For Desiree Akhavan, Hulu's Comedy-Drama 'The Bisexual' Is Very Personal
Desiree Akhavan drew on personal experience to shape Hulu's new, excellent comedy-drama 'The Bisexual,' which aims to explore bi desire and attitudes towards bisexuality itself.
There is, refreshingly, nothing typical about Hulu’s new 6-part drama series, The Bisexual. The show, which premieres on Nov. 16, begins with its central couple, Leila (Desiree Akhavan, who also co-wrote and directed the series) and Sadie (Maxine Peake), breaking up over Leila’s resistance to getting married. Until now, Leila has lived as a lesbian, but now finds herself wanting to act on her attraction to men.
How does Leila include this late-blooming bisexuality into her previous all-lesbian life, and talk to her group of lesbian friends—including the brilliantly dry and sarcastic Deniz (Saskia Chana)—about it?
Leila also moves out of the place she shares with Sadie, and acquires a straight male flatmate, Gabe (Brian Gleeson), who, given Leila’s sexual realization, you might think is being lined up as a convenient love interest. But not so fast; and that pretty much is the guiding thesis of the show itself. It’s a witty and invigorating recasting of sexual and personal mores set in a recognizably multicultural and diverse London.
The Bisexual was filmed in the fashionable Dalston neighborhood of the city, with characters behaving in believably flawed and stupid ways and none of the glossy self-affirmation of The L Word and Queer as Folk.
Akhavan, 34, is Iranian-American, and grew up in New Jersey and New York. Her first movie, Appropriate Behavior (2014, which she wrote and directed) was, like The Bisexual, autobiographically inspired. This year, Akhavan also directed and co-wrote the movie The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), about a conversion therapy camp for LGBT teenagers, starring Chloë Grace Moretz.
Now living in London, she describes herself as the “Goldilocks of Hackney,” who has lived in the East End neighborhoods of Lower Clapton, Hackney Wick, and now lives a little further east in Bethnal Green.
Akhavan spoke to The Daily Beast about the creation of the The Bisexual by phone from Mexico, where she was sitting on a jury at the Los Cabos International Film Festival.
The Daily Beast: Do you enjoy living in London’s East End?
Akhavan: I loved moving there. Now it’s like living on a college campus. Everyone around me is younger and more obnoxious.
TDB: In the show, Leila seems wary of hostility from her lesbian friends around her bisexuality. How welcome are bisexuals in the LGBT community now?
Akhavan: A lot of Leila’s phobia is internalized and her issues self-composed. My criticism is not focused on the community, just the ambiguity of the situation, and being gay in your 30s and 40s and asking, what your biases are when have to fight to be lesbian.
TDB: In your vision, Leila’s desire to investigate her bi-ness seems sudden. But is it?
Akhavan: Our story is that she has always been attracted to men and something she has repressed. It just wasn’t an immediate reality. She fell in love with a woman first and that's how the course of her life took shape.
TDB: The drama begins with their break-up, which is unusual.
Akhavan: Yes, there’s a proposal of marriage, a “I love you, let’s lock this down.” Leila has been in this relationship for 10 years, and now asks herself, “Is the life you’ve built the life you want?” And also: “Are you experiencing pleasure on your own terms?” It’s a time of sexual coming of age and female pleasure, a time of the pursuit of pleasure, having sex on your own terms and you coming into your body, a time of explorative sex. That happens in their 30s and 40s for a lot of women. It’s a hard thing to access in your 20s.
TDB: How autobiographical is Leila’s story?
Akhavan: I never came out as lesbian. I was always out as a bisexual. I was always upfront about it. But this is an incredibly personal project. My writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele is my best friend, and in every scene we are asking: "Who are these people in our lives; what does this remind me of—in my life, her life, the producers’ lives?” With Leila there’s a “choose your own adventure” aspect of what she does, in either doing the most ridiculous or destructive thing. I hope I have more self-awareness, but it is very personal and I can’t help but play on my best and worst qualities.
TDB: Were you treated with suspicion by male or female partners about being bi?
Akhavan: No. I was honest. People wouldn't choose to date me or be around me if it had been a problem. But I felt really uncomfortable saying it out loud. That was the genesis of the project. When I was doing press for Appropriate Behavior, I felt disgusted with myself when people introduced me as a “bisexual filmmaker.” “Bisexual” that word, felt like nails on a chalkboard, even though it’s factually true.
TDB: Why, “disgusted”?
Akhavan: I think because there’s very little representation. It’s hard to be openly bisexual. If you’re holding a man’s hand, it is assumed you’re straight, and if you’re holding a woman’s hand it is assumed you are gay. When you hear about bisexuals or bisexuality, it’s usually in reference to someone’s betrayal. That’s uncomfortable and something I wanted the show to explore.
TDB: Are there any big differences between the experiences of male and female bisexuals, do you think?
Akhavan: I think it’s harder for men, given the confines of modern masculinity. I wish I had explored it in the show. I think for some women it neuters their male partners in their minds. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that insecurity, but some lesbian women have it about bi women too. It’s that thing of not being able to trust someone fully. But that insecurity can be in any relationship: someone’s gender, or sexuality, doesn’t make them any less vulnerable to betrayal or capable of it.
TDB: Anti-bisexual prejudice is still prevalent then?
Akhavan: I was very shocked when a good friend said to me that Leila being bisexual meant she could never be monogamous. This was someone who knew me, and who said that. I had a few things to say to him.
TDB: You do something interesting with Gabe in the show; a male character who doesn’t end up with the female?
Akhavan: These two people don’t belong together. I like to undercut what people are expecting to see, and what TV usually shows. With Leila and Sadie’s relationship, I wanted to look at monogamy in long-term relationships, growing together and growing apart. There is stability, responsibility, and comfort; impossible to leave, but they got together so young.
TDB: Are the political and cultural times we are in significant? In America, the Trump administration is attacking LGBT rights.
Akhavan: For anyone who isn’t a straight white Republican it’s a weird world right now, particularly for queer people and other minorities. I pitched the drama before Trump took office. The show has a lot more to do with Brexit than it does with Trump. It’s the only show on TV where you can watch two Middle Eastern women in a car, talking, taking up the screen with their different bodies and different ethnicities.
I wanted to show a multicultural London, not the whitewashed, idealized way of life TV often shows.
Britain and Brexit is sad and depressing, but not as depressing as the news coming out of the U.S.. Both London and New York, where I am from, are bubbles in their own countries. I’ve lived in London for four years, and every year I learn more about the way British people communicate. (Akhavan laughs) Every year I understand another level of the passive aggressive way they talk. Now I can understand all the social cues.
TDB: The Bisexual is also very different from the shiny-faced “positive image” strain of LGBT character and drama on TV.
Akhavan: I do think the show has positive images, but they are also honest. It’s condescending to make everything neutered, family-friendly, 2.5 everything. That’s not why I make films or TV. I write to tell the truth of the world as I know it with honest dialog about bodies, sex fluids, lust, and also social norms and dynamics. This is a story about finding your footing, and trying to find the life you want. A lot of what we see on TV is a lie; growing up we are spoonfed these lies and I’m not interested in continuing these lies.
TDB: Are you single yourself?
Akhavan: I’m in a relationship and not married. Marriage, to me, seems like a pretty lie people sell you to be like other people. But I go back and forth about it. I would love to make a commitment and build a family, but right now I am making my work my life, it’s something I do 24/7 and is a lot of my identity. Everything comes secondary to the stories I want to tell.
TDB: Leila’s best friend Deniz is a wonderful character: very hard on Leila, very dedicated to her parents, a whole range of emotions.
Akhavan: Deniz is based on a good friend of mine who worked in her parents’ off license [liquor store], and in her 20s took care of her parents and acted as their translator and carer. I wanted to look at that, and the sacrifices of that. She’s the funniest character, with the lowest bullshit threshold. I’m asking people to sit and watch 3 hours of television, and so it is better to have something heartfelt and meaningful to say. It seems immoral to take up space in somebody else’s life without having something urgent to say. And I have a lot of “urgent” to say.
TDB: Where do you stand in the straight actors playing LGBT roles debate?
Akhavan: For me, it’s very different casting trans roles compared to casting gay roles. The experience of being a trans person in America is dangerous. It’s very different to being homosexual. As long as it is so dangerous for trans people, it is ridiculous their stories are being hijacked by straight and cis storytellers. Those stories should be told with authenticity from the mouths of people who know them first-hand.
When it comes to gay and lesbian and bisexual stories, it’s important to have authentic voices at the helms of these movies and TV shows, but at the same time I don't think the actors have to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In this show, I’m queer. This is my story, it’s heartfelt. Most heads of department were lesbians. It was as authentic as it could be.
I wanted to cast Maxine Peake because there was no equivalent queer actor I wanted to play Sadie. Maxine Peake was always my top choice. She’s not queer, and I’m OK with that morally. We have proven ourselves authentic and “from the horse’s mouth” with this project. I’m not saying straight actors should always play queer roles, but that this is part of a bigger conversation about authenticity, representation, and tokenism.
TDB: What do you think about the evolution of LGBT representation on screen?
Akhavan: I would like to see more queer authors and directors doing their work. More respect should be given to queer stories when it comes to financing and promoting films. I think we’re in a good place. Huge progress has been made: look at Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name.
But there is very little money put into queer female stories. It never ceases to amaze me, how much fear there is around female sexuality. It’s a lot to do with power. I don't think women are allowed to have power on screen or off. It makes people very uncomfortable. Producers want to make money, and people are afraid of taking a risk. I don't necessarily think the film and TV industry are very brave.
British producers are far more willing to take risks than Americans. But people are lemmings: they want to mimic the last thing that did well financially.
TDB: How has your family or loved ones responded to The Bisexual?
Akhavan (laughing): I really impressed my very straight brother. He very much inspired Gabe. He’s always sticking his foot in it. He’s harsher than Gabe actually. He’s a big fan of Game of Thrones and The Wire. We don’t overlap in tastes or our perspectives of the world. He gets really frustrated with me, he always asks why I keep getting naked in things.
He saw the show finally. He laughed so much. This really queer show made my brother, the most heterosexual man on the planet, giggle like a schoolgirl. That made me really pleased—that we're were capable of pleasing a straight male audience who normally wouldn’t want to tune into something so queer. It’s the biggest compliment in my life. But he doesn’t think I’m that funny in real life.
TDB: Will there be a season two of The Bisexual?
Akhavan: I haven’t decided yet. I have an idea and know what I want to do. Season 2 is a definite possibility. I’m also exhausted right now and vulnerable. I really want to take a dance class. I just need to find a genre. Ballet is too slow, tap is too loud. Hip-hop is too sexy, I’d just laugh at myself the whole time.
I haven’t seen people and my family for such a long time, so want to do that. I’m also writing a book at the moment, a collection of personal essays in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. She is amazing; she makes the most banal stories, like about painting a house, so funny and spectacular.
The Bisexual premieres on Nov. 16 on Hulu.