I’m not so much talking to Desiree Akhavan as in her presence. Not that she’s formidable – quite the contrary – but her height and striking features give her an immediate charisma. They’re balanced with a directness that’s both refreshing and endearing, an honesty that means she’s totally open about being bisexual and, although she never says as much, she gives the impression of expecting everybody else to be the same. And why wouldn’t you?
The New Yorker now lives in London and has taken time off from mixing the sound on The Bisexual, her new TV series for Channel 4 (on air next month), to front the publicity for her latest film, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post. Already the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance at the start of the year and a hit with audiences at London Sundance, it arrives in cinemas on Friday and is a project that started back in 2012 when a friend gave her a copy of Emily M Danforth’s novel. What immediately struck her was its honesty about teenage life. “I’d never read a queer coming of age story,” she says. “I love young adult novels and I love teen movies and it’s been a really long time since I saw one done well. Each year that passes, they get a little more dumbed down and a little bit more cartoonish and neutered. My experience of being a teenager was super messy, full of desire and disgust with myself. Nothing made any sense and the stakes were super high.”
Despite her response to the book, she didn’t immediately think of turning it into a film. That came from her girlfriend at the time, even though Akhavan had yet to make her first movie, Appropriate Behaviour (2014). Once that was done, she was looking for her next project, but the Cameron Post idea was something she wanted to do “one day”, if only because she felt it needed an experienced director. Producer Cecilia Frugiuele had other ideas, the rights were purchased and they started work on the screenplay.
The response to the idea wasn’t exactly overwhelming. “We pitched it all around Hollywood and London as well, and everyone wished us luck and that was it. So we wrote the script together and it was our first experience co-writing. It went really well, but it took a full year for us to figure out the tone and then we sent it out to a whole bunch of places and only one picked it up. But they wanted to make it for a quarter of the budget we had in mind so we had to re-examine the script and slash a few things to keep to their micro budget. We’re very much hustlers, with a can-do attitude. When everyone else says no, you can’t, we try to find a way to make it work.”
That attitude stood her in good stead when it came to casting the title role. She remembers meeting a lot of young girls but none of them were quite right and she was adamant she didn’t want a big name for the part. “I didn’t know if we were going to make the film,” she recalls. “I’d flown out to New York, I was about to buy a ticket back to London and I felt it just wasn’t working so we were done. And, as I was having a conversation with my financier to say we should just pack up our bags and go home, my casting director put a Post-It note in front me. And she’d written on it ‘Chloe wants to meet.’ I was shocked. I’ve actually framed that Post-It note! But the minute I heard that she and her team had read the script and that she wanted to meet, I was really excited because it felt like bonkers casting! And I thought I would love to see if she could do something different. I love Tom Cruise in Magnolia, I love it when you cast somebody in an unexpected role – like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. And Chloe was ready to do something in a completely different direction and it was the right timing.”
The film’s setting, a de-programming community, has been much publicized and Akhavan finds their continued existence “terrifying”, even more so when she observes that more centres are being opened up in New York and Los Angeles than anywhere else in the US, cities that are considered to be liberal. “As we got into the research for the film and met people who’d experienced this, I realized how relevant the story was and that it was still a problem. I think there is a lot that we close our eyes to when we live in liberal cities and we shelter ourselves – I shelter myself for sure – and in the last two years it’s become clear to me that a lot of fear is popping up. But it also has a lot to do with poverty, and with education.”
Just like when she finished Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan doesn’t have a new project lined up. When The Bisexual airs on British television, she’ll be looking for something new and would love to direct a Hollywood movie, a female ensemble comedy would be the ideal. She’s about to start hustling again ……
Desiree Akhavan was talking to Freda Cooper.
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is released in cinemas on Friday, 7 September.