Desiree Akhavan: "The only mainstream queer female stories have been directed by men – it disgusts me"
Saturday morning, Shoreditch House. Desiree Akhavan sits in a comfy corner of east London’s media darling hangout, and does not seem out of place. Her hair is shaggy and rockstar-esque, her red lipstick sharp. Slim gold chains dangle from her neck. She looks like she belongs.
This might seem trivial, but it’s not. What writer/actor/director Akhavan is interested in – what she examines, unpicks, takes seriously and takes the mickey out of – is fitting in. “A lot of life is about identity, and comfort within that,” she says. She admits to feeling odd if she’s in the wrong clothes. “Even something as stupid as that – what I’m wearing – needs to feel like it represents me. If doesn’t, I feel… off.”
Identity can seem a daft thing to worry about, until you consider how much trouble it can cause. (Do you identify as British? Or European? We’ll stop there.) And everyone sends out signals about who they are; Akhavan is brilliant on how those signals affect how you’re treated by others, particularly if you’re a young gay woman. Plus, she makes you laugh. “I see where the funny lies and where the story is, and I chase the story wherever it leads me,” she told the New York Times recently.
If you haven’t yet seen her work, she has two new pieces landing in August and September: her second feature film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which won the grand jury prize at Sundance film festival in January; and a Channel 4 series, The Bisexual. Cameron Post is a moving chronicle of a teenage lesbian sent to gay conversion camp in the 1990s; The Bisexual is a comedy about a contemporary gay woman who decides to date men. They’re very different, but both, at their heart, reveal how life can be when you’re young and don’t have an easy path within straight culture.
Akhavan made a splash in 2014 with her first feature, Appropriate Behaviour, which saw her playing Shirin, a raw, self-obsessed, coulda-shoulda gay woman emerging from a live-in relationship. We followed Shirin around Brooklyn, New York, as she experimented with hookups (an excruciating threesome was a dubious highlight) and worried about hiding her sexuality from her Iranian family, and learned the story of her just-finished love affair. Appropriate Behaviour was explicit, hilarious and bang-up-to-the-minute. Comparisons were drawn with Lena Dunham (who cast Akhavan in Girls after seeing Appropriate Behaviour), and also with Akhavan’s own life. Born to parents who moved to New York following the Iranian revolution in 1979, she, too, is bisexual and found it hard to come out to her family. Still, it wouldn’t be right to view her work as documentary. “It’s my world,” she says, “but it’s not me.”
Let’s begin with The Bisexual. Set in east London, where Akhavan now lives (“I felt my humour had a home in London. Also, I don’t know the hierarchies here. I’m sure they exist, but I don’t know them like I do in New York”), the cast includes Maxine Peake and Brendon Gleeson, and explores some of the same themes as Appropriate Behaviour. Akhavan plays Leila, who splits up with her girlfriend of 10 years (Peake) and starts dating men as well as women.
“The elevator pitch was always: ‘What if a lesbian did the worst thing in the world a lesbian could do, and became interested in men?’” she says. “I wanted to write the show because I hated coming out as bisexual. I came out as that from the get-go, but that word always felt uncomfortable. Bisexual sounds gauche and tacky… Disingenuous. Whereas there’s only pride when I say lesbian, there’s only coolness to say queer. Bisexual didn’t feel like it represented me and I wanted to know why, when technically it very much represents who I am.”
It’s not just about the label. Akhavan knows first-hand how the world changes when your partner does. “If I’m walking down the street with a woman, I’m a lesbian; if I’m holding hands with a man, I’m straight,” she says. “And you see the world through that lens, and everyone treats you accordingly. Your lifestyle is completely different, the people you hang around with are different, and when you fight so hard to be openly gay, and claim that space – then having to reverse engineer it, and notice the world change around you, and the perspective change around you, that is a real head-fuck.”
Akhavan describes a couple of scenes to me; The Bisexual sounds funny. I can’t be sure, though, as the series isn’t finished when we meet; so before we do, I email Maxine Peake. Peake, who seems to have had a great time on set, admires the way Akhavan made her co-writer/director/lead actor multi-tasking seem “effortless”. “She always felt like a team member,” writes Peake.
Akhavan is embarrassed when I read this out to her, even more so when I read Peake’s payoff line: “I appoint Desiree the new ambassador of cool.” Akhavan squirms because she’s not always been cool, by any means. Actually, she spent much of her younger life as a very uncool person. “Not even uncool. Just invisible,” she says. But before we get to that, we should consider The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Adapted from Emily M Danforth’s 2012 book, the film tells the tale of Cameron Post, played by Chlöe Grace Moretz, who’s outed as a lesbian when she’s caught by her male prom date making out with a girl. She’s immediately packed off to God’s Promise, a Christian teen camp, in order to be “cured” of her sexuality. The cure consists of living among other teens who feel SSA – same sex attraction – and who are, mostly, working hard to overcome this through talking therapy, physical exercise (“blessercise” workout videos), loving Gahd and having no contact with the outside world (Post has her Breeders cassette confiscated). It’s a funny and gut-wrenching film, with moments of poignancy and some excellent performances.
Interestingly, for such an emotive subject, none of the characters are portrayed as completely evil. “I didn’t want it to be propaganda,” says Akhavan. “Though I think that would be a more commercially successful film. I wanted the tone to be right… Every film about teens is really about the moment they realise that none of the adults know what they’re doing.”
On the surface, Cameron Post is a move away from Akhavan’s other work, less obviously tied to her own life experience. But when we talk about her background, it becomes clear that this film, too, is a way of her exploring her own past.
Born in 1984 (she has one brother, who’s a paediatric urologist), Akhavan grew up in New York State, some distance from the upmarket Manhattan high school that she attended. Like many girls, she covered the wall of her room in magazine cutouts: “Pretty girls in pretty dresses, like a how-to guide on how to be a normal teenager.” But she wasn’t deemed normal – she was tall and overweight, with big feet – and school was tough. “I was the girl who made birthday cakes on your birthday,” she says, “that had tissues if you needed them. You know? The one that tried to kill people with niceness. Because niceness was all I had.”
When she was 14, Akhavan received an anonymous email, with a website link. “There was a website for the hottest person at school,” she says, “and it was very popular, and the link was to the opposite, the ugliest person at school. I had 40-something votes, and everyone else had two or three.” She pauses. “That’ll shape you.” Her nickname at school was the Beast.
She understands why she didn’t fit in – “there was one aesthetic, and it was: very thin, very petite, straight hair, straight nose, Petit Bateau T-shirt, 7 For All Mankind jeans, North Face fleece” – but these things take their toll. Still, she now thinks she was lucky: “I know those girls who fit in at that age, and it was through a sexual power that they couldn’t handle. Power is a really tricky thing, it’s overwhelming. If men had paid attention to me at that age, I would have gotten in trouble.”
Back then, however, she had no self-comforting theories. She was unhappy. She made it through school, and then went to film school, where she spent most of her time being lonely, eating a lot and smoking weed. She sank all her energies into her graduation work, a short movie she shot in very expensive Super 16 film, then sent to 30 film festivals. It was rejected by all of them. By this time, she had full-on bulimia.
“I was trying so hard and failing so miserably,” she says. “I’d got to the point where I had no idea if my graduation film was any good or not. I had no idea what my taste was… the same way I didn’t know if I was hungry or full, because I was making myself sick all the time.”
So, aged 25, she went into rehab, at a place called the Renfrew Center in New York, where she was given a programme for eating (“diet, nutritionist, meal plan”), plus various forms of intense therapy. It was this time that she drew on for Cameron Post. “Really, it’s my film about rehab,” she says. “In rehab, there was always this question of: ‘OK, what if overeating is actually my personality? What if it’s part of me, the way my sexuality is?’ That became the question that I wanted to explore. We all wanted to be better, but what if we wanted to be better from something we could never get better from?”
In the film, Akhavan identifies most with Cameron’s room-mate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a relentlessly upbeat girl who never stops trying to not be gay. “She really wants it to work,” she says. “That’s like me. I remember my first few weeks in rehab, and I was like: ‘What am I doing here, I hate every single person here, and I don’t want to listen to their problems.’ And then, as you stay a little longer, you realise that you’re staring at 12 different versions of yourself, and what you hate in them is everything you hate in yourself. That was something I wanted to make a film about, and I wasn’t ready to make a film about eating disorders.”
When I wonder if there are any films about eating disorders, Akhavan points to Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet. “I love that film. That sequence where she binges and purges, it’s terrifying, and it’s exactly how it felt! No other film deals with it quite as horrifyingly.”
In addition to going into rehab, Akhavan fell in love with a woman and came out to her parents. This was not easy. “No,” she says. “It’s just a really, really horrifying, shameful, awful thing to say. It took all the guts in the world to say it. And also, coming out as bisexual. I mean, everyone was heartbroken, and really worried. My family was like: ‘Well, if you could choose, why would you choose something that makes everyone so unhappy and that makes your life worse?’ And I understood their point.”
Now, her family is completely supportive; so much so that Akhavan’s dad worried that if she started dating men again, she might alienate her audience. Akhavan laughs about this. It’s almost impossible, when confronted with the confident, clever woman that she is today, to imagine that she blossomed from such a dark time.
But she did, and, even as a success, she still needs to draw on that confidence. Cameron Post, despite winning Sundance, struggled to find a distributor. “Very few women have won the Sundance award, and it’s not escaping me that the one film that’s about female sexuality, directed by a woman, is having a harder time getting out there,” she says. “I mean, other than our film, I can’t think of a [Sundance grand jury-winning] film of the recent past that hasn’t been a major player and been nominated for an Oscar… Things are changing in the industry, but female-driven stories, specifically sexually driven female stories, are very difficult. If there is sex in the film, it has to be a man’s pleasure.” (Chlöe Grace Moretz has recently pointed out that another forthcoming film about gay conversion therapy, Boy Erasedcorr, made by Joel Edgerton, has had no such distribution problems.)
Which brings us to the inevitable Harvey Weinstein question. “I think it can only be good, what’s happening,” says Akhavan of the #MeToo movement. “I want people to be afraid and I want people to check their behaviour. I’ve had to. Not in a Weinstein way, but because I’m so direct on a shoot, I got feedback that how I talk could be seen as insulting. And I learned from that. I think you should learn, as an adult, how to be yourself, and not be aggressive to other people. It is totally good to have a healthy sense of awareness. There’s clearly something toxic in this industry, a place where women are paid a quarter of what the men are paid for the exact same job. Clearly there’s something diseased here. And now maybe we’ll see that the work won’t suffer because of this, that it will become exciting and diverse and tell stories we haven’t heard before. The fact that the only mainstream queer female stories we’ve heard have been directed by men – that disgusts me.”
She goes back to her rehab time, the six months that totally changed her. It is not as though she doesn’t still have problems, she says – “at all times in life, even when you reach success, the dust settles and there are new sets of problems, new identity crises” – but after that, “I was fearless. It wasn’t rebellion, it was just: ‘I want to make the calls. I want to do things on my terms, and I don’t want fear to drive anything I do.’ I truly became fearless. And that’s what the change was.”
Not fitting in can feel terrible, but outsiders make the best art, I say. Akhavan thinks it’s more than that.
“Before rehab, I had the feeling that I’d rather be dead than fat,” she says. “But then I started thinking: ‘What kind of power could I have as a woman who wasn’t beautiful?’ This is the superpower of the late bloomer. Time proves you wrong, and something that you think will handicap your life ends up becoming your superpower. All my handicaps became my superpowers.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is in cinemas 7 SeptemberSource: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/aug/12/desiree-akhavan-miseducation-of-cameron-post-mainstream-queer-female-stories