Creator, co-writer, and star Desiree Akhavan discusses how her personal experiences fueled the inspiration for her new winning comedy series, The Bisexual.
Hulu’s newest comedy, The Bisexual, succeeds because of the truth at its center. Acclaimed director Desiree Akhavan delivers one of the sneakiest surprises of the fall—an unapologetic comedy about self-discovery and that manages to make you ponder how far we still have to go when it comes to discussing sexuality. There have been many shows featuring gay and lesbian characters, but The Bisexual has a bisexual woman front and center.
Over the course of its 6 episodes, Akhavan’s Leila experiments with her own sexuality, but hides it from her closest friends. She breaks up with her long-term girlfriend, Sophie (a charming Maxine Peake), as they await for their clothing app to launch, and she moves in with a schlubby straight guy named Gabe (Brian Gleeson). But this isn’t a romance. It’s refreshing to see a coming-out tale not centered on teenagers or melodrama. There’s something quite gratifying to see a professional curious about sex and question sexual fluidity.
Akhavan is very eager for this show to open the door to more conversations about sexuality. She infused a lot of the humor and humiliation from her own experiences, and that prompts you to enjoy it even more. Akhavan is sharing herself with the world, and she’s seizing this moment.
You’ve been having a great year. The Miseducation of Cameron Post debuted at Sundance and won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and The Bisexual closes the year. How’s your 2018 been?
It’s…intense. It’s a lot of self-expression. I feel very exposed.
I live in upstate New York right now, and Cameron Post just played at our local gay and lesbian film festival.
Where in upstate, New York?
The screening I went to had a packed house and the audience was incredibly receptive to it.
That means the world that you say that. We filmed in Saugerties, New York which is right near Woodstock. I am really glad to hear that it made it to around where you are.
What was the inspiration for these 6 episodes?
It all started when I was I was doing press for my first film, Appropriate Behavior. It was the first time I ever heard myself introduced to other people as a bisexual. Every time I was doing a Q&A or an interview, it would be, ‘the bisexual director, Desiree Akhavan.’
Really? That’s so strange.
Well, I think it’s because the work was about sexuality. They would also refer to me as ‘the Iranian bisexual filmmaker.’ Now that I say it so much, since it’s the origin of the show, I do think, ‘that is a little fucked up’—to be called out like that constantly. At the same time, I am representing something that is so rarely seen that people wanted to showcase—so that’s cool. But if people would’ve said, ‘the lesbian filmmaker’ I would’ve been fine. There was something about the word ‘bisexual’ that felt really humiliating. It’s factually true, and I made a film about it. Still hearing that word used to describe me feels like nails on a chalkboard. So, I thought, let’s make a show about bisexuality. Why is this humiliating? That’s the thesis statement of the whole thing. Exploring what it is to be bisexual and finding out why it’s frowned upon, and gauche, and in bad taste? What impact did Anne Heche have to fuel that stigma?
So when your character says that bisexuality makes you feel like ‘your genitals have no allegiance,” did that come from an actual feeling you had?
It was me trying to figure out what the stigma was. I think if you boil it down, it’s this idea of if gender isn’t a deciding factor for you, what is? Is it just an open door policy? Are you open to anything? If you don’t have loyalty towards one gender, what do you have loyalty towards? And that’s years of asking myself what am I perceiving from the people around me.
Are you expecting people to think that Leila and Gabe will end up together just because it’s a man and a woman living together? I am sort of mortified that people would go to that mindset immediately.
People pussyfoot around it like ‘what’s going on with Gabe and Leila?’ If you stick around for the whole series, you discover that it’s the opposite of a romance. It’s a bromance. I was really excited to tell a story about a man and a woman that did not need to fall in love with each other. I realize watching it how rare that is. It was only once we were in a public screening for episodes 1 and 2, during the Dirty Dancing moment, that I realized that these characters would kiss in this moment. I really was excited to defy those expectations. It was set up for you. Any time you have people of the opposite sex in a scene, we’re coded for that. We expect it to happen. You can’t help but be wired to be together romantically. I was looking forward to setting it up for you and ultimately disappoint you.
That scene at the very end of the series with Leila and Gabe on the couch is really beautiful. She tells him how it is, and she’s not afraid.
It’s really also about masculinity. What it is to be a straight man and it explores family in terms of sex and in terms of career.
Towards the beginning of the series, Leila sleeps with Jon-Criss, and her reaction is rather joyous. She almost seems relieved that sex with a man isn’t what she expected it to be.
Yeah. It’s not just a release. In developing this, I thought about what it is to be with men and what it is to be with women. What would surprise people? If you boil it down, it’s how not different they are. How similar men and women are and how similar the experience to dating men and women are. It’s our culture and our different histories that make the difference. If you break it all down, it’s not different. Sex with women isn’t reinventing the wheel and that was an exciting thing to write because it was so clean. And so simple and straight forward. There isn’t some secret beyond door number two.
I love the chemistry between you and Maxine Peake, who plays Sophie. I always love when she pops up in something.
I love her too!
There is a lot of conversation about how your characters have been together for over a decade. Did you have any discussions about establishing that relationship?
We didn’t actually. I think a lot of building that is casting the right people. We were able to project onto the other the histories we had with other people. We both understood that world and that story very well. Maxine is the most experienced and most gifted actor I’ve worked with. I wish we had time together to rehearse, but it was a very rushed shoot. Fortunately, she’s someone who can pick up any tone you put down. It’s also really challenging working with a director who is every scene with you. There’s so much heavy lifting she had to do on her own. We all thought, ‘Maxine has it—we don’t have to worry.’
When I started watching the show, it reminded me of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work on Fleabag or Frankie Shaw with SMILF—great shows written, directed, produced and starring women. Does the current landscape of television give you optimism in terms of women telling their own stories?
It does. As a viewer, I’m very excited. These storytellers have always been there. I remember seeing Sarah Jones when I was in high school and being blown away by everything she did. I grew up wanting to be a playwright because I really thought that was the only way I could get my voice heard. My whole career started with a web series that I made for no money. It’s about giving yourself an opportunity with no connections, with no money, and tell your own stories until you’re able to break through to the marketplace or the industry. That’s what those women did. All these women enabled themselves, and we are starting to live in a world where that can lead to a mainstream place.
I was very lucky to work with Hulu on this. I firmly believe that these stories and these storytellers were always there. Suddenly, people are taking risks because of people like Lena Dunham and shows like Girls were able to monetize. It was because of shows like Sex and the City. Slowly but sure, over the last few decades, it’s been proven that there’s a way to monetize content by women, and I’m really grateful to be creating content at this time. I grew up on Tracey Ullman, so I’m not reinventing the wheel.
GLAAD recently released their study that said positive representation of bisexual characters makes up 27% of characters on television, but it skews more towards men. Do you feel that having a show explicitly called The Bisexual is…I don’t want to say planting a flag here?
It is planting a flag!
How does that make you feel to declare that space?
I was so excited to have this opportunity and be able to play all the roles within it. From director to co-writer to executive producer. I was so surprised that it was so uncharted territory. Creatively speaking, there were so many places to go. It was actually hard to whittle it down to 6 episodes, because the story and character possibilities were so wide open and unlike anything that I had seen—just because it is about bisexuality. I found that exciting in a very selfish way. When you’re telling stories, every story has been told. Set aside representation and the politics and the morality of it, but, for selfish purposes, I get to claim this for myself. There have been bisexual characters on other shows, but I wanted it to be front and center—to have it be the main plot. When I shared this idea with a queer filmmaker friend, a lot of people said, ‘Don’t do that…that’s offensive.’
Yeah, because it is uncharted territory. They said, ‘A lesbian sleeping with men? That’s fucked up.’ And I argued that she’s bisexual and closeted. They viewed it as a betrayal. But that excited me more! I don’t want to offend people, but what’s so taboo? Why does it offend people so much? Why is it okay to go one way and not the other way? To even have the inclusion of men was beyond the spectrum of storytelling at that point. That was very interesting to me. Storytelling asks questions and doesn’t chew your food for you. It gives you a meal, and it allows you to process it on your own.
Hulu debuts all episodes of The Bisexual on November 16th.