Film writer, director, actress and author Desiree Akhavan moved to London from her native Brooklyn and dyed her hair purple, “In New York every place you go, every street has a memory tied to it.” You’ll probably know her from the gloriously bratty, funny and sad Appropriate Behavior which she both wrote, directed and starred in. Starting life as her senior thesis the film, which went on to Sundance, was inspired by real life events: struggling to come out, a break up, all the emotional milestones. It’s somewhat autobiographical but she does insist her character Shirin is an alternative version of herself. Here she talks the trials and tribulations of being a woman, doing it for herself.
How big is the gap between you and Shirin?
I don’t really see myself as that character, and people who know me know that I’m not. I don’t identify with a lot of it but the emotions and feelings are mine. I wanted to be hard on my character, not paint a beautiful heroic portrait of myself. She does shitty things, I do too, but different ones. The struggles and fascinations and adventure and taking the worst possible option in any scenario is definitely me though [laughs].
What else are you working on right now?
Ugh so much. I’m signed on to direct two films and I’m doing a series on dating that’s based in East London. I’m working on a project in the UK that I am still writing. After two years of being unemployed and writing films on spec and freaking out, I’ve got all of this work in the matter of a month. You don’t hear about the shitty bits of building a career in the arts, do you? Just the glamorous bits. When Appropriate Behavior got into Sundance, I signed with a big LA agency – it was a year of travelling to different film festivals, my life was turned upside in a beautiful way, but it was really overwhelming. I’m also writing a book right now and I really want to write about life after Sundance because the goal was always “get into Sundance and life will be fixed.” But actually it does not mean you will have a career. It’s a minefield of half opportunities. Everyone tells you they give a shit but their money isn’t where their mouth is. You have to create opportunities and find ways to empower yourself. That’s not a complaint, it’s just what it is to work. To work in any business is to be a hustler.
I was given some advice lately: just say yes to everything because who knows if ever again you’ll get the offer…
For sure. I was in the UK for the release of Appropriate Behavior. I stayed with Cecelia, my producer and best friend, on her couch. The professional meetings I had during that time were few, but they were all genuine. People would take action afterwards and suddenly it felt like there were lots of opportunities which felt very different to being in the states. This was a year after wondering of what to do next. We were writing a lot and didn’t know where to put it. I ended up not getting on the plane home and moved my life here. I had one suitcase and I just never went back.
Are you moving into the part of your career where you’re maybe directing a film and acting in something else, or both in the same project?
No, each one feels really different so right now I’m shooting something where I’m in the cast but not producing or directing. It’s really exciting to just be on the other end for someone else’s work, especially when it’s people whose work you love. I’m really excited to learn something different and get out of my own head for a minute. When you’re directing, you’re sitting at the driving seat thinking about everything. I’m directing something later in 2017 that I didn’t write and I just love the script. When my agent sent the script to me, I sat up all night reading it and rang my agent. For the first time I said, “No one in the world can direct this but me.” It sounds ego driven but it wasn’t, I felt very protective. I’ve read a lot of scripts over the past two years, and I’ve never felt that way until this one.
How beneficial was film school?
I like where I am right know, I don’t know that film school did help me get here, but it’s not like I can connect the dots clearly. I liked school, the organized structure and I like not being alone. I don’t know if it tangibly helped me gain anything or learn any tricks but it did give me a controlled environment to keep trying. I needed peers, encouragement and structure.
I guess with films once you’re on set, you’re in a group, but you must have solitude when you’re writing?
In the journey of making and selling a film each week is different to the last. I think it’s important to figure out what you do and don’t like and what your talent is and where your efforts are best put. Film school helped me learn that but at the same time, I know a lot of people who went to film school that waste a lot of time and effort working so hard yet put their efforts in the wrong places. You need to cater your career and time to what your strengths are.
What were you like at school?
I felt supremely dorky and weird. My parents sent us to an academically rigorous New York school which was notoriously uptight. They were recent immigrants, from Iran, and they went insane to send us there. I worked hard and got bad grades, I felt stupid and ugly and unpopular. Then I went to this feel-good women’s college that was supposedly sensitive and hippy-like but it still felt so hierarchical. All the same high-school hierarchies existed there, no one wants to listen to your stupid jokes, or get to know you because you’re not wearing a cool outfit. That said, there’s something to say about being a late bloomer, and coming out was part of that, but it was a really slow burn. Step by step from 25 onwards. There were a lot of painful things that I had to face and do. I had to embarrass myself completely before I could say, “I'm ok with this!” And then suddenly whatever it was became super cool. You have to own it - what your body is, what your personality is, what your quirks are.
How did that change your creative outpourings?
Suddenly the work had to become super honest, because I stopped caring about other people. That was the thing about working with my best friend, Cecelia. If she laughed and we both thought something we'd written was funny, that was enough, that was cool. We had nothing concrete to go on. And then when I started pitching in LA, it was that panic of how do we make it so that other people will like it and the largest demographic will like this? Some people can work like that, but I can’t. Anything that's super popular is watered down to be popular. So I’ve had to say I'm only going to work for people who want what I have to give.