Interview with Desiree Akhavan
How did you get the part of Chandra? Were you a ?Girls? fan prior to doing the show?
I was a huge fan; I watched every week. It was just as I was hitting that point of withdrawal at the end of season 3 that I got an email asking if I could do a table read of the first five episodes of season 4. The reading was an incredible experience because I was surrounded by my idols. Afterwards, I got an email from Lena [Dunham] and Jenni [Konner] asking me to play the role of Chandra. I literally screamed out loud alone in my apartment.
Have you been able to watch the episodes you?re in? People have different reactions to seeing themselves on screen.
I have. I?m a director myself, and I have performed exclusively in projects that I?ve made, so I edit a lot of the work -- I?m used to watching myself. But ?Girls? has been a very different experience. I?m usually in the editing room shaping my performance in post and there?s such a level of control and comfort in that. Watching this season is really surreal and strange in a way that I?ve never watched myself before. It?s been a pleasure to watch, in as much as watching your own face do weird things can be a pleasure. I have to say, I?m a big fan of the hair and makeup team, and the lighting. [Laughs.] I?ve been very surprised at how flattering it all is.
What was it like to play Chandra?
It?s funny because a lot of her criticisms of Hannah are things that people have said of me and my work. Like how can you take something seriously when it?s so clearly been inspired by the author?s own life and experiences? I?ve taken real pleasure in those lines and playing this role because I knew exactly who Chandra was when I first read the part. Chandra?s such a type A, better-than-thou kind of person, and incredibly driven and motivated. She?s also someone who shuts down an argument. Like it?s beneath her to feel angry or let loose at all. I know I?m reading way too far into this incredibly small part, but I felt very strongly the minute I saw it and liked it.
Have you thought at all about the kind of writing she does?
Oh, I?ve thought a lot about that! This is going to be so embarrassing, like, ?Why does this woman have so much time on her hands?? I see Chandra as someone who comes from a Middle Eastern background and who hangs on to the heritage of her family -- she really considers their war to be hers. Instead of embracing the luxury she?s been raised with, she?s come to fall back on the hardships of the previous generation. I see a lot of artists who do that -- you really do get play the immigrant card when you?re the child of people who have survived war. She also has a really clear sense of good writing versus bad writing. I went to grad school at NYU for directing, and I know what those dynamics are like. There are some people who look at art as though there?s a real right or wrong, which is absurd because of course there isn?t. There?s just many shades of weirdness; you can?t define good or bad. But then there?s people like Chandra who have a real clear sense of protocol in the classroom and are very focused on how they can become the next Zadie Smith.
Are there workshops in graduate film school similar to what Hannah experiences on the show?
Oh, yeah. It?s so intense because you?re watching rough cuts of people?s work. Our second year of school we spent the first six months making these 10-minute shorts. We all crewed up for each other and shot on super 15 and produced our own movies. Then, the second half of the year was spent in this workshop where every week we screened a couple of rough cuts for a panel of faculty members who completely tore them apart. Some of them even seemed to take joy and pleasure in doing so; it was like a standup routine. Because we all worked together, and practically died making these movies, my classmates and I became really protective of each other, we became each other?s allies. But at the end of the day we needed to hear what we needed to hear. I needed to make a lot of shitty films before I made films I loved.
Another similar experience I had in grad school was with an apology letter that wasn?t really an apology. There was a student who was awful and was forced to write a fake apology that we all had to read. It was hilarious on re-enacting that experience on set.
What do you think of Hannah?s rant about the way female authors are perceived in the literary world? As a female filmmaker, do you encounter similar dynamics?
The literary world is so different than the film world, and yet it?s not. The details of what?s valued is entirely different, but the way in which they?re valued is entirely the same. It is gendered and it is bullshit and it?s definitely superficial, but in an entirely different way.
The thing about the film world is that I don?t think it?s about what women can or can?t depict on film. The community says it?s open-minded about women telling the kinds of stories they choose to, but the real truth is in what filmmakers get their projects financed. Money speak volumes in this industry. And as a country, we say we devalue stories by women for women, or by anyone with female protagonists. Take for example the movies that are all nominated for Oscars right now. None of them are about women. That?s how we show that women, and women?s subject matter isn?t important.
How did you get into filmmaking?
This sounds cheesy, but I always wanted to tell stories. I was constantly putting on plays, writing, performing, and I grew up in New York City, so theater seemed like the natural step for me. I went to undergrad for theater but midway through I took a film class and switched my major. Film made perfect sense to me -- it was the combination of everything I loved and it really suited my voice and the things I wanted to achieve. I?ve always had a lot to say that I haven?t seen reflected elsewhere. There was just a whole conversation and a whole view of life that I felt so isolated in and it was important to me to find a way to express that.
Your first feature film, ?Appropriate Behavior,? is out now. What?s that experience been like?
Oh, man. I can?t describe it. I mean, I don?t think about it often because I?m so much in the hustle of, like, ?move forward, keep going,? but it?s a crazy, exciting honor. This feels so grandiose -- but I feel like a piece of me is in the world. It?s so exciting that someone wants to see a film about a character that?s never been represented anywhere else.
?Girls? is about young women navigating their 20s. What do you think are the best and worst parts of that decade?
The best part? All the firsts. I discovered so much. Especially because I was very alone as a teenager; I didn?t have a lot of friends, I didn?t socialize a lot, and I was very isolated. I was so excited by the freedom of all those firsts; I made a bunch of fantastic discoveries. But it?s a double-edged sword. Because you?re new at everything, you?re always a rookie and you?re always doing it the worst possible way. You just have to fall on your face to learn these awful, awful lessons. But at the same time, who gives a shit? When you?re in your 20s, it just doesn?t matter because the stakes don?t feel high. You can brush yourself off and keep on going. I recently turned 30, and I really didn?t think it would have any effect on me at all. Let me tell you: I?m totally feeling the fact that I?m in a different decade. There is a whole new set of responsibilities and expectations that I hadn?t anticipated. When I was in my 20s, I felt like ?F**k it, I?m young. Who gives a shit?? And now? Now I really give a shit. [Laughs.]