Indie Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan on Balancing Acting and Directing

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“We always knew we wanted to walk this fine line between absurd comedy and ‘slice of life,’ ” says Desiree Akhavan about her first feature film. “We kept the script silly but in the casting and the performances, we wanted two feet on the ground so it felt as realistic as possible for a character who walks down the street flinging a strap-on from her arm.”

“Appropriate Behavior,” an occasionally painful, self-aware comedy, follows closeted bisexual Shirin in the midst of a breakup and struggling to establish herself in her sexuality, career, family, and Brooklyn. Written by Akhavan and producer Cecilia Frugiuele, Shirin’s story pans out in raw, hilarious moments combined with “Annie Hall”–like flashbacks that reveal how she ended up walking down the street with a dildo hanging from her arm.

Akhavan and her solid sense of humor, spiked with more than a dash of neurosis, offer up a candid look at how identity, romance, sex, and cultural politics clash in a person who feels at home nowhere, and the different coping mechanisms—denial, a failed threesome—that she uses to deal. Nominated in the best first screenplay category in this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards, Akhavan did triple duty as star, director, and writer.

“Mostly in the first few days of shooting, there were times I didn’t know how to shut off one side of my brain and delve into the other,” she says. “One time I was in the middle of this scene, and the camera wasn’t on me but I was in the scene, and I found myself staring into the camera monitor, just checking frame. There was this huge pause and I remember screaming, like, ‘Whose line is it?!’ And it was my line. That happened on day two and then after that I pulled my shit together.”

Once she compartmentalized her different roles on set and learned how to be 100 percent present as Shirin and not “Desiree the Director” in front of the camera, “Appropriate Behavior” emerged as a real and funny look at all types of relationships and all types of sex.

“It’s always funny to me when in a film you see two people kiss and then they just drop onto the bed and the scene’s over. It’s just, like, dot dot dot,” she says, laughing. “It seems like such a huge missed opportunity because to me, so much is communicated between two people during sex, almost more than when they’re fighting or having brunch or talking.

“For me, that’s the ultimate depiction of where a couple is in their relationship, where two people are or where one person is in their life. I wanted to use that opportunity to show this girl’s journey and how lost she was and how at home she was sexually with one partner and then how incredibly unhappy she was elsewhere.” It’s the successful dance between the tender, the salacious, the funny, and the so-sad-it’s-funny that pushes Akhavan’s first feature to the top of the indie pile.

Frequently labeled “The Next Lena Dunham,” a comparison she finds both flattering and understandable, as well as passive-aggressively sexist as a creator—“Like there’s only room for one of us”—Akhavan is moving up the indie film ladder. And as an actor, she can be seen in the upcoming season of “Girls” and, of course, in “Appropriate Behavior,” in theaters now.

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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