Well, I read it disjointedly; meaning, sometimes I would come home and Zoe had written four pages, and I would check them out and try to be a good, supportive boyfriend but also be a good bounce-board and give good feedback. So I didn’t know where it was going. I was just excited to see where it was going to go; I wasn’t thinking that much about what the film was about or how it was different. I was just enjoying it as an audience member.
I think Calvin is a great part. There are so many great circumstances that are given for him, and I think it’s a rich character. The relationship with Ruby, and where the film takes that, is really exciting. What I like is that the film is exploring some ideas and not shying away from them, but I also think it’s exploring the highs and lows of love. It’s using fun and magic in a great way while also still being able to do something different and be about something.
Is it strange or surreal to have someone who knows you as well as Zoe does writing a character with you in mind? Usually, when screenwriters or directors write parts for specific actors, they’re using what they know the person as an actor, but Zoe was able to pull from both your personal and professional sides.
Yeah, normally if I’d heard that somebody was going to write something for me, I’d probably get nervous, because I don’t want them to write me and I don’t want them to write something that only uses your strengths and that might feel easy. It’s more fun to be surprised by a piece of material.
Zoe knows me well enough that I knew she would write something challenging for me but I also knew she wouldn’t put my life up on the screen, because if she had I would have gotten pissed off. [Laughs.]
One thing that I heard her say was, “It was fun to think about Paul doing something funny because he does more dramas than comedies, and he can be funny.” So I think she had certain things in her mind, but they weren’t things that I actually wanted to know about. I would rather just be given the character, see what’s up, and hopefully be surprised and relate to it.
Since Little Miss Sunshine, which was released in 2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris hadn’t made a film until they signed on to do Ruby Sparks. On your end, was there a thought of, “Will they even want to do this?”
We probably thought they wouldn’t do it, yeah, but you have to aim high, and they were the number one choice. Had they said, “No,” I don’t know what we would have done or where the film would have gone. We just took the shot, and they liked the script a lot. I had worked with them on Little Miss Sunshine, of course, and they had met Zoe before; I brought her to their house probably a couple years before saying, “Hey, you’ve got to meet my new girlfriend. You guys would like each other.” It just worked out.
So you’ve kept in close contact with them since Little Miss Sunshine?
Yeah, I’ve kept in touch with them. I live in New York and they live in L.A., so whenever I go to L.A. I’ll give them a call or send them an email. We’ll grab a bite. They’re not just wonderful filmmakers, they’re wonderful people, so we’re good friends.
It’s an interesting dynamic to have a husband-and-wife pair of filmmakers directing a pair of actors who are boyfriend and girlfriend. How did that dynamic inform the chemistry between the four of you?
I think Jon and Val were able to bring something personal to the film themselves, being a man and a woman who have a romantic relationship; for Zoe and I, it was really nice to have a couple who work so well together there to look up to. Zoe and I have worked together before, but this project was definitely the most intensely and intimately that we have worked together.
So it felt like just a really intimate collaboration; it felt like we were all in it together. It was a real pleasure to get to go to work with each other everyday.
Your character, Calvin, is such an interesting guy, one who’s trapped in this stage of arrested development, and who confines himself to this sparse, isolated apartment. Even the littlest details play to that, too, like the fact that he still uses an old-school typewriter to try and write his next great novel. How important were those kinds of details for you to figure out Calvin’s world?
Super important. The typewriter was in the script, and I think there’s a great reason for it. For me, as an actor, you say, “OK, why is the typewriter there?” His dad, who has passed away, probably gave him that typewriter, and I think he probably his first book on that typewriter. He had this magical experience with his first book, and then this wild success, so the object has value to him, and I think Calvin is also a bit of a romantic in that sense.
Also, I, personally, like the feeling of the loud sound of that typewriter in that big, empty house. That just exacerbated his loneliness to me; you can’t take the typewriter anywhere, so it’s not portable, at least not without great effort. Again, that helps the isolation and loneliness, and that plays into the film really well. Those kind of details, I think, definitely contribute and are a big part of the film. That’s just good writing, that’s good production design—that’s how it should be. It’s really nice when you feel that.
I’m glad you mentioned the “arrested development” thing, too, though. That’s a really important part of the character. Being called a “genius” at the young age of 17 is actually really hard for people; it might sound like a high-class problem, but I do think, hopefully at the end of this film, if there is some hope, that Calvin is going to be a man and more open to the world, and not scared of it and not trying to control it.
Is that something you can relate to in your own life, since you started acting at such a young age and received acclaim very early on? That fear of failure seems like it’d be inherent to any kind of artist, but especially a young actor working in Hollywood.
Yeah, absolutely. I think so. I think I related to all aspects of Calvin’s creative process in the film. All the people in the outside world wanting things of Calvin, asking him to be something, and trying to determine what success is for him, I can relate to all of that. I can also relate to the idea of writer’s block, and I think that is totally terrifying, the idea that you can lose inspiration.
As an actor playing a writer, I think I definitely have a strong empathy and an entryway into playing an artist, in general.
What do you think makes Zoe such a strong writer?
I don’t know, really. It’s sort of ineffable. She has a strong imagination and a great talent for it. I think she ‘s a hard worker but also well learned. She knows a thing or two about playwriting and screenwriting, and I think she just has perspective; I think she writes with a purpose, rather than writing with the results in mind. She’s more interested in exploring something when she’s writing.