In the new film "Pariah," Adepero Oduye plays Alike, a 17-year-old African American girl in New York struggling to reconcile her identity as a lesbian and an emerging writer with the expectations of her conservative parents and her outspoken best friend. The role required much of the young actress, as Alike experiences plenty of emotional tumult navigating the complex terrain of coming of age.
Perhaps the most outwardly remarkable aspect of Oduye's performance, however, is that she's nearly twice as old as the character she plays.
"She totally shaved off the 16 years and just made it work," "Pariah" writer-director Dee Rees said of the 33-year-old Oduye.
In person, Oduye, one of seven children born to Nigerian immigrant parents, exudes a youthful charm, but the statuesque actress also seems to possess the same kind of wise inner calm that animates Alike. The Cornell graduate said that growing up in Brooklyn, she, too, often felt like an outsider wrestling with how best to please her loved ones and pursue her own dreams at the same time.
"I immediately related to that feeling of not belonging, not feeling free and wanting to be free," said Oduye recently over lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel of her connection points with the character. "I knew what it felt like to do that. Alike seems to be at this point where she's wanting to let all of that go and just be who she knows is deep down inside. She's trying so hard, and it gets exhausting."
Much of "Pariah" centers on Alike's efforts to carve out her own identity as she repeatedly clashes with her devoutly religious mother. Audrey (Kim Wayans) suspects the truth about Alike's sexuality and makes every effort to set her daughter on a new path. She tries to bar Alike from spending time with her close gay friend Laura (Pernell Walker) and entreats her husband, Arthur (Charles Parnell), to take some sort of action.
Rees says that Alike's story is "loosely" based on her own life — the 34-year-old filmmaker hails from Nashville, not Brooklyn, and came out at 27, not 17. She discovered Oduye in 2006 when she was first casting the short that she made based on the first act of her screenplay; the actress turned up wearing her younger brother's clothes and after several rounds of auditions got the part.
"Adepero was a force," Rees said. "She really threw herself in and wasn't afraid to fully immerse herself in the character. It's a blessing to find your muse the first day out."
Oduye had planned to attend medical school, but when her father, a lifelong academic with multiple degrees, died suddenly during her junior year of college, she began to reevaluate her life goals. She enrolled in an acting class and immediately realized that she wanted to pursue a career in the arts — though she opted not to change her major.
"It was kind of a wakeup call that life is too short for something you don't want to do," she said. "He gave me such a gift. It's only because of that that I had the courage to even ask what it is that I really want to do."
After graduation, Oduye landed small parts in films such as 2006's "Half Nelson" and TV series including "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and studied with respected New York instructors Susan Batson, Austin Pendleton and Wynn Handman. She applied to be an extra in Rees' "Pariah" short and ended up with the lead role.
Although the short film landed a coveted slot at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, it took Rees and producer Nekisa Cooper three years to raise the funds to finance the feature film. (Even then, Rees says she got the micro-budget indie done "on layaway and coupons.")
Oduye says that time gave her the opportunity to "become more grounded as an actor" and to feel adequately prepared for the movie's eventual 18-day shoot — though to further help the cast members bond, Rees also set up a mock therapy session for Oduye, Wayans, Parnell and Sahra Mellesse, who plays Alike's sister, days before filming got underway.
"I felt very comfortable, and I felt that I was safe to really go to the places that I went to, really vulnerable, super-open places that I went to," she said.
Oduye's vulnerability is one of her greatest assets as an actor, according to costar Wayans. "She has such a sense of openness, you could just dive in and be in the same world that she's in and really empathize and really relate."
Critics assessing her performance when the full-length "Pariah" opened the Sundance Film Festival in January to a standing ovation certainly agreed. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, "To watch Adepero Oduye … is to experience the thrill of discovery." The Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey called the film "warm, incisive and surprisingly funny."
Almost a full year later, Oduye hasn't quite been able to process the attention — in November, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance — but she's optimistic that the film will help open doors for future dramatic roles in film or on stage.
"At the end of the day, if I can say that I had a career where I was able to play all different kinds of characters and I'm known as someone who is well-respected for my approach to the craft, that would be a beautiful life," she said.
In the interim, Oduye, who's continuing to make New York her home, says she's just pleased to have been part of a film that's reaching people from a diversity of backgrounds. While "Pariah," on the surface, tells a very specific story of a young girl hoping to reach beyond the constraints of her own life, its underlying message is far broader and more accessible, the actress says.
"You take away race, take away sexuality, it's about identity — it's about trying to find out how to be in the world," she said. "I think that's really powerful. Since Sundance, brave people have been open and sharing their stories about what the film means to them.... I'm thankful to have those exchanges. That's what you want art to do, to open people up and start conversations."