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Zoe Kravitz: American Woman

Zoë Kravitz grew up a flower child in the canyons of L.A. with her actress mom and a wild child in Miami and beyond with her rock-star dad. But she's making her own way to the top
Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone

Sunday afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the neighborhood is being its Williamsburgiest self. Outside a gentrified coffee shop under the grimy elevated J-M-Z tracks, a jaywalking Hasidic man darts into the street, making a dude with dreadlocks in an SUV pump his brakes. Inside the cafe, three white twenty-somethings are brainstorming about starting the hashtag #stopkillingpeople when a woman in line overhears them and says she loves it. “Oh, thanks!” one says. “We’re trying to figure out ways to promote our music video!”

Noooooooo,” says Zoë Kravitz when told of this exchange a few minutes later. “Were they serious?” She hangs her head. “Aw, man.”

Kravitz, 29, has lived in Williamsburg for 10 years, and she enjoys the same pastime as many of its residents: complaining about how much cooler it used to be. “There’s a fuckin’ Apple Store,” she says. “Which used to be my bagel spot!” A few years ago, she fled the neighborhood’s increasingly moneyed epicenter (“I didn’t want to live in an ugly new condo around a bunch of investment bankers”) for its relatively grittier southern parts. “It’s totally different down here,” she says. “These people aren’t going anywhere.”

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Zoë Kravitz, photographed in New York on September 4th, 2018, by Zoey Grossman. Hair by NIkki Nelms. Nails by Casey Herman for the Wall Group. Makeup by Nina Park at Forward Artists. Styling by Andrew Mukamal at Streeters. Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone

Kravitz orders a latte with an extra shot and says she woke up “mere moments ago.” (It’s 1:06 p.m.) She just got back from London, and now her internal clock is all screwed up. Yesterday she slept until 4 p.m., rolling out of bed to catch Mean Girls on Broadway with her new pal and Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon. Afterward, they grabbed dinner, then Kravitz stayed up until 5 a.m. binge-watching Friends on Netflix. “I love Friends so deeply,” she says. “Obviously it’s a bummer when you look back and everyone is white. But it’s like chicken soup.” Sometimes she’ll watch so many in a row that Netflix interrupts to ask if she’s still there. “And then a single tear rolls down my cheek,” she says, laughing, “and I click ‘continue.’ ”

Kravitz is stylish in black Adidas Sambas, a long white slip and a vintage Nirvana T-shirt that’s a couple of years younger than she is. Braids fall loosely around her shoulders, and her forearms are adorned with dozens of delicate tattoos — an eagle, a feather, a snake, a mermaid. Her fingers and ears are spangled with gold, and on her left hand there’s a painful-looking scar she got last fall in London, while filming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the Harry Potter spinoff due out this month. “I was making tea with one of those electric kettles, and I didn’t lock the top,” she says, wincing. She takes out her phone and pulls up a photo of a blister the size of a tangerine. “The thing about third-degree burns . . . ” she says — which is never how you want to begin a sentence. 

It’s a warm, sunny afternoon, so we decide to take a stroll over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. Kravitz grew up in L.A., but she prefers New York — the energy, the spontaneity, the randomness. A hundred feet above the East River, trains rumble by and cyclists whiz past. A few pedestrians do double takes, but no one stops her. 

Maybe it’s because she grew up near the spotlight, but Kravitz seems happy in the sweet spot of fame, successful but relatively anonymous. Though lately she’s landing more high-profile roles (e.g., Beasts, where she appears as the wizard Leta Lestrange), she has no burning ambitions to be an A-list star. “I’m still doing lots of supporting parts, and I’m in no rush,” she says. “I’m getting better, and I wasn’t ready to be working with the kind of people I’m working with now. So I’m happy with the pace of the ride.”

Onscreen, Kravitz can sometimes come across as aloof or intimidating, but in person she’s funny and endearingly chill. “There’s this Kravitz family thing where people think we’re really cool and serious, which always makes me laugh — because we’re some of the goofiest people in the world,” she says. She loves burritos and cuddling rescue dogs on the street (“Look at that nose!”), does a killer impression of Bane with underpants on her head, and spent six summers in a row getting filthy in the desert at Burning Man. “I was a serious Burner, man!” she says. “It really opened me up — just meeting strangers, experiencing that creativity, letting your guard down.” 

A pause. “And obviously the Ecstasy helped.”

If you know only one thing about Zoë Kravitz, it’s probably that Lenny is her dad. And if you know one more, it’s probably that her mom is former Cosby Show actress Lisa Bonet. Lenny and Bonet met backstage at a New Edition concert in 1985 and were immediate soulmates: two artsy half-black/half-Jewish kids — what were the odds? She was the beautiful breakout star on the biggest show on TV; he was the son of an actress (The Jeffersons’ Roxie Roker) and an aspiring rocker who went by the name Romeo Blue. They eloped to Vegas on Bonet’s 20th birthday. Within months, she was pregnant. 

“They were not planning to have a baby,” Kravitz says. “Total surprise. I have to confirm if this is true, but my dad told me she may have thrown a hair dryer at him.” (Says Lenny, “It wasn’t a hair dryer. It was the pregnancy test.”)

At the time, Lenny was still a year away from releasing his first album, but Bonet was as successful as she’d ever been, starring in her own sitcom, the Cosby spinoff A Different World. “I’m sure they had a conversation of ‘What do you want to do?’ ” Zoë says. “But for whatever reason, she decided to keep me.” 

(“It really wasn’t a question,” says Bonet. “I don’t remember ever thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”)

When Bill Cosby, creator of A Different World, heard Bonet was pregnant, he reportedly was very upset. (Bonet says she doesn’t remember, but she does call him “Mr. Righteous,” which kind of says all you need to know.) Bonet was written off her own show, and when she came back to The Cosby Show a few months later, she appeared in a limited number of episodes before eventually leaving for good. “Her and him never got along,” Kravitz says. “Whether he was attracted to her, or he resented her having a mind of her own, she always got a weird vibe from him. A dark vibe.” She says she recently found a photo of herself on set as a baby, with Cosby holding her. “It’s actually a really disturbing picture,” she says. “His face is not a sweet face at all. It’s kind of creepy.” 

“Burning Man really opened me up — just meeting strangers, experiencing that creativity, letting your guard down.”

In the end, mom and daughter say it was all for the best. “She always tells me I saved her life,” Zoë says. “She didn’t intend on being famous, but then she became this sensation, and she was so young and really private. So moving away, being with her child — she really responds well to stillness and privacy.”

Lenny and Bonet split up when Zoë was two. She has no memories of them together. She lived with her mom in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, a hippie-ish enclave where they had chickens and two dogs, one of them a half-wolf named Dusk. There were a few showbiz people around — one of Bonet’s best friends, Marisa Tomei, is Zoë’s godmother — but it was by no means a Hollywood childhood. Kravitz went to a Waldorf school in the Valley under the name Zoë Moon. They had a TV, but it wasn’t hooked up — once a week, she got to pick out a movie from the video store. 

She didn’t see her dad much — maybe a couple of times a year. “He wasn’t absent,” she says. “But he was working a lot. I didn’t feel abandoned or anything. But when you’re that age, and someone comes and goes, it feels like Santa Claus or something — it’s this event. Looking back, it’s hard: My mom gave up everything for me, and I kind of took that for granted; and then my dad gets to stroll into town, and he’s the hero. I look back and really feel for her in that situation.”

When Kravitz was 11, Lenny floated the idea of her coming to live with him for a while. “I think it was really hard for my mom,” she says. “But it was also important to her that I knew him, because she and her father aren’t close at all.” So Kravitz moved across the country to Miami, where Lenny was living at the time. “That was a massive change,” she says. “Going from this really quiet house in Topanga, just me and my mom, to my dad’s life, which was very busy — lots of people, lots of assistants.” 

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Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone. Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone.

This was Peak Lenny, right after the time of “Fly Away” and the Austin Powers soundtrack. “He’d pick me up, and the entire school would flock to the parking lot,” Kravitz says. “And he wasn’t being subtle: He’d show up in a sports car and leather pants and a netted shirt. Like, ‘Dude, can you just be low-key a little bit?” she says with a laugh. “Just a shirt that I can’t see your nipples through would be so dope.” 

Kravitz remembers Mick Jagger hanging around. Once she woke up to find Ashton Kutcher in her kitchen making omelets. A little later, Lenny was secretly engaged to Nicole Kidman, and sometimes Kidman would take Zoë to the movies. “She was nice, she was cool,” says Kravitz, still sounding unsure what to make of the whole thing. “But yeah . . . that happened.” (Now, of course, Kidman is her co-star on Big Little Lies. “It was funny to be on set with her,” Kravitz says. “Like, ‘Remember when you were engaged to my dad?’ ”)

Not to pass judgment, but it’s possible Lenny wasn’t always the strictest father. At one point they moved to New York briefly, and Zoë enrolled in school. “But then winter hit, and my dad was like, ‘It’s so cold! Let’s go to the Bahamas for a week!’ So we went and just didn’t come back. I fully didn’t go to school for a month.” Weren’t they getting calls from the school? “Probably!” she says. “I think he just didn’t feel like dealing with it. We were staying with cousins, and I remember they had a VHS of that movie Houseguest, starring Sinbad. I literally just watched Houseguest for a month. I don’t know, dude. It was weird.”

(“The sun was going down early, and Zoë started to look really pasty and dry,” explains Lenny. “I just felt like it wasn’t healthy. So I took her to the sun.” In any case, he says, “She turned out OK.”)

But Kravitz says her dad was doing his best. Once he let her sit with the Spice Girls at an awards show, which she loved. A few years later he arranged for her to meet Britney Spears, thinking she’d be equally thrilled. “But I was like” — Kravitz adopts a bratty tween-girl voice — “‘I don’t like Britney Spears! I like punk music!’ ” She laughs. “Poor guy.”

Bonet says she always knew Zoë would be a performer. As a teenager, she’d spend hours in her room, memorizing lyrics from her favorite CDs: Weezer, No Doubt, Green Day. “She’s a Sagittarius, so she’s always had that charm and swagger,” Bonet says. “I assumed music was going to be the direction she went in.” 

Her dad thought the opposite. “She grew up around it, and she seemed so indifferent,” Lenny says. “She did not want to be a part of that world. I thought she’d go to school and be a doctor or lawyer.” 

When she got to high school, though, Kravitz started gravitating toward acting. By this time she’d persuaded her dad to escape Miami (“No disrespect to Miami,” she says, “but girls dressing in sexy clothes at 14, not a lot of art or depth — I definitely felt like an outcast”) and give New York another shot. She joined the drama club and did some plays: Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Grease (she played Rizzo). She also did her share of Upper East Side teen partying — drinking forties, smoking weed. When her parents, both herbalists themselves, found out, her mom sat her down. “ ‘It’s cool, just don’t lie,’ ” Kravitz recalls her mom saying before giving her a joint. 

At first her parents made a rule that she couldn’t act professionally until she finished high school. “You only get one childhood,” says Bonet, who started on The Cosby Show when she was just 16. “My intention was to nurture and protect that for as long as possible.” But then when Zoë was 15, Lenny helped her get an agent. “Her father made a decision swifter than I would have,” Bonet says. Says Lenny, “I thought she’d been exposed to so much of this world that there wasn’t too much talking to be done. I trusted her and thought she was prepared to handle herself gracefully.” 

Kravitz’s first big break came in 2011, with X-Men: First Class, which she filmed when she was 21, alongside other up-and-coming stars like Jennifer Lawrence (who became a friend) and Michael Fassbender (who became her boyfriend). Soon she was appearing in blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road (“Such a masterpiece, I still can’t believe I’m in that movie”) and the Divergent franchise, which starred her friend and Big Little Lies castmate Shailene Woodley. (“I’m totally her little sidekick,” Kravitz says, “but it was good for the time.”) 

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Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone. Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone.

Kravitz is the first to admit she had a leg up thanks to her parents. But she also says she’s worked really hard. “There was a whole period from 21 to 25 when I’d audition for tons of stuff, and I wouldn’t get hardly any of it,” she says. “There’s kind of a group of girls that they go to, and I was not on that list.” 

“She didn’t want help,” says her dad. “I did nothing except get her an agent — after that, it’s down to your work. Somebody may be interested for five minutes: ‘Oh, it’s the daughter of . . .’ But nobody cares who your mom or dad is if you can’t do the job.”

It wasn’t always easy for a young woman of color, even second-generation Hollywood royalty. Kravitz says filmmakers often told her they wanted “a more girl-next-door look” or someone “more all-American.” (“I was born in America,” she says.) Last year she was Skyping with some directors about a movie that featured couples of various races, and they said they liked her for the woman married to the black guy. “I was like, ‘OK — but I could play any of the women,’ ” she says. “ ‘Black people don’t have to be married to other black people.’ A lot of times it’s just white people not understanding why what they say is offensive.”

She wishes more films and shows would talk about race. “I tried to get a little more of that put into Big Little Lies” — a show with Friends-worthy numbers of black people. “It didn’t work out,” she says. “But I wish they’d had Reese’s character say, ‘His hot black wife.’ That’s real! But people are scared to go there. If we’re making art and trying to dissect the human condition, let’s really do that.”

She also says she’s been sexually harassed on set. “I won’t name names, because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life,” she says. “But I definitely worked with a director who made me very uncomfortable. I was young — maybe 19 or 20 — and we were on location, staying at the same hotel. And it was full-on: ‘Can I come inside your room?’ Just totally inappropriate. And then he’d do things like come to the makeup trailer and touch my hair. Or say, ‘Let me see your costume — turn around?’ It’s just never OK for someone to do that. Especially when they’re in a position of power.”

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Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone. Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone.

Notably, the two projects she’s proudest of — Mad Max: Fury Road and Big Little Lies — feature ensembles of strong women fighting back against shitty men. In Lies, Kravitz plays Bonnie, the sexy yoga instructor and younger second wife of Witherspoon’s character’s ex-husband. In the first season, she’s mostly a foil, without much interiority. “There’s more about her in the book, and I was a little bummed we weren’t going to get to explore that,” Kravitz says. But while she can’t divulge plot details for Season Two, she says there’s definitely more to Bonnie this time around. “They’re not using her to tell someone else’s story,” she says. “She has her own story.”

We’re nearly across the bridge when Kravitz gets a call from her boyfriend, actor Karl Glusman. “Hi, baby!” she says. “How’d it go? That’s dope! I want to hear all about it. Can I call you in a few? OK. I love you.” She hangs up and smiles. “Karl had a good audition.”

We stop at an ice cream shop, where she orders vegan mint-chocolate-chip in a cone. At which point I notice, for the first time, the huge diamond on her left ring finger. “Oh yeah, I’m engaged,” she says, so casually I assume she’s joking. “No, I’m engaged!” she repeats. “I haven’t told anyone yet — I mean, I haven’t told the world. I wanted to keep it private.”

Kravitz and Glusman, 30, met two years ago, at a bar with some mutual friends. It wasn’t technically a setup, but it totally was. Glusman, who had a crush on Kravitz from afar, was initially too nervous to talk to her, but at the end of the night, as he was leaving, she hung around outside pretending to be on her phone, then invited him back to her place for an afterparty with friends. They made out (“It was cute!”), he moved in soon after, and they’ve been together ever since. “I can be my weirdest self around him,” Kravitz says. “It’s so relaxing to be around someone where you can be a hundred percent how you feel.”

They’d been together for about a year and a half when, last February, Glusman popped the question. He’d planned to surprise her when she was in Paris, but when work interfered, he wound up proposing in their living room instead. “I was in sweatpants,” recalls Kravitz. “I think I was a little drunk.” Glusman lit some candles and put on Nina Simone (her favorite), then laid down and started hugging her. “I could feel his heart beating so fast — I was like, ‘Baby, are you OK?’ I was actually worried about him!” Glusman dropped to one knee, and Kravitz said, “ ‘Yes, stretch! Stretch to calm your heart down!’ ”

“I definitely worked with a director who made me very uncomfortable. I was young — maybe 19 or 20 — and it was full-on: ‘Can I come inside your room?’”

But then he pulled out a box, and inside was the ring: the exact one she’d been fantasizing about. “He nailed it,” she says. “And I love that it wasn’t this elaborate plan in Paris. It was at home, in sweatpants.” 

The next afternoon, Kravitz answers her front door in pajama pants and a baggy Sopranos T-shirt. Her apartment is amazing: high wood-beam ceilings, a private courtyard, a rooftop terrace, a projector for movie nights. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of her mom and Frida Kahlo, and hanging near the bar is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. Kravitz says when friends are over and they’ve had a few drinks, sometimes they’ll stand under it and declaim, “I have a drink!” “So stupid,” she says, laughing, then adding, “Much respect to MLK.” (Lest you worry Kravitz lacks proper reverence for Dr. King, she and her dad also have matching “Free at Last” tattoos.) 

Kravitz found this place three years ago while browsing real estate online. “It was totally out of my price range,” she says. “But I fell in love.” She put in an offer, and another buyer offered the same. But when she took a tour of the place, she noticed the owners’ daughter’s bedroom was covered with Divergent posters. “I was like, ‘Finally, this movie’s gonna do something for me!’ ” Kravitz recalls. “I never, ever do this, but I said, ‘Look, I see your kid likes this thing. I’m in these movies. Your kid can come to the premiere, I’ll have everyone sign books — whatever you want.’ ” She got the apartment.

Kravitz pours herself a coffee and lights some incense, then sinks into a huge white sectional. The thing she’s most excited to discuss is her next project: a reboot of High Fidelity as a series on Disney’s new streaming service, launching next year. She plays the lead, John Cusack’s role in the film, an emotionally stunted record-store clerk struggling in life and love. 

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Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone. Photograph by Zoey Grossman for Rolling Stone.

“I always related to that character,” Kravitz says. “Just this neurotic mess of a person who can’t get out of her own way. It’s ironic to me that in a lot of stories men are the complicated, layered characters, when I think women are the most complicated and the most layered. We’re supposed to be perfect and take care of everyone, but sometimes we fall apart and we’re a big ol’ mess. If you don’t see that, you wonder, ‘Am I the only one who’s a fuckin’ mess?’ ”

Kravitz is psyched for the show for many reasons, but the fact that she’s the star is the least among them. “I get to produce, write, direct an episode,” she says. “And I’m a genuine music nerd, so I’m excited to introduce older music to younger people.” She’s also excited to do comedy, which she’s always wanted to try more of. “It’s checking a lot of boxes.”

In December, Kravitz will turn 30. She can’t wait. “Your twenties are fun,” she says, “but they’re such a mess! Making mistakes, not knowing what you want, being a little bit of an asshole. I’m excited for my thirties, because I have a better sense of who I am and what my intention is with art and how to execute it. I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes,” she adds. “But that’s OK. We’re all beautiful messes.”

Between her birthday milestone, her work and her upcoming marriage, Kravitz is at an inflection point, both personally and professionally. “It’s a lot of growing up at one time,” she says. “It’s scary, in a good way.” She’s been talking to her mom about the wedding a little bit — Bonet just got remarried herself last year, to her longtime partner, actor Jason Momoa (a.k.a. Aquaman), with whom she has two kids, Lola, 11, and Nakoa-Wolf, 9. (Kravitz has a long, hilarious story about the first time she met Momoa — who calls her, adorably, Zozobear — in high school, when he tagged along to drink forties with her and her friends.) She talks to her dad almost every day, too. “If I don’t hear from him, I start to wonder what’s going on,” Kravitz says. “He just loves to chat.”

As if on cue, a few minutes later her phone rings. “Hi, Dad!” she says. 

“Hey, Babylove!” says Lenny. 

“How are you? Are you at 30 Rock?” she asks. Lenny sounds anxious. “What do you mean?” she asks. “We can’t at all?”

It turns out Lenny is a guest on Jimmy Fallon tonight, and coincidentally, so is Reese Witherspoon. So Fallon asked Zoë to stop by too, to play a game of Lip Sync Charades — Fallon and Witherspoon vs. the Kravitzes. Improbably, Lenny has never played charades, so last night he came over and Zoë taught him how to play — two syllables, first word, sounds like, etc. But now he’s at the studio, and they’re using all different rules, and he’s kind of freaking out. 

“He’s like, ‘I learned all these things, and now I can’t do them! What do I do?’ ” says Zoë. “Such a dad fear.” 

But on the phone, she’s reassuring. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out in the dressing room.” 

Lenny starts to protest. “It’s OK,” she says and smiles. “We’ll figure it out.”