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The Upper East Side is out in full force at the Neue Galerie, a shrine to Austro-Germanic expressionism tucked inside a palatial Louis XIII–style mansion, on this gloomy fall afternoon. The coats are sumptuous shades of navy and brown. The hair is coiffed and gray. The elegant silk scarves are mandatory. The patrons have stepped inside the filigree-iron doors and up the dramatically curved marble staircase to be transported, through the evocative power of art, to the gilded refinement of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Also, to eat the café’s $36 Wiener schnitzel.
Zoë Kravitz glides in wearing a long black coat over an all-black ensemble with her hair slicked up in a ballerina bun, looking like Catwoman decided to settle down in a classic six on Central Park. Her face is what happens when you combine the DNA of two of the best-looking people on earth (Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Bonet). Her mind, however, is somewhere else: Pussy Island.
The 33-year-old actress is midway through editing her directorial debut, about a cocktail waitress named Frida (Naomi Ackie) who accompanies a nefarious tech billionaire (Channing Tatum) to his hedonistic private island. The film occupies her thoughts day and night. “My brain just doesn’t stop,” she says. “It’s screaming about it.”
Kravitz, a longtime Williamsburg resident, suggested we meet up here before she retreats back to the editing suite. The museum has been one of her favorite places since she first visited on a high school field trip and was blown away by its collection of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt paintings. All these years later, a Schiele nude is her phone background. “Specifically, with Schiele, there’s this grotesque, almost ugly-beautiful thing. Even with the Klimt pieces, the sadness in their eyes…” she says.
This combination is especially attractive to Kravitz: For her, the gray area is the most interesting place you can occupy. That’s where she always wants to be in her work (with Pussy Island; as a yoga teacher with a dark secret in Big Little Lies; as a lovable female cad in High Fidelity). Having lived in the public eye since before she could walk, she knows that’s not always what audiences want. But she seems to relish toying with other people’s expectations and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, subverting them.
She pauses in front of an uncharacteristically muted Klimt portrait titled Pale Face. Kravitz peers at the canvas, thinking about restraint and attention to detail. She points out an otherwise imperceptible crimson brushstroke in the top right corner. “Kinda like my outfit,” Kravitz deadpans, flashing fire-engine red socks hiding beneath the layers of black. Onscreen and in photos she perpetually appears sharp and aloof—her name is so synonymous with the word cool that the phrase Zoë Kravitz cool yields 22,900,000 Google results—but her whole affect is softer and more lighthearted in person. “She’s funny as hell,” her old friend Alia Shawkat told me. “She’s a weird little freak.”
The other conspicuous bit of color on her today is a mammoth emerald pinkie ring. It was a gift from “Chan,” or Channing Tatum, her boyfriend and the star of her film. Their relationship has inspired curiosity since their first paparazzi photos together in August of last year: He, an enormous all-American beefcake on the world’s tiniest BMX bike, pedaling with the somber purpose of a messenger enlisted to deliver a Seamless order to God. She, petite and alternative, propped up behind him, wearing sunglasses and casually enjoying the ride.
She’s glad to be back home in the city after a long stretch away, which coincided with a high point of her career and an upheaval of her personal life. Much of 2020 and 2021 were spent slinking around London playing Selina Kyle in The Batman. “I already think my job is very bizarre,” she says. “But there’s something even weirder about someone lubing you up and covering you in latex at six in the morning when the whole world is kind of stopped.” The Batman was released in March; it went on to gross $770 million internationally and confirmed Kravitz’s instincts that, despite acting for more than half her life, Catwoman was the role in which she had finally made it. “Batman was the first time that I felt like I was in something undeniable,” she says.
Over the summer, she spent three months deep in the Yucatán jungle filming Pussy Island. Kravitz started writing the script pre-#MeToo, to work through anger and frustration over how she saw powerful men take advantage of women. It evolved, with the help of cowriter E.T. Feigenbaum, to be more of an exploration of the perpetual tug-of-war between the sexes. “Instead of making one good and one bad, I think it’s interesting to look at what it is we’re fighting each other for and why and what that does to us as humans,” Kravitz says.
Yeah, the title is provocative. Kravitz thought, What would a group of men call this sort of free-for-all party destination? and went from there. Now, she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy observing other people’s obvious discomfort with the name of her movie. “I love getting on calls with marketing people or whatever,” she says. “They’re like, ‘So, P-Island.’ I’m like, ‘Eh! That’s not what it’s called…’ ”
The people who know her say she’s always been like this. Uncompromising and resolute. Just ask her dad. “She so knows who she is and who she isn’t, and is not willing to sacrifice who she is,” Lenny Kravitz told me. “If something is not her or she’s not feeling it, she’s not going to put on a face and act to make others comfortable or accepting.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a particular skill for bringing people together. “She’s the best curator of vibe I think there is,” Shawkat, who also stars in Pussy Island, said. This quality extended to her command of the set. “She’s very calm, and she’s a really good pack leader,” she added. Pussy Island star Naomi Ackie felt similarly about being directed by Kravitz. “It was a sight to see, to watch her in her power, with full agency, lead us all into a place where we felt very safe,” she told me. “We felt very creative. We felt all very connected to each other.”
But when Kravitz speaks about the shoot, she mostly remembers the anxiety: over managing a huge cast and crew, over having to make a million decisions a day, over filming in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, against the backdrop of a possibly haunted Colonial mansion. Now, immersed in the edit, she has a new set of worries. Are audiences going to hate it? “I think it’s really fun for people to hate actresses when they do stuff that’s not acting,” she says. Will they even watch it? And if they do watch it, will they just be on their phones, scrolling and texting the entire time?
So, yes, underneath that veneer of effortless cool is someone who cares deeply about making the most out of the opportunities given to her. Who’s open about her obsessive pursuit to create work that matters. And who’s not going to pretend to be nonchalant about it.
“I was just a crazy person,” Kravitz says of her experience in the director’s seat. “I still am. It was always frantic. A glass of whiskey at the end of the night or something would calm me down a little bit. But there was no getting out of it.”
Long before she was a neurotic, whiskey-sipping filmmaker, Kravitz spent her early years in idyllic crunchiness with her mom in LA’s Topanga Canyon. Her folks separated when she was a toddler. Bonet, then coming off a run on The Cosby Show and A Different World, raised Kravitz as a vegan kid who did yoga. This was decades before you could get a Beyond Burger anywhere in town and we were all downward dogging ourselves into oblivion. (Neither habit stuck.) School was a Waldorf situation where you couldn’t watch TV or wear T-shirts with logos on them. For these reasons and more, people tend to think Kravitz is more of a hippie than she actually is.
When she was a preteen, she moved across the country to live with her rock star dad in Miami. “It was this crazy new freedom of having television and eating Pop-Tarts. And I could just do what I wanted,” Kravitz says.
I ask her to name a moment in her childhood that felt normal at the time but, in retrospect, she realized was out of the ordinary. She pauses to think.
“Going to see my father at a studio and having Mick Jagger be there. Going to the VMAs as a kid and sitting on Scary Spice’s lap,” she finally says. “It was kind of a lot of that.”
This, of course, was around the prime age to think of your parents as totally old and out-of-touch. When your parents are widely considered cool by most of popular culture, those embarrassments take on a different hue. “My parents were very young and they dressed really crazy—see-through shirts and velvet pants and stuff,” Kravitz says. “I had this fantasy about just having a parent that wore a button-up top.”
In her teens, Kravitz decided she wanted to try acting. Lenny was surprised. “I thought she was going to go and run in the exact opposite direction,” he told me. “I thought she’s going to be a vet, a lawyer.” The two share a publicist today.
After a handful of bit parts, she started to land bigger and bigger projects. Kravitz would walk into her auditions for the X-Men and Divergent movies thinking, “It doesn’t matter, I’m not going to fucking get this.” This relaxed attitude, she theorizes, is exactly how she got them. The blockbusters kept growing in profile: She played a harem escapee running through the dystopian desert in Mad Max: Fury Road, then a pure-blood witch from a storied family in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
Kravitz got her biggest break yet in 2019, when she was cast in a TV remake of High Fidelity. She would be taking on the role of Rob, originally played by John Cusack in the 2000 film adaptation of the Nick Hornby book. Kravitz would produce and write some of the series too. (Doing the show was also a sweet nod to her mom, who appeared in the original film.)
Over the past decade or so, Rob has become a symbol of the mopey ur-fuckboy. Kravitz’s Rob would be a Black bisexual woman—but she still very much wanted her character to be a fuckboy. This notion was often met with resistance. “What was interesting is I had to really fight the producers in a lot of ways to let me be as toxic as she was,” Kravitz recalls. “They really wanted to dull things down. Even at the end of episode two, when I screamed, ‘What fucking Lily girl?’ they were like, ‘Can you be less angry?’ Or when I fantasized about beating the shit out of Lily, they were like, ‘It’s so violent.’ ”
Kravitz didn’t get it. She wanted to subvert expectations. She wanted to get right into that gray area. Isn’t that way more interesting? “They wanted it to be this cute, likable version of this piece-of-shit character,” says Kravitz. “The point was to show that women could be pieces of shit too.”
When the first season of High Fidelity was released in 2020, it picked up a cult following and critical acclaim and…was promptly canceled by Hulu. Kravitz says she never really got an answer as to why. It still bums her out when people bring it up. “If you make something and no one liked it and it’s not good, then it makes sense,” she tells me. “But when people connect to it, it’s sad. I felt really out of control.”
Kravitz has long been plagued by a fear that the phones will stop ringing and she’ll never work again, which didn’t help matters after the show’s cancellation. “My agent thinks I’m insane,” she says. “But I cannot shake that.”
Since she was a teenager, Kravitz has harbored a “deep insecurity” about being in the entertainment industry. That because she has famous parents she’s less deserving of her success. She brings up the term “nepo babies,” and the idea that the children of celebrities are advantaged in ways that other people aren’t. “It’s completely normal for people to be in the family business,” Kravitz says. “It’s literally where last names came from. You were a blacksmith if your family was, like, the Black family.” (Or Smith.) She’s proud of her family, citing her grandmother Roxie Roker’s pioneering role on The Jeffersons — and that her parents, in carving out careers in music and acting, were able to make names for themselves too.
Landing The Batman helped pacify those nagging feelings of insecurity. Filming in London, however, was another challenge. It was an intense shoot, during the long, lonely days early in the pandemic. She had one familiar face nearby: Taylor Swift, who was there spending lockdown with her British boyfriend, Joe Alwyn.
“She was my pod,” Kravitz says. “She was a very important part of being in London, just having a friend that I could see and that would make me home-cooked meals and dinner on my birthday.” Swift wrote to me in an email: “Zoë’s sense of self is what makes her such an exciting artist, and such an incredible friend. She has this very honest inner compass, and the result is art and life without compromising who she is.” The two, close for years, also became collaborators: Kravitz is credited with cowriting and providing background vocals for the first track on Swift’s newest album, Midnights.
While filming, Kravitz was eager to learn everything she could about the filmmaking process, already doing research for Pussy Island. Matt Reeves, director of The Batman, told me that she always wanted to stand by the monitor, to get an understanding of how certain shots worked. “I like to do a lot of takes because I don’t want to do too much rehearsal. And she just loved that. She would be like, ‘Okay, let’s go again.’ She just wanted to be good,” Reeves said.
He pointed to a few specific ideas Kravitz threw his way—mostly about cats. She became attached to the idea that Selina, a wayward person herself, would collect strays and therefore have a Gotham apartment absolutely packed with cats. Reeves wanted to know how they could possibly address an apartment full of stray cats for the viewer. Kravitz answered immediately with an easy solution: to have Batman take the scene in and growl, “You have a lot of cats.”
Reeves laughed. He was sold, and the line stuck. This is how Batman gets off possibly his only joke ever. This is also how Reeves ended up having the production construct a specially designed custom cat carrier for Catwoman’s motorcycle, another Zoë idea.
Kravitz, by the way, is more of a dog person. “I think cats are bitchy and complicated and difficult, and I’m totally like that as a person,” she says. “I don’t want to deal with myself, basically.”
The museum café downstairs has an interminable line for that Wiener schnitzel, so we head out into the damp and gray New York streets to continue talking. Kravitz suggests stopping at a diner we come across, the kind of establishment with zero pretenses and a menu longer than Ulysses.
We squeeze into a back table and get a dose of Upper East Sideness of another variety. Midwestern tourists in NFL jerseys and flannels sit side by side with hardboiled neighborhood septuagenarians unfolding their newspapers over tuna melts.
Kravitz loves it. “It’s so aesthetically pleasing to me, the color of the juice and this coffee,” she says, drumming her red talon nails on the granite tabletop and looking at her beverage order with palpable delight. “This is old-school New York! People sit and read the paper.”
While working on The Batman, she cleared out most of her Instagram feed. She wanted a fresh start, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the gap between her public image and who she is as a person. Today, she barely has an online presence.
“I definitely have a foot-in-mouth situation,” she says. “And I shouldn’t always say what I think in the moment, especially because you don’t always think those things forever.”
Even without opening her mouth, she’s found people pinning words to her. Cool, for instance. That’s the one that’s stuck, and one that she’s always felt she has to live up to. “The older I get, the more I realize that the person that they’re talking about isn’t me. It’s an idea, and I’m a separate being.”
This realization came, in part, from growing up and shedding some of her youth. Sometimes literally: She’s having a few of her dozens of delicate tattoos removed, like a fading star on her middle finger she got when she was 18. “Just things, I’m like, ‘I don’t need this on my body,’ ” she says.
Turning 30 also inspired her to lean hard into domesticity after her wild 20s. “There’s something romantic and exciting about being like, Oh, I’m an adult. I stay home and cook now. I bake bread,” she says. “Then I think you do that for a couple years and you realize there’s still a lot of life to be had.” There are still adventures, and relationships, and new things to create, and you can’t do that if you’re pretending that you’re getting your AARP card at 35. “I’m done romanticizing the ‘old is domestic’ thing. It’s cute for a minute and then it’s not.”
Her experiment with domesticity involved, as so many do, a marriage. In 2019, Kravitz wed her longtime boyfriend, the actor Karl Glusman. Eighteen months later, she filed for divorce.
“I just learned to think about who I am and what I want,” Kravitz explains. “You meet someone who’s amazing and wants to marry you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If there’s nothing wrong, then why wouldn’t you do it? You love them and that’s what you do. It’s a hard question to ask yourself: ‘Maybe I don’t want the thing that I’m supposed to want, a marriage, children, any of it. I don’t know if I want that at all.’ That’s an uncomfortable question, especially for a woman to ask herself.”
Kravitz met Tatum when she cast him in Pussy Island. They naturally hit it off. “He’s just a wonderful human. He makes me laugh and we both really love art and talking about art and the exploration of why we do what we do. We love to watch a film and break it down and talk about it and challenge each other,” she says.
So what do the Kravitz-Tatum Inside the Actors Studio sessions look like? The first movie they watched together was the freaky romantic crime drama True Romance. They’re also big fans of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, another director-actor couple who also worked closely together. (She’d be the Cassavetes in this scenario).
Tatum proved to be a continually calming presence for Kravitz during her most stressful moments on the job. “Whether it was making me tea or pouring me a drink or going to whip someone into shape or whatever—he really was my protector and it was really wonderful and sweet,” she says. “I think if you can do something like that together, it’s a good test. And we came out even stronger.”
It was, in fact, that exact instinct of Tatum’s to protect Kravitz and make himself useful that led to their infamous initial paparazzi photo.
The first time the two of them decided to go outside together, he walked her to her writing partner’s house a few blocks away. She was wearing jeans and had underestimated the weather. “I was sweating and he was like, ‘Get on the bike, I’ll ride you over and you can relax,’ ” she recalls. Almost immediately, she spotted a pap from the corner of her eye. And almost immediately after that, they became a meme.
“You want to keep it sacred and private as long as you can,” she says. “So that you don’t have to even think about what the world thinks about it.”
For just a little while longer, Kravitz is able to do the same with her movie. She’ll have to turn over her edit soon, but right now it’s all hers. And with that, Kravitz will indulge a single hippie thought. “I think that creative projects have their own spirit,” she says. “And you can’t control them. You have to allow them to show you what they want to be.”
Gabriella Paiella is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2022 issue of GQ with the title “Zoë Kravitz Always Lands on Her Feet”
Photographs by Steven Klein
Styled by B. Åkerlund
Hair by Nikki Nelms for Maui Moisture
Makeup by Nina Park for YSL Beauty
Manicure by Nails by Aki Hirayama using Aprés Nail
Tailoring by Shirlee Idzakovich
Set design by Jack Flanagan
Produced by Travis Kiewel at That One Production