In 2007, a short film entitled Pariah, written and directed by Dee Rees, became an instant favorite on the festival circuit, winning 25 Best Short awards. It starred Adepero Oduye as Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a 17-year-old African American high school girl who is awakening to her sexuality.
Pariah was such a popular movie, it has now been made into a full-length motion picture, with Adepero reprising her role of Alike. Firmly embracing her identity as a lesbian, Alike’s parents, Audrey and Arthur, refuse to accept the reality of her self-realization.
Kim Wayans, sister to the Wayan Brothers, and known for her own comedic performances, does a surprise dramatic turn as Alike’s mother, Audrey.
Adepero and Kim spoke with me at the press junket for the movie. But perhaps the most shocking moment of the day was when Adepero walked into my room – not as a 17-year-old school girl, but as a sophisticated 33-year-old actress.
I thought you were 17-years-old and shorter!
Adepero: (she laughs) Everyone always says that. I didn’t wear the heels in the movie!
How did you go about playing someone who is so much younger than you?
Adepero: I took myself back to that time when you’re just super awkward and trying to figure stuff out, and trying to figure out what choices you want to make, instead of choices other people expect you to make. So I threw myself into that.
How did you go about establishing the parent/daughter relationship?
Adepero: We didn’t have any rehearsals, but we did a mock therapy session. Dee brought in a therapist friend and we did an improv. That was the only thing we had in terms of rehearsal and I think that was the first day I met her. That mock therapy session informed us a lot because so much stuff came out. And we just threw ourselves into the world of our characters.
This movie is so different for you, Kim. What was it that attracted you to this role?
Kim: I’ve been wanting to do dramatic work for quite some time now, but I found that those doors have been closed to me in Hollywood because people think of me as a wacky comedienne, and so they don’t let me in to even read for dramatic parts.
So when this film came along, my manager sent it to me and I read it and I was blown away it was so beautifully written, such a powerful story, such a relevant story, and Audrey just broke my heart. I felt so sorry for her. I was like, ‘I know I could do this role justice.’
I was fortunate that my manager was friends with the casting director, so she begged her to see me. The casting director spoke to Dee, they had read every actress in town by this point and they weren’t really getting what they were looking for. They kept getting one angry, black mama after the other, and they wanted someone to bring Audrey’s vulnerability to the surface. And when I came in and read for them, they loved what I did and I got the job.
Adepero, how difficult was it to go from the short film to the full-length movie?
Adepero: It was difficult in the sense that when I did the short I didn’t have any expectation, it was this one-off thing. By the time we got to the feature, the short had done really well and people knew about it, and so I felt like there was all this expectation, and I had to live up to the performance in the short.
It was exciting to see how Alike’s story was expanded, but it was like, ‘Oh shoot, I’m going to be doing all [these new scenes],’ and I just didn’t want to mess it up. I thought, ‘What can I do to bring some fresh eyes to it?’ I felt like it was kind of resting on my shoulders.
I told all this to Dee in an e mail, I just got it all out. Poor Dee. She was so nice and she said, ‘You don’t need to do anything more, you’ve got it. You’ve been working on this character for three years.’ So that put me at ease, and I was like, ‘Okay.’ I let all that stuff go, and I jumped in.
Kim, you replaced the actress who was in the short movie, did you watch her performance to see what she did?
Kim: Dee wanted me to see it, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want anything to color what I was going to do, I just wanted to go in there fresh with my own take on Audrey and my own relationship with my daughter. I didn’t want anybody else’s work influencing me and so I chose not to see it.
I didn’t see the short until maybe six months ago. I don’t think seeing it earlier would have [changed anything in my performance] but you just never know. So you just try to eliminate even the possibility of being subconsciously influenced by something somebody else did. `
What was the best thing about working with each other?
Kim: Adepero is just such as lovely young lady. She’s a beautiful, generous, open person. She’s so fiercely talented and I just felt there was such a connection with her. As she said, the only thing we did together before Dee said, ‘Action,’ was to do the mock therapy session.
We had to come as a family and sit down and talk to this therapist about our problems. So we had that two hour session, which was wonderful because we really got a feel for the dynamics of the family, and how our characters fit into the family and relate to one another.
Adepero: Kim was great. She was very giving, and not afraid to ‘go there.’ We were very comfortable with each other, but the scene at the end between Alike and her mother was particularly challenging.
Kim, have your brothers seen the film?
Kim: My brothers have always known that I could do dramatic work. We did a screening especially for them, and they loved it. They were very moved by the film, they think it’s a very powerful film that people need to come out and see. They were so proud of me and they had nothing but wonderful things to say about the movie.
Adepero, when you first heard about the role, what was it that made you feel you could play this character?
Adepero: I related to that feeling of not feeling free, like I didn’t belong, that feeling of knowing that there’s this person deep inside of you that is really great and you’re not living that. I felt that’s where Alike was at, and I just related to that. You want to uncover all of that stuff and be that person.
Pariah got a limited release on December 28, 2011 with further theaters following on January 6, 2012