Adepero Oduye’s Dynamic Debut in “Pariah” Film

Adepero Oduye (Pariah) reflects upon the abandonment of her pre-medical studies, discovering her voice, and the inspiration she drew from Robert Duvall’s performance in The Apostle.

In a breakthrough debut performance, Adepero Oduye reprises the role of “Alike” in Pariah, Dee Rees’ timely coming-of-age drama. Initially introduced at Sundance as modest film short, the full-length treatment encouraged Oduye to embody the spirit of her character with a level of ease as if it were her own. In acknowledgement and praise of Oduye’s talent and dynamic portrayal, the Black Film Critics Circle (BFCC) bestowed the actress with its “Rising Star” Signature Award.

While promoting Pariah’s theatrical release [limited – December 28, 2011 – New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco; nationwide – January 2012], Adepero Oduye caught up with Alternatives to reflect upon the abandonment of her pre-medical studies, discovering her voice, and the inspiration she drew from Robert Duvall’s performance in The Apostle:

AHHA: When you reflect on the Pariah experience, is there a particular moment during its shooting that made you feel that it had transcended the generic bounds of a “short movie” and elevated into a full-length feature film?

Adepero Oduye: Oh, yeah – now that the film is done! [laughter] When you shoot  a film, you’re in a bubble. Sundance is when I could really see firsthand how people responded to it instantly. And just afterwards, talking with people, because at Sundance in all the Q&As you have the rare chance to talk to people who have just seen your film. People were sharing their stories, just openly sharing. Just sharing their personal connections to this story. I remember thinking: “Oh, my God. This is the power of film happening right before my eyes.” A story so sophisticated is so universal.

AHHA: Focusing on your character’s name, “Alike” (pronounced ah-lee-kay), I happened to make a connection with the word “alike.” In what ways has your involvement with this film changed or influenced your perspective on life and the diversity within it? Have you made any new revelations in deciphering the ways in which we are all alike?

Adepero Oduye: Yes. With this film, I’ve seen people just become more aware of different things. About their children. About LGBT issues. It really shows people that we are more alike than we are different. Just because somebody is gay or younger or whatever; we all can relate to each other. In this movie, it’s very specific; a young, Black, lesbian girl from New York City. But you don’t have to be Black. You don’t have to be gay to appreciate or identify with the story. It has proved that we’re all more similar than we are different.

AHHA: As you embodied the mind and spirit of Alike, are there any elements of her life or life story that resonated deeply with you?

Adepero Oduye:  I related to her finding her voice through writing. For me, it was writing and then eventually acting. Having a teacher who encourages you and pushes you. That I can relate to. Finding that voice and discovering your voice in that way. And just that outsider feeling growing up. Parents. The child of immigrants. Growing up in Brooklyn. Just knowing what it feels like to not completely belong. Straddling two worlds in my case, and multiple worlds in Alike’s case.

AHHA: Your father’s untimely death played a major role in trajectory of your professional career. What else do you view as a major influence in fostering the pursuit of your acting career?

Adepero Oduye: Watching Robert Duvall in The Apostle. That was pretty poignant, because it was the first time I had seen a film. I got lost in it, and it kind of solidified why I wanted to be an actor, and what kind of work I wanted to do as an actor.

AHHA: When you reflect upon your acting experience and your impromptu transition from your pre-medical studies, what life event – or series of events – do you feel best prepared you for this moment in time?

Adepero Oduye: I feel like just in general, it’s the process of becoming an actor. The process of just growing up and being an adult. I feel really grounded in who I am now. I feel like I know what it means to love myself or begin that process. I’m glad it’s happening now as opposed to five years ago. I know that my self-worth is not determined by any outside source. It starts from me. And if I’m comfortable, and I accept myself and I love myself, then that’s all that I really need and I don’t need to get that from anything. I don’t need anything outside of myself to validate me. Life, in general, has kind of prepared me for all of this that’s happening. Just talking to different people and the situation that I’m now finding myself in. It’s really great. It’s surreal. It’s awesome. But I know it doesn’t inform anyone who I am or it doesn’t determine my worth in this world.

AHHA: Did you find a particular scene challenging to film, due to its level of intensity?

Adepero Oduye: The most challenging scene was the scene with Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Alike at the end, when I say, “I love you.” I hadn’t discussed that scene with Dee or Kim. The first time I saw Kim that day was when I walked in the scene and I sat down, so she didn’t see the scar or any of that. It was very tense, as it would be in real life. Just to put myself in the space where I open myself up, and in spite of all the violence and that has transpired. When I say “I love you” to my mother, and she can’t give it back. That’s painful.

AHHA: In many ways, the film has been a gift to you. What do you hope is the overall effect and impact that this film has for others?

Adepero Oduye: I just want all different kinds of people to see this film. The most important thing is to get that it’s okay to not check a box. It’s okay to love yourself. It’s okay to just be who you are, because who you are makes you unique. Hopefully you’ll become aware. If you’re not familiar with the LGBT issues or anything like that, now you just become more aware in general.

For more of Clayton Perry’s interview exclusives, visit his digital archive. He can also be followed via Twitter [@crperry84].