MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is a coming of age story, a first-time-in-love story, a story about figuring out who you are, even when the people you love and who love you may not really understand you.

Not exactly new themes for a movie, but the highly anticipated feature film, "Pariah," gives these time-honored themes a fresh up-to-the-minute take. The film gained wide acclaim during its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival and appears in select U.S. theaters today.

It starts newcomer Adepero Oduye as Alike, a bright, creative high school girl trying to figure out her sexuality, among other things.

Here's a clip from the film where Alike reflects on an awkward moment with a new and alluring friend named Bina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARIAH")

ADEPERO ODUYE: (as Alike) Things have been crazy, but look, I'm really sorry I bugged out. It's just - I didn't know that you - I wasn't expecting that.

AASHA DAVIS: (as Bina) First kiss? It's cool. You still coming to the party?

ODUYE: (as Alike) I don't know. I need to try to catch up with Laura.

DAVIS: (as Bina) Okay.

ODUYE: (as Alike) No. But I do want to hang with - I mean, maybe we can do both.

DAVIS: (as Bina) Cool. Do you want to spend the night? You know, maybe avoid that whole curfew thing?

MARTIN: Joining us to tell us more about "Pariah" is director Dee Rees and leading actress Adepero Oduye, and they're both with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

ODUYE: Thanks for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: Congratulations to you both.

DEE REES: Thanks.

MARTIN: So Dee Rees, where did you get the idea for this story? I mean, one should never assume, but it seems very personal.

REES: Yeah. You know, "Pariah" is semi-autobiographical, but not in the way that folks might think. I'm actually from Nashville, Tennessee, so you know, I'm from the suburbs and so Brooklyn wasn't necessarily my world, but you know, this is a story that's more about coming into than coming out, and Alike, this person who knows that she loves women.

That's not the question. The question is how to be and so, in my own struggle, I was, you know - a large part of my question was how to be in the world, you know.

MARTIN: Was that scene something that you recognized? Both of you are - your faces were both so interesting when we were playing that clip because you were both like, oh, you know, don't want to live that again. And I'm sure you're not the only people who would not want to go back to those years in front of the locker again. Certainly not.

But, Dee, was that something that happened to you, where you just weren't sure?

REES: No. Actually, that scene wasn't something that happened, but definitely, you know, when you're a teenager, the awkward, you know, social dance of dating. You know, who asks who and what do you do? But I didn't come out until I was 27, so that's not something that I went through personally, but Alike, it's an important moment for her because she's taking charge in the scene and she's kind of going for this thing that, you know, she's a little afraid of and not sure how to approach.

MARTIN: And how did you find your star?

REES: Adepero, who plays Alike, came to us on the first day of auditions. We actually shot an excerpt from the feature a couple years back as a short film and Adepero came on the first day. She had on her little brother's clothes and she was just already in the zone. She was amazing.

And so we brought her back a couple times, but we pretty much knew that she was the one.

MARTIN: Adepero, why did you want to be involved in this project and what people won't see - when you talked about being in your little brother's clothes, I mean, that's one of the - she's kind of experimenting with, you know, how to be and clothing is part of it.

ODUYE: Yeah. You know, as an actor, you can read something and you can just tell that there's something really special about the project. And so, for me, I read the casting and it stood out and I just wanted to be part of it any way possible. And I wasn't submitting myself for the lead. I was submitting myself for an extra. Like, I didn't - I just knew I wanted to be a part of it and I was hoping, you know - hoping I would get to be a part of it any way and I got a call from Dee the next day to come in for Alike.

And I remember being very excited. And then, when I read the script, I immediately related to that idea of not feeling free, just kind of feeling kind of held back by your circumstances, conditioning, all of that stuff and so that's kind of how I approached it and I went in and, yeah, a couple of callbacks (unintelligible).

MARTIN: It's obviously getting a wonderful reception now, but you had no way of knowing that. And Dee is, no disrespect, a first time director...

ODUYE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...making her first feature film. Some people might think that might not turn out, so I mean, it's exciting. Start-ups are exciting for some people, but for other people, it's like, I don't really need that, so...

ODUYE: Yeah. At the time when I saw the castings for the short and it was a - you know, it was touted as a, you know, graduate thesis film and, usually, you know - I knew that, usually, students who were at that level are pretty - you know, they're pretty versed in just the, you know, the description of the film and what it was about, it was – I knew that it was something I had never seen before. I'd never seen anything like that topic before, so - and I said wow, this is something totally different that I'd love to be a part of.

MARTIN: Is there anything in your own background - again, you don't - you are an actor so it's your job to give voice to experiences that are broad...

ODUYE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...and may or may not be your own. But is there something in your own life and story that kind of helps you understand what she's going through? Even though, I have to say, you are not a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Part of the shock for me is that you are, in fact, a grown woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...convincingly playing a teenager. I mean you could be walking the runway. I'm thinking, what?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: In her next film shall be rocking a minivan with three children in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ODUYE: I mean I think I definitely knew what it felt like to feel like I didn't belong, like being an outsider, just not fitting in, and then also just feeling like all these ideas have been put upon me of how I should be, what I should look like and all of these things that kind of that I kind of like seep in and then try and uncover all of that to just be the person who I feel deep down inside is there but for some reason or another I just can't, I'm not there yet. And so I definitely identify with that where Alike is at struggle.

MARTIN: Do you - this is in part a lesbian love story. It's about a relationship between, you know, high school senior, somebody who's about to be launched, about to go out on her own. But what's the other tension in the film? What's the other storyline in the film? I mean one of the things that you see that's kind of fresh is she's exploring lesbian underground, if you would. Kind of, you know, the club scene that maybe people have not seen before.

REES: Yeah. I think the thing that's kind of cool was when we first, you know, meet Alike, we're kind of thrust into this world, you know, this kind of hypersexual environment. You know, we see this woman who's kind of, you know, a chameleon; she's painted by lights(ph) around her. And then we see her, you know, in the next scene on a bus, transforming into something else that she's not. And so, you know, the film just really shows just like, you know, a portion of lesbian New York City subculture, not all of the worlds but one particular world and that's where we find her.

MARTIN: Well, that's what's funny. I think a lot of people will relate to it even if they're not gay or lesbian, in that many people young people will have the experience of...

ODUYE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...transforming themselves outside of their parents' and gaze.

REES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Like with girls, you know, maybe hiking the skirt up...

REES: Right.

ODUYE: Right.

MARTIN: ...shorter than parents would prefer, or putting on more makeup than the parents would prefer.

I do have to ask you, though, about the straight people in the film, the parents.

REES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: They're having their own problems, not to give the whole sort of thing away. But I do have to ask if there is kind of an underlying political message here, which is who are straight people to judge gay people, because they're not so great. I mean is that part of what that is?

REES: I think the message is that, you know, with our parents we see, you know, this, you know, couples not happy. And like some of the reasons, you know, like some of their backstories that, you know, Arthur is not the person he wanted to be. He wanted to be a doctor. He never wanted to be cop. Then, you know, Audrey...

MARTIN: The dad. Her dad.

REES: Yeah, her dad. Yeah, played by Charles Parnell. And Audrey, you know, wanted this picture perfect family. You know, this Betty Crocker kind of setting...

MARTIN: Audrey's the mom.

REES: Better Homes and Gardens.

MARTIN: Played by Kim Wayans.

REES: Played by Kim Wayans. Yeah. And so we see this woman who, you know, has played by the rules, done everything right, but things aren't working out how she wants. You know, and the father who's not the thing he wanted to be. So it shows, you know, this middle-class family dealing with Alike's sexuality and they each respond differently.

MARTIN: You've been working on this for quite a long time. It's been a long process of birthing it, which is not unusual for a first film.

REES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But you started working on this quite a long time ago and now, interestingly enough, it's been released in theaters at a time when the story of young gay people sometimes taking their own lives...

REES: Yeah.

ODUYE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...because they don't feel accepted is very much in the news, so...

REES: Exactly. Yeah. The timing, you know, was perfect. It's funny because we didn't plan for it to take this long. And, you know, I first wrote the script in 2005 and, you know, we were able to workshop it at the Sundance Institute over the years in between. And if you had asked us a couple of years ago would we want the film to be done and out, we would've told you we would've told you yes, but I think the film has gotten better because of the process. And now also, the timing has worked out, because there is this awareness about bullying and some of the other things that are going on. And here's a family where one parent, you know, is accepting and the other isn't. And, you know, Alike turns out okay in the end but we see through some of the other characters how high the stakes are.

MARTIN: So for Laura, for example, she's, you know, someone who's been put out by her mother because of her sexuality. And then we see in Laura's friends, after the glitter kind of fades, we see that some of them don't have a place to sleep at night. So this kind of presents both sides of the culture and that, you know, it's not all fun, you know, it's not necessarily cool or OK to be gay. Like there's still challenges that these kids had to go through.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new feature film "Pariah." It's had a marvelous reception at the festival film circuit, especially at Sundance. It opens tomorrow in select U.S. theaters.

We're speaking with Adepero Oduye, who is the lead of the film. She plays a young woman name Alike, and director Dee Rees.

Adepero, what was the biggest challenge for you in taking on this role?

ODUYE: Um...

MARTIN: So you came with a megawatt smile.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't see that as a big achievement.

ODUYE: I think the biggest challenge was to do this role I had to be very vulnerable and very open, which, you know, as you kind of grow up in life, you know, as an adult you learn to kind of cover all that up. And so as an actor it's a pretty exhausting task to constantly do that, and it was a very nurturing environment that Dee set up. And so I was able to continually go to certain places that just are super uncomfortable and super painful, just kind of throw myself into, so yeah.

MARTIN: So Dee, I understand that the acclaimed film director Spike Lee was very helpful to you in this project. How so?

REES: So Spike Lee was a really great mentor for us. I actually first met Spike as a student at New York University. He teaches master classes, and so, you know, anyone, you know, who's in his class can sign up for weekly advisement sessions, so I would sign up every single week and find something to talk about, and a lot of it was this film. So he would give me feedback on the script, you know, watch cuts of the film as we got to the edit and give us feedback on the edits. You know, as we prepared to go to Sundance he gives advice on the market, so he's really just been an advisor that was very, you know, supportive and also wanted to see us figure it out as filmmakers and didn't want to overshadow the process. So he was amazing in that regard.

MARTIN: That's very interesting. Is that unusual? I'm curious if that's unusual or not. We often hear that directors often have people whom they look up to but I don't know how often they actually get involved in helping them bring their own vision to fruition. I don't know. Is it unusual?

REES: It definitely was, you know, for us like a blessing. I don't know, I think Spike has helped out a lot of filmmakers and I've seen him help a lot of other film students, you know, kind of realize their first films. So I think mentorship her head is not something that's new. And, you know, he gave me my first internship on his set. You know, it was like "Inside Man" and then I got to intern again on "When the Levees Broke," so I don't think it's atypical for him to support young filmmakers.

MARTIN: You know, I was curious about this, is that as you know, that critics throughout the years, particularly female critics, have not always felt that Spike Lee got women.

REES: Mm.

ODUYE: Mm.

MARTIN: And your film is so much a woman's story, a young woman story. It's just, it's interesting to see his name attached to it.

REES: Yeah, and it was interesting for me, like interning for him, like seeing like how many black gay people work for him - so, you know, there's this perception, but there's this reality of who he employs. And so I have respect for his actions. I think they speak louder than the perceptions.

MARTIN: They tell me that there is a good story about how you got into film school. You want to tell me that story?

REES: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. So this is my second life. I actually started out in business and I was working in marketing because I thought that I could be creative there. And I quickly learned that all the creativity happens at the ad agency, and so basically kind of bounced around. Like I got laid off my first job, Procter and Gamble, my second job at Schering-Plough when I was selling insoles; I was on a performance improvement plan. And so I was realizing, OK, maybe it's not the job, maybe it's me. And actually I was on a commercial shoot for shoe insoles and I went to the ad exec, I was like, this, I think this is what I want to do. Like how would I do this? And the guy says, oh, you go to film school. So I said OK, so what film schools do I go to? He said oh, NYU, but you won't get in there, and New School. So I applied to both. Got into both and went to film school.

And that was it. I really came to it, you know, as a steep learning curve but, you know, I was really excited about it and was finally able to do this thing I was passionate about, which for me was the writing and then, you know, directing, being able to actually bring the writing to life.

MARTIN: From insoles to directing.

REES: Yeah. And even beyond that, like my first job was selling panty liners. So you're basically, you know, dealing in insecurity. You're like selling insecurity.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REES: So, yeah, it's great.

MARTIN: I wasn't ready for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REES: But now you know.

MARTIN: Dee Rees is the director of the new feature-length drama "Pariah." Adepero Oduye plays the main character Alike. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for coming.

REES: Thank you.

ODUYE: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: "Pariah" premieres in select U.S. theaters tomorrow. If you want to learn more about the film, go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE.

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