Zoe Kazan Addresses Grandfather Elia Kazan’s McCarthy-Era Actions

To a pin-drop silent audience at the winter TCA panel for her HBO limited series “The Plot Against America,” Zoe Kazan addressed the actions of her grandfather, director Elia Kazan — specifically when he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

The show, based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, is set during an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president of the United States in 1940 and plunges the country into an antisemitic hellscape. Kazan was asked about her family’s “history during this period” — which lead to Kazan asking if the reporter could be more specific.

“Your grandfather — I don’t want to bring up hard times for you, I’m sorry,” the reporter said.

“You’re not bringing up hard times for me,” Kazan said. “You’re bringing up hard times for our country.”

Then Kazan leaned down, braced herself against her chair, paused for moment, and gave her first sustained public comment addressing her grandfather’s HUAAC testimony. At the time Elia Kazan was a pioneer in American theater with a vibrant filmmaking career, including 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” and 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His 1954 classic “On the Waterfront” was widely seen as the filmmaker’s unrepentant defense of his decision to name eight actors who had been a part of the Communist party with him. And in his 1988 autobiography “A Life,” Kazan infamously wrote, “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made, I made after my testimony.”

Most (if not all) of the assembled press at the “Plot Against America” panel was aware of that history, and the tension in the room as Zoe Kazan began to address it was palpable.

“I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partially because of the other people it involved in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life,” she said. “So I’m not going to go into it.”

Instead, Kazan brought up her grandfather’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden” — specifically the book’s discussion of the Hebrew word timshel in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and Steinbeck’s translation of the word as “thou mayest.”

“Thou mayest triumph over sin,” she said, “but it’s in the hands of the next generation, that it’s a choice.”

“I will say that I thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history, what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his Americanness tested and the choice that he made from that,” Kazan continued. “I thought a lot about my own choices that I’ve made, the way that I choose to lead my life. I think thou mayest choose a different life. And I think the reason that Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the West in this country is that it’s also about American choosing to recognize who they have been — Cain did kill his brother — but also recognize that they may choose a different future for themselves. I think it’s meaningful in the book that it comes out of the mouth of an immigrant.”

Kazan wrapped up by saying that making “The Plot Against America” with those ideas in her head was “a profound experience” for her.

“And I think that’s all I have to say about that,” she concluded, to a smattering of applause from the stunned TCA audience. “Thank you.”

Before fielding the next question, David Simon, who executive produced “The Plot Against America,” noted that he’s been attending TCA events for about a decade. “That was the best answer to a question,” he said. “That was so cool.”

Read the full text of Kazan’s answer below:

You’re not bringing up hard times for me. You’re bringing up hard times for our country. Yeah. Well, so my grandfather did an adaptation of a book by John Steinbeck called “East of Eden.” And in that book there is a discussion of a Hebrew word in translation in the Cain and Abel story. And the word — and I’m going to butcher it because I’m not Jewish, which is a whole other question if you want to talk about that — is “timshel.” And Steinbeck translates it as “Thou mayest.” And the question at hand is that God says to Cain, in some translations, “You can triumph over sin,” and in some translations he says, “You will triumph over sin.” And Lee, this character in the book, does a kind of deep-dive into the actual word in Hebrew and what he comes up with is “Thou mayest.” Thou mayest triumph over sin, but it’s in the hands of the next generation, that it’s a choice.

I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partially because of the other people it involves in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life. So I’m not going to go into it. But I will say that I thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history, what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his Americanness tested and the choice that he made from that. And I thought a lot about my own choices that I’ve made, the way that I choose to live my life.

I think thou mayest choose a different life, and I think that the reason that Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the West in this country is that it’s also about American choosing to recognize who they have been. Cain did kill his brother. But also recognize that they may choose a different future for themselves. I think it’s meaningful in the book that it comes out of the mouth of an immigrant.

So those were the things that were on my mind as I worked on this. It was a profound experience for me working on this, personally, politically, artistically. And I think that’s all I have to say about that. Thank you.

“The Plot Against America” debuts on HBO on March 16.

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