Nigerian-American Actress Adepero Oduye on 10 Years of Taking Control

Interview with Nigerian-American Actress Adepero Oduye (Dee Rees's Pariah). Oduye discusses what she's accomplished, her venture into writing, and her upcoming roles.

We discuss her performance in Dee Rees’s Pariah, but through her relationship with her mother. The feature film tells the story of Alike, a teenager working through her identities as a lesbian, daughter, lover and friend. Critically-acclaimed, Pariah has been lauded for making a point, yet managing to depict the universality of growing up. Adepero recalls that her mother’s response towards the film has deepened with time, solidifying the significance of the film in its accessibility across demographics and audience:

When I auditioned for the short film I submitted myself to be an extra. I knew that there was something about the project that I wanted to be a part of and I remember thinking “maybe I’ll get to be an extra.” It didn’t even occur to me that I would be considered for the lead part. And when they called me in to be the lead — it was just like wow. Everything I wanted to do as an actor I got to do with Pariah. In the short and the full-length feature. It was gritty, intense and dramatic. I had no idea of all the possibilities that would come from it.

When the short premiered at Sundance it was also streamed online. My brother knew about the film because I had borrowed his clothes for the audition and he was with my mother in NY. I remember calling him so they could watch the stream of the short. I was talking to someone that was around me and they were like "did you tell your mom what it was about?" And I was like “No.” But I think I knew instinctively it wouldn’t matter — if she (my mom) was going to be funny about it I didn’t care — I wasn’t interested in being apologetic about the film. I talked to my mom after she saw it and I asked her what she thought. One of the first things she said to me was "your father would have done the same thing." [*In the short version of Pariah, Alike's father beats her when he finds out that she is gay.*] And I kind of ignored that and asked her what she thought of the film and she kept saying I laughed a lot, and I remember thinking "you laughed a lot?" My mom just doesn’t really know how to talk about films.

With conversations that often seek to underscore that Africans are somehow more homophobic than others, Adepero notes that amidst talk of Uganda's policies against homosexuality, a film like Pariah (although based in the U.S.) is also implicated in notions of homophobia throughout the continent.

After Sundance for the full-length feature my mother was in Nigeria and she called me and said a film like Pariah needs to be seen in Nigeria. That shocked me. What was more interesting was that she called me impassioned. And it was weird because my mom is so easy breezy and here she is on the phone talking about “they’re killing people and I don’t understand — if they ever want me to go on a parade with them I’ll go.” And that was fulfilling because I felt like my involvement in the film opened up something in her.

One of the most rewarding moments of Adepero's career was of course Meryl Streep’s recognition of her work in Pariah as one of her favourite performances of the year. Adepero recalls that moment as simply surreal. She still beams as we discuss how amazing it was to be recognized by her favourite actress. Adepero’s mom even called her ecstatically months later while watching The Iron Lady — congratulating her and exclaiming “The Iron Lady! The Iron Lady said your name!” Adepero notes that after that moment, she “can die now.” While there’s always a conversation about the types of roles black women are confined to in Hollywood, projects like Ava DuVernay’s “The Door”  create the space for the the kind of performances Adepero appreciates. Those that demonstrate black filmmakers, writers and artists doing what they want to do — and not waiting around for Hollywood’s approval.

When I saw Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” I was able to point to her and say that’s what I want to do as an actor. But in the back of my mind I worried if that would even a possibility for me. But at the end of the day, because I’m very clear about the kind of work I want to do, it makes the choices very simple for me. For me it’s all about the types of roles I want to do and, if that’s not there, then there’s no need for me to be there. Living in New York I’m surrounded by amazing creative filmmakers and creatives that are making work in spite of these challenges. Like Dee and Nekisa (Pariah) — they didn’t wait. People told them why they shouldn’t cast an unknown actress in the lead but they stuck to their guns and were able to create their vision.

There are times when I doubt myself and I wonder if I’m thinking too high — but I don’t feel as though I have a choice. I’m not going to dumb it down or just accept whatever roles come my way. What’s the point of acting if I’m not doing the kind of work that makes me impassioned? It’s about taking control. 'Cause we do have control, I think we have so many resources amongst ourselves. Ava DuVernay and Terrance Nance are examples of this. There’s no need to wait for approval from whomever to create.

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