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In the 2012 film Ruby Sparks, a novelist struggling with writer’s block gets some input on one of his characters: “You’ve written a girl, not a person.” In hindsight, Zoe Kazan seems destined to not only have written the line, but to embody the mythical stereotype it skewered.
When Kazan was young – not to mention precocious and wildly imaginative, she just wanted to grab a crayon and get to it already. The daughter of screenwriters and the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan and playwright Molly Kazan, she began writing early and regularly, a smart and serious student whose emotional intelligence would’ve been a tipoff about her future, had a school play not already sealed the deal. Coming home from the audition, the 14-year-old realized it was what she was meant to do with her life. “I had that thing inside of myself, without which you can’t get through the terrible rejection that comes with being an actor.”
Or sometimes, even being a high school student. Kazan recalled to Playbill feeling at odds with what seemed necessary to win popularity or boyfriends. “I felt so set apart by the schools I was applying to for college and knowing the answer in class. I remember sitting in English class, going, ‘Someone else, please raise your hand,’ and feeling so lonely.”
She felt less so at Yale, where she earned a B.A. in theater and was a member of its highly selective Manuscript Society. Plans to continue in the university’s school of drama were derailed by an agent who suggested she give acting a try first. So much for an M.F.A., but spending night after night on stage tuned into the rhythm of dialog and audience response will teach you a lot about theater. A year after graduating, she landed her first professional stage role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and her Broadway debut came two years later in Come Back, Little Sheba. Her performance as Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull cemented her status as an emerging talent and New York critics’ favorite. New York magazine wrote, “The increasingly indispensable Zoe Kazan slips grace notes of sadness into a broadly funny performance as Masha,” and the New York Times’ Ben Brantley agreed. “Ms. Kazan, who just gets better with every performance, tastily brings out the self-lacerating perversity in Masha’s defeatism.”
You can almost summon a visual of Kazan simultaneously honing her on-stage work while squirreling away the creative arsenal and confidence for her dual career as the writer she’d also intended to be. A year after Seagull, her play Absalom was produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, again winning the Times’ praise for its “believably human characters, speakable dialog,” and – maybe not surprisingly – her “instinctive feel for mining drama from the neuroses, insecurities and obsessions of the creative classes.” Not two years later she mined the subject to equal acclaim in her play We Live Here.
Meanwhile, film roles were increasing in number and variety, even if they were confined to smaller independents that lent themselves both to her off-kilter charm (she calls “They wanted a different look” code for “not pretty enough”) and her artistic sensibility. Her clear, intelligent interpretation of supporting roles in Revolutionary Road, Me and Orson Welles and Meek’s Cutoff made her eminently watchable, and signaled what she might bring to a leading role, given the chance. It came with 2009’s The Exploding Girl, a largely improvised story about a young girl dealing with epilepsy and the transition to adulthood. The Los Angles Times’ Kenneth Turan gave Kazan a good deal of credit for the film’s success. “Because so little happens in terms of action, Kazan has to hold us with nothing more than the emotions that play with subdued personal force on her face. Though her work here may seem like a performer being herself, it’s actually a highly controlled example of some of the hardest acting to achieve.” The same could well be said of her Emmy-nominated turn as a meek pharmacy clerk in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge.
So what is an avowed and hyper-talented feminist doing in rom-coms like What If, I Hate Valentine’s Day and yes, Ruby Sparks? Stealthily infiltrating the genre to make us see it in a new way. Kazan cited Pygmalion as her inspiration for Ruby, and it’s easy to see Kazan herself as a Pygmalion of sorts, reverse-conjuring the characters she writes and plays from “ideal” women to real ones. She does true justice to a real one in the Sundance smash The Big Sick, playing a slightly fictionalized version of Emily Gordon, girlfriend of the film’s star, standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani. Reviewing for The Playlist, Noel Murray wrote, “Zoe Kazan can transform even the most stock role into something indelible. In the broadest sense, her character Emily is about as basic as they come. She’s “the girlfriend” — the woman whose humor, kindness, and vivacity gives the hero the catalyst he needs for change. But Kazan is hilarious and three-dimensional, able to turn on a dime from goofy to guarded to outright angry.”
Maybe the true measure of a feminist is how equally one respects and judges both male and female characters in her work. Kazan acknowledges our human inclination to idealize romantic partners, but also the fact that those partners live inside people who are also cranky, self absorbed, funny, and ordinary. She’s a double-threat reminder of why we need not just more female voices in the arts, but more original ones.