Appropriate is as Appropriate Does: An Interview with Desiree Akhavan, Writer, Actor & Director of ‘Appropriate Behavior’
There’s something shifting on American soil: a brash, sassy, at times naïve yet sexually inquisitive segment of society has staked out turf that until now has remained behind a barbed wire fence. But with its removal, it seems hard to imagine it ever being erected again. Yes, the Golden Girls offered suggestive encounters in the ’80s, followed by racy liaisons in Sex and the City. But this latest crop of female characters is to Blanche, and, yes, even Samantha, what the flappers were to Victorian England.
Raw, and at times raunchy, brutal honesty is the sine qua non of the writing, directing, and acting of many young women emerging from film festivals over the last several years. And slowly, Hollywood is starting to take notice.
Such has been the tidal underpinnings of Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking comedy series, Girls, now in its fourth season on HBO. Whereas kissing seemed awkward and actual sex scenes taboo for Blanche and her gaggle of friends, Samantha and company pushed the boundaries of televised sex. But the scenes often came across as caricatures. The sex in Girls is as organic as it gets without a pornographic label. At the end of the day, however, sans sex, the show hasn’t veered too far from its predecessors: four heterosexual white women of the middle to upper-middle classes navigating the murky waters of men, friendship, and careers.
Usher in the newest chick on the lot: Desiree Akhavan. She is by no means pasty white; nor is she categorically looking for a male soulmate — although she might. Celebrated by Vanity Fair as one of 12 Iranian-American artists in 2014, Akhavan, while coined by many as the next Lena Dunham, has her own panache.
And panache she has.
A daughter of Iranian parents who came to America in 1980 after the revolution, the 30-year-old Akhavan holds court when she enters a room. It’s hard to understand how her classmates once voted her the ugliest student in her school. Akhavan’s tall stature is softened with thick, ebon hair, and her mocha eyes can pin you to the wall — if she manages to make eye contact. Quite often, her bright red lips crack a Cheshire cat smile and hurl a throaty laugh while lobbing an off-handed joke. She is at times shy, self-critical, and to use her own word, “geeky.” But that only adds to her allure as a writer, director, and actor, whose work, up until now, could only be seen on Vimeo with her Web series, The Slope — a NYU graduate film project in which she and her then-girlfriend, Ingrid Jungermann, spent a lot of time on park benches in Park Slope, with their rescued huskie, debating the belly-button machinations of love, lesbianism, and all things Brooklyn.
Akhavan’s first feature film, Appropriate Behavior, premiered at Sundance last year to much acclaim and opened in theatres in New York and Los Angeles this weekend as well as on video on demand. It is gritty, seductive, elusive, and sardonically biting. In some ways, her film serves as an epilogue to The Slope. Appropriate Behavior’s protagonist, Shirin — played by Akhavan — is reeling from a painful break-up from her long-time lesbian partner and seeks to drown her anguish by exploring her bisexuality, all the while riddled with fear of coming out to her immigrant Persian parents. She ends up in Bushwick, where loft parties and exploratory sex replace the more sedate coffee shop and bookstore culture of Park Slope.
As a writer and director, Akhavan’s ability to sashay between the past and present — as storylines overlap and extract themselves from inner and outer turmoil — force the anguish of loss to crash into pleasurable ecstasy and then, with whiplash precision, back to a state of loss. As an actor, she slips into the skin of a girl, not unlike herself, but the skin seems just a bit too tight for comfort.
It’s hard to imagine this is the last we’ll see of Akhavan — although she seems humbly grateful that she’s made it this far. And if after watching Appropriate Behavior, you want more, which you just might, she’s landed a role on Girls as a fellow student of Hannah’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; her debut airs this Sunday night on HBO.
GALO had the opportunity to talk with Akhavan about her new feature film, the notion of ugliness and beauty, and what it means to be a “real” woman.
GALO: Your new film, Appropriate Behavior, opens and ends, one could argue, with an inappropriate behavior of sorts: the handling of a strap-on dildo. It sets the stage for the exploration of cultural acceptance, cutting ties that bind, and exploring sexuality through the streets, lofts, and bars of Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Bushwick. Who defines what is and is not appropriate behavior today?
Desiree Akhavan: That’s a good question.
DA: You know, I come from a lot of cultures that have very strict definitions of what is appropriate and what’s inappropriate. I think I have come to define it for myself — that I have my own rules of what is right and what is wrong and what’s moral and immoral. In terms of the world, I have no idea…Taylor Swift.
DA: I think we all bow down to one god, and that’s the Taylor Swift god.
GALO: You’ve described your new film as “a gay Annie Hall set in Brooklyn.” At one point, your main protagonist, Shirin — a maudlin, muddled, Iranian-American bisexual, moves from Park Slope to Bushwick. And like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Brooklyn becomes your second protagonist. Why Bushwick? Fewer baby carriages and beards?
DA: I think at the time I was writing this, Bushwick was the cheapest place to live outside of Sunset Park. And Bushwick to me was like: the coolest of the cool live there. And that’s something I always feel intimidated by — that I’m never quite cool enough, and that if I were to move to Bushwick, it would be a constant reminder of how I don’t quite know how to be the right Brooklynite. Whereas in Sunset Park or Lefferts Gardens, those places are a little bit more family-friendly. Bushwick is just one never-ending loft party. It’s the sensation that I get. I mean, that’s the stereotype. It’s good to keep in mind that everything in the film is a bit of a stereotype to be taken with a grain of salt.
GALO: Shirin is struggling with her and Maxine’s breakup. She seeks to understand and, at times, forget, her loss through loose hookups, many of which she stumbles into in a variety of ways while living in Bushwick. At one point, she seeks comfort through an online dating service.
DA: Yes, it’s so much easier than having to talk to strangers and make eyes with strangers.
DA: It’s why I can’t be on Facebook, because I do so much stalking. I just love stories and people watching. And I will just follow a narrative of strangers. It’s seriously disturbing — my attachment to following the trail that that will take me on. I’ve only been on OkCupid, and I’m really glad I was not doing Internet dating when Tinder was around, because I would have totally been on that and would have chased it forever, because the courage it takes to hold eye contact with a person… If I find someone attractive, I instantly treat them like I think they’re shit. I found someone today so attractive, and he tried to give me a deep hug, and I was like, “Ughhhh, get off me!”
DA: I don’t treat them like shit. I act like a dork and try and bro-out.
GALO: Do you think it’s because you fear you’re not good enough?
GALO: Do you tend to date under yourself?
DA: No. I don’t date under, but I think if I see that person that I like, I just don’t want to show my cards, because I’m so terrified that they will find out and reject me or something like that. I really hold my cards close to my chest and just geek out. And the people I find beautiful, I’m like, every asshole thinks you’re beautiful. I don’t want you to know that I think you’re beautiful. God forbid that you have a sense of yourself as an attractive heartbreaker.
GALO: You were one of 12 Iranian-American artists to be celebrated by Vanity Fair in 2014. You’ve described both your Persian heritage and your bisexuality as “ugly” in the eyes of many you meet. Is there a fine line between beauty and ugly? What do you do with all this ugliness? How do you escape it? Challenge it?
DA: I embrace it. You define for yourself what’s ugly or not ugly. I was also raised being told many times that I was an ugly person, so I feel like everything in my life has been about redefining ugliness and redefining beauty and redefining, for myself, even what funny is. I have my own sense of humor and it’s just mine. And that’s why it’s been such a shock this year to even do any interviews or have people see my film — that anyone else would relate to something that came out of my head.
GALO: That seems foreign to you?
DA: It seems foreign to me. Because when you deal with a taboo, you sort of become okay, knowing this is your wheelhouse — a niche just your own. So the idea that it would appeal in a broader way has been a really pleasant surprise.
GALO: This notion of ugly and judgment begs the question: what is beauty? There’s a scene toward the end of the film, when Maxine and Shirin run into each other with their new partners. Shirin judges Maxine for having chosen Tibet, a wispy faerie with long, blonde locks with a penchant for Hitchcock, while also trying to impress her ex with her new Bushwick boyfriend’s tattoos. Their new partners are the farthest from the other, and it hurts to watch. What is attraction? Are we wired to certain types? Or is beauty a fluidity that changes as we grow?
DA: I totally think it’s fluid, but then again I have really diverse tastes. I’m bisexual, so I’m romantically attracted to both men and women who are inherently different and bring inherently different qualities to relationships. There are just certain things that you love. And those are things that I love in my friends, too. Personally, I find hard workers beautiful — people who take their work very seriously and take pride in it. Honesty… People who are confident without being cocky. I think that is beauty to most people — if someone has a lot of confidence and they’re able to bring that to the table. I’d hope that that is what this film is for me — whatever you believe about the film or about me — that this film was at least delivered with confidence. You believe in your statement, and you believe for just yourself that this deserves a space in the world. That’s how I feel about the people I’m with, or I’ve been with who are incredibly different but all have really believed in themselves. That’s what’s so odd. That’s the beauty of living in America. It’s like everyone gets to define for themselves [what] beauty [is] and what’s moral and immoral… appropriate or inappropriate.
GALO: It takes a great degree of confidence to write, direct, and star in your first film. What are the challenges you faced wearing all these hats on the set?
DA: There was a really sharp learning curve. With the writing, it was already put aside, and I felt really confident in the script. But with directing, it was a bit like rubbing your stomach while patting your head at the same time. For the first few days, I had a really hard time differentiating between roles. I would get caught up in the cinematography, while I was in front of the camera, and get worried about the frame. There was one moment on set, on the second day, when I wasn’t on camera but I was in the scene, so I was staring into the monitor on the camera — which was right next to my face — and there was this long gap and no one was speaking. I remember in my head saying, “Who the fuck is messing up right now?” And it was me. It was my line. We stood there, and my actors were too polite to say anything. But it had been my line for a good 15 seconds of silence, and at that moment it hit me really hard that the minute we call action, I need to shut down a part of my brain and focus 100 percent, both feet in, on the performance. Once I realized that, it was really simple: the minute you call cut, you turn something else on and you’re focused on your directing job, and the minute we call action, I’m there and I’m in the scene and I know what I’m doing.