When actress Adepero Oduye first nabbed the role of teen lesbian Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) in the feature film Pariah, she did what any good actress would do – she hit the gay clubs in the name of research. Going into a club in character with her co-star Pernell Walker (who plays her gay friend, Laura) truly helped Oduye get more inside the head of her character but also opened her eyes to a lot about this new environment.
Dressed in boy’s clothes like her character, Oduye said she approached the environment different from Walker who, she recounted, “was dancing with women, getting numbers and I wasn’t butch, I wasn’t femme so I didn’t fit in. I didn’t belong. People didn’t know where to place me and so they just ignored me. And I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I felt invisible and I remember the music being so good and I wanted to dance. But I can’t dance the way I would normally dance because I’m wearing these clothes. I would dance like a female but I’m just a guy so it just wouldn’t match. And then I was thinking it was so much and I just stopped and I just stood there. And I just was so rigid and I remember just like looking. Watching everybody have fun but me — afterwards it was like ‘Wow, this is exactly what Alike feels like.’ And so it was the beginning of specifically like this is what is was, yeah.”
In the film, which had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was adapted by out director Dee Rees from her 2007 award-winning short, the story of Alike could have easily been a stereotypical two-hour journey about a young woman realizing she’s a lesbian but Rees wasn’t interested in telling the story from that angle. “Alike knows that she loves women,” explained Rees during the press junket in Los Angeles to promote the film, “and that’s not her problem. She knows she’s a lesbian, but her question is the more complex question of how to be.” From the start of the film, Alike is seen dressed in one fashion but we realize this is just one of many hats (so to speak) that she wears in her young life. “We meet in the club. She’s dressed, she’s got on the baseball cap and the baggy jeans and she’s the stud and then we see her on a bus and she’s transforming into this pink princess and the irony is that she’s neither of those things. So, she’s changing from one costume into the next and so her biggest struggle is coming into who she is.”
Oduye got a sense of the mix of gender identities during her visit to the gay club with Walker. “It was like being in a regular club where there were men and women but they were all women but everyone kind of picked a box. Everyone was either super male identified or super female identified. So butch but in a very specific way. Baggy jeans, the hat — just very like that or you were like in short dresses. And like this super girl and super feminine. It was like I’m in a club with all women but there are men and women here … it was like gender roles still were assigned even though it was all women. You know that difference between gender and sex. It was like ‘Oh, OK.’ It’s very clear. So that was pretty surprising. Not surprising. It was really fascinating.”
One famous filmmaker who was instrumental in helping getting the film made is acclaimed director Spike Lee, who she knew from her time interning on Lee’s film starring Jodie Foster, Inside Man. What kind of advice did the director give her? “His biggest advice was like, ‘Put it on the screen.’ As a director you don’t get to hand the audience notes, you don’t get to get up and explain like what should have happened or what you meant to say or what you’re trying to say. His biggest advice was, ‘Put it on the screen, because you can’t explain it.’ So, we tried to do that.”
One other unexpected surprise in the film is Kim Wayans, best known for her comedic work as well as her famous family of brothers, who turns in a profoundly dramatic performance as Alike’s mother, Audrey. Wayans was very upfront about her awareness that she probably wasn’t the first person thought of for this important role of the mother desperate to keep her child from becoming a lesbian. “Oh, they weren’t thinking of me at all, at all,” she said, but the idea to do a dramatic role didn’t come out of left field for her. “I’ve been wanting to do dramatic work for a while and I’ve been studying with a really wonderful acting teacher, Diana Castle. So, I knew that I could do this but the doors in Hollywood basically have been closed to me in terms of dramatic acting. I can’t even get in the room to read.”
Wayans explained that while the entire movie moved her when she initially read the script, she also understood her character of Audrey quite clearly. “She just broke my heart,” Wayans revealed. “I didn’t see her as like a monster or villain. I didn’t see that. I saw her as being just as much a victim as everybody else. She’s a victim of what she believes, of her belief system, the things that tell her that her daughter’s lifestyle choice is wrong. She was so sad, just so sad, and so lonely, and so disconnected from everybody that I just had a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy for her.”
However, the actress found the best way to approach the role that comes through profoundly on the screen. “Once I approached it from a place of a mother fighting to save her child, I was really able to hook into that even though I don’t have children. I have 38 nieces and nephews and I love them all. They didn’t come through me but they are mine. So, I understand what — I felt like I really understood what that is and that I had such an amazing mother who had to struggle to raise us all with the little bit that she and my dad had and stuff. I saw that mother love. I saw that fight where ‘my child, my child, my child.’ So, I was able to connect into that as well.”
Since their characters don’t exactly see eye-to-eye for most of the film, were Wayans and Oduye close on set or did it work better to keep their distance? “No, we were close,” Oduye said with a smile. “It was great. The cool thing about this movie is that we were all able to be really close and laugh and have fun. Certain days maybe I wouldn’t really say much to her just because prepping for a scene. Like, for example, the last scene that I had with her. We were on set but we didn’t interact at all. I didn’t even see her. So the first time she saw me that day was when I came on with the scar. And it was the first time she saw the scar. It was the first time that we spoke to each other that day but for the most part it was a lot of talking and laughing and advice.”
One thing that isn’t immediately clear is the title of the film. Why Pariah? “The title is Pariah because it means for me somebody who doesn’t have a place,” said Rees. “The opening quote [by] Audre Lorde, ‘Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.’ For me that meant she has no place, and there is no place for her, and so Alike feels like she doesn’t fit in the gay world, because she’s neither butch nor femme, and she doesn’t fit in the straight world because she’s not who her mother wants her to be, so she feels like she doesn’t have a place in either.”
However, Rees further explained that Alike is not the only “pariah” in the film. “When you look at all the characters, all the characters end up being pariahs, because [Alike’s father] Arthur (Charles Parnell) is like a man of the community, and respected amongst his peers, yet he’s not treating his daughter the way the world is telling him he has to treat his daughter. He just wants things to stay the same. Audrey is a pariah because she’s socially awkward at work, and the more she tries to connect to people, the more she pushes them away. And you know, everything basically she brings about the very thing that she’s trying to avoid.”
Rees also revealed that when she came out, her family didn’t react exactly the same as Alike’s family but there was still a sense of confusion. “I had to just explain to them that who I was was not a choice and that who I was was not going to change and we didn’t talk for a while and they had to come to accept that. So finally they saw the film and I’m really proud of them. They really turned around and said they loved me, and they’re proud of me … I think seeing all the people around the film and seeing the people supporting the film was really helpful to them as parents, because, again, that peer pressure, that social pressure, seeing that your child is accepted and they’re openly gay, and everybody’s supporting them, or they have people around them that are genuine.”
As Pariah is set to open in theaters, Oduye’s life is already starting to change including, as she revealed, who in the celebrity universe is commenting publicly on the film. “Kimberly Elise on Twitter shouted me out. And I was like ‘Seriously?!’ I haven’t even tweeted her back because I’m like ‘I don’t even where to begin with you!'”
Pariah opens in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco on December 28 before opening in more cities starting January 6. For more on the film, visit the official website.