Coming Out to Hollywood
INTERVIEW: Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012
Updated: Monday, January 9, 2012 15:01
"PARIAH" is sure to draw a loyal crowd of fans when it opens at the Kendall Square Cinema this weekend. The tender coming-of-age tale follows a teenage Black lesbian named Alike; struggling to come out among the religious pressure of her mother, the socially-driven pressure of her father, and the intimidating LBGT community that she sometimes surrounds herself with. As played by Adepero Oduye, Alike is an enigmatic hero that any likeminded audience can easily project themselves onto. Audiences will find much to relate to in her story, which is simultaneously specific to her region and race and universal to anyone (not just gay audiences, but anyone who can understand the mass pressures of conformity in high school; as well as the films deconstruction-of-a-marriage subplot.)
Adepero, along with debut director Dee Rees (who was mentored by Spike Lee both in her college years and on this production) were kind enough to drop by to take part in a roundtable interview before the film opened. The Suffolk Voice was lucky enough to be invited along; the transcript of our discussion (covering everything from sci-fi to poetry to the process of infidelity) follows below.
QUESTION: "PARIAH" began as a short. How did it feel coming back to play the role three years later, as a feature? Was it hard to inhabit the character again?
Adepero: So when I read the script, I immediately related to that feeling of not feeling free. So me and Dee – she really made herself available, saying that any questions I had, she was there to ask. And she created homework assignments for us – one of them was me and Pernell walk into a place, she had to go to a Black and Latino Lesbian party, in character. So we're fully immersed in this world that Alike and Laura would be in… it was a lot of cool things like that that made the world more specific and the characters more specific. It was more than reading the lines. With all the work, I personally felt free, and it allowed me to be a character.
Rees: As a director I'm more interested in why actors say what they're saying than actually what they're saying; so creating the shared history together and making sure the character have relationships is more important than the lines themselves. Because once they have a feel for the relationships it'll come through in the lines.
Q: How did you navigate the poetry subplot of the film? For example was there anything you watched or read to prepare?
Rees: So I'm a poet myself, so for me it was a natural extension for Alike to be able to express herself that way. She can say what she can't say to anyone else. It's her private special space. And her discovery of herself as an artist mirrors her discovery of herself as a person. It's what attracts her, opens her up, and allows her to be free. "PARIS IS BURNING" we watched, a documentary. I was afraid of the cliché…
Q: What do you think the cliché would be?
Rees: That I'm a first time filmmaker, so my protagonist is a writer… So I was trying to work that in a way that wasn't expected.
Q: Dee has noted that much of the film has basis in her own experience. So Adepero, would you ever find yourself mimicking her; did her movements find a way into your performance?
Adepero: [laughing] Not at all, because it's based on her experiences… it's superimposing her experience onto a teenager. So it was never stated that I was playing her… but no, never, ever, ever, ever. But, yeah - never.
Q: Dee, you said you came out as a lesbian at the age of 27 – what was that like for you? Were you always aware of your sexuality?
Rees: No, I had had crushes, but I thought it was just puppy love, admiration. I actually dated a guy through most of college and I had a couple women I had feelings for, but I pushed it away and dismissed it. So it wasn't until I was living independently that I fell in love with someone, and then it was undeniable.
Q: So last night you mentioned that when you came out, your family had an intervention for you…
Rees: So I first told my mom on the phone, and she was like "Oh, you're going through that art school thing, it's a phase, all writers do that…" so it was fun, I was like "Wow, my mom's really cool about that." Then I started dating this woman, and it was serious, then her and my grandmother flew in…. with this expectation that something had happened to me, that I'd been traumatized in some way and this was a symptom of something else. And I had to convince them that I was the same person I'd always been. So my Dad flew in the next weekend, and he thought it was because they divorced. I told him it was not a cause-and-effect thing: getting back together would not help. [laughter] So they're were years of silence while I had to hold my ground, show them I'm the same person, and they've come around significantly.
Q: Dee, what are you interested in? Will your next film be something similar or something totally different, like an action film?
Rees: I'm interested in sci-fi actually. I'm into Phillip K. Dick and all that stuff. I would love to do sci-fi.
Q: I have to ask about the father, because he clearly has something going on below the surface…
Rees: He's obviously having an affair, I think. And I don't want to take us on a tangent, but I wanted to show that he's flawed: an awesome dad, but not such an awesome husband. And to show his perspective, he's being told by his peers that he has to treat his daughter differently, he sees how his friends react to gay women, his wife is nagging at him… I just wanted to show that he has his own thing going on in life.
Q: He really gives a magnificent performance.
Dee: One reporter has referred to him as ‘sex on a stick'.
"PARIAH" opens at the Kendall Square Cinema this weekend.