In an unspeakably hip café in unspeakably hip Williamsburg in unspeakably hip Brooklyn, it is time to meet unspeakably hip Zoë Kravitz. I’m going to spoil it for you: This is a story about how off-base media first impressions can be. For while I do feel like the oldest, most unpierced extra on the set of Girls, and while she is thoroughly on point in her dark hoodie, long platinum braids, artistically placed tattoos, and gypsy trove of vintage silver rings, Kravitz doesn’t project one iota of snotty millennial smugness, nor the condescension of the beautiful, famous, and extremely fashionable. In fact, the opposite is true.
The daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet and a star in her own right, she’s not exactly conventional, but she does have some markedly traditional tastes. “Lovely” is the word that springs to mind, and it is a word she uses, without irony, as if we were having tea at the Ritz.
The role Kravitz played in HBO’s Big Little Lies might exploit the common perception a little bit. “I think people always assume for whatever reason that I’m much more hippie-dippy than I am,” she says. Her character, Bonnie, kind of an alt-left paragon on the surface at least, seems uncannily laid-back and reasonable and generous in the drama’s tense, repressive environment, full of helicopter moms and competitive parenting.
“I’m certainly not as patient as Bonnie is, the way she takes the high road with Madeline [her husband’s ex, played powerfully by Reese Witherspoon]. I can be quite confrontational at times,” says Kravitz. “Bonnie has an amazing level of compassion; she’s very aware of others’ struggles.” Just below the story’s veneer, ugly secrets fester. And there’s that dead body to deal with, too. Best known for her success in action movies (X-Men, Divergent), Kravitz shows a side of herself in the salacious but sophisticated drama of Lies that the world is likely to see more of. “I want to do more drama,” she says. There is an intensity in her eyes as she says it. And you get the sense that Hollywood is only starting to scratch the surface of her talent.
This month we’ll see another facet in Rough Night, a broad physical comedy about a bachelorette party in Miami gone absurdly off the rails, also starring Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon. “I had so much fun,” she says. “Kate is genius. It’s hard not to laugh in every scene with her. There was definitely this idea behind doing the movie that it’s our turn to do a film like The Hangover where male characters get rowdy and dirty and outrageous. Women want to do that, too.”
“Rowdy,” “dirty,” and “outrageous,” however, would probably be among the last words that come to mind to describe the young woman sitting across from me. I would start with “poised,” “thoughtful,” and “pleasant.” Followed closely by “beautiful” and “sexy.” Her role models are certainly on the traditional side, as Hollywood role models go. “I’d start with my family,” she says. “Both my grandmothers and my mother. They planted the seeds for me of what it meant to be female. I grew up in California with my mom in Topanga Canyon. My mother had really great girlfriends. Marisa Tomei is my godmother. I’ve always been around strong women, funny women. And my mom’s really funny. Humor is a big thing in my family. We like to laugh.”
It’s probably best to leave the following exchange verbatim.
As you mention your mother, has the Bill Cosby sex-abuse scandal upset her?
“I think she didn’t like hearing that. It bummed her out. Though she didn’t seem incredibly surprised about it. I don’t think she wants to hear about anyone being abused, especially by someone she spent so much time with. It feels shitty. You want to shower.” She smiles, in a slightly pained way, having clearly said all she wants to say on the topic.
It’s time to move on to happier subjects, like the actresses whose work has most inspired her. The first name to drop: Susan Sarandon. “I’ve known her a little bit,” she says. “I think she’s sexy and talented and amazing, and outspoken and intelligent.” The next one seems to come out of left field: Helena Bonham Carter. Really? An English actress with a CBE after her name? She clearly senses some bemusement from across the table (note to self: work on your poker face). “Come on, she’s amazing,” says Kravitz. “I recently saw Fight Club again. We’ve been doing movie nights at my house. Me and my boyfriend [actor Karl Glusman] have been hosting; we’ve got a really good projector set up with great speakers. We’ve been trying to start a weekly movie night. It’s a fun activity when it’s so cold outside and nobody wants to go anywhere. We cook a big dinner.” Last night, that meant kale and lentils and quinoa and butternut squash. (She’s not vegetarian, but sometimes her guests are, so why not?) Anyway, Helena Bonham Carter, check.
Kravitz’s movie nights, as she describes them, are more than fun, more than an excuse to entertain. To hear her tell it, the experience seems to fall somewhere between work and worship. “Last night we watched Opening Night,” she says. A little background: Opening Night is a dense and difficult 1977 film-student favorite, directed by John Cassavetes, a champion of improvisational performance, cinema verité, and working outside of the Hollywood system. Again, she picks up on my face. “Yes, it’s very long. It’s exhausting. But Gena Rowlands is just phenomenal. Watching Opening Night, I think Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands are the ultimate couple because they’re both beautiful people and talented actors, but the fact that they [husband and wife] made art together — art like that together — to me that’s the ultimate relationship. She is just so amazing. So natural. I truly believe she doesn’t know the camera’s there. She does everything that you’re told not to do. And it works. It’s nice to see someone throw all the rules away.” That last comment is telling. Because it takes someone conscious of the rules, familiar with discipline, to realize how true geniuses break them in pursuit of something better and truer.
Besides, Cassavetes and Rowlands were a quintessentially New York couple. And though Kravitz grew up in Los Angeles, the East Coast is in her blood. “I feel most at home in New York,” she says. “I’ve been here since I was 15. I think part of [my fondness for the city] is the spontaneity that’s possible here. You can go get a coffee and run into someone you know. There’s life and diversity and art everywhere. In a lot of cities, that’s not possible to experience. It’s kind of European. I like walking; I like the subway. Every time I have to go to 30 Rock [NBC’s New York address] to do a talk show, I tell them I’ll take the subway. It’s so much faster. It makes me happy. But like most New Yorkers, I like the city 50 percent more when it’s warm outside.”
It would be journalistic negligence to do an interview with Zoë Kravitz without bringing up her style, which is so admired and emulated. We start with the hair: “The platinum’s fun. It’s work. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ll stick with it as long as I can.” She laughs at the thought that her aesthetic may not outlast her patience or lack thereof. Her fashion sense seems less of a problem in that department and is firmly rooted in common sense, for all its bohemian overtones. “I’ve always liked contrasts, contradiction,” she says of her fashion tastes. “I think too much of anything doesn’t work — like if everything you wear is expensive-looking, you look stale. And if everything you wear is ripped and falling apart, you look crazy.” (Every fashion blogger in the world, please, oh please, take note.) “I like when you can find a balance. I live in New York City. I walk around. I have to be comfortable. You don’t look cool or sexy if you’re uncomfortable; it’s not attractive.”
Watch Zoë Kravitz Transform Into Twiggy
That inner sense of what’s attractive, to her, and what feels right, hasn’t gone unnoticed in the world of international brands. “I’ve had a contract with YSL Beauty for about a year,” she says. “That’s been a really great relationship; they’ve been very supportive of me. It’s nice to find a brand that wants to elevate you as opposed to change you to try to fit what they’re trying to sell.”
Kravitz seems very comfortable with herself in a way that few young, ambitious actresses are. There’s no insecurity, but there’s no false confidence, either. This seems to go beyond her professional life. Conservatives like to sneer at “identity politics” as if we all live in a postracial, bigotry-free world. Kravitz is having none of it.
In light of recent political events, she says, “Racism is very real, and white supremacy is going strong.” And identity is not something to be mocked or taken lightly. It’s better in her words: “I am definitely mixed. Both my parents are mixed. I have white family on both sides. The older I get, the more I experience life, I am identifying more and more with being black, and what that means — being more and more proud of that and feeling connected to my roots and my history. It’s been a really interesting journey because I was always one of the only black kids in any of my schools. I went to private schools full of white kids. I think a lot of that made me want to blend in or not be looked at as black. The white kids are always talking about your hair and making you feel weird. I had this struggle of accepting myself as black and loving that part of myself. And now I’m so in love with my culture and so proud to be black. It’s still ongoing, but a big shift has occurred. My dad especially has always been very connected to his history, and it’s important to him that I understand where I come from.”
Maybe it’s a cliché, but like a lot of clichés, there’s truth in it: If you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going. And at 28, Zoë Kravitz — already a movie story, already a fashion icon — might have the best GPS in the business.
Fashion stylist: Beth Fenton. Hair: Nikki Nelms. Makeup: Tom Pecheux. Manicure: Rieko Okusa. Set design: Josephine Shokrian.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Allure. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.
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