Actress Adepero Oduye may be playing a pariah onscreen, but with just one leading movie role to her credit she’s already been embraced by Hollywood.
After mesmerizing audiences in her turn as a 17-year-old closeted lesbian struggling with coming out to family and friends in director Dee Rees’ indie drama, "Pariah," Oduye – who at 33 has no trouble playing a teenager – has already earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead, capturing the attention of the industry after several years laboring in bit parts on TV and film. The star-on-the-rise tells PopcornBiz that despite knowing that there was a certain chemistry happening in the role, she never saw her big breakthrough coming.
Did you feel that something special was happening between you and this character as you were portraying her?
I think so. It's one of those things where I guess you hear people say all the time, like, I was born to play this character. I feel like – I don't know – everything worked out for me to play this character. If I'd never got that email about the casting I just never would've known about it. So, it's just totally meant to be on so many levels, because it really solidified what I want to do with my life and what kind of work I want to do as an actor. It just made it all really clear, even the kind of people that I want to work with. Doing the short in and of itself was an amazing experience. It was like, 'This is awesome, so cool,' and I would've never thought that any of this stuff was possible, doing an NYU graduate thesis short – never in a million years.
How long had you been envisioning this before this opportunity came your way?
Meaning acting? I'd been in a lot of student shorts and PSA kind of things and theater, just anything that I could do to kind of act and do film. Film was like my sort of focus, anything that I can do. Any time I had a chance to sink my teeth into a role I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to do it.' Even if I wasn't getting paid I just wanted to do it. It'd been maybe four or five years of really committing myself before I even found 'Pariah.' I was just studying and doing anything that I could.
What did you find the most compelling about this character and what was the most challenging part of her to play?
I think the most compelling thing about Alike was that she gets knocked down and gets back up--she gets knocked down and gets back up. She just continues to be willing to put herself into positions to live and experience things. She just keeps going and then it all breaks. Then it's like the final break that, like, in the movie that breaking is that opening, it's that freedom. That to me is the most compelling thing, that someone can be so young and just keep getting back up and keep trying. She's somebody that just keeps at it, doing it very awkwardly or very painfully, but just keeping going. I think the most challenging thing was as an actor I had to be in a very open and vulnerable space to do it continuously. It could feel very raw at times, depending on the day or the week and you're body maybe just wants to shut down, but I had to continue to push myself, just keep going further and deeper and being more open. That's the story and that's what the character requires. I'm not going to die. When the day is done, I can go and eat a cheeseburger or have some Thai food and smile and laugh and sleep and then start all over again.
'Pariah' is the kind of film that can change people's hearts and minds.
Yeah, and that's been the really cool thing, especially at Sundance. That was the first outing of the feature. I talked with so many people. I think the majority of the audiences were white, to be honest, and they were able to relate to the film in so many ways. Here we have this very specific story, but it was like you don't have to be young, you don't have to black. You don't have to be a lesbian or from New York to get something from this film. There were parents and teenagers and people who were on their own coming out and people who weren't even technically out with their families just sharing. It opened up this dialog between people. I remember thinking that this was a powerful film happening right in front of my eyes. That's what you want film to do. There were people who even thought that they could never relate to this kind of character, but then were like, 'You know what, I was kind of like that in high school,' or 'I knew somebody like that.' It's great to be a part of something that can do that. It's really the best thing.
The reception this movie has received has feel to wonderful for you considering all the work you guys put into it. Did you see any of this coming?
No, none! You know, you watch people's careers and you go, 'Maybe one day when I'm older hopefully I can build a body of work,' but not in a million years, not for this project. I'm always still surprised and I'm always pinching myself, thinking, 'Wow.' I mean, I'm at The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and it's just really awesome.