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Though Pariah is this little film telling a simple, classic tale seen and heard before, the charm of its actors and the need to have this coming-of-age story told again and again until it no longer needs to resonate makes the film a powerful and award-worthy statement.
Relative newcomer Adepero Oduye portrays Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), a 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), and younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. With a flair for poetry and good grades, Alike quietly but firmly embraces her lesbianism with the sometimes boisterous support of her best friend and out lesbian Laura (Pernell Walker).
At home, her parents’ marriage is strained and there's further tension in the household whenever Alike’s development becomes the topic of discussion. Pressed by her mother into meeting a colleague’s daughter, Alike -- who desparately seeks a first love -- unexpectedly finds Bina (AashaDavis) refreshing to be with, but it ends with disappointing results.
Wondering how much she can confide in her family, Alike struggles to get through adolescence with grace, humor, and tenacity –- sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
A rousing success at the 2011 Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Pariah is the feature-length expansion of writer/director Dee Rees’ award-winning 2007 short film. At Sundance, its cinematographer Bradford Young won the U.S. Dramatic Competition's Excellence in Cinematography Award.
Rees and partner/producer Nekisa Cooper managed to enlist the aid of such veterans as Spike Lee to join the feature’s executive producing team, and overcame the challenges of making a mirco-budgeted contemporary drama full of such authenticity and grit.
Oduye recently spoke with a trio of journalists prior to the New York opening of the film, shortly before she was nominated for he 2012 Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.
Q: What were your expectations working with a first-time director and producer?
AO: It started as a short in '06, and usually with student films, the process is a little crazy -- all over the place -- because they're trying to figure it out. So my first impression of them was, "Wow, they are so organized." From the minute I walked in, I was like, "Oh, this is something unlike anything I've ever done."
Then in doing the actual short, it proved to be this amazing experience with people who were at the top of their game. I felt like I was surrounded by really great, talented energy. That experience in and of itself was amazing. So everything else that's happened has been extra icing on an already amazing, tasty cake.
It's been really interesting. And because the journey has been about five years, it's surreal and overwhelming, but in a good way. Everyone's worked really hard, so it's really nice.
Q: Were you shocked about their corporate background?
AO: It’s always like, really? Really? But it's a testament to people who take a chance on their dreams and their goals. You leave something very secure, like working for Colgate-Palmolive, to do filmmaking and then this is all happening. It's affirming.
Q: You’ve taken a circuitous route to being an actor as well. Weren't you studying medicine?
AO: I went to Cornell and was pre-med. Since I was four, I was going to be a doctor. My father passed away when I was a junior, and it was a wake-up call. He was young and it was sudden, and I realized I was doing it for him. I asked myself one day, "Well, what is it I would really like to do?" And acting came up. I was like, "Really? Okay."
So I took an acting class my senior year, because that was the year I could take other classes -- it was the only time I could take other classes. It was the only class that I took at Cornell that I absolutely loved, and it was the kind of challenge I always wanted to throw myself into. I graduated and said, "Okay, I'm going to be an actor."
I didn't know any actors, didn't know anything about acting, and I just started from the bottom. I just figured it out and studied with some teachers.
Q: Did you have that same leap-of-faith moment that Dee described when she left the corporate world and was going to make films?
AO: My mother was very concerned. Very concerned.
Q: About acting in general or this film?
AO: About acting in general. My parents are Nigerian, and so my mother is, "We want you to go to school and get a good job" and all this stuff. She doesn't know anything about acting, but instinctively she knew that it was going to be really challenging. It's not an easy field to step into.
What I had to overcome were a lot of things in my own head. I thought, wow, this is really crazy. But in spite of thinking those thoughts, I kept going because I knew in my heart I felt like I belonged.
And I thought, I'm not really cookie cutter, I'm not this, I'm not that. But I just know this feeling, and I know when I would work for free as an extra on movies. I thought, this is the best thing ever, and I can do this for free all my life. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I just held true to my dreams for my life and I kept on going.
There were times where I was like, I could have just [gone] straight on, been a doctor, and everything would be cool. But I wouldn't be happy.
Q: You've been doing acting now for how long, how many years?
AO: I would say I've been acting, really hardcore, for about seven, eight years.
Q: You aren’t the model of the typical black woman in Hollywood that’s usually been see on screen.
AO: People have said things to me in terms of suggestions, strong suggestions, of what I should do to make it easier for myself in terms of hair, or [about my] name. I've heard all kinds of crazy things. And I get that it's coming from a place of "we know what it's like, so if you do this, it's going to make it a lot easier for you."
But I knew from the beginning that it's either going to happen as myself or not at all. I always just knew that. I'm much more comfortable as myself and not trying to be someone else. I struggled a lot in the beginning because I was trying something that's kind of impossible, almost. I remember one time, a girl in my acting class was like "Adepero, you're so lucky because you're so unique."
It kind of hit me and I was like, "That's what it's going to be." It's because I'm unique -- [that] is going to make me stand out, and if I just stay true to who I am, then it'll all be fine.
That's what I say to people: it's better to be yourself. Instead of trying to predict what people want you to look like so that you might be successful, just start from where you are. So for me, I believe that to be true.
Q: Do you feel the need to balance staying true to yourself with protecting yourself in terms of questions people will ask you about your sexual identity in relation to this character?
AO: In the beginning, I did. I was very defensive: why are you asking me that? And I think it's natural. People want to know how old you are, people want to know if you're gay or straight, people want to know.
In the beginning, I was like, well why are you asking me, because if I am gay, does that mean that it's not really acting, that it's kind of easier for me? Or if I'm not gay, does that mean I don't know? But I just let that down, and I get why people want to know.
Q: What was your preparation to play this part?
AO: As an actor, I love to do research, so I'm open to reading and watching anything that thrusts me into whatever world. It's great that Dee was like that, too, and so she gave me some books to read. I read Zami by Audre Lorde.
How I related to the film immediately was, I knew what that felt like to not feel free, to feel kind of held back by your environment, by conditioning, all of that.
So when we went to that lesbian party, it was very, very specific. I went with Pernell Walker, who plays Laura, and she was dancing with women and getting numbers and I was odd man out. I was invisible because I didn't fit in. [It was] a club with women, all women, but it was male-identified women or female-identified women.
It was like butch or femme, and I felt like I was at a regular club with men and women, though it was just all women. So it was like, "Wow. I'd never been in that environment before."
It really made Alike and Laura's world very specific and [showed] why she feels completely left out. Because she doesn't fit in any of those worlds.
Q: Were you in character?
AO: Yeah, we had to go in character.
Q: Do you remember what club it was?
AO: It's a monthly party. I don't know if it still happens now, but it was called Lovergirl, in New York City. It was a great party.
Q: What do you think about Nollywood, and did that help inform your sense of alienation?
AO: Yeah. I know what it feels like to not feel like I belong, just growing up in Brooklyn and feeling different.
Q: You’re a lot more glamorous than your character.
AO: People were confused by what they've seen or what people have done before, and so they're like, "Oh, you could be an ingénue, maybe a character." It's a lot of what they've seen before.
Q: But then you take a part that puts you in the spotlight which really un-glamorizes you. There must have been a little conflict.
AO: Not at all, because what I dream of is doing really amazing roles and amazing films that are well-written with amazing people. So any chance to throw myself into a really well rounded character, that's the dream. For me it was exciting, it was like the best thing ever. I get to be on set every day and play this teenager trying to figure it out.
Q: And on camera almost the entire film.
AO: Yeah, which is challenging, but it's what I've been wanting to do for a long time. I loved it.
Q: Would you do anything in Nollywood?
AO: If it was something to my liking, yeah. Sure.
Q: You could do an action film.
AO: I'd love to do an action film.
Q: So we're going to have to suggest you for an action-adventure.
AO: How now. Let's do it.
Q: If you had one to pick, what one would you want to be in? Would you do science-fiction, or be in a James Bond film?
AO: I would like to be in a James Bond film, but the female character couldn't be very like, "Oh, James Bond." She'd have to be really kickass.
Q: Not the damsel in distress.
AO: Yeah, but something really great. I love Mission: Impossible too.
Q: Do you have any comic book costume hero you'd want to be like Wonder Woman?
AO: I would love to be Wonder Woman if they would let her be black.
Q: How does your mother think about it, now that she's seen you doing this?
AO: She's excited and happy. She's going to actually see the film this week for the first time. She came from Nigeria, so she's very excited.
Q: Since the success of this film, what other opportunities has this provided for you? Do you have anything in the works?
AO: Since the film opened at Sundance, I have a really great team of people, a manager and a publicist, so I have people who are on the same page as to what I'm interested in. And I've been reading a lot of scripts so far, so we'll see.
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