For actress-writer Zoe Lister-Jones, her art is quite literally her life
Story by Angela Cravens / Photography by Victoria Stevens
“The reaction from the audience has been so positive. It’s the most fulfilling thing to work so hard on a project that’s so personal and feel that people are getting it.”
Art and autobiography have long held a relationship without boundaries. Take Woody Allen’s countless protagonists cast as, essentially, himself. Or Nicolas Cage as a version of scribe Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. Hell, Jennifer Aniston has built a career on playing an anesthetized version of herself, as have most “rom com” cuties of the big screen. But for actress Zoe Lister-Jones, the road towards making a career in Hollywood has been paved by a different approach to the screen; warts and all.
As actress, producer, and co-writer of the upcoming Breaking Upwards, Lister-Jones finds herself reliving a conflicted period in her relationship with director and actor Daryl Wein. A disarmingly personal — and funny — exploration of relationships in downtown New York City, Breaking Upwards is a brave, brutally honest collaboration.
“Daryl started writing the script on an experiment that we actually did in our own relationship,” Lister-Jones says. “Basically, we strategized our own breakup.”
The breakup was clearly unsuccessful (the pair are still together), but it has still brought about some notable observations of love in post-millennial N.Y.C. When Lister-Jones got her hands on an initial script by Wein and co-writer Peter Duchan, she found it “really biased, and with a specifically male perspective.” So she came onboard as a writer herself.
It’s this take-charge approach that comes naturally to Lister-Jones, a native New Yorker who grew up in Brooklyn as the child of artists. Mother Ardele Lister is an accomplished video artist, and father Bill Jones is a photographer and media artist. Laughing, Lister-Jones recalls how her parents encouraged neighborhood-hopping in South Park Slope when she was a child in the ’80s: “They were always pioneering bad neighborhoods until they became overrun with yuppies and we’d have to leave!” When she began showing a talent for the arts, her parents encouraged her to pursue acting wholeheartedly.
“That is one element of being a child of artists that is really an asset,” she says via telephone from Los Angeles, where she has traveled with Wein for the premiere of his documentary, Sex Positive. “Especially with visual artists, it’s so much more about creating things on your own. It’s not necessarily about waiting for a telephone call.”
After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lister-Jones wrote and starred in a one-woman show, Codependence is a Four-Letter Word, which then opened the door to roles in theater, television, and more recently, on screen in State of Play with Russell Crowe.
On the set of Breaking Upwards, Lister-Jones fully immersed herself in each of her various roles: star, writer, producer, caterer, and even singer on the film’s soundtrack. The fearless do-it-yourself hustle necessary to bring the project to life proved a much welcome distraction from the unnervingly personal aspects of the story. “The characters were kind of heightened versions of ourselves,” she says. “Because I was wearing so many different hats on set, when it came down to actually acting the scene, there wasn’t time for me to process that the story was so close to me.”
Of course, now that the film is out in the world, it’s another story. Lister-Jones and Wein have recently wrapped up a round of festivals, picking up the Grand Chameleon Award and Best Narrative Feature at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. “It gets to be complicated because we invited a lot of intrigue about our personal life, so it’s hard to draw the line when we’re asked questions,” Lister-Jones says. “But the audience reaction has been so positive. It’s the most fulfilling thing to work so hard on a project that’s so personal and feel that people are getting it.”
There’s no sign of her schedule slowing down when Breaking Upwards hits theaters in early 2010; Hollywood has come calling with some intriguingly diverse roles. She’ll play the girlfriend of a member of the Witness Protection Program in Adult Swim’s creepy comedy Delocated, the network’s first live-action series. She’ll also appear with Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling in All Good Things, the upcoming feature from Capturing the Friedmans’ Andrew Jarecki. Of course there’s also the hotly anticipated Washingtonienne, the new Sarah Jessica Parker-produced HBO series about the careers and conquests of 20-somethings on Capitol Hill. So do we get to enjoy Lister-Jones as a Bradshaw-esque D.C. diva? “I play the activist schlub,” she says, enthusiastically. “She’s the opposite of the three über-stylish main characters.”
It’s all in a day’s work at the office for the young Lister-Jones, who continues to tackle the opportunities thrown her way even as she is developing her own projects. “It’s been a crazy year, especially with Breaking Upwards, but it’s been pretty magical too,” she says. But for now? “I guess sleep can wait.”