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Kim Wayans Talks Pariah

TIFF 2011: PariahAn Interview with Kim Wayans
By Fred Topel

October 10, 2011

The Sundance hit Pariah will be a breakthrough for writer/director Dee Rees and its star Adepero Oduye. It will also help an established star break through some of Hollywood’s barriers. Kim Wayans is best known as a comedian, like her famous brothers Kenan Ivory, Damon, Marlon, Shawn and more. Pariah lets her show her dramatic range too.

Wayans plays Audrey, the mother of Alike (Oduye), a teenager who comes out as a gay woman. Audrey becomes one of the many figures who cast Alike out because of their fear and intolerance. We caught up with Wayans at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her dramatic work. Focus Features will release Pariah on Christmas Day.

Being known mostly as a comedian, how did this role come to you?

Kim Wayans: Well, my manager, well aware of the fact that I was looking to do some dramatic acting, sent me the script. I read it and I loved it. I was just so moved by the story. I just thought it was so beautifully written and the characters were so interesting and multi-layered. I just really, really wanted to be a part of it. Thankfully, Dee the director and Nekisa [Cooper] the producer, were open to seeing me. Often what I run into is those doors are closed to me because I’m perceived as a comedic performer. When I try to get in on dramas, I’m met with, “Sorry, we love Kim, she’s funny but we need somebody with some gravitas.” So this is really a lucky break for me that they had an open mind, open heart, I read for it and they loved me and I got the part.

How many Robin Williamses or Jim Carreys do we need before they realize comedians are also great actors too?

KW: I know, I don’t get it. I don’t get it but I guess momentarily they recognize that and then it goes right back to the same “Okay, she’s a comedian. She’s a dramatic actress.” I don’t know. I’m just happy this came along and hopefully this’ll open up some more doors in terms of people seeing me for dramatic work.

Your brother Marlon got a lot of acclaim, deservedly, for Requiem for a Dream. Did you speak with him about making that transition?

KW: No, I didn’t. I don’t know, it never even occurred to me to talk to Marlon about that. I guess because I see myself differently than they see me, just because they put a label on me or put me in a box, I haven’t done that to myself. So as far as I was concerned, there’s really no need to talk with Marlon about it because I see him as an artist. I don’t see him as a comic or comedian. I see him as an artist. So when he was doing Requiem for a Dream, that was just as natural to me as when he’s doing White Chicks or Scary Movie. He’s just expressing another aspect of his talent.

Did you speak with any mothers who have gone through this experience?

KW: No, actually, I really didn’t. That wasn’t part of my preparation. The funny thing is though I’ve known mothers who have gone through not the same experience, but of course I know mothers who’s children turned out to be gay. They didn’t respond the way Audrey does but that wasn’t part of my preparation. I just took the information that was given to me, because I really didn’t want to play like somebody else having the experience. I wanted to play Audrey having the experience so for me the work was drawing what I needed to draw from the text and from conversations with Dee to create this woman.

Why do you think Audrey had such a hard time accepting her daughter was gay?

KW: I think a few different reasons but I think Audrey’s a very unhappy person herself. Oftentimes unhappy, unfulfilled people with a relationship that’s pulling them apart channel so much of their expectation and so much of their energy in a very unhealthy way on their children. I think Audrey is a victim of that. I think her religious background informs what it is she thinks of as right behavior and wrong behavior. It’s etched in stone as far as she’s concerned, so when she’s confronted with her daughter wanting to make a choice that she feels is morally wrong, she can’t handle it. She can’t handle it. So that’s what I think is going on.

It’s like when Gandhi said you should love your oppressors, because you know they’re oppressing you because they lack love. Maybe love can get through the fear that homophobic people are experiencing.

KW: To me, I think love is the cure all. I think people like that need more love than anything. They need love because they’re in pain as well. They’re victimizing but they’re also victims. That’s such a terrible place to live from, such an ugly, awful, small minded place to dwell in. So I have a lot of empathy and a lot of compassion for Audrey and people like Audrey. They’re just so rigid and so full of fear.

It doesn’t feel good to live that way. Hopefully they learn that there’s a happier, peaceful way to live.

KW: I hope so. That is my hope; that people who see this movie will walk away with some of that. Parents of gay children who might be having a problem accepting it or whatever will maybe see this movie and have an opportunity to frame things differently or see themselves in action. Sometimes when you can have some distance and see somebody else that reflects you, it’s easy to see yourself. So if she can hold up a mirror and in some ways help to affect any kind of change or any slight opening or transformation in someone struggling like that, it would be amazing. Actually, from some of the feedback I’ve gotten from Sundance, the movie is really affecting people on a powerful level and that’s exciting.

What was it like working with Dee Rees?

KW: Oh, just wonderful. She’s such a cool lady. She just created such a nice vibe on the set. We all felt like family. We were all really close. She created a lot of safety so that you felt very comfortable and you felt safe to go to those dark places. You felt like there was support; that you wouldn’t just be out there with your guts on the floor in an environment that wasn’t supportive of what you were trying to express. So she did a really great job creating a really cool atmosphere for that, for artists to open up and really go where they needed to go. She did something really interesting which I loved. I didn’t have a rehearsal period at all. We didn’t have a rehearsal period together as a cast. I know that on the short they had some rehearsal they did but what she did was she had a therapy session with the entire family, with a real therapist. So that was in lieu of a rehearsal. I came to town and I came as Audrey and all of us came in character and we had an actual family therapy session. Dee had given us, on a little piece of paper, she gave each one of us a few different things that she wanted us to address in this therapy session. It was just wonderful because we all found out things about our character and things about our relationship and dynamic to one another in that session. I think that that was just a great foundation for everything to emerge from.

What about working with Adepero Oduye?

KW: Oh, I just love her. She has such a spirit about her. She’s just a fiercely talented individual obviously, but she has a certain innocence and beauty of the soul that just emanates from her. You just fall in love with her. She’s just an awesome young woman.

What are you doing next?

KW: Well, I have a pilot, a comedy pilot that I’m shopping around that my brothers’ executive produced. So we’re trying to find a home and get that set up someplace.

Your brother Kenan?

KW: Kenan, Marlon and Shawn produced it along with me. So I’m doing that. We’re shopping for a home for that and I have a series of children’s books out called Amy Hodgepodge. So we have our sixth book out. My husband and I wrote that together. It’s a series that revolves around a little multi-racial fourth grader who’s starting school for the first time after being home schooled all her life. It’s funny because that project also deals with feeling like an outsider and trying to fit in, trying to find your way and be who you are in the midst of people who want to put you in boxes and stuff. It’s an interesting parallel. I’d never really thought of it until this moment. We just made a deal with a production company who’s trying to do some animation with Amy Hodgepodge so that would really be exciting. And I’m hoping for more dramatic opportunities.

What format is the pilot?

KW: Sitcom.

What kind of character would you get to play?

KW: Well, I get to play a character who’s very much like my mom. It’s actually a show that’s inspired by our upbringing. People are always asking us, especially when we do interviews together, what was it like growing up with all those kids in the projects? What was it like growing up Wayans? So we thought it’d be a really great thing to show them. So this is modern day but it’s basically from the parents’ point of view of what it was like to raise all of us with the little resources that they had in the projects in New York City.

Can you believe it’s been over 20 years since you started In Living Color?

KW: I can’t. I can’t. It’s just like life is so weird. It’s just so strange. I find the older I get, the more I realize that time is really an illusion. It’s like something we created, a constraint that we created so that we feel like we have control of something we have absolutely no control of. It’s just like one moment, one eternal moment really. And it’s cool, but it’s a little weird.

If you guys were doing it now, do you think it would be sketches on YouTube instead of a TV show?

KW: No, I think we could still pretty much do a show like In Living Color on Fox today.

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