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Adepero Oduye Talks Pariah

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TIFF 2011: Pariah
An Interview with actress Adepero Oduye

By Fred Topel

October 6, 2011

Except for a few bit parts, Pariah is essentially the film debut of Adepero Oduye. The theater actor, who has done some episodic TV work too, makes a major impression as Alike, a 17-year-old who comes out to her family and community. After the Sundance Film Festival, the film sold to Focus Features for a Christmas Day release.

Pariah continued to play the festival circuit and we met Oduye at the Toronto International Film Festival. She shared her thoughts on the film’s potential impact on gay black youth and the communities they live in, and the homework assignments first time feature director Dee Rees gave her.

How is Toronto different from Sundance?

Adepero Oduye: It’s different in so many ways. You’ve got to get dressed up and shoes and it’s not cold and snow, but good vibes in the city and around the festival in both festivals.

Coming from TV and stage, what was the attraction to this film role?

Adepero Oduye: When I read the breakdown, I could just tell it was something unique and different. I had never seen anything like this before. It just stood out to me. When I submitted myself, I wasn’t submitting myself for a lead role. I was submitting myself for just an auxiliary character. I just was like I’m just going to send my picture. This looks awesome for some reason. It looked fresh and just something different. That’s why I sent my picture in.

Which other characters in the script would you have gone for?

Adepero Oduye: Well, in the breakdown, it was like Alike, Laura, somebody, somebody and at the end it was High School Student. I don’t know why I didn’t think about Alike . I just thought oh, maybe I’ll get to play one of the high school students. I don’t know why. I thought maybe I’d play a high school student in a classroom or something.

When this was coming to together for the short, how long had it been since you were in high school?

Adepero Oduye: I’d graduated college.

There’s a long history of actors playing younger than their age. So by the time of the feature, it had been longer, how did you go back to that place?

Adepero Oduye: Just that thing of when you’re at that age of you don’t know who you are, you’re trying to figure it out but that somehow extends to people into their 20s. It’s not something that ends in high school. It carries over for some people and some people even older. Hopefully it doesn’t go for too long but that feeling of not belonging.

Did you do research in the gay community?

Adepero Oduye: Well, for the short I read Zami by Audrey Lord and some other books. Then we had a homework assignment where we had to go into a black and Latino lesbian club in character and get a sense of that whole world. Go to a straight environment, go to Christopher Street Pier in character. Then Dee was just very open if I had any questions, to talk to her and ask her about anything. So she was available to me all the time. She was open about a lot of stuff.

Did anyone you met when you were in character connect with you romantically?

Adepero Oduye: No, that’s the thing. Alike does not know how to be. She doesn’t fit. At this club, you either were very feminine or very masculine. Me as Alike during this assignment was very in the middle so people were ignoring me. They were just looking at me like: “We don’t know what this person’s about here. We can’t place her so we don’t know what she’s about, so we’re just going to ignore her.” So I very much felt how Alike feels.

You felt like a pariah?

Adepero Oduye: Yeah, I felt like I didn’t belong and I felt tense and I felt like I couldn’t really do anything. I didn’t know how I was supposed to dance and just second guessing everything that I did. That’s exhausting and I was like wow, this is it. This is exactly how Aike feels.

What a thrill it must be to get to experience that temporarily and have that as a tool.

Adepero Oduye: Yeah, yeah. I felt it when I read it. When I first read the script I felt it but then to feel it in a very visceral now way was like wow. To just see that environment, there’s nothing like it.

What was it like working with Dee Rees on her first feature?

Adepero Oduye: She’s amazing, awesome, she’s very, very trusting. I trusted her implicitly and I felt very safe on set which allowed me to go to places that aren’t necessarily the easiest places to go.

Would she have directions that would be hard to take if you didn’t trust the director?

Adepero Oduye: It would be hard to go to those places if there wasn’t a sense of trust on set for sure, yeah. I can’t think of any conditions that would make a set not safe, but if you didn’t feel like you’d be protected or given space or time to either get into or come off of a certain scene. I think that’s just an issue of respect and trust, that she trusts her actors and respects her actors.

What was it like working with the rest of the cast?

Adepero Oduye: I had the fortune of really getting to play with some amazing, just super committed, talented, giving actors, and funny and just really, really, really generous actors. That for me was a highlight.

After the number of short films you did, including Pariah, what were the challenges of a full length feature?

Adepero Oduye: I think just for me, a bit of fear because I’ve never done it before. I realized wow, this is a lot. This is me doing a lot of this stuff. So just not wanting to mess it up. I kept thinking, “God, I don’t want to mess this up, I don’t want to mess this up.” Also with the short, it did really well, so I felt a lot of high expectations for the feature. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t mess it up. It sounds crazy but that’s what I thought. Dee was very much like, “There’s no possible way you can mess this up. You’ve got this. You don’t have to do anything extra. You’ve got this.”

How has your life changed since Sundance?

Adepero Oduye: I have a great team of people that I work with. I guess just opportunities. People are familiar with my name I’ve got to say, so opportunities to read things and just that whole thing of getting to see my dreams come true. The beginning of that is pretty empowering, pretty powerful and surreal.

What’s next for you?

Adepero Oduye: Writing, reading scripts and the intention is to do more films. More dramatic films, well written, gritty films.

Are you writing a screenplay for yourself to star in?

Adepero Oduye: Is it for myself? I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I’m writing something that I’d like to shoot. I don’t know if it’s for myself but it’s a story that came to me that I just felt like I wanted to write. It’s a short little script. We’ll see what happens.

What is it called and what is it about?

Adepero Oduye: Oh, it’s just the beginning of something and I don’t have a name, I don’t have a title for it. It’s about a relationship. That’s pretty much all I can say in a nutshell.

Would you still do stage?

Adepero Oduye: Oh my God, yeah, I would love to do stage. I just like really awesome material. If it’s stage, if it’s film, it all works for me.

What sort of projects are you getting to read for now?

Adepero Oduye: Just random films and mostly films right now.

What connections have you felt with audiences who saw Pariah and then spoke to you?

Adepero Oduye: Especially at Sundance, because people get the rare opportunity to question and talk to actors in films, people have been very generous and just sharing of their experiences of why the film means something to them. So that’s been an honor, a big, big honor. I’m so thankful that people are willing to share, and getting to meet all kinds of people who relate to this very specific and also universal film.


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