Pernell Walker Talks Pariah
An Interview with Pernell Walker
By Wilson Morales
Expanded from the short film of the same name, which screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Adepero Oduye, who had starred in the short film, portrays Alike, a 17-year-old African-American Brooklyn teenager who’s juggling conflicting identities and risks friendship, heartbreak, and family in a desperate search for sexual expression.
Also featured in the film are Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mallesse, and Aasha Davis.
For Walker, who’s also reprising her role as Laura from the short film, ‘Pariah’ is her first feature. The South Bronx native, who holds a M.F.A in acting from Actor’s Studio Drama School and a B.A in Theater from City College, has worked in the theater world, having roles in ‘Seed,’ ‘Earl’s Post Prison Playdate,’ and ‘A Time in South Africa.’
Did you ever think the film will be turned into a feature after being part of the short film years ago?
Pernell Walker: Yes. It’s been amazing. It’s been a long journey. With the Gotham Awards and the reception at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, I’m really happy.
How did you get involved with the film?
PW: Well, it happened in ’06. I heard about the audition through my school at Actors Studios Drama School and I submitted myself. At the time I had a headshot that’s totally different from the character I played, Laura. I just poured my heart into a good cover letter to get a chance to audition. I was given the opportunity and since then, we’ve been taking it from there, and after the short was done, it went to a number of festivals. I was then invited back to do the feature. As I mentioned before, it’s been a long journey but I’ve learned a lot. This is my first feature film and it’s been a process and I appreciate that.
From the time you did the short film to the feature, what’s changed for Laura?
PW: I would say the short film had some risk taking in the way of the central story was the relationship of Alike and Laura. You have an open window into their life as friends and with the feature you have a wider look at their lives in different areas. We get to see what’s happening in Alike’s home life. You get to see what’s going on between her parents and also in Laura’s life. You have a full picture of their lives. You get to see why Laura is hard on the outside and protective with that swagger she has. You see why Alike is feeling unsure of herself because she doesn’t want to get dismiss by her mother for being gay.
What did you do to get into character?
PW: I’m from the South Bronx. I grew up in a rough neighborhood. A lot of the things that Laura was surrounded by I could relate to in that she was much grounded and outspoken. She knew who she was and there was no changing her from that. Being from the South Bronx, you learn to be tough and how to protect yourself, but at the same time, what really helped me to make Laura human is to go into those places where I didn’t fit in, and where I hurt in the past. Where I myself felt like a pariah when people hurt me in the past and I put that into playing Laura. That was the hardest thing for me. I wanted to show her vulnerable side in that the audience would understand that she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve because she’s been hurt so many times in the past by being kicked out of her mom’s house and just dealing with dropping out of school and working and having financial instability and staying with her sister. She had a lot of issues that I could relate to. Plus, the human bond of wanting to be accepted and love that I could really hold on to and create the heart of Laura.
How was working with Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye?
PW: It was wonderful. Adepero is a very talented actress and pleasure to work with. We had a great chemistry due to clicking at the audition and callbacks. Dees had sent us to acting exercises in which we were sent in character to different environments (gay, straight) just to observe how do we feel, what’s going on, and how people are reacting to us as these characters. It was very interesting. Dee is very trusting and a patient director. She would allow you to do your work as much as you need to and if you needed help, she was always available. What helped me was that she wasn’t married to the script. She would plant spontaneous lines somewhere to see the reactions of how the actors would play off them. It was really brilliant that she knew down to at T what she wanted and she navigated getting that out of the actors without being on top of them hands on. She allowed you a lot of freedom. With Adepero, the nuance and subtlety that she gives you, it really grounds you and you really begin to trust yourself.
PW: It’s the best preparation. To come from a true place and find what it is that your character wants and what do they need. It’s the same logic but just scaled down for the film lens.
What’s next for you?
PW: I’m still auditioning. I just wrapped up a successful Off-Broadway production of ‘Seed,’ in which I played Rashawn Lee. That was done at the National Black Theater. I’m just promoting ‘Pariah,’ and I’m here for the ride.