Sex and Serenity: Madeline Zima in
BY Diane Anderson-Minshall
August 26 2011 11:00 AM ET
Life in suburban Serenity, Ohio, is never quite as serene as it appears in the new dysfunctional family comedy The Family Tree, which hits theaters today. After mom Bunnie (played by Hope Davis) gets a case of amnesia, the family gets a new chance at happiness — and a quirky ensemble cast that would make a Wes Anderson film look staid gets a chance to shine. Chief among them Madeline Zima, who plays Mitzi, a disabled high school student having an affair with one woman but in love with another. In the hands of director Vivi Friedman and writer Mark Lisson, The Family Tree is an offbeat and touching flick that asks what you’d do if you could push a reset button and reinvent yourself.
Zima has worked steadily in Hollywood since her six-season-long role opposite Fran Drescher on The Nanny. After that came a bevy of films (The Collector, A Cinderella Story, the upcoming Lake Effects), TV appearances (Grey’s Anatomy), and the title role in the critically acclaimed miniseries Lucy. Her most notable TV roles have been provocative ones: first she played Gretchen, Claire’s bisexual roommate on Heroes (and had that famous lip lock with Hayden Panettiere) and later she clocked David Duchovny in the jaw while naked during sex on Showtime’s Californication. Zima talks with The Advocate about kissing Selma Blair, wanting Angelina Jolie, and why ego is the downfall of too many Hollywood starlets.
The Advocate: The Family Tree is very funny.
Madeline Zima: I haven’t seen the latest cut of it, but I really enjoyed the first cut and I’m sure it’s only gotten better and better.
Your character in Family Tree is having an affair with one person but is really in love with someone else. Is that something you could relate to?
Oh, sure. [Laughs] I mean I, I find a way of always relating to my characters but especially when it comes to matters of the heart it’s ... it’s always complicated. It’s unusual that people in relationships conduct themselves in a way that they’re entirely free of emotional baggage by the time that they enter into a new relationship. That’s a perspective that I could definitely relate to.
One of the things that I loved is sort of how casually the film treated your character’s disability. Did that affect how you played her?
Yeah, absolutely. Initially she has a chip on her shoulder. She throws it in people’s faces as opposed to hiding it. She’s like, “Yeah, what? I’m a freak. Look at it closer,” you know, “Take a picture.” But what was funny about the filmmaking aspect of it is that how I ended up playing Mitzi is not how I imagined I’d play her. I imagined her being much tougher and just not in dresses. She was very just like sort of a paradoxical character. All the characters were sort of almost in costume, kind of like a Wes Anderson movie where they sort of have their thing going on, and not anything is really explained about her leg, but it’s just another aspect of her personality and who she is and how she interacts with the world, which I thought was interesting. You’ll see people with an eye patch in a movie, but it’s never mentioned why they have an eye patch or the backstory, and I think that’s kind of fun because then you can create whatever kind of backstory you want.
How did you end up playing Mitzi differently? Did she become a softer person when you were playing her?
Yeah. She had the toughness but the complexity of just walking around in outfits like that with the leg brace on kind of were funny to me, kind of like when you see women walking down the streets with giant heels on and you know they’re walking blocks and blocks to wherever they’re going. And you’re like, Why are they doing that to themselves? There’s an aspect of that that I was like, OK, she’s kind of pretending that she’s this tough girl but she’s always wearing dresses and skirts and doing her hair and is getting sort of dolled up to go to school. And an aspect of that is that she’s having an affair with someone who works there [at school] and then another aspect of that is that she cares, she actually deeply cares about what people think.
Yes, that comes across.
So the physicality of the way that the director had envisioned her changed my initial instinct, which was to play her very tough, and then the softness came in just naturally as the physicality of her wardrobe, which is such a funny thing to think about — that the wardrobe sort of defined an aspect of her. Just as you would, when you see people who wear hipster clothes, they are sort of defined by that in a way, or people who wear really hippie-dippy clothes — there is an aspect of the wardrobe [defining them], which is funny. I never play anything, usually, from the outside in, but sometimes it informs part of the character, and so that’s what happened with this
That makes a lot of sense, actually. I like the scene where Mitzi shows Kelly her artificial leg and says essentially, Go ahead stare at it. And Kelly does. She has no shame about it — she’s curious.
Oh, yeah, one thing that’s great about the Kelly character, played by Britt Robertson — she is the most authentic character like in the whole [film], actually. Whatever she’s going through, she just throws into people’s faces and is very honest and up-front about whatever is going on with her. So if she’s curious about somebody’s leg, she’s not going to just sneak a look. She’s going to just shove her face in my kneecap and see what’s going on there. So that was cool.
Which your character, Mitzi, responded to.
I think that Mitzi respected that honesty as opposed to people sort of sneaking a look. Like in one scene Max’s character kind of sneaks a look and she kind of catches him and that’s disappointing every time that happens. I think she [Kelly, with her action] was just kind of shocking and why they sort of built a friendship she respects. There’s a mutual respect there.