Desiree Akhavan appears to be on the cusp of making it big as they say, though she is cautious. “It’s so funny to me when people are like, ‘Oh my God, are you so happy?’ All I think is that at any moment everyone could stop listening and abandon me, and I still have so much to prove,” says the Iranian-American writer, director and actress.
Fair enough. You never know how things are going to go in the fickle entertainment industry, but Akhavan is certainly kicking off 2015 in a big way. For starters, her first feature film Appropriate Behavior, which she wrote, directed and stars in, opens in theaters on January 16, and there is a lot of buzz behind it—Akhavan was labeled one of the breakout stars of the Sundance Film Festival when it premiered there last year. A romantic comedy, the film tells the story of Shirin, an Iranian-American bisexual who lives in Brooklyn and strives to be a great daughter, girlfriend and teacher but struggles to get things right in every area of her life.
We’ll also see Akhavan make her television debut when she guest stars on the HBO series Girls this season as a classmate of Hannah’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Here, Akhavan, also known as the co-creator of The Slope, a comedic web series centering on superficial, homophobic Park Slope lesbians, talks to Co.Create about her blossoming career and how she kickstarted it by inventing creative opportunities for herself. She also shares her thoughts regarding the media’s insistence on comparing successful creative women to each other (Akhavan has been billed as “the next Lena Dunham” in a number of stories) and discusses what she got out of participating in the Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab just last fall.
Co.Create: I laughed a lot when I watched Appropriate Behavior, but there was so much depth there, too. I related to Shirin’s story in many ways, and there were a few moments where my heart kind of just broke for her. When the film ended, I was thinking I wished I had seen it back when I was just starting out in New York City and making all kinds of mistakes.
Akhavan: God. Thank you so much. That means a lot to me. It’s so weird when you hear your story reflected by other people. I thought this was entirely my own experience. The only criticisms that I’ve been exposed to have been, like, “Oh, another Brooklyn hipster comedy with no heart,” and it’s so silly to me. I wonder if those people have seen the film because, to me, it’s not at all like your standard Brooklyn fare about a spoiled brat. I’d like to think it goes deeper than that, and it’s really odd to me when people say, “It’s another shitty Brooklyn film” when I’ve never seen a story that reflected mine on film before.
This is an exciting time for you with the film being released in theaters. Looking over your resume, which includes your web series The Slope and this film, it appears you have never sat around waiting for someone to give you a job…
Lena Dunham’s the only person who ever hired me. It’s funny. I’m always asked on panels, “What’s the advice you’d give people?” And my advice is always, “Don’t wait for someone to enable you. Create your own opportunities.” I was someone who applied for a lot of things. When I was in high school and college, I auditioned for many plays, and I was constantly putting myself out there, but I just wasn’t the person you’d bet on. I wasn’t the ingénue. I wasn’t a clear leading lady. It’s hard. No one sees you–the whole package–other than you.
You co-created the web series The Slope when you were still in grad school at NYU studying film, and it gave you a chance to do everything from being on camera to writing, directing and editing.
Yeah, I had made the web series while I was a student, which is something I’m really glad happened because when I left school I had this calling card, this thing that I felt represented the kind of work I wanted to do. I started writing the feature while I was doing that show.
How did you write the script for Appropriate Behavior? Did you go off alone to get a draft done, or are you the type of writer who likes to share as you go along to get feedback?
I went through different phases. When I wrote the first draft, I did nothing else. I just did it for a month. It was winter, and I just focused on nothing but writing the script. I ended up with a very, very rough script, then it took a year of workshopping the script with my producer [Cecilia Frugiuele]—literally sitting on her couch and acting out scenes over and over again until we felt every joke was right for the tone we wanted to achieve. Writing starts off as a very lonely process and then turns into a really collaborative one.
There has to be, I think, for me, one person at the script stage who is watching over my shoulder and enhancing everything because if it were me alone—well, you lose perspective really easily. Cecelia was always the person who was pulling me into a wider frame of mind, saying, “Let’s look at the bigger picture here.” The first half of the script was all about the couple, and she was the person who said, “Write a scene about your family.”
You mentioned that Lena Dunham was the first person to ever hire you. Was it because she had seen Appropriate Behavior?
Yeah. She had seen Appropriate Behavior right after Sundance, and we met, but I didn’t hear about Girls for a few months. I got an email asking if I would do a reading, and then I got the part. Lena’s character goes to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I play one of her classmates.
I have read so many stories that describe you as “the next Lena Dunham,” which is ridiculous because why can’t you simply be you without having to be compared to another successful young woman? When you met Lena, did you two laugh about that? Did you say, “Hi, I’m the next you?”
I may have said that, actually! I was so excited to meet her because I’m a fan, and she really understood the film, and that was so exciting. I don’t think she gives a shit about any of the press. There are so many things that are written about her that I doubt even land anywhere on her radar. But for me, of course, I’m very new to being written about, and it’s very strange to constantly be reading that you’re another incarnation of this person. And it has this weird, unspoken, what’s the word I’m looking for . . . It’s implying that there’s only space for one, so while I find it really flattering, I find it inherently sexist and really obnoxious.
When smart, funny men come along, they’re not like, “The next Louis C.K. Move over, Louis!” There’s just this feeling, like you cancel each other out, or one person is reigning on the throne. So it’s either her time is up, or there’s no space for me, and I find both scenarios absurd. I can’t speak for Lena. It’s not something we’ve spoken about, but I don’t think she gives a shit about any of that. She’s too busy being incredible.
Do you watch a lot of TV, and were you a fan of Girls before you got a role on the show?
I watch a lot of TV. I’m a really big fan of TV, and I was raised on it. I consider television to be my third parent, and it really taught me a lot about what it was to be American because I was raised in an Iranian family. My parents have become more Americanized over the years, but when I was a kid they were very traditional and kept information at arm’s length from me. So everything I knew about sex or anything, I learned from TV. So yeah, I love shows like Louis, and I was a very big fan of Girls before I was cast. I have been following it, watching every episode as it aired every week with my girlfriend. We like Silicon Valley, too, and we’re watching House of Cards right now. I love Parks and Rec. I love everything. I’m mostly into comedies, but every once in awhile a drama will slip in there as well.
I assume you are interested in getting into television because you took part in Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab last year. What was that experience was like, and what were you working on?
It was an incredible experience. I was developing a television series that I’m still working on right now. It’s a half-hour comedy about a 30-year-old lesbian who’s been lesbian-identified her entire life but comes out as bisexual, and starts dating men for the first time in her 30s. That’s something I want to talk about, and it really does lend itself to a lot of comedy.
I was workshopping the pilot and the first-season arc of it. The first half of the lab we were with a group of showrunners who worked with us and donated their time to breaking down our work and giving us feedback on what we could improve upon, but then also talked about their experiences. So we had a lot of roundtables and group discussions about how their shows are made and their experiences as showrunners.
I’ve never had an experience quite like that where you were getting real insider information straight from the source without the… In most rooms, when creators are in the room, you, for the most part, you feel this silent dick-measuring contest, and everyone is looking over their shoulder, and no one feels quite safe to be truthful. You all seem to be in competition with each other, but this is a context in which–and I also think TV is a little bit different–everyone just showed their cards and was really helpful and gave real, tangible information that we could all use. In a very short period of time, I felt like my work grew, and suddenly, people were understanding what I was trying to accomplish. It was such a great group of people.
Also, you studied filmmaking at NYU. What did you get out of the experience, and would you recommend a film school education?
It really depends on the person. I got a lot out of it. I like structure. I like an environment that’s set out for me to create something. On my own, if I had those four years off, I probably would have stopped at the first roadblock in my way and spent the next four years hiding in the fetal position in my bed. There are so many things working against you to make films, so many logistical and technical issues, and then creative and emotional problems, too. But because I was working with other people, and I had this degree in mind, I couldn’t let those things stop me, and there were many times I wanted to, but I was part of something larger than myself. So that worked really well for me.