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.
You have your first girl-girl kiss in The Family Tree.
Well, it’s not my first.
It was the first one you filmed.
It actually was my
first, but the first one that aired was the one with Hayden. I got to
play the lesbian one other time, with Hayden Panettiere. Yeah, so this
is actually the first one I ever did. It was my first girl-on-girl kiss
and it was with Selma [Blair]. And she has that iconic kiss from Cruel
Intentions that I totally rocked when I was like, a younger teenager, or
kid, seeing it and going, “Oh, my gosh, that’s so crazy.’” And little did I know that one day I would be portraying a scene where I had to
kiss her — and that was so intimidating and scary. But what was weird
about it was that Selma seemed like that she was more nervous than me.
And she’s already done it before. I think it’s just awkward every time
you have a kissing scene. Especially when it’s two ladies who ... are
heterosexual ... that’s just another aspect of it that makes it slightly
awkward. But then you realize it’s just kissing and women are great
kissers and it’s an easy day at the job. [Laughs]
How does it compare to the other screen kisses that you’ve had to do?
one is different and has its own set of oddities. The best analogy for
kissing on a set is like when you played spin the bottle when you were a
kid and everyone’s watching you guys make out. And you’re so nervous
and you can’t really be yourself and you kind of want a part and
you’re trying to show how good of a kisser you are. But you can’t really
kiss the person because it’s fake and it’s very complicated. But it’s
kind of like playing spin the bottle with a bunch of your [friends] ... and
the frightened, adolescent side comes out as well. It’s just something
that comes up and you have to move past it. Just like anytime there’s
something difficult or an obstacle inside a character you just have to
move past it. It’s always very uncomfortable. You never — let me really
think about this and make sure I’m being honest — I don’t think that
I’ve ever actually enjoyed an on-screen kiss. I don’t think I’ve ever
actually gotten lost in the kissing of it. You know what I mean? Because
you have to think about timing, and if it’s somewhat physically
pleasurable, you’re mindful the entire time of people watching and being
filmed. But you still get your emotions involved — I think it’s kind of
impossible to just not be a little bit nervous and that little kid
thing happen where you’re like, Uh! I’m about kiss her!
It’s open until the end of the film whether Mitzi is bisexual or lesbian. How did you see her?
know, I played her really open. Also, she’s really young. I think that
there are so many different aspects to the sexuality of that character. I
think one of the first people to show her love and to accept her was
somebody much older, with more experience, and who has a total upper
hand position in the relationship. And whenever you enter into a
relationship with somebody who has that upper hand, it creates an
imbalance. So I played her as still trying to figure it out. I didn’t
really play her with a definitive sexuality as far as being gay or
straight. I’d say she went where the love was. Mrs. Delbo showed her
love and that’s where she went, but then when Britt’s character shows
her attention, you know, it’s like, Oh, finally someone my age and
more on my level is showing me that kind of attention. That’s where
she went next. That’s kind of the way the heart goes too. But I didn’t
really think about her sexuality too much; I played it as just whatever
her emotions were. I always feel that the sexuality is secondary, no
matter what you’re playing or what your character’s sexuality or sexual
orientation is, so to speak.
In the movie Hope Davis hits her
head, loses her memory and she has a chance to become someone else,
really — she gets to reinvent her life. Is there anything in your life
you’d like to forget?
Oh, yeah. But I feel like everyone, whether
you’ve hit your head or not, has the chance for a transformation and
becoming whoever you want to be, because ultimately you can create your
personality. If you want to go and move to the east side of L.A. and
wear tight jeans and cut your hair short and dye it black, then you can
do that for a little while, see how it feels. And I think a lot of life
is sort of trying on new hats until you sort of figure out what really
feels right. I guess the thing that feels best for me now is just
being as kind as I can be to everyone that I meet. I’ve definitely been
selfish in relationships and wish I could forget that. Now I’m no longer
in a relationship and I’m just being kind, so that’s my whole deal
right now. Kindness begets kindness and it feels good. Just like anytime
you have an impulse to do something altruistic, it’s met almost
immediately by this feeling of doubt, and then if you can override that
doubt, there’s this magic thing that happens — it makes you feel already
transformed. I just wish that I could hit my head and forget certain
things, but it’s better to accept that part of yourself and move on,
because every breath is a chance to create a new self.
That sounds remarkably balanced for someone who grew up on
camera. You really have bucked that trend of Hollywood child actors
I wasn’t always — well, I also still have a long way
to go. But I’m not as caught up in the competitive side of it. I feel
like there’s enough jobs out there for everyone and ... every time I work
it’s like a miracle and I feel great about it. I don’t know why I’m the
way I am, but I do know that ... I never really got into the drug aspect of
[Hollywood]. When people do get into the drug aspect of it, that’s
where things really start to go awry, especially when you feel
uncomfortable or when you’re transitioning, or like you’re not quite
where you want to be in your career and then the ego can just sort of
like devour you. Like if you’re not the pretty young actress who’s
working all the time, then what are you? If you’re not the hot girl on
the show, then what are you? So whatever jobs that I’ve gotten, I try to
not let it define me.
You’re also really close to your sisters. Does that help keep you grounded?
Yes, 100%. My sisters would never let me get away with
any kind of egotistical B.S. for too long. You know what I mean? The
fact that I have people who know me and who’ve known me my whole life,
they absolutely keep me in touch with where I came from. But also they
allow me the freedom of being able to be better than what I was
yesterday and not reminding me every day of failures, which family has
that aspect as well. There’s a great support system, but there’s also
sometimes the reminder of who you used to be. I think I’m better today
than I was yesterday, not that I’ll be better tomorrow. It’s a slow
progress, but yeah, absolutely, being connected to my family and my
sisters and having people to support me and love me is 100% a
part of my more balanced — and I’m not saying totally balanced — but
more balanced outlook on the ridiculous circus that is show business.
What do your folks think of your recent role that you’ve taken?
still supportive. I mean honestly, anytime I have a job and they know
how much I love to do what I do, they’re so supportive. But my dad is so
cute, he made a joke about Californication.
Did your dad watch that scene?
watched everything except for that scene, and during that scene he would
close his eyes and ears. And accidentally he probably did see part of
it because it was nonstop, Showtime would show that promo nonstop. It’s
always on “Previously on Californication” and the punch is in every
clip, even if I’m not even on the show anymore. [Laughs] I’m like, man,
man, oh man, they’re really getting their money’s worth out of that clip.
How many takes did that scene take you?
can’t remember. I think I went out of my body because ... it was so weird and
bizarre. I don’t think we did it more than like four times. I was so
scared I was just trying not to hit the other actor. I think I did it
convincingly once, and that was enough, and everyone was like, let’s get
her some clothes on and let’s move on with our lives.
Do you understand her motivation in that scene?
people think different things about it. I always thought her motivation
was just that she wanted to stand out, that she wanted him to remember
her, that she was fully aware he was a womanizer, and her whole plan was
just for her to be like a story in his book and just someone who would
always be a part of his memory like, the girl who did this. I don’t
think it was something she did all the time. In one of the episodes she
revealed the fact that that was her first time having sex — whether
that was a lie or not I don’t even know, but she said, “Yeah, you were my
first time.” Which is weird.
you one of the sexiest women in the world. Do you look in the mirror
and think, Damn, I’m hot? Or do you just think it’s ridiculous?
really don’t look at myself and go, Whoa, who’s that foxy lady? I
always have just been looking at myself thinking, Man, I hate my nose.
Man, if I had the courage to go under the knife, I would totally get a
nose job. I have insecurities out the wazoo and it’s shocking to me ...
[especially] after years of being the not-sexy girl and going in on
auditions and [hearing] “She’s just not sexy, blah blah blah.” I was the
most awkward teenager, just the most awkward, heartbreakingly awkward
and insecure. I’m just more comfortable with myself now. But I
definitely never really go, Damn. Who’s that? Oh, I want to make love
with the mirror now. I’m not quite there. I wish I were there because
there are some girls who just have that kind of confidence — whether it’s
insecurity, confidence, or whatever it is, it works for them. That’s not
really who I am. Again, it’s part of the whole not getting too wrapped
up in [image] ... eventually we’re all just going to go downhill anyhow.
There’s always going to be someone more beautiful, skinnier, sexier,
better body, whatever it is I’m not. I’m not really in the business of
playing that game anymore. I feel like where I’m at in my life, the only
thing that really matters to me is being a kind person and, and
continuing to work and share that side of myself with the people I’m
working with because it’s transformative.
It’s hard for women to not focus on their looks because there’s so much pressure.
always hated my nose. It’s so silly; no one even disses my nose.
Actually what’s funny is I read on a blog one time that they were like,
“Oh Madeline, you’re so pretty, except for that chin. If you get that
chin fixed, you’ll be perfect.” I didn’t even know my chin was a
problem. I thought my chin was cute. I try as much as possible to not
even think about that stuff. Of course it’s impossible. It’s very hard
to not when ... even my representation is like, “Yeah, you have to be
sexier, whatever, wear more makeup.” I’m like, “Uh, you know, from now
on, don’t tell me these things, guys.”
There’s a lot of pressure at your age too.
had that pressure for my whole life, basically, so now it’s like nothing
new. At 25, even though I’m still really young, but because I’ve been
doing it so long, I am like, yeah, over a lot of the pitfalls because I
already did that when I was younger and more susceptible to them.
Since your character in The Family Tree has
a romance with another woman, tell me if you had to do another lesbian
on-screen romance, who would you like to play opposite you?
would love, love, love, and, I’ve said this so many times, everyone in
my personal life knows that my lesbian crush is Angelina Jolie. How
could you not? Not only is she so beautiful, but her humanitarian side,
which I know is so cheesy to say, but that’s what makes her really
And she’s a fantastic actress.
Fantastic. She’s beautiful, and yeah, she’s kind of delicious.