Star and out director talk coming-of-age film – and how other LGBT teens can relate
Just a girl looking for her place in the world isn’t an all-too-uncommon tale. But Alike is black. And gay.
It’s a minority double-whammy that singles out the Brooklyn teen from the rest of the world, so she seeks acceptance in gay bars – and, because she’s not definite in her identity, doesn’t find it. Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay”) is the epitome of a Pariah, the name of out director Dee Rees’ personal – and very powerful – indie film. A hit on the festival circuit, Rees’ real-life-inspired story finds the universal thread in navigating Alike’s journey to self-actualization and the power of loving yourself first.
Rees and Adepero Oduye, who plays Alike, spoke recently about their advice to LGBT teens, getting into character at a lesbian bar and the reason “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” was perfectly inappropriate for the film.
How would you break down Pariah and the character of Alike?
Dee Rees: It’s just, of course, a story about identity. Alike’s a woman who knows she loves women, and is sure in that, but her struggle is how to be. Her struggle is a more nuanced struggle of gender identity within the queer community. She’s not the same person that (her friend) Laura is, neither is she this pink princess that her mother wants her to be. She falls somewhere in between. Finding the courage to carve out that space is her journey. It’s a story that people will be able to relate to.
Adepero Oduye: It’s a very specific story, but it’s so universal. You don’t have to be young, black or gay to get something from this film, and, since Sundance, that’s what we’ve been seeing from these screenings and Q&As. For people who are either black or gay, I think they’re excited to see themselves reflected up on the screen. That’s always powerful and exciting.
What’s your advice to young people who, like Alike, are struggling with their sexuality?
DR: That it’s OK to be yourself; that people can change. When I went through my coming out process, even though I was an adult – I was paying my own bills, I was independent – but my parents weren’t accepting, and we had a tough time for a couple of years. I never thought they would turn around, but they saw this film and said they loved me and that they were proud of me.
So people can actually change, and in the interim, find other people who love you. During that time is when I found the closest friends in my life now. Maybe I wouldn’t have been open to those friendships if I hadn’t been going through such a tough time. It was an experience that transformed me.
AO: Yeah, the process of accepting and loving yourself is the most important thing. If you can do that and find people who support that, it’s amazing what will happen when you get to a place where you truly do love and accept yourself. People will turn around and things – they might be challenging and the road might be a bit rocky – but they will get better.
Dee, the hardest part of coming out for you was finding acceptance within the gay community. You struggled with finding your place, right?
DR: Yeah, when I first came out it was weird. I would go to the clubs and have on a turtle neck and jeans, and I felt like I wasn’t hard enough to be butch, and then I wasn’t soft enough to be femme. So I’d go and felt ignored – and like I needed to identify a certain way. Other women I met who were like me were different on the gender identity spectrum, too.
I think the community is more open to this idea that we don’t have to check a box, we don’t have to create these binary roles from hetero culture, and so that for me was an opening experience. I’ve met a lot of women along the way who feel free to express themselves however is authentic for them, and that’s what I had to discover and what Alike, in this movie, comes to discover.
So you don’t believe in labels, and neither does Alike.
DR: No, no. This film is about not checking a box and not having a label. To the extent that someone identifies and feels a certain way, absolutely feel free to call yourself whatever is true for you, but it’s also OK not to.
How did Dee’s coming out experience inform your character, Adepero?
AO: We just talked. She made it very clear that anything I had on my mind I could ask her. I asked a whole bunch of questions and she was very awesome at answering and talking about things that, I don’t know, might not have been super comfortable (both laugh). But I never got that sense, because I just kept on asking! Doing that developed this relationship based on trust, which allowed me to go to places that aren’t necessarily the most comfortable as an actor and just as a person.
What question made you most uncomfortable, Dee?
DR: (Both laugh) I don’t remember. Oh god. I think, you know, we talked about Alike’s level of sexual experience and that Alike is a virgin and how she might be feeling and I don’t know – there was nothing that was totally uncomfortable. I mean, as an actress I’m asking her to do something that’s very uncomfortable. It’s probably more uncomfortable to do it on camera, to really expose herself, so I had no right to be uncomfortable because I’m asking so much more. You can’t ask your actors to open up if you can’t open up with them.
How did you find those feelings of pain and isolation, and that journey to self-acceptance, in the character of Alike?
AO: That process of accepting and loving yourself and not fitting in and just wanting to break away from all the expectations that people put on you, I wanted to clear up all of that and really figure out who I am and what I want to be. I really just related to all of that. I felt like I didn’t belong, so that’s what I brought to the table.
What was going to a lesbian club for research like?
AO: We just had to show up to this club in character, so me and Pernell (Walker), who plays Laura, met up at this club. Dee was watching us, not interacting with us at all, and just dropped me into this world, specifically Alike’s world. And how uncomfortable! I didn’t fit in, and no one paid attention to me because I wasn’t butch or super femme. I felt invisible. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like I was pressing my nose against this bubble.
Tell me, Dee, about the song you chose for that opening scene in the club, Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).”
DR: My first time at a lesbian club, when I first came out, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to hell.” And so for this film, it was very important that the first song be very provocative. Just as Alike is pushed into this hypersexual environment, so are we. So she’s uncomfortable, we’re uncomfortable and we’re immersed in her perspective and feelings.
Do you think Alike’s mom, Audrey, is a bully?
DR: Audrey (Kim Wayans) doesn’t intend to be. From her perspective, she’s just trying to do what’s right by her daughter. She’s just misguided. She really wants to connect with Alike and buy her dresses, but there’s this growing distance and she’s not sure how to connect, so she doesn’t mean to be. She’s just a lonely, vulnerable person who wants love, and with everything she does she ends up bringing about the very thing she’s trying to avoid. So she doesn’t mean to bully Alike. She’s trying to love her, and sometimes love can be misguided. People are flawed.
One choice she makes, to separate her from Laura and unite her with a colleague’s daughter, actually works against her. The girl fosters Alike’s sexual becoming.
DR: Yes, I thought it would be ironic. I think that in life we sometimes bring about the very things we try to avoid. So by steering Alike from Laura, whom she feels is not the kind of friend she wants her daughter to hang out with, and turning her to Bina, she actually brings about Alike’s sexual consummation and the experience she’s been trying to steer her away from. That’s the irony.
Before the feature film, Pariah was a short in 2007. What initially drew you to Alike?
AO: I just felt it was going to be this really awesome experience, so I wanted to be part of it. I submitted myself to be an extra, not to be the lead, and I got the call from Dee to read for Alike. Call backs and call backs later, I got the role. It was just so exciting to sink my teeth into a character that was very meaty.
You’ve done extra roles before: You were the “Crack Smoker,” as listed on IMDB, in Ryan Gosling’s Half Nelson.
AO: (Laughs) Yeah! That’s not what my role was called when I got it, but I was like, “Oh, they changed it… to ‘Crack Smoker.’ Thanks!”
What’s next for you, Dee?
DR: I finished a script called Bolo, set in the South. It’s more a thriller but still a chance to explore interesting characters and worlds. And another spec script called Large Print, about a 50-something interest investor who’s recently divorced and living in another continent and having to redefine happiness for himself. I just want to tell stories that are meaningful and get people to think about themselves and the world differently.
How about the HBO project with Viola Davis? Can you say anything about that?
DR: I can’t! I’m just excited about it and thrilled to be working with this amazing actress and, again, I think this is going to be another character people are going to be interested in.
Adepero, I imagine this character isn’t going away any time soon. What parts of Alike will stay with you?
AO: Oh, no, no. It will always be an absolute pleasure to be associated with that character. I think it’s Alike’s resilience. She just never gave up; she tries, gets knocked down and tries again. She, at a young age, makes the choice to live the life that she wants to live. That will always stay with me.