Director Desiree Akhavan Is Flipping the Script on Coming-Out Stories
The filmmaker behind 'The Bisexual' and 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post' is addressing the complexities of sexual orientation in her work. It also coincidentally parallels her real life.
Photo by Imogen Freedland
It’s the middle of the afternoon in a shabby Victorian house in East London, and Desiree Akhavan is attempting to corral two six-year-old twins into behaving on set.
“No violence please, guys!” the New York-born director shouts. The twins—her occasional co-stars in her latest Channel 4 and Hulu comedy, The Bisexual—begin to bash each other over the head with stuffed animals. “Why can’t they like each other?” she pleads of the toys. “Why can’t they be friends?”
Several months on, I meet Akhavan properly on the windswept rooftop of the Channel 4 office in London. She is sanguine about the perils of co-writing, directing, and starring in her first ever TV show. “They were sweet,” she says diplomatically of the twins, who play the nephews to her character Leila’s housemate, Gabe.
The Bisexual is Akhavan’s latest work, coming a few months after her Sundance Grand Jury triumph The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The former is a fish-out-of-water comedy that follows a neurotic American expat in London as she exits a long-term lesbian relationship and comes out as bisexual; the latter is a coming-of-age drama set in a gay conversion camp. They may seem only tangentially related by virtue of their LGBTQ themes, but they share the same DNA. Precisely: What does it mean to feel uncomfortable and out of place? What does it mean to come out—not just sexually, but in terms of realizing that the places and people that may have previously nurtured you no longer feel like home?
“I think the word ‘awkward’ is now used to reference so many different things,” Akhavan says. “I think maybe it just means not fitting the bill.” The filmmaker says she never felt like she fit the bill—not in the Iranian-American community, not in the filmmaker community, and not in the queer community. “Maybe it’s because I’m very introverted, but I keep putting myself in situations as an outsider and becoming keenly aware of the stories around me.”
Watch: In Bed With Desiree Akhavan
You don’t seem very introverted, I observe. “I know, it’s weird that I am—but I am!” She had a full-on panic attack at Notting Hill Carnival last year, she says. “Most filmmakers aren’t good [at connecting with people]. We’re pretty introverted people who are very good at doing our own thing and leading in the confines of the hierarchical structure of a film set, but are actually really bad at being human beings and having fun.”
Akhavan was born in upstate New York and grew up wanting to be a playwright. “My plays were more fart jokes,” she says. At ten, she wrote a script for a sketch show called Friday Night Live. “It had an advert for something called Vomlette—an omelette made of vomit.” She studied film at NYU and did a year abroad at Queen Mary University in London, where she met Cecilia Frugiule, her best friend, producing partner, and the co-writer on The Bisexual.
“We just kind of fell in love with each other,” Frugiule tells me over the phone. “I was in awe of her because she was so outspoken. She made me laugh in a way like nobody else had done before.”
Frugiule produced Akhvan's first feature film, Appropriate Behavior, which mined bittersweet humor from the latter's difficult experience of coming out as bisexual to her Iranian parents. “They were really upset,” Akhavan says. “I think they felt like, if you had the option to be with men, why would you put us through this?”
It was during the press tour for Appropriate Behavior when she first became aware of being billed as “the bisexual Iranian-American filmmaker” and the “bisexual Lena Dunham.” It made her feel deeply uncomfortable in a way that both repelled and intrigued her.
“I’ve always felt really uncomfortable with the term bisexual and I wanted to explore why,” she says. “I was like, why does this make me feel tacky?”
“Tacky” is an interesting choice of word, I say. “It’s like in bad taste, just like… guache,” she explains.
But presumably she had known she was bisexual for years? “As a little girl, I had a very big crush on Tom Petty but I would also fall asleep fantasising about Pamela Anderson running on the beach in her Baywatch outfit,” she says. “When I first fell in love with a woman, it wasn’t a surprise to me.”
The Bisexual was her chance to investigate her feelings about her own sexuality thanks to what she describes as a “reverse coming out” script. Her character Leila leaves a ten-year relationship with her partner and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peake) and, despite Leila’s own internalized biphobia (“I’m pretty sure bisexuality was invented by ad execs to sell flavored vodka,” she tells her queer friends), begins sleeping with men.
“I wanted the opportunity to explore some of my worst fears,” Akhavan says, “which was if I had fallen in love with a man and married him, would I have ever explored this part of myself? Would it have been easier on my family? What does it mean to be in the middle? Is it a betrayal to my chosen lesbian family?”
Does she know anybody who had that reverse coming out? “Yes I do.” How was it? “Painful. Recently a friend told me it was much more painful for her to come out as bi than a lesbian, and that she felt she was losing all her friends.”
Bisexual and pansexual people have spoken before of that sense of in-betweenness even in the margins—and of subsequently being viewed with suspicion by both straight and gay people. Pansexual singer Rina Sawayama has previously told Broadly that her song “Cherry” was based on the common experience of bi and pan people who don’t feel authentically queer in a straight relationship.
"I understand the politics behind what I am, and you have one foot in the marginalized group and the other foot in the mainstream. It’s weird."
“I understand the politics behind what I am,” Akhavan says, “and you have one foot in the marginalized group and the other foot in the mainstream. It’s weird.”
The road to getting The Bisexual made was a rocky one. Every US studio she approached turned Akhavan down. Frugiuele remembers a similar crisis with Appropriate Behavior, when Akhavan saw the first cut. “She sent me a letter and was so apologetic, she was like, ‘I don’t know what to do now, I’m probably going to have to start waitressing, it’s such a mess.’” It went on to win Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Even after the film came out, Akhavan didn’t feel totally satisfied. “I felt like in New York I was a bit of a failure,” she says. “I felt like the audience felt like Appropriate Behavior was a rip-off of Lena Dunham. It just felt like there wasn’t enough room for me... I thought I was a wannabe, like I was back in middle school and seen as the imitation of something more mainstream.”
That changed once she began pitching the script for The Bisexual to production companies in the UK, who proved far more receptive. “Suddenly I had my choice of who I wanted to make the show with, and it grew and then I got my visa and it was sort of like, ‘Oh OK!’ My life here instantly made sense.” She moved to London and co-wrote the script with Frugiule, in between making Cameron Post.
Akhavan was also emerging from the tail end of a breakup with an older woman. “Suddenly the plot of the show kind of fell into my own life,” she says. “I was just single and 30 and not sure of what I wanted romantically so I started dating a lot of different kinds of people and having sex on my own terms, you know? Sometimes without love, sometimes with love.”
In the process, it became clear to her that the show would be about a sexual coming-of-age, albeit one not usually seen on TV. It is also very, very funny—full of zingy one-liners (“If he wasn’t white and straight, he wouldn’t have written a book called Testicular”) and unusually tender moments of connection, not least between Leila and her best friend, the dour and dry-witted Deniz (Saskia Chana). It’s also one of the most lovingly pointed skewerings of a particular kind of middle-class hipster lifestyle—one populated by headscratching art openings, startup firms, and the near-constant anxiety that you’re too old to hang out with the cool kids smoking Juuls at parties.
“I’m starting to feel a little too old for where I live,” Akhavan says of her current life in London. “Whereas when I’m in the more middle-aged domesticated areas, I’m like, I’m not stable enough for this. But I also think I don’t belong anywhere. I’m just going to keep travelling and figuring it out.”
Feeling like you don't belong anywhere sounds like a difficult position to be in, but if there’s one thing Akhavan is good at, it’s leaning into discomfort.
The Bisexual premieres on Channel 4 at 10pm on October 10. A Hulu release date has not yet been announced.