IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Pariah'

Sunday, 25 December 2011 17:55 Written by  Dana Feldman
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Pariah'

The Focus Features film Pariah opens with a quote by Audre Lorde that reads, “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” Appropriate for a film about a young African-American girl, Alike (Adepero Oduye) who at just seventeen years-old is desperately trying to find herself in a world which insists on putting her into a box, a category in which she finds no connection, no solace. Living at home with her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell), and younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, she struggles to embrace her identity as a lesbian. Her talent for poetry sets her apart from her fellow students at school, but what she really longs for is to be normal and accepted.

The definition of the word ‘pariah’ is written across the film’s poster as: A person without status, a rejected member of society, and an outcast. Alike quietly, but firmly comes to terms with who she is as a person, yet the fear of telling her family the truth is a constant source of pain of which she deals with as best she can. With her best friend, out lesbian, Laura (Pernell Walker) by her side, she confides of her eagerness to find a girlfriend and loose her virginity. The strain of her parent’s marriage doesn’t help matters and the fact that she is a source of much of their arguments further adds to her suffering. When her mother pushes her to become friends with a colleague’s daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), Alike is surprised to learn how much the two have in common.

Written and directed by Dee Rees, Pariah had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews across the board. A feature-length expansion of Rees’ award-winning 2007 short film of the same title (also starring Oduye), Spike Lee is among the feature’s executive producers. Cinematographer Bradford Young was honored at Sundance with the (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Excellence in Cinematography Award for his work on the film. Together, Rees and Young learned to use the camera to show the various relationships between the characters.

I recently had an opportunity to attend the press day for Pariah on behalf of IAR at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA. Also, in attendance were Oduye, Rees and Wayans.

Hailing from Brooklyn, New York City by way of Nigeria (a first generation immigrant), and a graduate of Cornell University, Adepero Oduye says that she could relate to Alike’s feelings of being an outsider as she had her own struggles to find her identity. She goes on to tell of how she became an actress. “I was in school with plans of becoming a doctor.” She realized early on that this direction was not fulfilling her and she had a huge wake-up call when her father passed away suddenly. “Because he was young, I thought to myself that life is too short to do something that I didn’t want to do.” She asked herself if she was not a doctor, what would she be and out of nowhere, she says, “From the depths of my soul, a little voice said actor.” She knew she wanted to tell stories and so the seed had been firmly planted at that point.

It was in 2006 that she got and landed the audition for the short film Pariah. “It was summer, and sometimes I would get audition notices. I was working at a job in Central Park when I got the email about an NYU Grad thesis film. Something about it made me think this could be a great project!” So she decided, thankfully, to submit herself.

She saw this film as about so much more than about being gay. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Adding, “You take away the race, the identity, no matter where you are socio-economically, we can all relate to wanting to know who we are at our core.” This is also a story of peer and social pressures to fit in.

Of the audition itself, she says she asked her little brother if she could borrow his clothes. “I wore baggy jeans, his shirt and cap and I went in like that.” Quite the contrast to how she looked in the interview, which was stunning in a red dress and heels. “I remember having a lot of fun at the audition, and I felt good about it afterwards.” She got two callbacks, “At the end of the second one I was told that I got the part of the lead!” Rees would later say how believable she was in her audition as she was totally immersed in the character. “I just came in looking down at the floor the way I felt Alike would have done. I was totally in the zone.”

Of playing a much younger role than she is in life, “I just really took myself back to that time when I was super awkward. A time when I made choices based on what other people wanted me to do as opposed to what I wanted.”

In the film, Alike is Daddy’s little girl. When asked if she was also this in her life, she says that no, she wasn’t. “I was always the responsible one. My little sister had that role.”

In lieu of traditional rehearsals, the cast of the immediate family had a mock therapy session where they did a lot of improvisation. “A real therapist came in for this and we really threw ourselves into character. It was very concentrated.” Two days later they were filming.

Of working on the short prior to the feature of Pariah, Oduye tells of seeing the character of Alike grow, “When I did the short I had no expectations. It was done so well, but I was excited to see Alike’s story expanded. I wanted to bring fresh eyes to it.” She emailed Rees how she felt about all of this and Rees told her, “You’ve been working on this character for three years, you’ve got it.” That was all she needed to hear. “I felt more grounded and comfortable in my own skin.”

She chose the role of Alike for many reasons. “I related to that feeling of not feeling free and like I didn’t belong.” Explaining further, she says, “It’s like you know that there’s this person deep inside of you that you’re not living because of x, y and z.” She saw this in the character of Alike. Obviously others saw this, as well. “People share their stories of coming out with me, and even those who have yet to do so come up to me. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way.” She notes, “We’re all really more similar than we think.”

Asked who she thinks Alike is, her answer, “She’s a person, who for a long time, has been juggling different personalities. That’s been a part of her routine and she is used to it.” But then, she explains, it stops working for her and this is when things come to a head for Alike. “When she comes out to her family she has this instinctive sense that it’s not going to go over too well.” This is based on her Mother’s beliefs and her Father’s denials. “It’s already being brushed under the table.”

While on set, Oduye wrote a quote from Audre Lorde on the front page of her script. “I knew what it was like to be haunted by the ghost of a self one wished to be, but only half sensed.” This encapsulates Alike’s journey. “I know what that feels like. Somewhere deep inside to know that there’s this person who is free, that the possibility is there.” This is why she feels that Alike goes through all of this, “She knows there’s an option to be whom she is. She knows she doesn’t have to juggle and be what others want her to be.” She works with young people and says that she sees all this beauty in them that she says they cannot see in themselves. “I have had that with myself, but the journey as an actress has helped me with that.”

Of being somewhat of a chameleon, she says how clothes played a big part of the film, as well. “What she wears determines what box she’s in. What you wear can transform you. It was wonderful to be able to work with something so visceral.”

In regards to seeing the film play at Sundance, Oduye says of the experience, “I watched the feature for the first time in a 1,200 seat theater full of people I didn’t know.” Though she had petitioned to see it beforehand, she was as she puts it “totally shot down.” She laughs as she describes seeing the film in its entirety at the Eccles theater, “I was pretty much okay, but I did think ‘Wow, it’s a lot of me. It’s a lot of my face.’”

She describes Sundance as wonderful. “Talking with people after screenings, they would tell me how the film affected them.” She goes on further saying of this, “All different kinds of people and I thought to myself, ‘This is the power of film.’”

She says that she knew she was an actor before this experience, but after Sundance she says, “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. This is what I do, this is who I am.” Of her future plans, “I just want to do awesome work and portray meaty characters.” Of choosing roles she says, “When I read a role I am very clear what it is that I am looking for. It’s got to do this (she grabs her heart). It has to be about something.” Her goals are to keep telling amazing stories that are about something important and she wants to play well-rounded and diverse characters. With hopes to continue working in the U.S., she wants to also work abroad in Europe and Africa, as well. If she can do this, she says, she will die a happy person.

Writer/director Dee Rees, an alumna of New York University’s graduate film program and a 2008 Sundance Screenwriting & Directing Lab Fellow, says of the making of this film that, “We put everything that we are into making Pariah.” With a very limited budget, they had only an eighteen-day shoot with just one pick up day to make this movie. Of the decision to make a feature film out of the short, which did so well, “It started out as a feature. I wrote the first draft of the feature script in the summer of 2005 when I myself was going through my own coming-out process.” At the time she was interning on Spike Lee’s Inside Man and during lunch breaks and downtime she would write the script in longhand in notebooks. This became the first draft of the film that Lee would serve as Executive Producer on. “At the time I was also finishing NYU’s Graduate Film Program and I needed a thesis.” She took the first act from the feature script and shot it as a short, but maintains that making a feature was always her original goal. As both a writer and a director, Rees was asked if she considers herself to be more of one than the other. “No, I don’t consider myself to be one or the other, I see myself as both.” She started with this project six years ago, “I want to bring characters to life and not let them go.” Understandably attached to the project, the goal was always to make a film about identity, about finding oneself. “These were all of the things that I was going through at the time.”

“People start with stories true to themselves,” she says. “The film touches on various social issues in an inter-sectional way where you can see it’s not just about being black or being gay. Things don’t always fit into boxes which are isolated from one another.” Her parents took seven years to come around and so this was an especially important film for her to make. “With Alike, it was very important to know that she’s not running away from anything. She’s breaking through, choosing to live her life as who she is. Choosing, not running. I experienced that, too.”

When asked about the title, Rees explains it best. “Well, each of the main characters is a pariah. They all have their fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses.” She also adds that they are each isolated in their own ways. “One thing that I definitely worked on in the writing was showing the characters’ struggles to connect. They’re worlds away from their families where there are attitudes and expectations that they might not know how to handle.” She acknowledges that it’s not an easy thing that a director asks of an actor. “There’s a trust to get your actors to be open with you.” Together, she says, they all changed and matured as the film came together.

Asked whether or not Alike’s story is at all parallel to her own, Rees says that it’s semi-autobiographical. Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, she was amazed while in New York to see many young women who were teenagers and totally out and proud already. “Even if I had figured out my sexuality at that age, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to be that person, and that’s how the idea for the film came.” Going on further in regards to coming into her sexuality, “I started to become comfortable with who I was, but I didn’t know how to express that.” She says that Alike struggles in this same way and she showed this in the scenes where she and Laura go out to the clubs. “I’m totally not a club person. It seems like in that world you have to check a box … butch or femme. Alike struggles with this in these scenes, how should she be in this world?” Alike changes into baggy jeans and baseball caps to try and fit into a category, but comes to realize that she need not put on any personae, “This is what she realizes in her journey.” Not just a film about coming out as gay, Pariah delves even further into issues of gender identity. “I knew I loved women, but I didn’t know how to be in regards to my identity. As we move through the world, we’re asked to leave parts of ourselves behind. This film is about learning to be all of yourself.”

The best advice Spike Lee gave to Rees? “Put it all on the screen; you can’t give the audience footnotes.” A therapeutic process of sorts, “I came out behind Pariah and as I became more comfortable with myself, I learned that I could just be.”

Of winning the Independent Spirit Award, “Winning awards, or being nominated, doesn’t change the film at all.” Rees is all about the process, not the awards. What she accomplished with a low budget of somewhere around five hundred thousand is quite extraordinary.

Asked about her writing process, Rees says of it that she doesn’t have any specific time of day that she writes and she says that she tends to write out of sequence. “I write long hand first without any censorship or judgment, and without the interruption of the space bar (she adds laughing). I write what I am feeling that day, or whatever happens to be on my mind at the time.” She says that she always carries a composition book around and uses index cards, as well.

In casting the roles of the parents, she said that this was of the hardest processes for her. She saw that Wayans got Audrey’s loneliness, her core.“She nailed it on her first audition. She understood the character’s innate loneliness and want to connect, but her inability to do so.” She would cast a role after an audition with an actor in which she felt the character in the room and believed the performance. “The DNA also worked. I believed these parents could have these children.It fit.”

On working with cinematographer, Bradford Young, “He had filmed Pariah and other projects of mine and he adds meaning to every shot.” Adding, “He and I collaborate from the heart to tell a better story, and we do this while maintaining a constant creative flow.” He convinced her to shoot on 35-millimeter film and in closer angles on the characters the camera was handheld to create a more kinetic, personal feel, “The camera literally breathes with them.” For the wider angles, the camera was more omniscient and moved more subtly with dolly-mounted shots. “Whether handheld or mounted, the camera was always moving with fluidity and the motivation was always inspired by the action that was occurring in the scene.” She says this was particularly true for the coverage of Alike, which consisted of a lot of peeking at eavesdropping, “We used camera movements behind or between objects with long lenses that further enhance the sense of her being secretive and hiding.”

Wayans, when asked what the most difficult scene for her in the film was, quickly answers that it was a scene towards the end of the film, after Alike has come out to her parents, in which she visits her Mom at work and sits across from her at a table, crying and telling her that she loves her. Wayans character cannot bring her self to return the sentiment. “A mother’s love and support are supposed to be unconditional. I had to go to a very dark place in order to do that scene, but that’s where Audrey is.” She goes on to further explain that though Audrey’s reactions serve as a barrier that further isolate her, she was not there to judge her as right or wrong, “I had to go the place where she was and go from there.”

In speaking about Rees’ writing, “Dee writes dialogue so real that it seems like improvisation.” She gives an example of the dinner scene in the film with the main family, “We’d do one take as written, and then Dee would whisper in my ear and give me plant lines and then we’d improvise from there.”

In her departure from comedy for this role, Wayans says, “Comedy is in my DNA. With comedy for me, it’s easy. I’ve always loved being desperate and getting laughs.” Having done a lot of over-the-top sketch comedy, she says that you’re always directed to do it bigger with more energy. “You never hear that in drama. It must be 100% real, the truth.”

A writer and director herself, Wayans said she had to hang up her director’s hat while on set. She was happy to do it in this case. “Dee is an actress’s dream as a director. She creates a relaxing and safe set where you feel it’s ok to go to some very dark places.” She describes a gentle, quiet way that Rees has about her. “The first take, she just lets you do as you envision it. Then she’ll give adjustments.”

Why she wanted to do drama? “I have wanted to do dramatic work for some time now, but roles were closed to me as people saw me as a whacky comedian.” Of the character of Audrey, “She just broke my heart. I knew that I could do the role justice.” She knew that a plethora of black actresses had read for the role, but there was this vulnerability in Audrey that Wayans captured. “I was just so affected by her. She was just so sad and lonely, so misguided.” She saw her as a mother desperate to save her child. “So, I came to this role from a place of love.” She really mulled over Audrey and stepped into her shoes.

Her performance was spot on and she was happy when her brothers saw the film. “They were so proud of me and said that they’ve always known that I could do this.” Her portrayal of a wife and mother in a strained relationship with her family was seamless. “There was a lot in between them even as the film began. Over the years of their marriage, many expectations were not met. There was a lot of disappointment on both parts. Arthur was resentful of Audrey because he had wanted to go to school to become a doctor, but she got pregnant, so he became a cop. He is not happy and he’s cheating on her. There is this big divide between them.”

As Pariah was such an extreme departure from what Wayans has done previously, she was asked what was next.Her brother is executive producing a new In Living Color which she is not in, but excited about. “This show will have a whole new crop of up-and-coming comedians.” What she is really excited about is a script she is currently shopping around entitled Growing Up Wayans. “I will be starring in this as the mother of a large family. It’s the story of our Wayans family and how we grew up.”

A rousing success at the 2011 Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Pariah is the successful feature-length film based on the award-winning 2007 short film of the same name. It’s the story of a young woman who strives to get through adolescence with grace, humor and tenacity. Though she learns some very hard lessons along the way, she chooses and forges her own path … one that is true to her self. Writer/director Dee Rees won the “Breakthrough Director” award at the 2011 Gotham Independent Film Awards. In addition, both the film and the lead actress, Adepero Oduye, were nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Pariah opens in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco on December 28th.

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