Turns out not every base on sexuality has been covered on television. So The Bisexual, a new series about a lesbian who turns mental traitor to her sexuality, appears to fit the bill as something current and relatable.
Fresh from winning an award this year at the esteemed Sundance film festival for her direction in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, film-maker Desiree Akhavan talks to Susie Daniels about her multi-faceted approach to tv and film and discusses the perils of open sexuality in Iran…
Whoever told you ‘I want doesn’t get’ is clearly wrong. Though even if they weren’t wrong, no one would dare tell Desiree Akhavan she can’t get what she wants.
She stars as a bisexual in her new Channel 4 TV series and her character Leila appears to also get what she wants in life.
Leila wants a relationship with a woman. She gets it. But now she wants to try something she’s never had before…with a man. It’s a bit taboo in Leila’s mind, like a forbidden fruit.
Once you’ve tried one fruit should you be picking from another tree? The trees are all there, is the torture in Leila’s mind. It’s also in the mind of director, actor, producer, co-writer (with long-term collaborator Cecilia Frugiuele) of The Bisexual, Desiree, who knew exactly what she wanted to say about this topic and how it should be portrayed.
Desiree explains: “When you have a vision you feel suited to wear all of the hats. I wanted to direct this. I wanted to write this. I wanted to stand behind the authenticity of the story. I was the voice.
“It’s not about me being in charge and wearing all the hats it’s about the quality of the work. It’s about the humour.”
The Bisexual is an interesting take on British urban life from outwardly confident, flirtatious but chilly New Yorker Leila (Akhavan) who is feeling confused and lost in London having just separated from her girlfriend of ten years and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peake – Three Girls, Funny Cow).
Leila moves out of their shared apartment and rents a room from somewhat pathetic lecturer and novelist Gabe (Brian Gleeson – Hellboy, Phantom Thread) whom she introduces to her lesbian friends whilst doing her best to help him decipher his unreadable girlfriend who happens to also be his student. Not quite The Odd Couple but very much the odd couple.
Desiree says of Leila’s flirtations: “It’s interesting. I think with the man yeah, Leila’s a flirtatious person.
“With the woman at work, Hammy, she’s very jealous of her. She’s envious of how cool she is, the way she wears her clothes, her beauty, her hair.
“Her relationship with her girlfriend is over and it’s about putting herself out there for the first time.”
The biggest torture in Leila’s mind is explaining to her lesbian friends that she’s bisexual. She has judged herself before giving her friends the chance to.
New Yorker Desiree, who has been very vocal about being bisexual and coming out at a young age, understands the psyche behind the character.
The American actress/director/writer says: “I personally think it would be fine to talk to friends. I think for someone who’s been a lesbian her whole life it must be hard.
“The person who has the most prejudice is Leila herself. She has a lot of shame around it. We’re not trying to say her friends won’t accept her.
“I never had a backstory for Leila. I wouldn’t do that. It’s a sexual coming of age story. She fell in love with this woman really young and they’ve been in a monogamous relationship for ten years.”
So following on from Cucumber, Banana, Tofu, Orange is the New Black and other fruit and colours of sexuality in programmes and films, what makes The Bisexual so different?
Desiree says it’s more the point of view it’s filmed from and the ethnicity that gives it an edge and newness.
And it’s something that in her parents’ native Iran would have meant certain death for portraying or even living life as gay.
She says: “I think this is a show which is honest and diverse. I haven’t seen a story like this before starring two middle-eastern immigrants who are lesbians with its awkward moments and with its great moments.
“It’s not a neat, tidy presentation. It’s not neutered. As television you have to take everything at face value. “Yeah, I think there’s a gap in representation. I don’t think we’re over-saturated in queer stories.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised by it (The Bisexual) out of my friends and family. “My brother was born in Iran and my parents moved to New York in the late twenties. I definitely wouldn’t be doing the same things if I was in Iran.
Being gay in Iran is punishable by death. I know there’s an underground community but it’s very dangerous. “It’s not safe for me to go there and I wouldn’t unless there’s a huge political shift. “
Desiree’s first film, Appropriate Behaviour, in 2014, saw her feature as a self-obsessed gay woman in New York leaving a relationship. Her character tested the water with many short relationships which she tried to hide from her Iranian family. It’s remarkably similar to her own life where she found it hard to come out to her Iranian parents. Following the success in the role she was cast in HBO series Girls and things have just got better and better.
In the latest film she directed, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film Festival.
The coming-of-age film, adapted from Emily Danforth’s novel, stars Chloe Grace Moretz.
It’s a meaty role which follows a teenage girl on prom night who is caught kissing another girl and sent to a Christian treatment centre, ‘God’s Promise’ where she is subjected to gay conversion therapy along with many others. ‘Pray away the gay’ is the notion behind the camp where no ‘camp’ is allowed.
The filmmaker says: “My second film is a teen comedic film about a lesbian sent to a teenage therapy centre. I am the type of person who turns to comedy a lot.
“It’s basically about a girl who kisses a prom queen and is sent to a Christian anti-gay camp.”
Though the movie had a great initial reception in the US it was only available via limited release which Desiree blames on the subject matter of female sexuality.
So, in order to positively represent all forms of sexuality in society what does Desiree think of Britain’s equal opportunity monitoring forms where applicants for jobs tick a box to show their sexuality and sexual preference; male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and positive discrimination towards all sexuality is promoted.
Desiree says: “That kind of thing doesn’t happen in America though we call it ‘affirmative action’. I don’t think it’s about just that. You need to create an atmosphere of sexuality. You can’t be blind. If [for example] more women were given opportunities to be promoted it would help.”
And with homophobia still a widespread problem in the USA’s southern states is a more brutal and cringe-worthy approach required like British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s take on American homophobia, bigotry and ignorance with his uncomfortable questions to councillors, reality TV stars and campaigners in American satirical series Who is America? that aired on Channel 4 this Summer. Desiree says: “That particular brand of Sacha Baron Cohen humour is a more aggressive form. I think for better or for worse his subjects are the butt of the jokes.”
The Bisexual will air on Channel 4 on Wednesday 10th October.