Adepero Oduye, the lead actress in the moving indie film, Pariah, talked to Lorenza Muñoz about how she went from being pre-med at Cornell to a Sundance darling.
Growing up in Brooklyn as the child of Nigerian immigrants, 33-year-old Adepero Oduye knew how to wear two hats. Inside her home, she was an obedient Nigerian child, eating beef stews for breakfast and wearing the traditional garb. But in school, she was a Brooklyn kid who hung out with friends and listened to rap. This duality would prepare Oduye for her breakout performance as the lead in the independent film Pariah, a coming of age story of a young African American teen searching for her sexual identity and acceptance.
“I was straddling two worlds,” said Oduye. “It was little Nigeria in the house and then going to school I remember feeling like I was different.”
But it was tragedy that made her turn to acting. Oduye’s father, who was studying to become a doctor, died unexpectedly when she was 19, leaving her mother to care for all seven children. Oduye and her older siblings helped out with whatever money they were able to make from their jobs, but it was difficult. She was a premed student at Cornell University at the time, and she realized she did not want to be a doctor.
“That was the wake up call,” said Oduye, who is at once soft spoken and yet animated and vivacious. “Life is short. If you know what you want to do, you have to at least try.”
Her mother did not understand her choice.
“She didn’t see it as a profession,” she said. “Acting was not for people like us. For her, movies were not for African or black people. I remember thinking, ‘Yes, mom, I know I am black but I still want to act.’ She knew instinctively it was going to be a hard road.”
And so Oduye began her long journey into acting. She played bit parts in theater and on television shows such as Law & Order. But it was not until 2006 that she received an email that would change her life. It was a casting call for Pariah, a short film being made by Dee Rees, a graduate student at New York University’s film school. Oduye donned on her little brother’s baggy jeans, shirt and cap and walked in for the audition thinking maybe she could land a spot as an extra.
But Rees knew immediately she had found Alike, the 17-year-old protagonist of the film who is desperately trying to be herself and yet not disappoint her traditional and devout parents.
“I needed someone who could be as beautiful as a masculine identified woman as in a feminine identified way,” said Rees. “Also one of the things that I was looking for was someone who had an outsider experience. Adepero had been in situations where she felt she was on the outside because of her heritage.”
Pariah touches on the often-taboo subject of homosexuality among African American and Latino women in New York. It is an underground scene, with the women hitting clandestine clubs playing roles of either butch or femme and then hiding the reality from their families or risk rejection. The film was semi-autobiographical for Rees, who was raised Methodist and whose parents initially refused to accept her homosexuality.
Like most independent films, it was a long process from script to screen. The short was accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in 2007 where they developed it further. Raising the money to make the film was extremely difficult for a film many financiers considered edgy but “small” and “specific.”
Producer Nekisa Cooper hit up every independent film financing avenue she could think of and approached Spike Lee, who agreed to executive produce the film. Oduye and the cast dove into the parts with research by reading Audre Lorde’s Zami and going into Dave & Buster’s gaming restaurant in Times Square dressed as masculine lesbians, to watch people’s reactions.
Although Oduye is not grappling with the same issues as her character, she found an affinity for Alike’s struggle to unmask her true self. She was brought back to the time many years ago when she was hired to work as an improv actor for a teen job program at the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn. For that brief moment in time, she felt she could truly express herself through acting.
“I identified with that feeling of not feeling free,” she said. “You know there is a person deep down inside of you that is beautiful but is covered with all this stuff. You know it is there but you want to uncover all that stuff and be the person you are meant to be.”
Pariah premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Focus Features.
The journey created a tight bond between the cast and crew. Cooper and Rees now consider Oduye a close friend. Oduye knitted caps and baked cakes for the crew during production. Both director and producer sound like proud parents when they recall how much Oduye’s expectations of herself have changed.
“I want to tell authentic, real stories with real characters,” Oduye said.
“She has come into herself,” said Cooper. “She didn’t think she could be the lead in a film five years ago. She had bit parts in movies but I think that this has changed her dramatically. We have seen her grow in confidence.”
Added Rees, “She is full of grace, friendly, and genuine. She is a really well rounded person.”
Oduye, who looks a decade younger than her real age, knows that with her features and skin color, Hollywood will be a hard place to crack. On the day of the interview, she is startlingly beautiful wearing a red silk dress and soft, small diamond earrings contrasting against her smooth dark skin. But she is undaunted and knows exactly where she wants to take her career.
“It has been challenging, but at the end of the day it has made me who I am and I like the actor that I am today,” she said. “The journey has made it clear what kind of work I want to do and what kind of people I want to be with. I want to tell authentic, real stories with real characters.”
She knows that Pariah’s story is not “small” and “specific” but a universal story. For one, it has touched her Nigerian mother to the core.
“After Sundance, my mother was in Nigeria and she called me and said ‘Pariah needs to come to Africa because they are killing people here because they are gay,’” said Oduye, smiling broadly. “She never talks about LGBT issues anywhere. But my participation in this film opened her mind up a little more. If that can happen to my mother, anything is possible.”