The Soho News - May 27, 1981

Zoë in the Afternoon: High Caliber Marxmanship

Makeup and Styling by Mary Lou Green
Photo by Marcus Leatherdale

Stephen Saban

Zoë has youth and beauty. Had she turned to God, she could have been an evangelist.

There at Dave's, sitting on a stool amidst the wretched of life, was Zoë Tamerlis. I don't know how I recognized her; she was, for all intents, incognito, like a young Greta Garbo. Dressed in black and nervous as hell. Her hair was wrapped in a black scarf, her eyes hidden behind reflective wraparound sunglasses, her mouth pressed to a cup of hot chocolate. Yet I was sure. I finished eating, paid the cashier and approached her from behind.

"Zoë?" I said.

She spun around on her stool, started like a frightened animal and froze. The ashes from her brown cigaret fell on my hand.

"Zoë? My name is Stephen Saban. I saw you in Ms. 45 and I thought your performance was wonderful," I said, nearly fawning.

She said nothing. I think she stared at me behind the sunglasses, assessing me. "I write for the Soho News and I'd like to interview you," I continued, and stopped. I had nothing left to say. "You are Zoë?" I added, suddenly unsure.

"Yes," she said finally, "Do you have time? Let's do it now."

We talked for a few minutes, I remember nothing but the voice of Zoë Tamerlis: youthful, precise, refined, her speech rapid, accented, peppered with French and Italian phrases. "You are a nocturnal person? That is good. I will call you and we can perhaps arrange for a rendezvous very soon," she said. And I left her there with her hot chocolate and the incoherent babble of Dave's late-night.

She did call me the next day and we met another night at a downtown restaurant. Again, the scarf, the sunglasses. "Are we gonna get to see your hair tonight?" I asked.

"You can, if you really want to," she said.

"It's blond now, I take it," I said. Strands of hair escaped from the scarf at her neck.

"I've been many hair colors," she said. "I don't change my hair color out of vanity; in fact, it's the reverse sentiment - I don't really give a damn what color it is. It's blond now, yes. You want to see it, right?" She pushed the scarf back and off. "Well, there it is. It's pulled back, it's blond, it's about shoulder length," she described accurately. She found this activity worthless and possibly tedious.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," she quipped, placing the scarf on her head where it rightfully belonged.

Eventually she removed the sunglasses. Zoë is beautiful. She is what makes the film Ms. 45 so riveting. Zoë herself admits that if the role of Thana had been played by anyone else it would have been a completely different film. In the film Thana is a mute girl who works at a menial job in the garment district. On her way home from work, she is savagely raped in an alley. Once home, stunned and bruised, she finds an intruder there and is again raped, at gunpoint. She kills the second rapist and dismembers him. For the rest of the film she disposes of his body. She tells no one, but the experiences have wreaked such havoc on her frail psyche that she begins assassinating men she finds sexually aggressive, killing them with the very gun used on her, a 45-caliber. Toward the end of the film she in fact stalks them.

"How did you happen to end up in Ms. 45?" I asked Zoë, who in the brief time we'd been in the restaurant, had chain-smoked three cigarettes.

"It's not the end," she said. "It's only one step along the way."

"Have there been previous steps?"

"Yes, but not toward cinema. I see cinema as an exceptionally powerful and potentially very beautiful tool, but I don't see it as an end in itself."

"A tool for what?"

"Toward the propagation and expression of ideas that are lacking very much in cinema, too much in the world and especially too much in the United States. I can discuss that further later.

"Why did you take the part?"

"I found the film in an accidental fashion, but once I was introduced to what it was about, I chose to do it very consciously. After studying the script, I found I had an affinity with it. Some reviewer said I played her with a certain sincerity, and that's true. I did feel the role very deeply, very deeply. I was not at any point simply portraying her, but rather very deeply understanding her and becoming her. It was not simply acting on a superficial level. That's why I took the part."

"How old are you?"

"Very young."

"Someone told me you're 16."

"I'm a little older than that," she said. "But not a hell of a lot. When I made the film I was around there. You can figure it out by counting."

I asked her a few questions about her past, but her answers were vague, "The facts are not so important," she said. "Where I was born, what school I went to, this sort of thing." I did find out, however, that she was born in New York City. "I spent my formative years here, according to Dr. Spock. But the most formative year was this last one which I spent in Europe, primarily France and Italy."

The waitress arrived at the table to take our orders. "He wants food," Zoë said, jettisoning cigaret smoke between her lips. "He wants food. I want only cigarets." She turned to me. "How much time do you have tonight? Because, frankly, what we're speaking about now, I hope we can quickly transcend."

"Almost everything people say to me can be quickly transcended," I said.

"Good. Then let's proceed."

"What particularly intrigued you about the part of Thana?"

"One thing I want to make clear is the fact that - in the standard definition of the word - I am not a facile feminist by any means. I am not. And I am not for any critique of the film which says it is a feminist film. Perhaps those who are feminists among many other things, many other worthy appellations, could also say it's about the struggle of a woman. Of course. She does have an assault which is unique to women. But I see it as the struggle much more of a human being who has not expressed herself at all, in fact to the point of not being able to speak, who has spent her life in front of a sewing machine, who is repressed, oppressed, exploited. And finally within the parameters of her own consciousness which in turn has been in a sense, destroyed, given in its capabilities to expand - you understand? - by the very system that eventually makes her rebel (her rebellion is in a sense characterized by the system also), she strikes out finally. As would be natural, she goes from one extreme to another."

"Why is it, specifically, she can't speak?"

"I see it as metaphoric. She can't speak; she has no voice in the world. Period."

I was exhausted already, but Zoë had figured we were camped out at the restaurant for the rest of our lives. She was ready to talk "17 tapes worth." Zoë talks without hesitation, her words come fully thought out, perfectly chosen, as if she were reading from notes. She is practiced. Often her monologues were punctuated with "as I said in Venice." She is an orator. If it had been anyone else sitting across from me ranting humorlessly, referring to Marx, I would have been bored to death. But Zoë has youth and beauty. Had she turned to God, she could have been an evangelist, converting more sinners than Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Marjoe Gortner combined. I found myself drifting irresistibly into her mouth, watching her full lips move as she talked. I was hopelessly gone. I was hers.

She is writing a film now, a film to be titled La Misogyne, which translates as The Woman Hatress. After being with Zoë for a while, it makes perfect sense for an English-language film to have a French title.

"It's about a woman who begins her life as a feminist and discovers there are some more essential problems to be fought. She tries to introduce this into the feminist movement, finds very deeply entrenched obstacles. She transcends that, abandons the movement and becomes a much more serious fighter against that which is essentially wrong. It's the most dry, boring rendition of this you're ever likely to experience. However, it's very important. I feel feminism to be a distraction, to be, unfortunately, a justification for many women for their worthless existences." She continued on the subject of feminism, but this is an interview, not a book.

She wanted to talk about the future of cinema, the subject she's earlier threatened to discuss further. "Cinema should be used to promote, to express, to incarnate that which must be. Cinema should be proleptic. Films should be not only reconstructions of the past, or melodramas of the present, but should pose a challenge to the audience for their actions when they leave the theater. And for the rest of their lives."

"There go all the Neil Simon comedies," I suggested.

"I grant people their skill and their talent," she said generously, "but I do believe the time of psychological masturbation is over.

"The spinal cord that goes through everything that I've done," she continued, finishing off a pack of cigarets, "all the different departures (although I've never ever left!), the different things that have sprouted from it, the common denominator in everything that I've done has been work on a new film production, Curfew: USA. It's already half shot - in Panavision, of course - in the Third World and Europe. And now myself and other members of the production are preparing to shoot here in the United States. In fact, the most crucial sequence takes place here in New York City. The film is three and a half hours long and the star of the entire film, in a sense, is a Spanish actress; yet in the American part I will be having quite an essential role.

"It's a film that shows the hopes and limitations in America - and Americans - now and perhaps in a few years hence. It's a film that explores whether or not America can transform herself from within, save herself from within before she'll be obtained, shall we say, from without."

While she talked, I watched her manipulate her lips to eject smoke - top lip in, bottom lip out, the smoke shooting upwards in a forceful jetstream.

She finds cinema "a potentially, innately powerful and dangerous weapon" that "must be harnessed. One has the obligation and the debt to use it for good, to put it very simply."

"So you got it, right?" she said and laughed, one of the rare times during the interview.

Zoë Tamerlis is herself a potentially, innately powerful and dangerous weapon. Now she needs to be harnessed.