Above: All clothing, vintage, from Brownstone Cowboys. Jewelry, Akhavan’s own.
Below: Vintage fur jacket and jumpsuit from Brownstone Cowboys. Socks by Calvin Klein. Shoes by Proenza Schouler. Jewelry, Akhavan’s own.
This was a big weekend for Desiree Akhavan. Last Friday, her debut film, Appropriate Behavior, hit American theaters, the culmination of twelve months of festivals, screenings, and prizes, including a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. “It was just a roller coaster,” she says of the past year spent promoting her movie, a Sundance favorite she wrote, directed, and starred in that led to comparisons to Lena Dunham and her being hailed as, yes, the voice of a generation. “Some parts are really, really fun, like sinfully fun, and then some parts are such bullshit. It’s a really funny mix of lovely and terrible, but mostly lovely.”
It’s easy to see the comparisons to Dunham’s œuvre in Appropriate Behavior, which focuses on a twenty-something woman’s comedic struggles in life and love in millennial Brooklyn. Shirin, played by Akhavan, faces a devastating breakup, a painfully embarrassing first date, a lackluster job, and a family who doesn’t understand her. But Akhavan insists the film is not about her own life, regardless of the fact that she is, like Shirin, also a bisexual woman of Persian descent. “It’s not autobiographical in that the events of the film didn’t take place, but it was very personal in that at the time I was writing it I was going through a breakup and I had just come out as bisexual to my Iranian family, so I was sort of reeling from those awful experiences,” she explains. “It was a weird moment in my life when I thought that I would throw caution to the wind and make something that spoke to my experiences at that moment. The film became a hyper absurd version of the things I was experiencing and a way to poke fun at stuff that I was taking way too seriously at the time.”
Akhavan, a native New Yorker who initially attended Smith College to study playwriting, says she discovered her passion for filmmaking there while looking for a different kind of high. “I wasn’t really finding my home in the theater department and I became a total stoner,” she laughs. “I had one friend, and she said, ‘If you take this film class with me, I’ll smoke you up on the way there.’ I literally only took this class for free weed.” The class clicked, and Akhavan quickly switched majors and “put everything I had into becoming a filmmaker.”
She attended film school after graduating and began co-writing and co-directing a web series, The Slope, with Ingrid Jungermann at the rate of one episode a week. The signature blend of serious gender politics, Brooklyn satire, and self-deprecating humor that can be seen in Appropriate Behavior is apparent through the show’s two-season arc, during which Akhavan worked on the script for what would become her first film.
Akhavan says that her experience of coming out to her family while writing Appropriate Behavior helped shape the frankness of the movie, throughout which Shirin struggles with keeping her same-sex relationship hidden from her family. The act of putting a version of herself onscreen, she says, was nothing compared to baring herself to her parents, who now not only accept her, but even encourage her to bring her girlfriend to family events. “Once you tell the people that are the most important to you the last thing they want to hear about you, nothing feels particularly vulnerable,” Akhavan explains. “I don’t feel like the film exposes me in any way that made me feel vulnerable at all.”
This was a big weekend for Desiree Akhavan. On Sunday she joined the cast of HBO’s Girls in the second episode of the fourth season, playing one of the most scathing of Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) classmates at the Iowa Writers Workshop. “I’m really hard on her,” Akhavan says of her character. “I have a very strict idea of what good and bad writing is and I’m constantly undermining her.”
Girls may be Akhavan’s first television show, but she says she feels comfortable in the role, for which she pulled from her own experiences at film school. “I think graduate school for an art form is a tricky place to be,” she says. “In some ways, it’s incredible, but in other ways, it’s so intangible what makes good work and what makes bad work, but people treat it there as though it’s a fact. Being in that environment and portraying it onscreen was something that I really enjoyed and felt at home doing.”
Working on Girls, a comic coincidence given the constant Dunham comparisons, has been an education in its own right for Akhavan as well. “I’ve been on a lot of shoots and I know how different people work, and the way people work really is a good glimpse into their soul,” she says. “I very much enjoyed working with Lena. She’s as kind and sweet as you’d think she’d be, but what’s incredibly nice about being on her set is how generous she is. That was a set in which I felt comfortable bringing the most of myself to the table.” She laughs, “It was like how I’d ideally hope to run my sets, in a perfect world where HBO is behind it all.”
For Dunham herself, Akhavan proved to be a stimulating addition to the fresh season, a new source of humor and conflict and a perfect fit for the new surroundings. “Desiree has an incredibly specific and hilarious voice as a writer, director, and actor,” Dunham says. “I knew her energy would elevate our Iowa scenes and inspire me, and it did. She is a modern-day Daria cartoon in those scenes and a highlight of the season.”
Long accustomed to being a writing-directing-acting triple threat, Akhavan says all her recent experiences have allowed her to learn how to focus on one role at a time when it is called for—two at most. “It’s whatever suits the story, how I can best service this project that I care about,” she explains. “My skill set is varied enough that sometimes it could be all three, but sometimes no, it would be best to be in one specific arena. It’s really exciting to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
And she has been careful not to let the whirlwind of this past year—and this past weekend—get to her. “Attention is toxic, if it’s good or if it’s bad,” she says. “I think you have to be ready for the ride and just enjoy the ups and downs, because everybody just wants to work. That’s the one thing I feel in common with all people in creative fields: everybody just wants to work. So if, God willing, I can parlay this into more work for myself, that would be nice.”
Appropriate Behavior is out now. Girls continues on Sundays on HBO. Styling by Britt Berger. Makeup by Tracy Alfajora at Art Department. Hair by Rudy Martins at L’Atelier NYC.
Jonathan Shia is the editor of The Last Magazine.