Actress/director Desiree Akhavan. Photo Credit: Daniel Jack Lyons.

Director Desiree Akhavan. Photo Credit: Daniel Jack Lyons.

GALO: Were there ever times when you wished you weren’t acting and directing at the same time?

DA: I found that I was really happy to be doing both at the same time, because I needed to be engaged at all times. I had done so much preparation work, because I had written the script. I had been living with this for so long that it was second nature, and I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish in each role. And if I had only been directing, I wouldn’t have been in the same relationship with my actors, and [able] to ask the same things of them. Had I just been acting, then I think I would have had too much time to get in my head about choices I’m making and the way I look or the way I’m sitting.

GALO: Is that what you experienced in your debut on the set of Girls?

DA: Yes. It was Girls. The first scene we shot, which is the first scene that airs in episode two, I was just terrified. It was my first time on set. I had just gotten off of hair and makeup, and I got planted in this scene with Lena Dunham and I thought, ‘Fuck me. I’m going to ruin the show.’ And it was really scary. It was the first experience I had acting for someone else. I went crazy a little bit. I had too much time to focus on the superficial and every little detail instead of just getting in there — and I find, the less I get in my head when I’m acting and the more I just do it, the better. But when I have a lot of time to obsess, I tear my work apart. Once I’d gotten over that initial hurdle, I felt like I could do this.

GALO: Your character in Girls is attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Can we talk about writing? You’ve been writing from a very young age.

DA: In the womb. Yes. In the womb.

GALO: What does writing do for you? Is it better than psychotherapy?

DA: My response to life is to write, but I don’t see it as my psychotherapy. I see my psychotherapy as psychotherapy. I’ve done a lot of psychotherapy in my life, and I take it seriously enough to know that my writing is my work, and I take that very seriously in a different way. This [writing] is my response to life, and this is the way I gain power over situations I find disempowering. But somehow I still don’t see it as therapy, because a narrative, to be entertaining, has to go that extra mile. And it can’t just be your diary entry. And it can’t just be how you vilify your enemies. It has to go somewhere better than that, and that’s how it’s happened for me. However, it is where I go when I feel disempowered. But also for entertainment. It’s where I go for everything. My earliest scripts are stupid comedies. I wrote a spec script for The Brady Bunch at age 10. That’s weird. I wasn’t dealing with anything at that age. I just loved doing that.

GALO: Your Brady Bunch script must surely have been different than that of Appropriate Behavior. The portrayal of Shirin’s sexual experiences are extremely realistic — from awkward hesitations, to playfulness and roughness, to the shy yet coy banter between new lovers — the raw reality of sex rarely seen in big Hollywood films. How did you direct your actors — and yourself — while also being intimate with them in front of the camera? I’m thinking in particular about the threesome scene.

DA: I knew what I wanted. And we had tightly choreographed the scene — the three of us, but also the cinematographer — and it was a dance between all four of us. That’s how you do it. It’s a vulnerable place to be. You don’t want your actress fake-orgasming 15 times. You get her in, and you get her out. It’s about having a really clear direction about where you want to go and then executing it, but keeping everyone on the same page. I knew exactly where Shirin was and my actors. It’s all in the casting. They are incredibly smart, and they knew exactly what they were doing, so that was one of the easiest scenes to shoot and edit, too. Of course, it was scary before we got there, but once we started shooting it, it was seamless, and the takes were all really good. And we did very few.

GALO: It’s an intense, emotionally gripping scene on many levels. You noted in a previous interview that you were going to do a director’s cut for your dad. Did you?

DA: I thought I would do that, but I didn’t. They’ve seen the whole thing. My mom has seen it so many times. I asked her, “What is wrong with you? Why do you do this to yourself?” I don’t even watch it anymore. They were really supportive. My dad, my mother, my brother, and my mom’s siblings came to Sundance with me. They were incredibly supportive, and it was an amazing experience to share with them. It’s one of those moments in your life that you want to share with anybody who helped you. So, it was important to me that they were there.

GALO: Was your dad hesitant to see the film? Is that why you considered a director’s cut?

DA: My dad wasn’t going to come in, and I remember I heard him in an interview say, “I’m not going to go in, because it would make Desi uncomfortable.” I came up to him afterward and said, “I’m game if you are. It seems really silly that you came all the way to Utah, and you’re not going to watch the movie.” And so he stayed, and he watched. It was really sweet. He’s really supportive and kind. I think as a parent — especially when your kid’s LGBT and has come out of the closet — you either have to embrace it or you shun it. You do one or the other, but it’s very hard to be in the middle. And my parents tried to shun. But I think they thought: we either lose a daughter, or we change everything we felt. They had to sacrifice how they felt, and it was really hard. And they did it for me. And I am incredibly lucky.

GALO: Do you go back to Iran? Are you able to still see your grandmother?

DA: I used to go, but since I’ve come out, I have not.

GALO: Could you at this point?

DA: I don’t believe so. No.

GALO: Was it difficult for you to make that decision — that you may never go back to your home country?

DA: No. But it was very sad.

GALO: You had to weigh both and leave something behind.

DA: Yeah. It was an easy decision to make, but a sad one, because I’m not going to lie, and I’m going to make the work I want to make. I live in America, so there’s no contest. I’m never going to hold back the subject matter that I want to make, because I’m afraid of not going back to Iran. The country Iran doesn’t play that big of a role in my life. And even if it did, it would be bullshit for me to not make the work I wanted to make, because I was afraid of flying to a place. But my grandmother was here a few months ago. My family comes out here. I was very much hoping in my life that I’d be able to carve out a space for myself in Tehran and spend time with my cousins there, and explore as an adult and not just a kid. But that hasn’t happened for me yet, and I very much hope that I live in a world where that can change. But no. It was not a decision I labored over.

GALO: I think that’s part of being confident as an artist and a creator. It’s not just confidence standing in front of a camera or directing actors from behind the camera. It’s also having the conviction and belief in what you are doing and seeing it as important — as you say, carving up that space for the rest of the world. If, with this film, you reach even one or two girls or boys who are struggling, you’ve made a difference.

DA: Yeah. Anyone who is true to their self and keeps moving forward with what they’re doing…that’s the funny thing. So few people feel entitled to tell stories. Period. And we build up this world in which very few stories feel worthy of the money it takes to make a film. That to me is absurd. And it’s not because my story is Iranian. Or bisexual. Or whatever I think is important. And I don’t think you need to be from a marginalized community, but it helps. I would like to see more stories from marginalized communities.

GALO: Can we talk about marginalization in Hollywood? At one point in the movie, Shirin dons a Smith College t-shirt, celebrating a century of “Women on Top.” Women are notoriously not on top in Hollywood, yet your generation seems to be pushing the proverbial envelope, particularly when it comes to exploring women’s sexuality…Meera Menon, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and the Israeli director, Talya Lavie, come to mind…and what it means to be a woman in today’s world. Is there something aflutter? What’s your take on it?

DA: We are finally having this generation of women feeling empowered to make things. And it starts off on a small scale. There are very few people who are monetizing it the way Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham have, but it starts at SXSW with Tiny Furniture. It starts off on that tiny scale, and then people realize that money can be made off of intelligent women’s stories. But that’s a progression. And I feel like women are allowing themselves to take the front and center spotlight. And getting inspired by each other.

GALO: It seems a common theme among female filmmakers.

DA: With the men that I know who make films, it’s a given that they should be allowed to make films. And I really thank my stars every day of this year that I made this film. I was so lucky, and I really hope I keep going. I love men and I love male filmmakers, but the conversations I’ve had…that sense of entitlement…which I think is great, but I’d just like to mimic it for myself. And it’s not there with the women [filmmakers]. The advice I’ve gotten from more established male filmmakers has been completely different from the advice I’ve gotten from established female filmmakers. It’s another profession.

GALO: Speaking of women… In one of the more prescient scenes in Appropriate Behavior, Shirin is in a lingerie shop, looking for panties. The salesclerk suggests she purchase some bras, too, since Shirin admits, “It’s like I didn’t think I deserved a bra, because I don’t see myself as a real woman.” What is your definition of a real woman?


DA: Oh man. Come on. A real woman! There are so many definitions of a real woman. If you identify as a woman, you’re a real woman. That scene is not about that statement.


DA: It’s about how easily I’m suckered into purchasing things I don’t need, and about how often I’m made to feel I need to wear padded bras to be attractive and feminine. But, yeah, if you identify as a real woman, you’re a real woman. The end.

GALO: That is a good end! But I have one more question…you can pass if you wish. The theme that ran through the film for me — including the side story with the kids in the film class — is shared interests. How do people stay together?

DA: Oh my god. I don’t fucking know. If I knew the answer to that, I would be in a different position in life. I don’t know how people stay together. Why would you ask a filmmaker that? That’s the last person in the world that should answer that question. I mean, ask a therapist…


DA: …or someone who’s been in a marriage a very long time who’s happily married.

GALO: I’m not sure I know many.

DA: I know a handful of very happily married people who’ve been together forever. I think shared interests are very important — it holds you…

GALO: But Maxine and Shirin don’t seem to have many.

DA: I think that’s a good point. I think that’s a very good point. When you have shared interests, you build a life. And other things come and go. But your pleasure in the same lifestyle can stay.

GALO: I’m thinking of some of the things Maxine is interested in and tried to encourage Shirin to be, too. The only thing I felt they really had in common was that they hated everything.

DA: Yeah. They had mutual hate.

GALO: That’s not a sustainably shared interest.

DA: No. But it sure is fun.

Video courtesy of Fresh Movie Trailers.

“Appropriate Behavior” opened to a limited theatre release in NYC and LA this weekend. You can also view the film on VOD by clicking here. If you’d like to see more of Desiree Akhavan, be sure to tune into HBO’s “Girls” this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.