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'Miseducation Of Cameron Post' Creators Take Aim At Gay Conversion Therapy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The belief that homosexuality is a sin and that you can be healed of this sin with the help of Jesus is the premise of Christian gay conversion therapy. The new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post" is set in the early '90s at a fictional residential gay conversion therapy program called God's Promise where teenagers are sent by their parents or guardians usually against the will of the teenager. Once arriving at God's Promise, the teens are called disciples and are forced to conform to rigid rules. Their communication with the outside world is cut off for several months. And they have to agree that all sexual behavior outside of marriage between a man and a woman is a sin.

I have two guests. Desiree Akhavan directed and co-wrote the new film. Emily Danforth wrote the young adult novel the film was adapted from. The novel, also called "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," was first published in 2012.

Let's start with a scene from the film. Cameron, the main character played by Chloe Grace Moretz, has been sent to God's Promise after she was discovered making out with her girlfriend. In this scene, soon after she's arrived God's Promise, she's been invited by Reverend Rick, played by John Gallagher Jr., to talk with him over a game of pingpong. Rick is one of the people who runs God's Promise. He considers himself ex-gay, having been, quote, "cured of homosexuality" with the help of his older sister who founded and directs God's Promise.


CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: (As Cameron Post) So that's worked for you, then? Like, you changed.

JOHN GALLAGHER JR.: (As Reverend Rick) Yes. I changed.

MORETZ: (As Cameron Post) How?

GALLAGHER: (As Reverend Rick) It was a process. It's funny, actually. The moment things began to turn around was in a bar.

MORETZ: (As Cameron Post) A bar?

GALLAGHER: (As Reverend Rick) Yeah, a gay bar of all places. Two men from my church came in. They saw my car parked outside, and they knew I'd been struggling. So they came in looking for me.

MORETZ: (As Cameron Post) Wow.

GALLAGHER: (As Reverend Rick) It was God, Cameron. I asked for his help, and he gave it to me in the form of those allies. I was so deeply unhappy, but I didn't think I was worth saving. And I wonder if you've asked that of yourself. Are you worth saving?

GROSS: Desiree Akhavan, Emily Danforth, welcome to FRESH AIR. Emily, since you wrote the novel that the movie is based on, let me start with you. Why did you want to write about gay conversion centers in the early '90s?

EMILY DANFORTH: First of all, thank you so much for talking to us both. Gay conversion therapy loomed large in the landscape of my life as a closeted teenager growing up much like Cameron does in the novel in rural ranch town eastern Montana of the 1990s. I didn't go to conversion therapy, but there was this sense of it as a threat that if I spoke up more, if I came out - I knew I was gay, I was closeted - that certainly my friends, really my peer group would suggest this for me.

I was not raised evangelical. I was raised Lutheran. But all of my friends - eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade years - were evangelicals. And I think I associated with them. I think I tried to speak that language and think that way partly as an act of self-protection. I thought if I hang out with these folks, maybe I won't say that I'm gay. They'll kind of keep me closeted, which will be a safer space to be.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me you perceive the threat of like turning you into a gay conversion therapy center. You perceive the threat as coming from your peers, your fellow eighth graders, not from the adults. And that culture, I think, encouraged snitching on people you suspected were gay. Did you feel like your friends were also potential snitches?

DANFORTH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I think - it's so strange for me now to look back because even by junior, senior year, that was not my peer group. But I absolutely kind of went right in to what was like the danger zone. I mean, I was like, let me carry a Bible around high school with me. And let me meet with you in the mornings to pray before class and adopt, really, this whole sort of lifestyle that was not - it wasn't in my house. It was my friends with this sense that they're going to keep me from being true to myself essentially, and that's safer.

GROSS: Did you want Jesus to heal you from being gay when you were in middle school?

DANFORTH: I don't think that I did. I wanted to be accepted. I mean, I think like most middle school kids, I wanted to feel OK about myself. I don't think that I wanted Jesus to take this thing away. I mean, I don't think I ever really bought into it. I saw it more as a way to hide, right? I saw it more as an act of self-protection. But I don't think I ever really had the kind of faith that allowed me to believe that - to believe in it, I mean, to believe that it was true.

GROSS: I think the environment that you create at the gay conversion center is what's sometimes called a total environment where like everything in it is controlled. And the attempt is to control your mind, too. And everything is for Jesus. Even the aerobics exercises that they watch are Jesus-centered aerobics. It's a blessercize (ph), not an exercise. And I just want to play the song that's sung in this blessercize video.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Let's engage in some cardiovascular fitness for the Lord. Ready?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) It's going to be fun to blessercize with Jesus, to be fit for him in every way. He will bless my body, soul and spirit and keep you with him every day. I'm going to sing praise, Hallelujah. My body's growing firm and strong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You know what we're doing here? we're developing our inner person. You are heading toward Godliness, you see, in every area of your life. And that takes some work.

GROSS: OK. Emily, was there a blessercize video you based this on or something similar?

DANFORTH: There was. And in fact I think that's something we talked about.

DESIREE AKHAVAN: I just want to make it clear that Emily had written this amazing Tandie Campbell (ph) character, this jazzercise for Jesus icon. And we were going to shoot a video, but then my co-writer and producer Cecilia Frugiuele found this video online. And we ended up finding the rights to that actual video. And it's one of my favorite things in the whole film. And I did not direct it. So I just want to make sure it's clear that that was not created by...

GROSS: But it's real. But it's real.

AKHAVAN: Yeah, it's real.

DANFORTH: I love it, too. And that's kind of what I was saying is I think when we had first talked about that, you thought that I had made that up. You gave me more credit.

AKHAVAN: Oh, yeah. I did. I was like, stop making fun of Christians.

DANFORTH: I did not make up blessercize. I mean, that - what you're saying, that total environment, I mean, I think that's a lot of what I was adopting. I went only to Christian rock concerts for those first couple of years. It was this kind of sense that everything secular is sinful, and every aspect of our life has to somehow be - including aerobics, right? I mean, all of it has to be somehow in praise of the Lord.

GROSS: You know, at the beginning of the movie, your main character is in a Bible study class. And the adult leading the class is saying, you know, as adults, we're trying to undo the things we did when we were your age. You're at an age when you're especially vulnerable to evil. And you won't see it now or tomorrow, but what feels like fun is actually the enemy. And that enemy is closing a noose around your neck. Did either of you hear adults telling you that?

AKHAVAN: I didn't hear adults telling me that. But when I was doing research for this, that was from a sermon I heard. It was part of a much longer, very passionate, very violent speech.

GROSS: Violent in what respect?

AKHAVAN: It was for kids. It was for teens. And the way this man was criminalizing instincts of children felt violent to me. And the whole film while we were making it, like the last - no spoiler alerts here, but I think the last moment of the film you get to feel like these kids are finally allowed to be children again. And you realize that the whole time, they've had this criminal sexuality projected onto them and that actually they were just kids messing around.

GROSS: But, you know, this sermon isn't even just about homosexuality. It's about like all pleasure, the things that give you pleasure, they're sins. So it's kind of like cutting off the possibility of pleasure because it's evil. And I think - yeah.

AKHAVAN: I'm sorry to cut you off. But as I was co-writing the adaptation, I realized that everything about this world reminded me so much of my time in a rehabilitation center. I had spent time in an outpatient rehabilitation center for an eating disorder in my 20s, and it really changed my life in a fantastic way. It was a great experience and a really painful, difficult one. And I was really familiar with being in group therapy and the dynamics of giving yourself up wholly like to - not holy, H-O-L-Y, but W-H-O - to something larger than yourself and blindly trusting other people around you.

And when you're ill, specifically with an eating disorder, you lose connection with your own instincts and your own sense of hunger, your own sense of the right behavior and the wrong behavior. And you trust everyone around you. And there's something really - I wasn't raised religious, but the thing about religion that really attracts me is someone with all the answers. And there's such a comfort in that. It's interesting. When you have an eating disorder, you have a voice in your head that's speaking nonsense.

And the longer you're in therapy, or in group, or rehab or whatever, you slowly develop this other voice that combats it, that's, you know, the therapy voice. Or, the wanting to get better. You know? The other voice drowns out the crazy in you, and you slowly start to function a little better each day. And what if the voice that was drowning out your instinct was a religious one, and it was trying to kill in you the instinct that was as inherently a part of you as your sexuality?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, the way you're describing it, it's taking, like - the gay conversion is taking a legitimate form of therapy and group therapy and using it to fight who you are, not to bring out who you are. And it's doing it for harm, and not for your own good. So that's part of your doorway in, is having undergone a group therapy yourself, but feeling like it was a very positive thing, not a destructive thing. But, you know, in the gay conversion centers, what's really, like, unusual, inexplicable in a way, is that these conversion centers, the residential centers, they're trying to convert gay and lesbian kids from being gays and lesbians by surrounding them with other gays and lesbians...

AKHAVAN: I know.

GROSS: ...And giving them, like, gay and lesbian roommates. And it's like, maybe that's not the finest way of going about it. (Laughter).

AKHAVAN: I think there's something really beautiful in that. Your sexual instincts are being kind of beaten out of you with a twisted version of the Bible. But at the same time, you're connecting to people who are like you. And you're no longer isolated because you imagine these people who end up in therapy centers aren't able to connect to openly queer kids around them.

DANFORTH: Absolutely. And that's so much a part of the novel. Again, when it was set is that Cam doesn't know any other - certainly out queer kids, right? I mean, she's desperately querying any sort of film that she can get her hands on from the local video store that might have some kind of like hint of sapphic attraction in it. I mean, and so the idea that she's like finally meeting queer kids even though it's in the space where they're being told that what they are is a sin and they need to eradicate it, I think it's really powerful. I mean, I didn't know a single out person until I got to college. I mean, obviously, there were queer people in my town, but I did not know anyone who was out.

GROSS: My guests are Desiree Akhavan, who directed and co-wrote the new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," and Emily Danforth, who wrote the novel the film is adapted from. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Desiree Akhavan, who directed and co-wrote the new movie "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," and Emily Danforth, who wrote the novel the film is adapted from. The story is set at a gay conversion therapy residential center for teens.

I want to play another brief scene from the new movie "The Miseducation of Cameron Post." And in this scene, the main character Cameron, Cam, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, is being oriented to the gay conversion group God's Promise by the woman who runs the program, Dr. Lydia Marsh. And she's played by Jennifer Ehle. And she speaks first.


JENNIFER EHLE: (As Dr. Lydia Marsh) Your struggle is with the sin of same-sex attraction. The first step is for you to stop thinking of yourself as a homosexual.

MORETZ: (As Cameron Post) I don't think of myself as a homosexual. I don't really think of myself as anything.

EHLE: (As Dr. Lydia Marsh) You should think of yourself as a Christian.

GROSS: What I like about that scene is that it's clear that the Cameron character is too young to have a firm sense of her identity, and what she has as an identity is being drummed out of her. Do you want to talk about writing that line, Emily, about like, I don't think of myself as anything?

DANFORTH: Is that my line, Desi, or is that yours?

AKHAVAN: So I was going to say, this is kind of a genius...


GROSS: OK. Right.

AKHAVAN: I remember this specifically, actually.

GROSS: You wrote the screenplay, Desiree. Yeah. Go ahead.

AKHAVAN: I remember this so well because Emily had read a draft, and we wrote that scene. Like, that scene was mostly fabricated. But then I think it ended with, I don't think of myself as anything. And Emily wrote back, or we spoke on the phone about it and she was like, no, Dr. Marsh would say, you should think of yourself as a Christian. So that was a real collaboration between the two of us. If I remember correctly, that was...

DANFORTH: I'm going to take it.

AKHAVAN: ...Yeah - Emily yes-anding (ph) my co-writer and I finishing that scene.

DANFORTH: One thing I want to say about the character of Lydia Marsh is, at least in the novel, she was very informed by a woman named doctor - a doctor is questionable - Elizabeth Moberly (ph), who gets a lot of dubious credit for her early theories. She coined the term reparative therapy. She was doing a lot of work in this area in the 1980s. She was essentially a self-professed psychoanalyst. And she came up with this theory of part of the reason that people are gay is that they haven't had effective homosocial bonding, homosocial love with their parent. And a lot of this traces back to Elizabeth Moberly. So when I was thinking of Lydia, I was thinking of this woman that loomed large in 1980s and 1990s discussions of reparative or conversion therapy. That's who I was channeling.

GROSS: What were the worst consequences you each learned about, consequences for teenagers who were in these gay conversion residential centers?

DANFORTH: Absolutely suicide, I mean, either in the facility itself or after having undergone treatment and then gone home, other kinds of self-harm certainly, living a life of denial. I mean, I got a letter yesterday - an email yesterday from a woman who said that her now 50-year-old brother was very involved in Exodus and that the teachings of Exodus, which is referenced in the novel...

GROSS: That's one of the gay conversion groups.

DANFORTH: Yeah. It was an umbrella organization for all these gay conversion centers and preachers which has since disbanded. But she said he went to the conferences and, you know, essentially, he's 50 years old. This has been 30 years of this. And he still is, you know, living a life of denial and shame. So that's a consequence as well.

GROSS: Desiree, how did you go about casting the teenagers in this? Did you want to make sure that a certain number of the teenagers were really gay?

AKHAVAN: Well, I think...

GROSS: Was that an issue at all? 'Cause it seems to be an issue in casting now. You know, I'm thinking of...


GROSS: ...Like, Scarlett Johansson being pressured to, like, step down from her role as trans in a forthcoming film.

AKHAVAN: To me, that's completely different. I don't think it's appropriate as a director to ask teen actors what their sexuality is. It's - I mean, the cast...

GROSS: That's a really good point. Like, unless...


GROSS: ...Unless they're out - like, are you gay enough to...

AKHAVAN: Yeah, I know.


GROSS: Yeah.

AKHAVAN: People always ask me. Like, I get a lot of questions about this, and it's like don't forget these are all teenagers. It was a set of teens, and it's not my place to ask them who they prefer. And I think when people make assumptions about young actors, that's a bit toxic and gossipy. It's not my place. I care a lot that my HODs, my heads of department, are female. I care that my collaborators are queer. I want to create an environment where my work has authenticity. That matters to me, and that's within my control. But I think it's really strange to make assumptions about an actor's sexuality. In terms of gender, I think there's a lot to be said about casting trans actors in trans roles or seeing trans actors for cis roles. That's a debate I want to engage in, but I can't quite put my finger, you know, on a 19-year-old's sexuality and nor would I want to approach that.

GROSS: Emily, the novel "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post" is dedicated to your parents. When you were coming out, were your parents supportive of you?

DANFORTH: Is this the part where I cry?


DANFORTH: My mother absolutely was. I wrote her a letter. It sounds so curiously old fashioned, but I wrote her a letter from college. And then of course when you do that - if you come out that way, you just have to wait for the response.

AKHAVAN: For thanksgiving.

DANFORTH: I didn't know if she'd gotten the letter. Yeah, I sent it to her...

AKHAVAN: (Laughter) For Thanksgiving for...

DANFORTH: ...At her office so my father wouldn't read it. And I'm just waiting and waiting. I didn't have a cellphone. And finally the call comes in my dorm room. And she said I think the very classic, of course we love you, but I think life is going to be very hard for you. And I didn't tell my dad for several years after that. I mean, I think it was - you know, I just didn't think he would get it. He - so it was this weird kind of open secret where my mom knew and my sister knew. My dad, though, by the time, you know, my wife and I had been together for a number of years, he did come to my wedding and, I think, tried to come around and understand in his way.

AKHAVAN: What's interesting is that - like, this film is about gay conversion therapy, and it's specifically about the topic of coming out. And I'm queer, and I had to come out. My family - both my parents are immigrants from Iran. My brother was born there. They moved to New York City right before I was born. And coming out was hands down the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But I don't think that this is a film that only speaks to that experience. I didn't grow up religious. I didn't want to make a film that mocked religion and put down evangelical Christians. What I wanted to talk about was fear about going against what was right.

And that's what I felt growing up - that there is a very prescribed rulebook for behavior - for women, how to be beautiful, how to be feminine, how to be appropriate. For men, how to be masculine, for sex, how to do it, how to not talk about it, how to - you know, all these different things in life that you're coded. And, you know, I learned a lot of those lessons from film and television and then for how to be an American and then from my family and our insular Iranian community in the tri-state area.

GROSS: My guests are Desiree Akhavan, who directed and co-wrote the new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," and Emily Danforth who wrote the novel the film is adapted from. There's plenty more to talk about after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Desiree Akhavan, the director and co-writer of the new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," and Emily Danforth who wrote the novel the film is based on which is also called "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post." The story is set in the early 90s at a Christian gay-conversion residential center where gay teens are sent by their parents or guardians. At the center, the teens are required to accept that homosexuality is a sin and to cleanse themselves of that sin by finding Jesus.

Desiree, your parents are from Iran. They moved here in 1980 shortly after the Iranian revolution that led to an Islamist fundamentalist state. And you were born in 1984, so not long after your parents moved here. So what were the Iranian values about homosexuality that they were surrounded by in Iran, and how did that translate when they came to the U.S.?

AKHAVAN: It didn't exist. It...

GROSS: Homosexuality didn't exist?

AKHAVAN: Yeah, homosexuality doesn't exist. If you don't like something, it doesn't exist. The former president of Iran Ahmadinejad went to Columbia University to speak when he was president, which was not that long ago, when I - around the time that I was coming out. And he was on record - someone asked him about homosexuality in Iran 'cause it's punishable by death. And he said, well, there are no homosexuals in my country. Like, we have eradicated that problem. That is not an issue that exists.

And that's the way a lot of problems are approached in the Persian culture - that you don't talk about ugly things. And it just - you just turn your head the other way. So I didn't even hear of one Iranian homosexual my whole life. And when I came out, it was like saying - it was like coming out as a leprechaun or a unicorn. It was like a fictitious thing (laughter). And they were like, wait, what? What are you talking about? That's not a thing.

GROSS: Wow. That said, if someone does come out as homosexual in Iran, is that against the law? Would they be arrested?


GROSS: Would there be, like, official consequences for that?

AKHAVAN: Yes. Death by stoning. I mean, if you're caught - I wish I knew the language - but if you were caught being gay in Iran, you can be killed.

GROSS: So the fact that you could be stoned to death for being homosexual in Iran, do you think that - even though Iran is in denial on one level about the existence of homosexuality, how do you think that knowledge affected your parents and your own view of homosexuality?

AKHAVAN: It's just unacceptable. It's just a sickness. And I feel really privileged to know unconditional love. And I didn't quite understand what that was until I came out and I tested it. And I knew what it was to have made someone question their love for you and have to do the work to go around it and find themselves on the other side. And my parents are incredibly supportive now, but it was so hard for them, especially being bisexual. I was in love with a man when I was 20. You know, I was going to marry him. And we broke up, and then I fell in love with a woman. And that was really hard for them to take - to say, you know, if you had an option, why would you choose to make everyone's life more difficult? And I understood the point. I understood what they were saying - that I could close off a part of myself and exclusively date men. That that was something - I wouldn't be living a total lie.

GROSS: What was your reaction to that?

AKHAVAN: It's so hard because I think growing up in America makes - or it made me very - I don't know if self-indulgent is the right word. I put myself first, and I see it in my brother. He does not put himself first. He puts other people first. He is much more about other people's comfort, and he's a surgeon. He's a doctor, and he helps people for a living. And I am much more selfish, and I see the Iranians around me see themselves as part of a unit and part of a family and that their actions have consequences. And they want to make sure that everyone else around them is comfortable, and that never was my top priority. And it felt like breathing to be myself, and to be honest about who I was felt like breathing. But I knew that it hurt the people around me and that's sort of - it's weird to bring it back to the film conveniently here. That's why I wanted to make this film. That's what drew me to this - that these kids - they're suffering if they're not themselves. And that to try to brainwash them out of being themselves will damage them. And...

GROSS: You know, what you were just saying - it's like you were or maybe still are defining acting out your own sexual orientation as bisexual - that that is selfish.

AKHAVAN: Yeah, for sure.

GROSS: You still feel like it's selfish to do that because it might hurt your family? It's not going to hurt them - like they're not going to be stoned to death. They're not going to be imprisoned, that...

AKHAVAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: You know, like, you're not in Iran where there's...


GROSS: ...Going to be, like, secret police who are extra-patrolling them because...

AKHAVAN: I think it's elbowing out more space for yourself. And, you know, my mother was taught to be as small as possible and to take up as little room as possible and to make everything convenient for the people around her. And I don't think it's just a misogynistic thing. I think my brother was raised the same way. And when you're raised by immigrants, you are always fighting against these polar opposite instincts in you. And I say selfish with a grain of salt. I don't necessarily think being selfish is a bad thing.

GROSS: So, Emily, my last question for you. What is it like to see this...

DANFORTH: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Movie adaptation of your novel? How do you feel it speaks to the cultural moment we're in?

DANFORTH: One, conversion therapy is in the news again obviously. And just yesterday, for instance, Delaware became the 14th state to thankfully pass a law sort of forbidding it when applied to teenagers. And there are other states and municipalities in the act of doing that. So I think conversion therapy seems to be very much in the news, and people are having an awareness of it again, which is important. There was this sense for a long time that it just didn't happen anymore. But I also just think that the actors gave such honest performances that feel very queer and very real, right? They feel authentic to my sense of queer teens today.

GROSS: Well, Emily, thank you so much for talking with us. Emily Danforth is the author of the novel "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," which is adapted into a new movie by the same name co-written and directed by my other guest Desiree Akhavan. And, Desiree, I'm going to ask you to stick around 'cause I want to talk about some other work that you've done. And, Emily, just thank you.

DANFORTH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So we're going to be back after a very short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Desiree Akhavan, who directed and co-wrote the new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," which is adapted from a novel by Emily Danforth.

So Desiree, as we talked about before, your parents emigrated from Iran in 1980, shortly after the Iranian revolution. So you grew up in New Jersey and in Rockland County, N.Y. You went to college at NYU?

AKHAVAN: I went to grad school at NYU.

GROSS: And I think it was during grad school that you did a web series called "The Slope"...


GROSS: ...About a couple in Park Slope.

AKHAVAN: Yeah, I co-created it with my girlfriend at the time, Ingrid Jungermann.

GROSS: And I'm going to play a scene from that and then talk about how strange it must have been to do this with your actual...


GROSS: ...With your actual girlfriend. So you and your girlfriend, played by your actual girlfriend of the time, Ingrid Jungermann, play a lesbian couple living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And your girlfriend is in the park waiting for you when she sees a woman with an abandoned dog. And when you come, you see the dog who now seems to be your girlfriend's dog (laughter).


GROSS: And you're wondering, like, why did you take this dog? So here's the scene. You speak first.


AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) So you took it from her?

INGRID JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) Well, I mean, she had to take her kids home. They were waving in the car.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) So you just took over the responsibility of finding this dog a home?

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) What was I supposed to do?

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) You could have just left it here.

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) Well, I can't just leave it here, Desiree.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) Why not? It would have found its way on its own. It either would have adapted to its surroundings or died trying. It's the animal way.

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) We're in Park Slope.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) You know, this impulse you have to mother and domesticate? It's super gay (laughter).

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) OK. You use the word gay to mean both homosexual and lame, and that's - that's homophobic.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) Ingrid, how many homophobes do you know hanging out in the park sipping coffee with their super dykey girlfriends?

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) OK. OK, I hear what you're saying. But people who aren't homophobic don't call their girlfriends super dykey.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) OK. All right, I see your point. Only, if you weren't plagued by so much internalized homophobia, you would have reclaimed the term dyke by now, and you'd be wearing it like a badge of honor.

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) That's only if I say it about myself.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) Ingrid, you cannot re-appropriate a word and then not let me use it.

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) You're bisexual.

AKHAVAN: (As Desiree) I prefer bi-curious.

JUNGERMANN: (As Ingrid) OK...


GROSS: So that's a really funny scene. But I'm wondering if it echoes actual, like, conversations or arguments you have with your girlfriend who plays your girlfriend.

AKHAVAN: Yeah, we were just lampooning ourselves. I feel like we wanted to take the absurd stereotypes of who we were and play with it and make these silly personas. I think - it's so strange listening to it now because it's like an old journal.

GROSS: It's from 2011.

AKHAVAN: ...Listening to it...

GROSS: Yeah.

AKHAVAN: I know. It's from so recently, and yet it feels very dated to me. I guess - but basically that was - it took a journey to get there, and it's changed my life. We were both in grad school at NYU for directing films. And we had just both spent thousands of dollars we didn't have in loan money on making short films and spending a year laboring over these 10-minute films that we shot on 16 mm and, you know, had crews of 40-plus people. And just - and then - I mean, I can't speak for Ingrid, but I felt that I had failed with my film. I didn't really know what it was. It didn't feel genuine or authentic. I didn't feel in the driver's seat of it. Like, every time I'd look at the frame, I would be paralyzed with fear. I'd think, like - oh, God, would Noah Baumbach approve that frame?

GROSS: (Laughter).

AKHAVAN: And I would freeze, you know?

And then I applied to 30 festivals. I spent a thousand dollars on entry fees and got rejected everywhere - from the film festivals. And I just didn't know what I was doing, and nothing felt authentic. And I didn't know why I was doing what I was doing. I just was trying to blindly chase this goal of being a filmmaker and follow the rule book that NYU kind of gave us. And it felt kind of miserable.

And then I had some homework to do for a class where we just had to make a short film. And Ingrid and I were having a discussion about how we hated all gay films. And then we were like, well, I hate the way lesbians dress. Yeah, let's talk about that. And like, isn't it embarrassing to be lesbians? Like, at the time, I had just come out, too, to my family. And I was, you know, kind of wearing my lesbian persona for the first time, holding my girlfriend's hand in public for the first time. I was suddenly, in my mid-20s, bombarded with a lot of gayness that I hadn't had earlier.

And we took a step back. And I said, you know, we sound so homophobic. It's interesting. For two women who are in love with each other, we really do sound very homophobic. And she said, you know, we should write this down. This could be funny. And then we just shot it, you know, in two hours. We improvised it. We had our friends hold the camera.

And when we screened it for our classmates, it was the first time, with film, that I had felt the excitement and the energy and the joy that I felt with theater growing up. And I felt an audience in the palm of my hand. And it was something I'd missed so much since starting film school. And that's how that started. That it was - it was just making fun of ourselves.

GROSS: In the scene that we just heard, part of the issue is, what language do you use to refer to yourself or to other lesbians? Is super dykey OK...


GROSS: ...To describe someone such as your girlfriend? Did you go through that when you had just come out? Like, what language is OK to use?

AKHAVAN: I go through that with everything. I mean, I think - it's funny 'cause you've had me repeat several words over again - or sentences over again because I curse so much.

GROSS: Right. Yeah, I had to ask you to change the words so we wouldn't have to bleep you. Yes, and...

AKHAVAN: Exactly.

GROSS: And mission accomplished, yeah.

AKHAVAN: I don't use language appropriately. I am always using the wrong words, and it's something that I find over and over again in my life. So yeah, a dyke is one of those words. I use it with love, and I think it's a great word. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. Have I earned the right to use it as a bisexual woman? In the eyes of some people, no.

It's tricky, actually. Right now I'm editing something, and one of the characters uses the word fag. A lesbian uses the word. And I had a real discussion today about, you know, what are we going to think about that woman who uses that word? And is that appropriate? And this is the stuff that my life is built around. I'm really fascinated by the language people use and who's able to say what word.

GROSS: My guest is Desiree Akhavan, the director and co-writer of the new movie "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Desiree Akhavan, the director and co-writer of the new film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post." It's set in the early '90s at a Christian gay conversion center for teenagers. Akhavan's first feature was called "Appropriate Behavior." She starred as a woman who, like Akhavan, is the daughter of Iranian immigrants and is bisexual.

Well, what do you think about the word bisexual and about the connotations of it? Because like you identify now as bisexual. You've had relationships with men and with women. It wasn't too long ago, and in some circles it's probably still this way, that bisexual was seen as like a cover, like, OK, if you say you're bisexual, then you're really gay and you're just kind of hiding behind the cloak of semi-heterosexuality.

AKHAVAN: Yeah - bi now, gay later.


GROSS: Yeah. So you should just like come out and like, you know, say what it really is.

AKHAVAN: Well, men have that. With women, I think the thought is like you're straight and you just like, you know, the Katy-Perry-I-kissed-a-girl-and-I-liked-it persona. But with men, I think it's more - it's a phase. And your next stop is gay town.

GROSS: So how are you dealing with that when people think that of you?

AKHAVAN: I don't know what people think about me. It's none of my business. In terms of the word bisexual, I hate the word bisexual. And that's why I feel committed to keep saying it about myself because it's factually true. And I guess I want to push myself to say like, well, do I hate the stigma around that word? Can I reappropriate the stigma around the word? We were talking earlier, you asked me - so the working title of my TV series was "The Bisexual."

GROSS: This was a TV series in the works for Channel 4 and Hulu?

AKHAVAN: Yes. And we...

GROSS: Called "The Bisexual," yes.

AKHAVAN: Called "The Bisexual." And it's a bisexual dating comedy. And like, that was always our working title. And then, you know, we're going on the air in months, and none of - nobody has come up with a better title. And at the end of the day, I think I just have to live with that discomfort. And the word is factually correct. Why does it make me uncomfortable? Why does it feel disingenuous? And that's what the show is asking.

GROSS: Do you think the fact that bisexual is the B in LGBTQ - that it shows a certain kind of acknowledgement of bisexuality as being like legit and not just like a cover for being straight or a cover for just, you know, lesbian chic or whatever?

AKHAVAN: I don't know. I mean, it hasn't touched me that we're part of the acronym. I mean, it's very cool that it's in the acronym. But that hasn't changed my prejudice against that word. I think it's not even about labels. It's about the fact that it's neither here, nor there. It's funny. I see a real parallel between being bisexual and being the child of immigrants. I don't feel American, and I don't feel Iranian. And yet, I feel very much both and neither at the same time. You're - you can't point to something and find comfort and be like, well, this is me. You live in the gray area. You're somewhere in between.

GROSS: Is that a comfortable place to be?

AKHAVAN: It's a very uncomfortable place to be, but it's home. So I'll take it.

GROSS: Speaking of home, now you're living in London (laughter).


GROSS: So you're even more in between because you're not only, you know, of Iranian descent and American, but now you're living in a different country altogether.

AKHAVAN: Yeah. I moved here three and a half years ago. I came out for a week to do press for "Appropriate Behaviors" U.K. release, and I ended up not getting on the plane home.

GROSS: Because?

AKHAVAN: I was happy. And I felt accepted and really liked for the first time in my life in a weird way. Also, conveniently, my producing and writing partner lives here. Her name is Cecilia Frugiuele. And we co-wrote "Cameron Post" once I moved here. And she optioned the rights. And she pushed me to make the film. I was terrified to make "Cameron Post." "Appropriate Behavior" is like 50 percent fart jokes. It's not - - I mean, I love it. I love it. But it's - I thought "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post" as a book was so masterfully done in tone, with the balance of humor and drama. It felt bigger than me. And I thought, you know, I really don't want to mess that up.

And then Cecilia's the person in my life who has the best taste. And she optioned it. You know, I told her I liked it. She read it and instantly said, this is what we're doing. And I always felt like if she thought something could be done, if she thought I could do it, then I can do it. And living near her is the best enabler. So it's been really great being close to the person in life. Who motivates you and believes in you. I mean, she's my - she wants - she always would like me to clarify that were not romantic partners. I talk about her as though she's my wife. But she is, you know, one of the loves of my life.

GROSS: So in talking about not feeling accepted totally and feeling in between, I read that when you were at Horace Mann High School, which is a prep school - is that fair to say? - that you were voted like the ugliest girl in the school. Is that a joke? I mean, was that supposed to be like funny, like...

AKHAVAN: If it was, it wasn't a very good one.

GROSS: ...A satirical take on, like, most popular?

AKHAVAN: Yeah. I mean, there was a hottest girl at school contest. And then this became a subset of that contest.

GROSS: Like, for real, or for - I mean...


GROSS: Like, who votes on the ugliest person in the school?

AKHAVAN: I don't know.

GROSS: Like, that's such a hideous thing to do.

AKHAVAN: But also, that's being a teenager. And if it's not - like, I think everyone's...

GROSS: And you're not - I mean, you're very attractive. Like, it just seems...

AKHAVAN: I appreciate that (laughter).

GROSS: It seems crazy to me.

AKHAVAN: I wasn't - I'm someone who grew into her face. I legit was an uncomfortable-looking kid. The Beast was my nickname.

GROSS: Nice.


GROSS: (Laughter).

AKHAVAN: But I'm very tall. I'm 5' 11'' and 190 pounds at that age and just did not fit into what an attractive girl at Horace Mann should look like.

GROSS: What impact did it have on you to be voted ugliest?

AKHAVAN: It gave me a crazy complex. I think I thought - and I still struggle with this in a lot of weird - I notice it when I'm stressed. It shines in different areas of my life. But this paranoia that I - because of the way I look, I'm not on the same plane as everyone else, that I'm at a deficit and that I need to catch up just to be normal.

But I think everyone has this with their own Achilles heel. My face and body became my Achilles heel, the thing I felt I had to apologize for or compensate for. But when I look around, everyone has an Achilles heel. It's just it manifests itself differently.

GROSS: So one more question. Since you're so influenced by movies and TV, tell us one of the movies or TV shows that profoundly influenced you when you were young in your formative years.

AKHAVAN: Tracey Ullman's "Tracey Takes On..."

GROSS: She played so many different roles in that.

AKHAVAN: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: She played, like, everybody, and male and female too, right?

AKHAVAN: Loved that show. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So what influenced you about that?

AKHAVAN: My family and I - see, there were very few things that everyone in the house could agree on. And her and Mel Brooks were two comedians that we just all loved. And she lost herself in all these different characters and just made you laugh, that there was just - there was no vanity there. It was just comedy. And that's the thing. If - I think if you can make, like, someone's immigrant dad laugh along with their teenage kids, then you're on to something.

Very personally, Marjane Satrapi's work, "Persepolis," the graphic novel and the books, really touched me. And I went to see that in the cinema with my mom when it first came out. And it was the first time we saw an Iranian woman tell a story that was personal and not braggy. I mean, she's homeless for a while in that story. And it really touched my life. And I think it made my mother see that there was a future for me...

GROSS: And she's a...

AKHAVAN: ...Telling stories.

GROSS: She's an Iranian graphic novelist and filmmaker living in France.

AKHAVAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, Desiree Akhavan, thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on your new movie.

AKHAVAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Desiree Akhavan directed and co-wrote the new movie "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post." Here's a great Irma Thomas recording that's used in the film's high school homecoming.


IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) You can blame me, try to shame me, and still I'll care for you. You can run around, even put me down, still I'll be there for you. The world may think I'm foolish. They can't see you like I can. Oh, but anyone who knows what love is will understand.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll ask the question, who is Maria Butina? The 29-year-old Russian woman has been charged with working as an unregistered agent of Russia in the U.S. We'll talk with Washington Post investigative reporter Rosalind Helderman about Butina's political connections, her relationship with the NRA and her activities related to the 2016 election. I hope you'll join us.

Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


THOMAS: (Singing) I know, I know to ever let you go, oh, it's more than I could ever stand. Oh, but anyone who knows what love is will understand. Oh, they'll understand. If they try love, they'll understand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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