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Poetry in Motion

Actress Adepero Oduye on Creating the Character of Alike

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Adepero Oduye and Sahra Mellesse Focus Features

Adepero Oduye and Sahra Mellesse in writer/director Dee Rees' Pariah, a Focus Features release.

Q: How and why did you become an actor?

Adepero Oduye: I was in school, with plans to be a doctor. I realized early on that the school was competitive and not fulfilling to me. My father passed away suddenly while I was in school, and that was the wake-up call, because he was young; I thought to myself, “Life is too short to do something you don’t want to do. If I’m not a doctor, what will I be?”

Out of nowhere, from the depths of my soul, a little voice said, “Actor.” I ignored it, but then in my senior year I took this acting class – and it was the first class that I went to every single one of. I loved it.

I wanted to be an actor, not having any idea how that was going to happen. Besides my instructor, I didn’t know any professional actors. After graduation, I went to my first audition with no headshot, no résumé; I didn’t know what I needed. [laughs] Slowly but surely, I figured it out…

Q: Which actors inspired you?

AO: Robert Duvall in The Apostle, the whole movie. I had graduated school, and was at home trying to figure out my life. I randomly found it on TV one afternoon. I was by myself, and by the end of the movie I was crying. It was the first time I was watching a movie that made me realize specifically why I wanted to be an actor. I got so caught up in the story, in the characters, that I forgot I was watching a movie. It was a whole other world; here I was in Brooklyn, watching this man’s story set in the South, and I knew I wanted to tell stories. It was important for me…and I’ve been trying to watch all of Robert Duvall’s films.

More recently, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose; I was completely blown away to see a younger actor do a performance like that. They were spot-on to give the Oscar to her. Besides Meryl Streep, she’s now one of my favorite actresses.

Q: By 2006, you were already a working actor. How and when did you get word of the audition for the short film, Pariah?

AO: It was the summer, and sometimes I would get audition notices. I was working at my regular job in Central Park, and I happened to open up the notice in my e-mail about an NYU Grad thesis film. Something about it made me think this could be a great project. So I decided to submit myself, but I wasn’t thinking about the lead, or any of the leads. I didn’t think that was a possibility. I thought I’d get to be one of the high school students in a classroom.

I got a call a day or two later at work; “Would you come in for the lead?” Okay, sure! When I got the sides, the materials, I immediately knew what and who this character was – what she was about.

Q: So now you were going for it.

AO: I asked my little brother if I could borrow his clothes – baggy jeans, shirt, cap – and I went in. I remember having a lot of fun at the audition, and felt good about it. Then I had callbacks, and at the end of the second one I was told I got the part – the lead!

Q: How did you prepare once you had the role? Did writer/director Dee Rees assign you research?

AO: Dee gave me several things to read, like Audre Lorde’s autobiography Zami and a compilation of her work. I would read the script again, and e-mail Dee long questions at any time. [laughs] Once it got closer, she gave homework assignments; Pernell Walker, who plays Laura [in Pariah and again in Pariah] and I went to a black and Latino lesbian party at a club. We were in-character, and Dee and [producer] Nekisa Cooper were watching us from the sidelines. I felt exactly like Alike; unsure of how to be, how to act. People there didn’t know how to perceive me, either; at the club, you were either butch or femme, and I fell in the middle. People were keeping it moving, pretty much overlooking me.

Then Pernell and I went to a straight environment, in-character; Dave & Buster’s, in Times Square. We got in the elevator to go up for dinner, and we were getting sideways glances. There were slight reactions. Interesting!

Q: By the end of shooting the short film, did you know that you were hopefully going to be coming back to the character for a feature?

AO: I was so grateful for the opportunity; I had learned so much. I was saying to Dee, “I don’t want this to end,” and she said, “Well, it’s not going to end; we’re going to do the feature.” So I knew of the intention, but I also knew in my actor’s experience that nothing is ever promised; people get replaced, they go for stars – I didn’t get too ahead of myself. But Dee and Nekisa were adamant; “You’re gonna be in it.”

Q: Did you go to the Sundance Film Festival when the short film screened there in 2008?

AO: Yes. I remember after one screening, an older man said to me, “Usually, I don’t like watching films like that – films about gays and lesbians.” I thought, okay, where is this going to go? But the fact was, Pariah changed something in him, and he was able to relate and appreciate the film and say so out loud. I thought, well this is why I act – to hopefully be part of something that opens up people’s worlds in some way, shape or form.

Q: How did you keep Alike alive in, and connected to, you while the feature took shape?

AO: Well, there was always some kind of screening of Pariah to go to. But the feelings of not knowing who you are, of not being comfortable in who you are, were never too far from me. I feel like I know myself a lot more now, but at the time those feelings were close, always right there. I guess I was lucky; the work on the short had been so in-depth.

Q: When you got the feature script, how did you react to what was happening next for the character?

AO: When I got a version of the feature script when we went to the Sundance [Directors’] Lab in 2008, it was so weird to me; I’m reading the script, and there’s all this Alike stuff, which means I’m going to be playing it all out on-screen. It tripped me out; I’d never been the lead in a feature. Mostly, I was very excited.

Q: At that Lab, you started working with Aasha Davis, who wasn’t in the short film. Did you rehearse the script?

AO: The process of the Lab is, the directors pick a few scenes in the script and workshop it. We would spend one day on a scene, trying it different ways; shoot the scene the next day, with some improv; and the next day the director would edit. During rehearsal days, Dee also had Aasha and I ride the ski lift together and get to know one another. I think the scene in Pariah where it’s the morning after came out of improv in the Lab, after we had shot everything else that day.

Q: What kind of preparation did you do for the feature?

AO: I was a little scared; with the short, there were no expectations but now there were high expectations. I asked Dee about things to read, and she said, “Adepero, you got it. You are fine.” But I re-read Zami and kept going through the script.

Q: Did you re-watch the short?

AO: No, no, no. No. [laughs] The short is embedded in my brain forever; I know it by heart.

Q: Was there a lot of prep time for the feature?

AO: There was stop-and-start; we were supposed to go into production in the summer of 2009. Then we didn’t, and I left to go do a play at Yale Rep. While I was there, the greenlight came and when I got back I had two weeks to figure it all out. Dee would tell me, “Trust. You have it. You are Alike.”

I watched The Aggressives [, Daniel Peddle’s 2005] documentary, which is about AG [Androgynous Gangsta, or Aggressive] women. They male-identify. Watching this film, I got to see many categories that people put themselves in.

Q: Then how do you see Alike – who she is and what she’s going through, specifically when we first meet her in the club and then on the bus…

AO: She’s a person who, for a long time, has been juggling different personalities. That’s been part of her routine, and she’s used to it. In the [beginning of the] film, it’s at the point where it’s not really working for her; everything is coming to a head.

Q: She has to weigh coming out to her family, or, not.

AO: Yeah, and what makes it especially challenging is knowing that not everybody will be on board. She has that instinctive sense that it’s not going to fly well with the family, based on her mother’s beliefs and her father’s denials. They’re kind of already brushing it under the table – brushing her under the table, in a sense.

There’s one quote from Audre Lorde that I think encapsulates Alike’s journey at that point; “I knew what it was like to be haunted by the ghost of a self one wished to be, but only half sensed.” I wrote that quote on the front page of the script. That was it; that is Alike, and as Adepero I know what that feels like – somewhere deep inside, to know that there’s this person who is free, that the possibility is there. That’s why Alike goes through what she goes through, because she knows that there is an option to be who she is, and not juggle and be what other people want her to be.

Q: Once filming began, how did your collaboration with Dee grow from before?

AO: There was a deeper level of trust and knowing how someone works; there were scenes where Dee could see I was getting really emotional, and she would have people quiet down or leave the room. If I left the room because it was too much, she’d come and sit with me – and not talk it to death, just be quietly understanding.

Q: Some of the most dramatic scenes are with Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell, as Alike’s parents. What was it like playing opposite them?

AO: Great. Both of them were very giving, and not afraid to “go there.” We all had one rehearsal homework assignment – a mock therapy session where we did a lot of improv. A real therapist came! [laughs] So by the time we shot, we were very comfortable with each other…But the scene at the end between Alike and her mother was particularly challenging.

Q: Given that this was an independent movie on a tight schedule and budget, how did you pace and sustain yourself? Did you try to stay in character?

AO: “To stay in character?” I don’t know what that means, but I’d seclude myself depending on what the scenes were so there were no distractions. We were working in close quarters, and there was camaraderie on-set; I lived for those moments where I could be light and joke around and be myself, because most of the days, I had to be in a not-so-jovial space.

It was tough because a lot of it was “go-go-go;” I’d be prepping for one scene and then the AD would come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to switch and get this shot because the room is already set up.” So I had to learn early on to be able to adjust and be flexible real quick.

Q: When the shoot ended, how did you react? It was time for you to say goodbye to Alike –

AO: Oh, man. [sighs] Because it snowed in the middle of the shoot, some of the roof scene couldn’t be shot. So we had ended filming, but I knew that I still had to do that scene. I thought it was going to be a couple of months; we ended in December 2009, and we didn’t shoot that scene until September 2010. So I couldn’t completely let go because I knew I had to revisit it.

I think everything happens for a reason; in the time in-between, Dee wrote this beautiful poem for the character and sent it to me. I understood clearly what it was about. I feel that it adds so much and that the way it all worked out was perfect; in September, we shot the rooftop scene and an extra scene in the classroom of Alike’s poem reading to her teacher. That was emotional in and of itself.

When it was all done, I had so many thoughts race through my head. I remember going home, feeling very thankful; I called my mother in Nigeria. I felt grateful for my life, and for the opportunities that have come my way – the opportunity to play such a rich character. I felt that one part of the journey was done, the work was done, and now it was going to be out there for people to see.

Q: And four months after that, you were on your way to Sundance once again. What was the experience like this time; the same, but bigger?

AO: It cannot even compare. [laughs] It was way bigger; a lot more attention. I watched the feature for the first time in a 1,200-seat theater full of people I didn’t know; I petitioned to see it beforehand, and they totally shot me down! [laughs] At the Eccles theater, I was pretty much okay. I did think, “Wow, it’s a lot of me. It’s a lot of my face.”

The word for the experience of Sundance would be “overwhelming,” but in a good way. Talking with people after screenings, they would tell me how the film affected them. All different kinds of people; I thought to myself, “This is the power of film.”

I knew I was an actor before; I can’t say that I didn’t think I was. But I think that after Sundance, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This is what I do; this is who I am.