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Desiree Akhavan on Finding Slapstick Comedy in The Bisexual’s Awkward Sex Scenes

Desiree Akhavan. Photo: Getty Images

In Hulu’s The Bisexual, Leila (Desiree Akhavan) finds herself on a break from a longtime partner and on a personal exploration of her own sexuality. But if it sounds like a typical coming out story, it’s not: Leila is in her early 30s and identifies as a lesbian; now she’s struggling with telling her queer community that she’s also attracted to men.

The series, which originally aired on the British network Channel 4 and premieres on Hulu this Friday, is in that sweet spot between drama and comedy. It’s heartfelt and sincere, but with screamingly funny sex scenes and relatable awkward humor. At the center of it all is Akhavan herself (fresh off the success her Sundance Award-winning film The Miseducation of Cameron Post), who is not only the star but also The Bisexual’s creator, writer, and director. Recently, Vulture spoke with Akhavan about her new show, filming awkward sex scenes, and why the term “bisexual” makes her uncomfortable.

Where did the idea for The Bisexual come from?
It started because I was doing press for my first movie, Appropriate Behavior. I star in it as well, and it’s about a bisexual character, and I kept hearing myself introduced as a “bisexual filmmaker.” It made me really uncomfortable. I realized it doesn’t bother me that they’re calling out my sexuality — I’m very open about being queer and if they had said the lesbian filmmaker, I would think I would’ve felt proud. For some reason, the word bisexual, even though it was 100 percent true and I always outed myself as bisexual, it made me feel really embarrassed in my gut. It sounded like nails on a chalkboard. I thought that’s really interesting. I should explore why does it make me feel so uncomfortable when it’s something that I’m open about and it’s totally true about me. That was the seed of the whole idea. What would it be to make a television series about a bisexual? Why is it something we haven’t seen before? It grew from there.

Do you still feel the same way about the word “bisexual” after making the show?
I will say the fact the show is called The Bisexual and that I keep having to repeat the word over and over again, I think it has been like immersion therapy. I’ve developed a thicker skin around it and I think I’m starting to feel better about it. It’s slow and it required four years of developing a television series called The Bisexual which is all about the various stereotypes and prejudices against it.

I found that I’ve been leaning more toward saying “queer” instead of “bisexual” because the latter has less baggage and results in less invasive questions.
Yeah. I think people have a really hard time wrapping their brain around where you’re coming from with that. What’s so silly is that it’s very simple: You feel exactly the way that anyone else does, only gender is not the deciding factor. It’s not the catchall. I think people can understand what it is to be gay or lesbian or queer, but then when you say that you’re bisexual, there’s this idea of like, “Well now, I can’t relate to you on any level.”

I assumed that The Bisexual was about a straight woman who comes out as bi, rather than a lesbian who does. Why’d you approach it that way?
I thought it was a major taboo — to see a woman go from women to men was something that would instantly make her seem like a negative villain, and I wanted to explore why [and explore] the discomfort that we would have as queers watching this show. When I told the plot to lesbian friends, they were all very offended, and I wanted to get into why. What does that mean about a character? Why is that a betrayal? She’s not saying that her past is a lie.

The sex scenes really stood out to me. Leila has sex with men and women throughout the show, and the scenes are often realistic, intimate, and awkward all at once. What’s it like filming those?
It’s a journey. It was very tense because we had very little time and I feel like majority of the sex scenes fell at the last half-hour of the day. It was like, “Quick, fuck!” It was something that so much planning went into. I definitely had a different point of view as a director and a different goal with each scene.

I don’t think there’s a big difference between the sex that you have as a straight woman and the sex you have with a gay woman. The differences lie in the partners’ personality, not in their gender. That was important to be in the show, but each sex scene is really different. The first one is terribly awkward and it’s her losing a certain type of virginity. It’s her having sex with a man for the first time and having a very teenage experience at the age of 33. That’s where that slapstick comedy came to place for me, and the awkwardness of it. As we go on, I think that she discovers more about her body. She’s having sex with new people and figuring out … what are her tendencies to fall into when she has sex? That was interesting to me. What are the different stories you can tell? What are the different relationships she’s having?

I think sex has a lot to do with wanting to fuck your feelings away. I think they’re all motivated by very different emotions, and they’re all very different stories. That was exciting as a director.

Were you pulling a lot of stories from your own life and from friends’ experiences?
Oh, for sure. I co-wrote the show with Cecilia Frugiuele, who’s my best friend, the producer of my films, and [who] co-wrote Cameron Post. It was about us pouring our lives, our friends’ lives [into it]. In addition, our executive producer and our producer provided a lot of their stories. Everything came, I think for the most part, from something true to us or people we knew. It’s got a lot of the truth in it and I think every time that there is a scene that we were bumping up against [or] had trouble with within the writing room, it was because there wasn’t a personal “in.” That was the solution: “Okay. Then, how do we transform this into something that feels true to life?”

The Bisexual feels very specific in terms of Leila’s journey but also has a universal feel with other plots.
We definitely wanted to make something that spoke to more than just myself and my producer. Also, [Leila’s roommate] Gabe brings such a different perspective. Gabe is really my ode to all the straight men in my life — particularly my brother. With Gabe, I feel like we wanted to explore masculinity and the tropes of it and the pitfalls. He’s an outsider in this world, but he has good intentions and he wants to be friends. That’s the sweetness of it, that he and Leila have this friendship over the course of the show and it develops, and by the end of it they really experienced the world together. They’re each other’s safety net and I like that it’s a story of a friendship. One of my favorite shows is Broad City. I really love stories of friendship and friends navigating life together.

What are you hoping people take from the show?
I hope the show makes people laugh and I hope it’s entertaining. I hope people feel less alone. It’s about friendship and desire and pleasure. I hope it humanizes bisexuality, that it’s a representation that is not reductive. I think people are really quick to become alienated by that term.

I’d want people to take away that our similarities bind us more than our differences alienate us. That Leila and Gabe are not people you would imagine having a similar point of view in the world, but they do. They find so much common ground. I think we live in a time that people use their differences to draw lines in the sand and I just think there’s so much more that universally brings us together even though the details blow us apart. I think, at the heart, that’s what the show’s about.

Desiree Akhavan on the Comedy of The Bisexual’s Sex Scenes