Nothing pleases a New Yorker more than being treated like a regular at a bar or coffee shop they frequent and it’s fair to say that Zoë Kravitz – the massive Hollywood star who is somehow simultaneously the indie cool kid – is a real local at Five Leaves, a restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
A recent number of wildly successful acting roles have super sized her celebrity status, but here, on a damp, hot Friday in July, there are no paparazzi or lingering stares, just happy hellos from passing waiters and, when it’s time to leave, an iced coffee on the house.
‘It’s chill, which is one of the reasons I stay,’ she says of the neighbourhood.
Zoë looks the Brooklyn part, wearing a white T-shirt that slouches in all the right places, black and white checked trousers, neon green patent peep-toe shoes from Maryam Nassir Zadeh, her hair in braids at the crown, then cascading into healthy waves around her tattooed arms. She lives nearby with her boyfriend of two years, actor Karl Glusman, and says life here provides a respite from fame’s glare: ‘I’m struggling with how to handle things with grace and not feel like an animal in a cage.’
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
In truth, the 29-year-old has always been surrounded by intense celebrity: her parents are The Cosby Show actress Lisa Bonet and rock star Lenny Kravitz. But now, she’s achieved it all on her own, thanks to a role in the 2015 blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road and as pivotal character Bonnie in HBO’s Big Little Lies alongside Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon.
Next, there’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a CGI fantasy from the world of JK Rowling and Harry Potter opening in November, plus a hotly anticipated sequel to Big Little Lies, slated for March 2019. She has been a presence for years, her inimitable bohemian style making her an insider’s It-girl, but now Zoë Kravitz is having a moment, and it’s not based on how she dresses or who her parents are but on her talent, hard work and taste for excellent scripts.
Yet none of this has made her feel like a sure thing.
‘If I don’t have [the next] job lined up, I get nervous,’ she says. ‘It’s irrational, maybe. But also good. When I was in high school, if a girl didn’t like me, the first thing she’d say was, “You think you’re so cool because of your parents.” That carries into later life, like, “Oh, you just got this part because your parents are this and that,”’ she says.
‘It’s important to acknowledge that I got in the door easier because of them. Some kids work their whole lives and they can’t even get an agent to call them back. That part was handed to me. People are always going to think that maybe you are who you are because of your family. So it’s my responsibility to work harder.’
Kravitz has always had a creative drive. She remembers being a toddler and putting on shows based on the movie Grease for her parents: both half-black, half-Jewish, gorgeous superstars who dressed like it was 1968 (in the early Nineties). They split when Zoë was two, and Lenny wrote arguably his best song, It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over, about the end of the relationship. Zoë and her mother continued living in the wealthy hippie paradise of Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains.
‘My mum did a really good job of keeping me sheltered. I didn’t have television growing up, and I didn’t have internet at the house. I was allowed to watch one movie a weekend that we had on VHS that she would choose,’ she says.
That said, Zoë’s childhood also included a salon of A-listers. She remembers going tubing with Mick Jagger, and it didn’t take her long to realise she wasn’t like every other kid.
‘My dad would come to pick me up and the whole school would swarm the parking lot,’ she says.
Her dad moved to Miami, and eventually she joined him aged 11, but it didn’t gel. ‘It was a rough time for someone trying to discover who they are,’ she says. ‘I went to a private school in Miami, surrounded by wealthy kids, mostly white. I felt like a freak because my hair was different, and little kids would come up and say, “Can I feel your hair?” The things that made me different were the things I didn’t like about myself; I wanted to straighten my hair, remind people I was half white.’
Insecurities led to bouts with eating disorders (Zoë says she’s now in a place where she doesn’t obsess about food, and does her best to listen to what her body wants and needs).
‘I went through a really awkward phase. I was short and brown, surrounded by tall girls with boobs and blonde hair. And my dad was dating supermodels, so I was waking up to Adriana Lima,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have beauty as a crutch, and I’m thankful for that because I had to develop my personality.’
Zoë moved to New York at 15, initially living with family. ‘It helped me become the person I am,’ she says. She finished high school, went into a drama programme at SUNY Purchase College, then dropped out after a year to invest fully in her career and spend time wilding it in the city. ‘I didn’t have to go to rehab or anything. I was just being a girl living in New York with enough money to drink.’
She landed small parts, her first one as a ‘goth nanny in No Reservations with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and started an electro-R&B band, Lolawolf, in 2013 with her friend Jimmy Giannopoulos (they still make music, but because of her acting, she hasn’t been able to focus on it), putting out a few under-the-radar albums and opening for Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen. She started showing up in the red carpet round-ups and the tabloids, becoming the target of relationship rumours with people such as Drake.
‘We kind of dated for a second,’ she says. ‘Was it weird [to be talked about in the tabloids]? I guess so. I also wasn’t paying attention to what the internet was saying.’
Things didn’t truly catch fire for her until Mad Max: Fury Road, which grossed hundreds of millions of dollars in 2015. Zoë had an important, if understated, role in the dystopian film as Toast the Knowing, the wife of a villainous despot, who escapes to find her freedom.
‘My agent would have to force me to go to these big auditions, because I really planned on doing theatre and indie films. I truly believed I didn’t fit into that world.’
But it was her role as Bonnie in Big Little Lies that made Zoë more than just a recognisable face and an actress with a voice of her own. The seven-part series is based on the successful Australian novel of the same name. Released in 2017, it follows a group of rich Monterey women played by Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley as they uncover a series of uncomfortable truths about their community, and explores rape, domestic violence and murder. It was an instant phenomenon and went on to win eight Emmys.
Zoë’s character, a zen, clean-eating yoga instructor, is an essential role. It is her who, at the end of the first series, is able to offer catharsis after an abusive man’s behaviour is uncovered. The show debuted just one month after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and its message of female unity seemed to resonate with audiences in need of a depiction of justice against badly behaved men.
‘That was something people wanted: women standing up for themselves and standing up for each other,’ she says. ‘There was some kind of collective consciousness going on, because the Me Too movement happened right after.’
Zoë has become increasingly political since Trump’s win, participating in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, rallying for gun safety and campaigning to keep immigrant families together. She frequently uses Instagram to speak out against what she feels is wrong: ‘I like that people have been taking to the streets.’
To hear Zoë tell it, the vibe on the second-season set for Big Little Lies has a similar kind of solidarity to the movements that have sprung up in the past year. Debuting in March, the series will feature Meryl Streep and reportedly focuses more on Zoë’s character’s own history of abuse.
She is silent about the plot, but gushes about getting to watch and learn from legendary women, paying attention to Streep’s approach: ‘You don’t see the effort in her acting. She’s not taking it too seriously; she’s just trying to be truthful in the moment.’
Zoë has also been taking powerhouse pointers from executive producers Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon; Reese in particular has been an advocate for women finding, cultivating and fighting for strong roles both in front of and behind the camera. Zoë has recently written a script (again, she doesn’t want to reveal any details yet) and shown it to Reese.
‘She’s giving me notes.’
Zoë says she is dedicated to the idea of creating her own projects (writing, directing), as she’s been disappointed by the roles offered to black women. She’s realised that if she wants things to change, she’s going to have to change them herself: ‘You read scripts and you’re like, “Where is my story?” Often, the parts written for women are accessories to men’s stories, and parts written for any kind of minority are an accessory to a white person’s story.
'A script will point out that a character is African-American, and you know how she’s going to talk. She’s going to add some attitude or something. It’s just about creating characters for women and people of colour who feel like real people, who feel complicated and honest – not just being used to further a white person’s story.’
This sometimes means playing a cool witch, as she does in this year’s Fantastic Beastssequel.
‘She’s important in the story and an outcast in her own way,’ Zoë says. ‘She’s dangerous; she’s bad. I want to remind people that a black woman with tattoos doesn’t have to just play an artist.’ Zoë got to meet JK Rowling (‘She’s very jokey’), who wrote the script as a prequel to the Harry Potter series. ‘I’ve worked with CGI before, but this is just... a universe. I love the magic.’
Yes, she is political and serious, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a need to sit in a dark theatre and leave behind the earth’s ills. ‘It’s escapism,’ says Zoë. ‘Especially where we are right now. It’s nice to forget about the world for a minute.’
She finds frivolity fun, and enjoys dressing up for the red carpet – even when it takes her out of her day-to-day attire and into a slinky, black lace Saint Laurent evening dress slit high to the hip bone, as she famously wore to the Met Gala last year (Zoë is a brand ambassador).
She loves jewellery, and today has multiple gold hoops in her ears and two gold chains around her neck. Her style icon is Nineties Brad Pitt, and her wardrobe is a mix of her mum’s bohemian free spiritedness and her dad’s rocker vibes.
She got her first tattoo at 18 (her parents requested she wait until then) and now has many, including DIY stick-and-pokes given to her by friends and the dates of each parent’s birth on her hands. She makes fun of her hippy persona, too, saying that everyone assumes she’s vegan by the way she looks (she isn’t, though her mother is).
Refreshingly, Zoë doesn’t pretend (the way some actors do) to be unaware of how her looks are perceived, but rather takes the compliment, seeing it as part of a journey in hard-won confidence. ‘People come up to me on the street and tell me I’m beautiful, and yet I still feel insecure,’ she says. ‘It’s important to be humble, but I also want to feel beautiful. I want to love myself. That energy affects your health.’
ALEXAN DER SALADRIGAS
So, what does the future hold for Zoë Kravitz? For one, maybe marriage with Karl. But she is practical about things: ‘I’m a child of divorce, so I have to be realistic. I think I love the idea of attempting to work through the hardest times and really show up for your partner. To put in work.’
She says the politics of today make her unsure of whether or not to bring children into an uncertain world (and watching The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t helped).
‘I’m scared for myself, you know?’ Zoë looks to both her black and Jewish heritages for resilience. ‘Jews and African-Americans have had so much pain, carried so much on their shoulders, and come so far.’
As her career soars, Zoë says taking the New York subway now sometimes involves people taking a sneak picture of her on their phone, which makes her uncomfortable. When I ask if the prospect of venturing even further into the wonderland of Hollywood mega-stardom conflicts with her desire to stay humble – or, to borrow a worn-out cliché, keep it real – she doesn’t worry.
‘Even if I’m doing a big-budget movie that’s a machine to make money, I’m still trying to be honest in the moment in the scene,’ Zoë says resolutely. ‘I don’t want to ever feel like I’m faking it.’
From the outside looking in, it seems she won’t have to.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is in cinemas from 16 November.
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of ELLE UK.