Pin It
Desiree Akhavan
Desiree AkhavanPhotography Hanna Moon, styling Kelly-Anne Hughes

Desiree Akhavan: acting funny

Already tagged as the ‘new Lena Dunham’, the Iranian-American director is smashing down diversity walls with her off-the-wall new comedy, Appropriate Behaviour

Desiree Akhavan is fast becoming a patron saint for disenchanted outsiders. Since 2010, the Iranian-American filmmaker has translated her mercurial late-20s lifestyle into a hilariously morbid web series and Sundance-dazzling feature. Her scripts, which she directs and stars in, shun bankable archetypes to spotlight smart outcasts with a loose foothold in polite society. Earlier this year she played a sneery student writer in season four of Girls, and now, her feature-length debut, Appropriate Behaviour, has her gunning for Lena Dunham’s throne. But Akhavan’s dissection of multicultural friction and hipster ennui doesn’t just push pop culture’s hot buttons; it’s the release valve for a cripplingly awkward sense of humour that’s hounded her since childhood.

“One time I improvised some kind of stand-up shtick for my parents, with wigs and costumes,” recalls Akhavan at a chintzy Café Rouge in south London. “I don't know why I had such a ridiculous sense of humour, but I put a headscarf on, and I was like, ‘Look! I'm in an Iranian porno,’ and and I took it off.” She beams broadly. “At first they were like, ‘What are you doing?’ But they laughed really hard when they realised what the joke was, that my hair was showing. I really loved making my parents laugh.”

The story won’t surprise anybody familiar with Appropriate Behaviour. By turns mortifying and melancholy, playful and poignant, the comedy weaves themes of bisexual alienation and cross-gen immigrant relations into a modern heartbreak story. Lead character Shirin, an endearingly bratty caricature of Akhavan, splits reluctantly from girlfriend Maxine before zipping through impulse-dates, OkCupid fucks and chance threesomes to ward off big-city solitude. As Shirin frantically attempts to jump-start her fast disappearing 20s, the car-crash spectacle attracts your dismay and sympathy, usually at the same time. “That was the process of writing it,” she says. “What if I didn’t accept this breakup? What if I went balls-to-the-wall and stopped my act? What if I actively pursued everything I could to either fuck my way out of this sadness or woo back anyone who had hurt me?”

Akhavan claims she’s “much more reserved” than that, but today, that seems a slight exaggeration. Promoting the film’s UK release, she speaks in the same eloquent deadpan as her characters. No childhood humiliation is buried too deep to meet with a casual punchline. At one point, the cultural nomad picks up on our waiter’s pseudo-Italian accent: “It was just too perfect, like I was watching Ratatouille,” she chuckles. It’s pure Shirin: the Appropriate Behaviour protagonist thrives on culturally jarring jokes, which often fall at the expense of white people who use immigrants for their cultural enrichment fix. At a glitzy Persian party, Shirin teases an enchanted Maxine – “Ew, you are totally having one of those ‘I’m dating an immigrant’ moments” – in a tone of amused disdain. “It’s adorably clueless,” Akhavan explains. “I find myself doing it with people from other cultures, where I'm like, ‘Ooh, I always wanted to hear about Sri Lanka! Tell me. You’re my Sri Lankan friend.’ But then when people say it to me, I’m like, ‘Aw, they’re so dumb!’”

Born and raised in upstate New York, Akhavan grew up surrounded by first-generation Iranian immigrants. “It really shocks me when I hear how little people understand Iran or Iranian culture,” she says. “I’ve been asked many times if the film is gonna come out there, which is not possible. But if I wasn’t from there, I wouldn’t know that being convicted of homosexual behaviour is punishable by death. I wouldn’t know that most movies are outlawed there, that dancing isn’t allowed there. That it’s like the tiny town from Footloose, where all fun is outlawed.”

In Brooklyn, Akhavan quickly capitalised on her school’s liberal attitude to the arts. “I’d perform a variety show I called Friday Night Live,” she says of her school days. “I had this commercial for a product called Vomelette: the omelette made of vomit. I thought I was so clever.” At 13, her first break came with a successful audition for Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. But after a bright start – she took the solo in the choir – something snapped. “I had extreme homesickness,” she recalls. “I would wake up crying every day, and I felt severely depressed.” After two weeks, she convinced her parents to fly her home. “My dad was so disappointed in me. I kept saying that something was really wrong. I demanded to go into therapy at 13. We weren’t a talk-about-your-feelings kind of family, until I made us one.”

Family conflict figures heavily in Akhavan’s work. In Appropriate Behaviour, Shirin stumbles through life post-Maxine, trying to calibrate the diverse worlds she inhabits. When she finally comes out to her Persian family, their bond wanes. “I was pretty into all the guys I was with, so I think I’m bisexual,” she tells her brother, a gregarious surgeon. “And that’s a thing?” he replies coldly. In reality, Akhavan says, the process was relatively straightforward, if not painless – at one point, her father considered disowning her. “They were very old-fashioned,” she concedes, “but their thoughts have become a lot more progressive over their years in America.” Despite straddling sometimes exclusive worlds – gay and straight, Iranian and American – Akhavan dutifully stresses her own privilege. “It’s a luxury, to feel the way I do and to feel the entitlement I feel, even though it’s not as much as Shirin’s. When you’re busy surviving war, you’re not thinking so much about your existential crisis.”

“It’s a luxury, to feel the way I do and to feel the entitlement I feel. When you’re busy surviving war, you’re not thinking so much about your existential crisis”

In 2011, her breakthrough came with The Slope. The crowdfunded web-series followed two “superficial, homophobic lesbians” (her description), played by Akhavan and then-girlfriend Ingrid Jungermann. After her split from Jungermann, Akhavan upgraded her Slope alter-ego, imparting Shirin with an emotional accessibility that eluded her predecessor. Her refined performance is complemented by Rebecca Henderson as Maxine, a no-bullshit lesbian whose mission to educate her new woman involves dragging her to Pride, recommending books by trans author Leslie Feinberg (Shirin prefers Twilight) and imploring her to come out to her strict Iranian parents. By the film's conclusion, the pair disagree on almost everything. As Shirin puts it, “I am one bad romantic encounter away from moving to France and changing my name.” 

Akhavan traces her self-deprecating style way back to Anton Chekhov, whose black comedies she crushed on in high school. But despite her traditional grounding (now filtered through Woody Allen and Louis CK), some reviewers patronised Appropriate Behaviour’s idiosyncrasies, perhaps reflecting older critics’ hesitation to embrace the so-called ‘millennial generation’ – characters burdened by deadpan demeanours and affected disillusionment. Given those qualities’ ubiquity among young people, though, it seems a stretch to call them idiosyncrasies at all. Asked why headlines like The New York Times’ “aimless adventures of a hip narcissist” got traction, Akhavan groans, “Ugh… because people are stupid,” before cracking up. “It’s just a narrow way to view something you don’t quite relate to or understand. And when people hear deadpan comedy, they assume that it’s automatically hipster and unemotional. But to me, it’s both intelligent and self-deprecating. It’s a smarter delivery than a wink and a nod at every joke.”

Despite vastly promising reviews – even the NY Times piece wraps positively – Appropriate Behaviour has been relentlessly analysed. When the film debuted at Sundance, Vanity Fair cried “lesbian Persian-American Girls knockoff”. Considering the ubiquity (and impunity) of male-led sitcoms, the criticism felt amusingly clunky – but it’s tricky to laugh off when such attitudes are bound up in funding for TV and film. “The impression I get is that each network has very few spots for female-driven shows and shows with queer content,” says Akhavan. “Once they have that audience, they wanna move on to other things that appeal to a different, diverse audience. And I understand business and how that works, but at the same time it feels like there’s such an endless supply of stories about middle-aged men and their much hotter wives, having really boring, vanilla lives. And because it’s a model that’s proven to make money, people do it again and again.”

It’s depressingly inevitable, but to dwell on Akhavan’s ‘niche’ appeal overlooks not just her emotional breadth, which is universal, but also her acting smarts. Despite her characters’ ambivalence, they have disarming depth: when a herd of five-year-olds roll up to Shirin’s filmmaking class – she’d been expecting studious teens – a few seconds pass in which her face performs a silent soliloquy of despair, disgust, terror and grim resignation. The transitions are so subtle you barely see a muscle twitch. In a sense this sort of comic ennui – the feeling of one’s role being forever underplayed – is as integral to the postmodern era as high drama was to wartime, and realism to its fallout. As global awareness tyrannises our generation’s conscience, gallows humour becomes second nature.

“Even when I lost family members, I remember my first response was to laugh. For some reason, my gut reaction is that everything hits me as absurdly funny”

“Even when I lost family members, I remember my first response was to laugh,” Akhavan admits thoughtfully. “That’s really weird and melancholy, but for some reason, my gut reaction is that everything hits me as absurdly funny.” She pauses, caught between nostalgia and self-scrutiny. “You know what it is? I don’t know how my face should respond. Instantly I’m like, ‘Am I acting the part of someone in mourning? What should my face be doing in this moment? How should I register how deeply this hurts?’ And then suddenly the relationship between me and my expressions strikes me as absurd. It’s the same with sex. I was very much raised on television, and I’ve been so conditioned to be like, this is what a sad face looks like, this is what a happy face looks like, this is what a sexy face looks like. So much of life I experienced first through a movie or TV show, and then I had to reinterpret it for myself. We’re all kind of doing an impression of something we saw someone else do.”

It’s easy to link that sense of imitation – that we’re TV-trapped in a walk-through culture – to the feelings of apathy and futility often levelled at artists of her age. But beneath the ambiguous dispassion, the “hip narcissism”, what shines is a timeworn hope in Akhavan’s mission to breathe life into generation deadpan. “I have a suspicion,” she says, “that there’s a universality to all these very simple feelings. When I get close to people, and I really dig beneath the surface, people feel left out, deeply alone in the world, unlovable. No one wants to show their cards, but that is how everyone feels. And the way we make up for it – either with extreme confidence or extreme discomfort – is who we are as a person.”

Appropriate Behaviour is out in cinemas Friday 6 March

Lead image Desiree wears jacket Simone Rocha, T-shirt Reiss, trousers Jil Sander; hair Hiroshi Matsushita; make-up Danielle Kahlani at the Book Agency