Michelle Williams. Elizabeth Olsen. Adepero Oduye?
Yep, the star of “Pariah,” who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, has joined those big names as a nominee for best female lead actress at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards. Oduye, whose biggest movie role to date has been the “Crack Smoker” in “Half Nelson,” can’t believe it.
“It hasn’t really sunk in that I’m actually a nominee, as opposed to listening and watching for other people,” says the New York-native. “I’m telling people I’m just taking it one hour at a time. I try not to get too far ahead of myself because then it’s just like, ‘What’s happening?’”
Something many people can’t believe is that in “Pariah,” opening Jan. 6, the 33-year-old Oduye plays 17-year-old Alike, a lesbian who has come out to her friends but not to her parents (played by Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell). In mid-December at the Four Seasons Hotel, Oduye talked about the Sundance hit, saying “You don’t have to be a young, black lesbian from New York City to get something from it.”
How do people react when they find out your age compared to Alike’s age?
Either applause or people are people are like, “Whoa!” Some people think I’m just straight lying. People just think, “No, you can’t be.” And I tell them, “I’m pretty sure that’s my age,” and I take it as a big, huge compliment because it means people really believe [the film], and that’s all I really wanted.
Have there been other times in your life when people comment that you look younger than you are?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I get that all the time. All the time. People are like, “How old are you? 23?” I’m like, “Oh, no.” It’s always like 23, 24, 25, and it’s always flattering but I’m always just like, “No, no, no, nowhere near that age.” [Laughs.] It’s funny, at Sundance, people were like, “Oh, so are you still in school?” I can tell they’re still thinking I’m maybe in college perhaps. And I’m like, “No, I’m done with school.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?”
[Laughs.] “So, do you think [you’ll do this for a career]?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for some time.”
“What do you think of the new Miley Cyrus album?”
[Laughs.] I’m like, “Who’s that?” But it’s flattering.
You had an assignment to go into a black and Latino lesbian club in character. What was going through your head during that experience?
It was interesting. I was in a club full of women but I felt like I was in the club with men and women. The women were either really butch or really femme. I had to keep telling myself, “I’m in a club full of women; there’s no men here.” But it’s like people check the box. It was very clear, the gender roles were very, very clear, and very extreme. So the women that were femme were ultra-femme and the women that were butch were ultra-butch, and then there was a small group of women who were in the middle but they all hung out together. And for me I felt like I was on the outside looking in. Nobody was talking to me. Pernell Walker who plays [Alike’s friend] Laura, she was dancing with women, getting numbers, ‘cause she was in a very clear, she was clearly defined. I was in the middle and people were just circling around me and outside looking in. and I felt very awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to stand, I didn’t know how to dance, ‘cause I’m dressed a certain way but my body wants to dance another way. It was overwhelming and I just had to stay frozen.
Do you think that’s why they didn’t come up to you?
Yeah, when you saw me, it was like this weird middle thing so people were just kinda like, “OK, I’m just going to ignore her.” I felt truly invisible. That was the first time I got specifically into the world of Alike and what that was all about.
Did you and writer-director Dee Rees establish a limit to staying in character? Where would you have drawn the line?
[She was] there, kind of watching, making sure everything’s OK, but they didn’t interact with us at all. They just basically threw us in there and it was kinda like, “Whatever happens, happens. Whatever you’re comfortable with happening, just go with it.” I definitely felt super uncomfortable, and I think Parnell she tried to get me to stick a dollar, there was like a go-go dancer in the bar, like stick it in her g-string, and I was like, “No, no no!” I was like, “Ahh!” It was a lot.
Alike has an incident involving fake male genitalia that’s white. How much will this movie increase the amount of time people spend thinking about the race of their sex toys?
[Laughs.] I don’t know! That’s a whole ‘nother world I was just introduced to. I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting.” The day that we shot that scene, I thought, “I should be more uncomfortable. I should feel more weird about this, but I don’t.” It was a nice time to be light on the set. I like brushed up against the DP with the dildo on and making people laugh and uncomfortable. Some of the guys would just look at me and look away and didn’t want to look too hard. The interesting thing about Alike wearing the white dildo, usually you see stories like this from the perspective of white male sexuality. It’s just interesting that the first time she tries to enter that foray, it’s through white male …
Why did you feel like you should feel uncomfortable?
I don’t know. I guess it’s kind of weird. I was like, “I should feel weird. I’ve never seen a dildo before or held one before.”
That’s what they all say.
[Laughs.] It was more funny, more fascinating. Like, “Oh, wow, OK.”
On homophobia in the African-American community: “To me, personally I think there’s homophobia in every community. I don’t think it’s any more prevalent among African-Americans. I have friends who are gay, who are white, whose families have shunned them. I have friends who are black or Asian or Latino whose families have embraced them. It’s been a cross-section all across the board. I think there’s conservative people in all communities.”
On the percentage of people that pronounced her name correctly at Sundance: [Laughs.] “Um, I’d probably say like 30 to 40 percent. They always have to ask. But I’m used to it. Once you see it on paper it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’ But there’s always a little bit of a pause, like ‘How do you say your name again?’ … I hear all kinds of variations of my name. but I’m so used to it I never get offended.”
What else she’d like to do: “I would love to do action. I really love action films. I would love to play Nina Simone in a biopic. That would be a dream, dream, dream role. And I would love to meet Oprah Winfrey. That’s one that’s top top top. Not play her, but she’s working on this film called ‘Ruin,’ this adaptation of this play that won a Pulitzer Prize in New York, I think she’s going to be in it. I’d love to be in that film too. That’s a project I would love to be a part of.”
What she wants to do in Chicago, which she last visited when her brother graduated law school from Northwestern 5-6 years ago: “Check out food. I love food. Any city I go to I try to eat something really cool from that city. Just eat eat eat … Usually what I do when I go to a city I Google ‘Best restaurant’ or ‘Best brunch’ or ‘Best breakfast’ and see where it is and find my way over there … What’s Chicago known for? I had Giordano’s, I had that yesterday. I hear Chicago has really good food. I love food! It’s pretty bad.”
On “Half Nelson” co-star Ryan Gosling: “He was just a really cool, down-to-earth guy. He was just doing all these heavy things, he was just really cool. I was only on set for one day. He was just a really nice guy. A really nice, generous guy.”
Movies she’s not ashamed to love: “The Notebook” and “Speed”
An album you still love after hearing it a long time ago: “Anything by Michael Jackson. So Michael Jackson ‘Thriller.’ I love love love it.”
Something new on her ipod: “Frank Ocean. That’s on repeat right now.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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