Desiree Akhavan is one of those people whose name comes with a number of prefixes – specifically, "Iranian", "bisexual" or "female" – which, rather than serving to describe her accurately, only really undermine her. It makes it seem as though, in spite of being all of these things, she has still somehow managed to cobble together both a popular web series and a film!
That film is Appropriate Behaviour, which came out earlier this year. It's a personal story, one that follows late–twenty-something Shirin as she comes out of a long-term relationship with a woman (the highly strung Maxine), gets a job as a summer school teacher (smoking weed between classes) and navigates the quagmire that is dating when you're bi and surrounded by self-satisfied Brooklyn creatives.
Lena Dunham liked Appropriate Behaviour so much that she gave Akhavan a role in Season Four of Girls; Channel 4 liked it so much that they've asked Akhavan to write a TV series; and we liked it so much that we called up the writer/actor/director to talk about why we need more bisexual women on our screens.
VICE: Hi Desiree. I really liked Appropriate Behaviour, which is unusual – maybe it's just like a pathology I have, but I quite often find queer films about women to be awful.
Desiree Akhavan: No, not at all a pathology. They can be the worst, so embarrassing. That's actually how my web series started. I co-created it with my girlfriend at the time – we were sitting around one day and just bitching and moaning about how much we hated gay movies and how we didn't identify with them. And then we thought, 'Is this internalised homophobia? Maybe we're homophobic lesbians!' And that was like the whole premise for a show. So we did a comedy about self-hating lesbians, because that's what we sounded like.
How did that concept manifest?
It's called The Slope. We were at film school at the time, so after school we would get together with friends and shoot these five minute scenes with no budget, just based on the kind of comedy – situational comedy – where we'd just say the most inappropriate things you could say.
Did that evolve quite naturally into Appropriate Behaviour ?
Yeah. They're different for sure, but when I was making the show I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a feature film. And I wanted to take the low-budget energy I had from the show – it was so effortless, a really fun and easy thing to do – I wanted to take that and apply it to a feature film.
When you say "low budget and effortless", did that involve casting your friends?
Lots of the people are people I knew, like Crystal, who's played by one of my oldest friends, Halley Feiffer. We held auditions for Maxine – I didn't write the part with Rebecca Henderson in mind, but it was really clear to me that she was the frontrunner from the word go.
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Why was that?
A lot of people came in and did something on par with blackface – I call it "gayface": when straight actresses walk in with, like, a backwards baseball cap and baggy jeans and do their impression of a lesbian, as though a lesbian would not be a real human being. So, that happened a couple of times, and I remember thinking, 'This is both hilarious and really telling of how most people approach films with gay protagonists.'
Often, they treat them as though they wouldn't respond to situations in the way that a regular person would, that their gayness is their first and foremost quality at the front of their mind, and, you know, that's not how I feel – and Rebecca is gay, and that's not how she feels. So, watching her perform was such a pleasure, because it was like, "Oh, you're making choices and you're giving Maxine life, in the way you would any character."
I don't like Maxine, but I can't tell if I'm meant to. Was she influenced by someone in your life?
People either love or hate her – it's funny. She wasn't really influenced by anyone, no, but I recognised her traits in lesbians I had loved growing up: she's incredibly sensitive and political. I had never dated someone who was like that, though – I think it's hard to be a very politically correct, sensitive person and date someone like me.
I can see that. How much of the film is telling a story that's close to you and how much of a political impetus was there on your part? Do you think there should be more bisexual women on our screens?
First and foremost, there definitely should. However, I am the world's laziest activist, and if I were Paris Hilton, then I would make stories about being Paris Hilton. I am a storyteller – I really care about telling my story and expressing myself, and the fact that I've never seen stories that reflect life as I know it is a real motivator. I don't want to make propaganda, but I believe in the work I do. I feel I have a moral obligation to do it. We never talk about bisexual people's stories, and it's such a missed opportunity.
Being bisexual is like having a superpower. There is no one else in the world who knows what it's like to love, date and fuck both men and women. It's the age-old question, since, like, forever. I mean, think about When Harry Met Sally – everybody wants to identify "What is the difference between the sexes?" and here's this one type of person who knows exactly the difference because they've experienced it firsthand. That hasn't been seen on film much, which is really exciting. The best stories are the ones that are yet to be told.
Appropriate Behaviour must get compared to Broad City and Girls quite a lot. How does that feel?
Yeah. I'm a really big fan of those shows, so I feel honoured to be compared to them.
I guess one similarity is the Brooklyn setting – you definitely take the piss out of Brooklyn's culture a little bit.
I mean, we're making fun of everything, but we're making fun of things that are in ourselves as well. Sometimes you wake up and you're like, 'I didn't do it consciously, but I just belong to a movement of young assholes who are completely entitled. It wasn't even like a conscious decision, it just happened.' I can appreciate the things that are amusing about me and appreciate how there are, like, 40 other bisexual filmmakers out there on my street corner in Brooklyn, and you just have to laugh at it at a certain point.
How has the film changed things for you? Now you've moved to London, do you get recognised? Or do you at least get hit on more?
I get recognised maybe twice a week, and it's just like a friendly, "Hello! I like you!" which is actually quite lovely. I never get hit on. If anything, I think people are less interested in dating me after seeing Appropriate Behaviour.
If you're compelled to make stuff that is quite close to your lived experience – autobiographical, you could say – how is it going to evolve?
I don't consider my work autobiographical, I consider it personal, and I do think that I'll always be making work that's personal to me. The next feature I'm making is based on a young adult novel, so it's already written and the story's not mine. We haven't announced the name of the book that we're adapting yet, but I can tell you it's LGBT, it's set in the States and it's a book I really love.
What else is coming next?
I'm also working on a TV series based in the UK – a bisexual dating comedy. It's about a woman who's been a lesbian her entire life and comes out as bisexual in her thirties and starts dating men for the first time. It's not true to my life; I always came out as bisexual and I wasn't closeted in that way, but it's exploring something that's very personal to me, which is living and dating as a bisexual woman, what that means in the gay community, what it means in the straight community and what it means as a single person trying to fall in love or get laid.
Appropriate Behaviour was released on DVD and On-Demand from 29th June from Peccadillo Pictures. You can order from Amazon, iTunes and all other good retailers.
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