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Zoe Kravitz Toes

‘I’m OK with not getting it right every time’: Zoë Kravitz on growing up famous and getting her claws into Batman

Sirin Kale

Z oë Kravitz is show-business royalty, the daughter of actor Lisa Bonet and musician Lenny Kravitz. I expected her to be candid – throughout her career she’s been outspoken: on race and Hollywood, on body image and politics. In 2017, she starred in a British Vogue video in which she yelled, while sharing odd items she keeps in her handbag, “Fuck Trump!” And when we meet one evening via Zoom – me in London, her in LA – she doesn’t disappoint. Here she is, easygoing and thoughtful in conversation, an A-lister speaking her mind rather than the asinine niceties offered by more careful celebrities. “I’m just a fucking nerd,” she says at one point, though only half-convincingly. “A weirdo!” She’s bundled up in a hoodie and beanie hat, makeup free apart from a delicate cat-eye flick of eyeliner, which feels appropriate.

We’re meeting to discuss The Batman, her new film, in which she stars as Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, opposite Robert Pattinson. The Batman is made by the American director Matt Reeves, who has described Kravitz as “smart, funny, honest, unpretentious”, and “a great creative partner”. To get into character, Kravitz watched videos of big cats and gradually adopted their physical attributes. “It was fun to play with different ways of walking, of being agile,” she says. “You know, you can’t read cats, which is why a lot of people feel uncomfortable around them.” Kravitz conceptualised Kyle as someone who is “tough, a street-smart person. Her life has been really difficult and she’s figured out a way to survive this far and take care of herself, and she really cares about other people in similar situations.”

To prepare for the role, she trained for four months. Was Kravitz, who had eating disorders as a teen, worried that the intense scrutiny on her body might prove triggering? “No, actually,” she says. “I was focused on being strong versus being thin. It’s a physical part. I wanted to make sure it felt believable that she was physically capable of doing all the things she was doing. I was actually stronger and more healthy than I’ve been in a long time.”

Feline groovy: with Robert Pattinson in The Batman.

And the iconic catsuit? I ask. How was that? Undignified. “I was like a two-year-old,” she laughs. “If I needed the toilet, someone had to escort me in and out.”

Given her background, it seems Kravitz was destined for the limelight. When I ask whether she ever considered having a civilian job – something dry and non-flashy, not acting but accountancy – she immediately brightens. “We used to joke,” she says, “that my version of rebellion would be, like, to become a lawyer or something. My dad would say that sometimes, because I’m good at arguing. But I don’t know how I could ever have an office job. I struggle with that kind of structure or authority in general.”

Her mother was fired from the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World when she became pregnant with Zoë by Lenny, who was already an up-and-coming musician; her paternal grandmother is Roxie Roker, the lead on pioneering 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons, the first show to depict an inter-racial couple on primetime TV. After her parents separated when she was a toddler, her mother remarried Aquaman actor Jason Momoa (they recently separated); her father has variously dated Nicole Kidman, Vanessa Paradis and Adriana Lima.

Like her father, who is an actor-musician, Kravitz, 33, is a polymath. She is the face of French fashion house Saint Laurent. She was in a band, LOLAWOLF. She is working on a solo album with Taylor Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff, though she is tight-lipped on what we should expect. It’s the only part of our interview where it feels as if she’s holding back; I suspect it’s because the album may touch upon her divorce from the actor Karl Glusman. (Kravitz filed for divorce in December 2020, mid-pandemic, after 18 months of marriage.) “It’s a living, breathing thing,” Kravitz says, vaguely, of the album. “And I’m not quite sure where it will end yet.”

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‘My role was originally written for a white person’: the cast of Big Little Lies, with (from left) Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Her parents were people who “broke down boundaries in a lot of ways”, she says. “They both dealt with being artists who didn’t act or dress or look or sound the way a Black person was supposed to act in terms of what white people specifically were comfortable with.” But growing up between LA and Miami, and later in Manhattan, Kravitz sometimes felt uncomfortable with her heritage as a biracial woman. “I felt really insecure about my hair,” she says, “relaxing it, putting chemicals in it, plucking my eyebrows really thin. I was uncomfortable with my blackness. It took me a long time to not only accept it but to love it and want to scream it from the rooftops.”

The turning point was “realising what it meant,” she goes on, “for my grandmother to get a job on The Jeffersons, and be a Black woman on TV, and what it meant for her to be in a biracial relationship on television. And to hear stuff that my mother tells me about being a biracial girl in the 1970s, and being abused or being spit on, and what that felt like, you know?” I ask whether her parents ever gave her “the talk” about racism before she entered Hollywood. “They never warned me or anything,” Kravitz says. “I think they were more focused on trying to make sure I understood that despite the colour of my skin I should be able to act or dress or do whatever it is I want to do.”

Kravitz is strategic about the roles she takes; her agent won’t pass on those that are explicitly about race, lest she becomes pigeonholed. “At one point,” she says, “all the scripts that were being sent were about the first Black woman to make a muffin or something. Even though those stories are important to tell, I also want to open things up for myself as an artist.” Kravitz believes the reason her character in the HBO blockbuster Big Little Lies was so multi-layered is, in part, because “it was originally written for a white person.” When on location for Big Little Lies in California, “There were a few moments where I felt a little uncomfortable,” she says, “because it is such a white area.” I ask her to elaborate. “Just weird racist people in bars and things like that.”

Big Little Lies, in which she stars opposite Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, and is very much their equal, came at a good time for Kravitz. For years, she kicked around in underpowered roles on the periphery of films. She was the thinly written sidekick to Shailene Woodley’s lead in Divergent. She was a fringe superhero in X-Men: First Class. She realised early on that she had to train herself not to fall in love with roles before she won them – it was too heartbreaking when things didn’t go her way. Her mother would counsel her: rejection is protection. “Even though it’s sometimes hard to see that in the moment,” Kravitz says, “usually a few years later, you’re like, OK, this is why this didn’t happen.”

High notes: performing onstage with LOLAWOLF during the Meadows Music & Arts Festival in New York.

One rejection stands out. In 2012, Kravitz attempted to audition for the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, but was told she was too “urban” for the role. “I don’t know if it came directly from Chris Nolan,” she says, anxious not to impugn the reputation of an award-winning director. “I think it was probably a casting director of some kind, or a casting director’s assistant… Being a woman of colour and being an actor and being told at that time that I wasn’t able to read because of the colour of my skin, and the word urban being thrown around like that, that was what was really hard about that moment.”

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When the news later broke that Kravitz would be starring in The Batman, “it was crazy,” she says, half-smiling, a flicker of triumph in those curiously feline eyes. “My phone was blowing up more than any birthday I’ve ever had.”

Kravitz’s role in The Batman puts her steadfastly in A-list territory. But it was Big Little Lies, which became a critical and commercial hit for HBO, that was her launchpad. Meatier roles soon followed, including the gender-swapped Hulu reboot of the 1995 romantic comedy High Fidelity, in which she starred and executive produced. That show got mixed reviews and was cancelled after one season. “It sucked,” she says of the cancellation. “It hurt. And I do think it was a mistake.” Kravitz is currently preparing to shoot her directorial debut, Pussy Island, a Me-Too inspired thriller about a young waitress who sets out to seduce a business magnate. “I love to write, I love to edit,” she says, “but acting often really stresses me out, because I feel like I’m there to serve the director and I don’t want to let them down.” Moving to directing feels more instinctively comfortable. “The psychology of humans is really interesting to me,” she says. “And behind the camera, I still get to do that, without the performance part.”

The Batman was originally slated for a June 2021 release date, but production shut down due to the pandemic. “It was crazy,” Kravitz says, of the day that filming stopped. “You’re away from home and you’re focused and ready to go and you’ve been training for months… It was scary for a lot of people, not knowing if the shutdown was going to be for a week, or two weeks. It ended up being six months.” At the time, Kravitz was filming in the UK, so she spent the first three months of lockdown in London, watching government press conferences and walking in nearby Hampstead Heath. “I was like everyone else,” she says. “Tiger King and movies and food and all of that.” It was a strange, lonely time. “I don’t have a lot of friends in London, so it was super isolating.”

All star line-up: with her parents musician Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet in 2016.

Eventually, Kravitz returned to her upstate New York home, where she hunkered down and watched films, tried to stay in shape for when production resumed. “When something like that is going on,” she says, “all you want to do is sit on the couch and eat snacks, and stuff. And I did that plenty. But I was also trying to keep my regimen a little bit because I’d worked so hard already.”

New York is her favourite place in the world, but lately it’s felt oppressive. “I love to walk around and be a part of that city,” she says. “But there have been times where I’m, like, I’m not going to leave my house today, because I don’t feel emotionally capable of protecting myself energetically from that.” By “that”, Kravitz means being recognised in the street – she does not enjoy being famous. “It’s a hard thing to talk about,” she says, “because no one wants to feel bad for people who have wonderful lives.”

Kravitz attempts to explain what this constant surveillance feels like: “You go into a coffee shop and everyone is looking at you, so you’re spending all of your energy trying to act like you don’t see everybody looking at you. And it’s the little things: I’ll be putting my coffee lid on, and it’s like, don’t spill it, because if you do it’s going to be on the internet… It’s like being the new kid in school every day.” She is scathing about Instagram accounts like Deux Moi, which share candid pictures of unsuspecting celebrities. “People think that what they’re doing is OK – taking pictures of people when they’re trying to eat or have a personal conversation,” she says. “And if you say, ‘Don’t do that,’ they don’t care. It’s weird to not be considered a human being, which is what it feels like in those moments.”

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In September 2021, Kravitz deleted all her Instagram posts, bar one promoting The Batman. She’d previously been a prolific poster, sharing candid photos of her famous friends to her 6.5m followers. But over the years she was repeatedly flamed on social media. In January 2021, she was criticised for not deleting a birthday post to her friend, fashion designer Alexander Wang, after abuse allegations were levelled at him. In September 2021, things came to a head when Kravitz attended the Met Gala in a sheer mesh dress. When she posted the outfit on Instagram, users criticised her for going “practically naked”.

Acting is all about empathy. It’s about stepping out of yourself

The incident was the catalyst for Kravitz wiping her entire account. “It hurt my feelings,” she says, with a wry laugh. She’s clearly stung by the criticism. “I was really hurt. No matter who you are, how confident you are, people telling you that you’re disgusting, or that you should kill yourself, it doesn’t feel good… I think by creating a literal area, a comment space, for someone to tell me what they think [about me], I realised that was starting to affect my mental health and also the way I affect decisions. Even with my art, you know, thinking about what people are going to say. As an artist, that’s like, death. It’s dangerous to start caring about what other people are going to think, or what they do think.”

She is scathing about social media call-out culture. “People are not expressing or doing what they want to do, because they’re afraid of getting into trouble,” Kravitz says. “We’re not leaving room for growth. It’s all based on shame and fear. It’s completely out of control.” The month we speak, Eddie Redmayne said his decision to play a trans woman in the 2015 film The Danish Girl was “a mistake”. “The idea of certain actors not being able to play a certain part,” says Kravitz, “because you’re not that thing in real life, I think that’s really dangerous. Because I don’t know what acting is, if we’re not allowed to play someone. It’s about empathy. It’s about stepping outside yourself.”

It’s a brave position to take, when the easier thing would be to shy away from discussing controversial issues. But I suspect that, at this point in this career, after working for so long to get to the centre of the frame, Kravitz would rather just tell it like it is. “There have definitely been moments in my life where I’ve felt like I needed to soften my edges in some way,” she says, firmly. “I think that’s something most people go through, regardless of what industry you’re in. Not wanting to take up too much space, or the idea that women need to be pleasant or something. And now, I’ve had a really great few years just feeling OK with taking up space, and not getting it right every time. And that’s been really, really liberating.”

The Batman is now in cinemas across the UK