Lola Versus co-star/co-writer Zoe Lister-Jones on the set alongside director/co-writer Daryl Wein.
Photo By Myles Aronowitz
Over the last few years actress/writer/producer/singer/songwriter/playwright Zoe Lister-Jones has emerged as a true renaissance woman of stage and screen. After she appeared in the award-winning drama Arranged, Jones and her boyfriend Daryl Wein made names for themselves in the independent film world with Breaking Upwards, a film they made for $15,000 on a handheld camera that chronicled their year in an open relationship. Lister-Jones’ best-known work is on TV’s Whitney in which she plays Lily, the quirky best friend of star Whitney Cummings. Lola Versus, Wein and Lister-Jones’ follow-up to Breaking Upwards, examines the life of Lola (Greta Gerwig) as a single woman in New York, approaching thirty and having been dumped weeks before her wedding. Lister-Jones co-wrote Lola Versus with Wein and plays Alice, Lola’s best friend with an abundance of advice and a lack of boundaries. I recently sat down with Lister-Jones for a chat in anticipation of the film’s June 8th release. Here’s what Lister-Jones shared with me about how her romantic relationship led to a creative partnership, her varying work in film and on Whitney, and crafting her character Alice in Lola Versus.
Jackson Truax: Arranged was your first leading role in a feature film. How did you come to play such a challenging role, and what was the biggest lesson you took from that project?
Zoe Lister-Jones: I auditioned for it. My agent sent me out… I got the part. It was really exciting because I like to play characters. That was very much a character different from myself and my reality… It was a really exciting project. Because that was my first leading role. And because I got to really play with my versatility as an actor… My biggest lesson, I would say, was to not wear skimpy clothes in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Because I did. It was ninety degrees in New York. It didn’t go over well.
JT: You were credited with doing the catering on Daryl’s short film, Unlocked and then as an associate producer on his documentary, Sex Positive. What was your relationship during those years, and how did it ultimately lead to you two writing together?
ZLJ: We started dating in college. Then his project out of college was Unlocked, the short film that he directed. I think that both of us were apprehensive to make a professional alliance. But we couldn’t really help ourselves. So catering was the thing that I wanted to contribute on that. It was a disaster. It was a total disaster. The crew hated me. They were saying, “What are these nothing muffins? Where are our egg sandwiches with bacon?” So I learned a lot as a caterer. I learned never to do it again. Then on Sex Positive, he was working on it with a friend of his, David Oliver Cohen, who produced it. They showed me a cut. I had a lot of ideas for it. Then I just became really involved in the editing process, and became a producer in post. Again, all of these things sort of happened by accident. But the world was telling us that we should be working together. Then, with Breaking Upwards, he wrote the script while we were living the open relationship. I didn’t want anything to with it. Because it felt way too close. For him it was a therapeutic tool. But for me, it didn’t feel like that. It felt exploitative. So he worked on it with a friend of his, again… When we closed our open relationship, he gave me the script. I had a lot of ideas for it, again. So I clearly can’t keep my mouth shut. So then I started re-writing it. Because it was also based on our relationship…I felt that it needed a…female perspective.
JT: With Breaking Upwards, you and Daryl starred in what was obviously a very personal film for you two. To what extent were you playing yourself, and what was the biggest challenge in that?
ZLJ: It was pretty close. I think the biggest challenge was that I had my own name. Which we chose to do to sort of blur the lines of fiction and reality. But I think because it was such a personal story, and then because it got an audience, that opened the door for a lot of personal questions. Because I think people didn’t know how to distinguish me from the character. That story was fictionalized… It wasn’t a direct account of our open relationship. But it was inspired by that. So I had to act in circumstances I had not been in. So that’s how it was different from me and how it was an acting experience. But the character was quite close to me. I think Daryl’s character was pretty close to him.
JT: Breaking Upwards boasted an incredible soundtrack, which you sang and wrote lyrics for much of. How did you come to be so involved in the soundtrack, and what was the process of working with Daryl and Kyle on those songs?
ZLJ: Music is really important to me, and really important in films. I think it really helps create the world. At first we thought on Breaking Upwards, we were going to get our friends who were in indie bands to give us songs. Then we called them up and they said, “Oh, no. That’s $40,000.” Because even if they’re your friends, it doesn’t matter. If they’ve sold the publishing rights, you’re screwed. So out of necessity, we decided to make an all-original soundtrack. Kyle Forrester I knew from college. He’s a musical genius. We had collaborated on a covers album I did right out of college, which was piano ballad covers of pop and rap songs. He was the first person I thought of to call. We had a great collaborative relationship. Daryl and I just talked about the pallet we wanted for the film and gave him some ideas and some inspirations. Then he ran with it… I would write lyrics and send them to him and say how I envisioned the sound of that song to be. Then he would make it come it life.
JT: Do you see yourself writing or recording more music in the future?
ZLJ: Yeah, I’d love to. With Lola Versus, I was really involved in choosing the soundtrack. I think it would be such a cool job to be a music supervisor… It’s hard. But it’d be really fun. But yeah, I love to make music… I really like writing lyrics.
JT: Even though Lola Versus shares similar ideas, themes, and concerns with Breaking Upwards, I’m guessing it’s less autobiographical. How did that affect the creative process of writing the script, and how you approached your character, Alice?
ZLJ: I think it made the writing process easier. Because we weren’t as emotionally vulnerable. And we weren’t dealing with things that were sort of fraught in our relationship to talk about. So I think it was a more fun writing process. Then with Alice, I think it was also a lot of fun to play. Because she’s really different from me. She’s so outrageous. I think as an actor, that’s always a fun role.
JT: Whitney and Lola Versus both find you playing the quirky and insightful best friend. When you’re playing different roles within a certain character archetype, what are the challenges in making sure the characters feel very different, and how do you go about that when building your character?
ZLJ: We had written Lola before I got the job on Whitney. It’s funny, because when I auditioned for Whitney, I auditioned for Rhea Seehorn’s character Roxanne, who’s this dry, cynical best friend, which is very different from Alice. Whitney [Cummings] asked me to read for Lily. Which I was surprised by, because I actually, for the most part, would audition for the more dry, cynical roles. So to be this bubbly, eternally optimistic best friend was shocking to me, but a really exciting challenge. Then when I got it, I was shocked. It’s just sort of kismet that I’m playing a somewhat similar character in Lola Versus. I think it’s nice. Because I think as an actor…the roles you play often bleed into your life. So when you’re playing happy, excitable people, I think you can have more fun in life than when you’re playing really depressed, cynical people.
JT: With Whitney, you’ve been a really central character in twenty-two episodes. Once you developed Lily for the pilot, did you continue to develop her throughout the season? How is that different from developing a character for the duration of a film shoot?
ZLJ: Yeah, because I think when you do a pilot…the writer’s imagining of the characters is changing. So, a pilot is sort of this blueprint. Then, as the season progresses, I think everyone’s figuring out things about all the characters. Whereas in a film, I think you pretty much know who you’re playing. Then you work on it in a contained environment. But because you can constantly evolve over the course of twenty-two episodes…you get to find out a lot of things.
JT: Breaking Upwards was made about as cheaply and as independently as you can make a movie. As an actress, or writer, or producer, what were the big creative differences in making a film like Lola Versus with a bigger cast and crew and more producers and infrastructure involved?
ZLJ: The difference is that, you have more freedom and you have less freedom… You have more freedom because you have all those resources and the infrastructure. You have a much bigger crew, and you have a lot of people helping you to realize your vision. But you have less freedom because you’re on a very rigorous, set schedule. And in order to add something, you have to corral seventy-five people. Whereas on Breaking Upwards, if we decided we wanted to add a scene, or reshoot something, it involved four people and a camera… It can both inhibit and give you more freedom.
JT: Breaking Upwards veers toward your more dramatic work, Whitney is broader comedy, and Lola Versus is a really nice mixture of both. How does that impact either how you build these characters, or how you approach playing certain scenes?
ZLJ: I think it’s important to understand the tone of a film when you’re building your character. Because you ultimately want to tell that story that the filmmakers are trying to tell. So tonally…for me as an actor, because I do feel that I have a certain amount of range that would allow me to shift tonally, that it’s important for me to figure out the story that we’re all trying to tell together. Lola Versus is a story that can sometimes be broad in its humor, but its ultimately really grounded in reality. It’s about bridging that tonally as an actor.
JT: In contrast to Breaking Upwards, how much is Lola Versus based on your own experience?
ZLJ: Not very closely… The idea for the film was born out of my experiences. But the film itself wasn’t.
JT: So the events in Lola Versus, were those to a certain degree based on what you experienced during the open relationship?
ZLJ: Yeah, versions of them. I think every single woman has been through versions of what Lola goes through. So hopefully, that will be relatable. Being a single woman, especially in New York in your twenties…is challenging. You meet a bunch of crazy people… So it was sort of similar.
JT: What’s the process of you and Daryl writing together? Are you two in the room together? Or do you send pages back and forth?
ZLJ: Sometimes we’re in the room together. But usually we write separately. And we take turns writing. Whenever one of us feels inspired to write a certain scene, we’ll write it, even if it’s out of order. I’ll say, “I understand what this scene is. I think it’s a really funny idea. I’m going to write it down.” Then I’ll give it to Daryl and he’ll give his notes on it and vice versa.
JT: As a writer or actress, or as a singer/songwriter, what’s next for you? What should audiences keep an eye out for?
ZLJ: Whitney is coming back for a second season. So that will be awesome. Daryl and I have another movie with Fox Searchlight called Motherfucker. But I won’t be in that, I don’t think. I think Daryl and I will continue to write films. We were talking about writing a drama for me to star in, so keep your eyes out.
JT: After Lola Versus opens in theaters and everybody gets a chance to see, is there anything in particular you’re hoping audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
ZLJ: I hope…that they feel connected to it. I think that ultimately you’ve succeeded as a filmmaker if your audience leaves feeling they have an emotional connection to that story…that they’ve connected to those characters and gone with them on their journey and ultimately feel something at the end.
Filed under: LiC Interview