Desiree Akhavan: it matters which stories we tell
Desiree Akhavan talks to Sophie Mayer about studying with Ira Sachs, getting real about onscreen sex and why we need more selfish female protagonists
Love or hate Girls, Desiree Akhavan currently has what seems like the best job in the world: if you’re a fan, envy her character Chandra hanging out with Hannah (Lena Dunham) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Not a fan? Thrill as Chandra takes Hannah’s writing to pieces.
In fact, before there was Girls, there was The Slope. Started as a film school project in 2011, Akhavan’s web show about (in her words) a “superficial, homophobic lesbian” Desiree, became an online sensation. Akhavan translated both her directorial chops and her starring role to her first film, Appropriate Behaviour. She plays Shirin, a superficial, workphobic bi woman who has just split up with her girlfriend and is consoling herself with BFF bra-shopping, random hook-ups and awkward conversations with her mom. No wonder it’s getting a prized Bechdel Test Fest screening on 23rd March! [Please check out our competition under interview to win tickets – ANIA]
The film debuted at Sundance in 2014, earning the epithet “the bisexual Persian-American Girls“, and it’s released in the UK on 6 March, shortly after Akhavan kicks off her role in Season 4 of Dunham’s show. After the film’s UK premiere at last year’s London Film Festival, I got 15 minutes of face-to-face time with Akhavan during her round of press in the weird environs of private club The Hospital. It was a not-at-all Girls-like experience of trying to keep it together while interviewing a filmmaker who I’d recently seen on screen enjoying a threesome. Luckily, Akhavan sees “the way that sex is depicted in films as a feminist pursuit” and she was as witty and open about her mom’s reaction to the film as about her love of “women being entitled” in current American media.
Shirin in Appropriate Behaviour has been hailed as a poster child for an out bi cinema. Was that part of your aim?
I want to be a part of any visibility conversation for anything I represent: the Iranian community, the bisexual community, the gay community. I care deeply about visibility and about the stories we tell; I don’t give a shit about telling the story we’ve seen a hundred times before. The things that I’m attracted to and want to devote my life to talking about, and starting a dialogue on, are stories of marginalised people, be it sexually or ethnically.
I find it absurd that we’ve been living in this world of movies about young man-boys who can’t grow up and that was entertaining and fun and fresh, but the minute women start doing it, it’s a phase we need to outgrow
You’ve made a web series, a film and now a TV series. Do you think that right now, especially in the US, TV is the best form for that kind of diverse storytelling?
In terms of playing with form and risk taking, TV is where it’s at, because it’s hard to raise money for indie films right now and harder to distribute them. I have no idea what to expect with audiences for Appropriate Behaviour, although the number of people who’ve seen it are already more than I anticipated. But I got to Sundance and I got greedy eyes and thought: “Why not everyone? Why not mainstream? This is funny to straight white guys, why am I not being sold to them?” But if I made a television series I might reach a huge number of people that would never come to see this film.
How do you feel about the comparisons to Girls?
I feel greatly influenced by television, including Girls, including Broad City, they’re really badass. I’ve been asked: “When do you think this phase of the Brooklyn girl who can’t get her shit together will be over?” Sure, Brooklyn is a thing right now, but women being entitled and wanting to live by their own rules just as much as any other asshole is not something that should change. I find it absurd that we’ve been living in this world of movies about young man-boys who can’t grow up and that was entertaining and fun and fresh, but the minute women start doing it, it’s a phase we need to outgrow.
Do you feel that you’re part of a wave or movement of feminist media that is pushing back against that right now?
Cecilia [Frugiuele, the film’s producer] and I speak 60% in 30 Rock quotes, that’s the way we communicate. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: the work that they do is phenomenal. You don’t qualify them as “funny girls”, they’re just fucking funny and they’re intelligent and they’re at the helm of their shows. That’s very exciting. I love comedy that has serious subject matter. I love to laugh at things and wonder: am I crying or am I laughing? I’m a big fan of Dee Rees and Gillian Robespierre. I love the work of Mia Hansen-Løve, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay. And Sarah Polley, her work is so beautiful.
I see the way that sex is depicted in films as a feminist pursuit of mine, of being honest and having a real dialogue about the ways people fuck, and that’s something Breillat has done in all her work
Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl changed my life. When I saw that film, it was such an incredible moment of thinking: “This is what filmmaking is, this is how you fuck with the medium”. I see the way that sex is depicted in films as a feminist pursuit of mine, of being honest and having a real dialogue about the ways people fuck and the power dynamics, not just glossing through it very elegantly, and that’s something Breillat has done in all her work that attracts me to it so much. I’m lucky to come of age in a time when there’s all this ambition in the air, and this lack of shame or humility.
Appropriate Behaviour is definitely committed to honesty about sex. What reactions have you had to the film from people close to you?
My mom loves the film. She was raised in Iran, to be very proper, keep her mouth shut and look beautiful and become someone’s wife, but I was really raised with the same mindset as my brother, which is that you find what you’re good at and at all costs you do what you want to do. She’s so excited that I made it, she’s been an incredible cheerleader. I don’t think it’s easy to be the parent of a child who insists on being so graphic and honest in their own work, but I’ve been telling stories my whole life so she had fair warning. I think we have pushed each other into the shape of accepting mother and daughter. And I was so surprised but Cecilia’s parents loved it. Her mother doesn’t speak English that well and I thought: “She won’t understand, all she’ll see is me naked and going down on a woman,” but she loved it. This is Cecilia’s first feature that she’s produced. We’ve known each other for nine years; it’s our baby.
How important was it for you to have made The Slope first?
Building up that audience online gave me confidence. It is all about confidence. Ira Sachs [who taught the class for which she made the web series back in 2011] gave us permission to take a chance and to do something genuine, which in film school is not always encouraged. Everything you do helps your skillset, but I needed that experience to trust in my voice and have faith in what I wanted to do.
In The Slope you played a character called Desiree. Is there also something of your experience in Shirin?
The film is an homage to my twenties and the transitions that had to be made. I get asked: “Is it painful to watch ’cause it’s so personal? Is it déjà vu?” That’s absurd to me: the minute you write something down on paper, it becomes fiction. The idea that this is 100% me and that this is autobiographical is to say that there’s no art in it. My hope is that you take something that has a kernel of truth and is close to your heart but you elevate it to a level where it could be true to anyone.
Appropriate Behaviour is released in cinemas on 6 March by Peccadillo Pictures
Competition! Win tickets to Bechdel Test Fest screening of Appropriate Behaviour!
Bechdel Test Fest has generously offered a pair of tickets to The F-Word readers for the screening of Appropriate Behaviour on Monday 23rd March, 4pm, at Greenwich Picturehouse.
For your chance to win, please answer the following question:
Which actor from 30 Rock stars in Appropriate Behaviour?
Please send your answers to film[at]thefword.org.uk before the end of Friday 13 March.
All pictures courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.
Picture one is of three women in a lingerie shop, with a mannequin sporting lacy black lingerie in the background. Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is holding pink lingerie and chatting to shop assistant Kate (Kelly McAndrew). Shirin’s friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer) is standing aside.
Picture two is a portrait of Desiree Akhavan by Valentina Frugiuele.
Picture three is of Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) and Ken (Scott Adsit), hanging out among what appears to be Brooklyn brownstones sharing what appears to be a spliff.
Picture four is a close-up of Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) and her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), lying in bed with their faces turned to each other, with Shirin’s hand caressing Maxine’s face.
The article was amended on Tuesday 3 March, all instances of “Behavior” were changed to British spelling “Behaviour” to reflect the official UK release title.