a body — that they are separate from the world.  It’s a big deal to go through the mirror stage but some psychologists think that identical twins never do because they’ve been looking at their own image since they were born so when they see themselves in a mirror they don’t actually read that as being themselves. I found that really useful in thinking about how Laurel formed her own identity. In some ways she’s going through her mirror phase for the first time as an adult in this movie.

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The Pretty One is currently playing in select cities and opens in additional cities on February 21 including Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Theatres and the Edwards University Town Center 6 in Irvine. It’s also available on VOD.