Desiree Akhavan is easy to spot in an anonymous chain cafe near Penn Station: she's tall, gorgeous, and has the kind of exceptional eyebrows that seem out of place over burnt coffee and plastic-wrapped sandwiches. She's tidily fit two back-to-back interviews in before an evening "thing"—she's pretty busy, understandably. In a nice bit of timing that probably qualifies as A Moment, Desiree's movie Appropriate Behavior (for which she is writer, star, and director) premieres on January 16, just five days after she made her debut in the next season of Girls as Hannah Horvath's grad school classmate.
You might file Appropriate Behavior under Things You Didn't Know You Desperately Wanted: a breakup tale starring a bisexual Iranian American woman in her late 20s that's not unlike Annie Hall with a strap-on instead of a tennis racket. The film follows Shirin, a tender-hearted misanthrope, on her search for distractions after a failed relationship. But if you've overdosed on late-20's identity crises, don't worry: Shirin's dark humor nicely salts the onscreen soul-searching.
If you've read anything about Desiree, you may have heard someone insist that she's The Next Lena Dunham. Which isn't totally unfair—both are funny, intelligent women who know how to deliver a highly watchable, cringe-inducing sex scene—but Lena Dunham probably isn't done being Lena Dunham yet. And while Hannah Horvath comes off as a lovably delusional self-advocate, Appropriate Behavior's Shirin seems at least momentarily disinterested in her own happiness.
Desiree covered a lot of territory in a short conversation: from bisexual visibility to coming out as the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and the shock of going from Girls fan to cast member—almost overnight.
I know other people have asked you about being compared to Lena Dunham. I find it kind of bizarre that there can only be one of you—that you have to wait your turn somehow. What's that like for you?
We live in an absurd world. The implication definitely is that there's [only] room for one person. It's really insulting for all the people involved. It's a joke that I have with myself—it's in everything that's written about me and it's in nothing that's been written about her. This is the tiniest grain on the beach that is the stuff that's been written about Lena Dunham.
How did your work on the show come about?
It was a huge shock. I had just finished watching the last episode and I was going through withdrawal. And then I got an email asking if I would do a reading and even just that I was like "Holy Shit!" I got to read a couple of episodes from the next season and I was all excited to see what happens next. So, as a fan, I was fucking psyched! After the reading Lena and Jenny asked me to do the role, and I've never in my life exclaimed out loud but I remember I was all alone in my apartment and I was like "I GOT IT!" it was the dorkiest moment.
It's strange to be a part of something that you've consumed so much. I remember the first time we shot a scene. I had to walk down these stairs and I like forgot how humans walk for a minute.
Appropriate Behavior is your first film. How did it come about?
The first draft of this was a lot sillier, and more flat-out comedy. But then my producer got involved, and she said, ''I think you're family's really funny, what if we talked more about you being the child of immigrants? What if we put in shitty jobs you had? What if we add all of this to the mix, and have it be the story of someone trying to find their identity?"
So it became about a romantic relationship between these two women that you knew was doomed from the first scene. They come together out of mutual discomfort. I find that I'm more uncomfortable than comfortable, or that I dislike more things than I like, you know?
Hence your Larry David reference.
Yes. The only people I thought who were allowed to be curmudgeonly in movies were white middle aged men. But I felt all those feelings even though I was in the body of a 20-something Iranian bisexual woman.
Is there anything you're worried is getting overlooked in conversations about the movie?
Well, I don't know because I think it's really toxic to read things about yourself and your work. That's something I learned this year. Even if it's good, it's toxic. Cause then suddenly you do like a third-person narrative about what you're doing that has nothing to do with you.
I do get frustrated with people lumping all the Brooklyn female-driven comedies together in a negative way. Instead of championing these new projects people are like "Ugh, entitled white people!" which is funny because I'm not even white. Or "hipster"—I'm not a hipster. When you're a hipster you're like, too cool for school. I see myself as the opposite—I am in school. I am at the front of the class raising my hand.
Your lead character is bisexual, which made me think about this recent Times article about how people are still trying to prove that bisexuality exists—which I find amazing. Why is it so hard for us to wrap our minds around this?
I think that maybe it's because not enough people have the lack of propriety that I do to stand up and say "I am bisexual."
Why is that improper?
People find it hard to trust a person whose genitals don't find an alliance. But the more people who stand up and say, this is who I am, then suddenly there will be an understanding of it. And it's all about who you see doing it! So, like, if Tila Tequila weren't the only person coming out and saying "I'm bisexual…."
She's not a great spokesperson.
No! And I actually do think it was really damaging! Like, Cynthia Nixon doesn't call herself bisexual. People don't want to associate themselves with it. It's not a great word. So it's about, I think, reappropriating it. And it's going to take time.
I have to admit that I did notice that Shirin's relationships with men are kind of strained in the movie. And I caught myself thinking, "Oh, this means she really likes women more."
Yeah, I think that's true; I mean, they were all affairs that were happening after her breakup, and we wanted to show that she was on a downward spiral. It just happened that all the men she was interacting with she had negative experiences with. But yeah, the film really does read like "men are the worst."
What's the relationship between tragedy and comedy in this movie?
The truly funny things are funny because they hurt. That's the only way I want to examine sad things, is through comedy. At the same time, I wanted to make a film about an Iranian girl coming out that wasn't like taking your medicine.
And her Iranian identity and her coming out process are linked.
Yes. I mean, when I came out I'd never heard of one queer Iranian. Ever. Like no anecdotes—nothing. That was like 5 years ago, and even now it's still pretty taboo. Something that's hard for my family to wrap their brain around is, if I were a lesbian they'd be like "Okay, we understand, you can't be any other way. But if you had the potential to be straight and make us happy, why wouldn't you choose that?" and I think that's something that they all struggle with.
Does it feel like a lot of undue responsibility that you are The Bisexual Iranian-American Filmmaker?
No, I mean, I live in such a liberal environment that I don't think about it in the day-to-day. For me it's about going out on the ledge and doing this thing that gives you the most satisfaction. And that's totally selfish. That's the thing about my immigrant culture and most immigrant cultures—you do everything for the good of the family.
Has your family seen the movie?
Yes! My family supports me and I'm lucky for that, but if they hadn't supported me I'd still be doing this. I really forced my parents out onto a ledge with me. And my work is so public that they can't really hide it.
So they're like, "My kid's at Sundance... so I guess I'm watching the sex scene."
Haha, yes, exactly. I still feel guilty about that. No father should have to watch that. I told my mom to cover my dad's eyes.
Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has also contributed to the New Yorker and the Hairpin.