Less than a year ago, 29-year-old actress and screenwriter Zoe Lister-Jones was simply a familiar face in the independent film and theater scene in New York. Her first co-written film, Breaking Upwards, premiered at the SXSW Festival in 2009 and she starred in off-Broadway plays The Little Dog Laughed and The Accomplices.
Nowadays, she's basking in more mainstream stardom. In addition to being a primetime star on NBC's hit Whitney, she's about to release her second feature co-written with boyfriend Darryl Wein, the Fox Searchlight-produced Lola Versus, a film, out tomorrow, intended to capture the realistic struggles of a single woman after a devastating break-up.
We got the chance to speak to the star on the rise about how her own experiences influenced the film, why the city of New York is her muse, and the pressure in the entertainment industry to have more than one project in the works.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
You wrote the film with your boyfriend Daryl Wein after you had just gotten back together after a year-long break. How did that influence the film?
Yeah, we took a year off from our relationship, we were in an open relationship so we were still seeing each other, but we were also seeing other people. And we made a movie that was loosely based on that experience called Breaking Upwards, so we sort of had to hash out what a lot of our experiences were.
The writing process was interesting. In our discussions, we really realized how different my experiences as a single woman were as compared to him as a single man. We also realized how much weaker the atmosphere was in New York for single women and how a lot of our single women friends also seem to have the similar struggle. [Laughs.]
So, we just thought that we really hadn’t seen a movie that authentically portrayed the life of a single woman approaching thirty in New York that felt both funny and real and could have really raw dramatic moments while also finding a lot of humor. That said, I'd say the movie was loosely inspired. I think the theme of the idea came from my experiences, but the movie is entirely in fictionalized.
Since you can really connect to Lola, why didn't you decide to play her?
Well, Greta just felt like a really good fit. She's at a really cool moment in her career where she has been in a number of films, a lot of which are critically acclaimed, but she hasn’t yet carried a movie. It seemed like a really good time to showcase her as a leading lady. And she's a really unconventional leading lady in that she is sort of mysterious and very intelligent and complex, so I think we were all really excited to have her bring Lola to life.
So did you intend to play Alice?
You know what, when we were writing it, we just thought it was going to be another micro-budget indie 'cause Breaking Upwards was made for fifteen thousand dollars—totally guerrilla film making. So we thought it was just going to be another experience like that but the response to the script was so overwhelming that we got a producer on it and then Fox Searchlight came on board.
When we envisioning it as a micro-budget, I was gong to play Lola and we were gonna have a friend of mine play Alice. So we didn’t write Alice for me to play initially, but it was really fun to take on the character.
Where did the inspiration for her come from? She kind of has the same attitude and punch lines as your character does on Whitney.
Yeah, it's funny! In my career, I have mostly played dry witted, cynical women. [Laughs.] I don’t really play the upbeat, manic, internally optimistic person. And for some reason, this year, these two projects brought me to those characters. I mean, we shot this before we shot Whitney. So it was just sort of coincidence that there are similarities in the two, but both are really fun to play.
ABnd because this is such an unconventional rom-com, did you worry about alienating audiences who expected an archetypal rom-com character?
You know, I don’t think we ever did think because I think the audience is actually, are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. [Laughs.] And I think that all audiences want is to really be able to relate.
I think that a lot of tent pole films that are sort of more commercial are wonderful, but they are definitely not representative of most people’s realities. So I think we wanted to be a little more authentic in what we were telling. In real life, people aren’t always ending up with Prince Charming, so hopefully, with our movie, that'll actually be a positive thing.
Going off that idea of being more authentic, it seems like you guys chose not to villainize Luke, Lola's ex-boyfriend. Its kind of difficult in this film to figure out who to root for some times. Was that a conscious choice?
Yeah it was. We worked really hard on making sure that Luke was never villainized and that you could not point the finger at the way of the film because I think in relationships its never that easy to place blame, although you often try to.
For Darryl, the filmmakers and I, New York has always been home. It has always played a large character in movies because I think, well, there’s no city like it. It lends an energy to films that go unmistakable.
Although there’s a woman at the forefront, Daryl and I wanted all the men to be three-dimensional, thoughtful, articulate and to have narrative arch that felt full. And I think in the nature of a relationship, especially after a break up, there is a lot of push a pull, so we didn’t want it to just be Lola running after Luke. There are moments where the power didn’t shift and it goes right back to her. And I think Joel kind of helped with that because he’s the total hunk, he is really endearing and thoughtful.
You’re a New York native, right?
Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn.
Because I noticed the city plays a great part of it part of the film. It creates this jungle and this struggle for her. Was it as much of a character in the original script as it turned out in the film?
Yeah, in our last film we shot all over New York City and in Brooklyn as well. For Darryl, the filmmakers and I, New York has always been home. It has always played a large character in movies because I think, well, there’s no city like it. It lends an energy to films that go unmistakable. So we often try to shoot in parts of New York that maybe haven’t been shot that much or at all. We like to reveal all of New York’s different quirks and beauty and some times it’s grittiness. But it definitely plays a big part.
Given that you star in a sitcom, you've done theater, you’re starring in movies and you’re a screenwriter as well, do you feel there's more pressure in the industry nowadays to be more versatile and not just have one project in the works?
Well, I think that certain people who are drawn to being multi-talented put that pressure on themselves. I don't think there's really an external pressure. I think to be ambitious and to get ahead sometimes, you have to wear a lot of hats because it’s a pretty tough industry. [Laughs.] So, a lot of the time the only way to open doors is to create your own work.