Desiree Akhavan: “I am bisexual – why is that such an embarrassing thing?”

The writer, director and actor discusses her pioneering Channel 4 comedy-drama about bisexuality... and why it was rejected in America

Maxine Peake and Desiree Akhavan, The Bisexual (C4, EH)

Bedwetter Desiree Akhavan has created a new series for Channel 4 called The Bisexual.

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As introductory lines go, that’s pretty embarrassing, isn’t it? But for the acclaimed writer, director and actor, it’s all she could think of when she read articles that introduced her as “bisexual”, because she found the label so “shameful”.

“Every time I did anything it was like, ‘Bisexual Iranian-American filmmaker.’ ‘Bisexual director.’ ‘Bisexual Lena Dunham,’” said Akhavan at a screening of her new show. “Every single time I did anything for press my introduction was always like, ‘And she’s f***ing women and men, too!’…

“It was deeply embarrassing and I wondered, well it’s technically true, I am bisexual – why is it such an embarrassing thing? I think if they had said, ‘Lesbian Desiree Akhavan,’ I would have been like, ‘F*** yeah.’ But ‘bisexual’? I was like, ‘Euuughh.’”

This feeling of humiliation was the “thesis statement” of Akhavan’s pioneering Channel 4 comedy-drama The Bisexual, in which she explores why identifying as such makes her “so uncomfortable”.

Unflinching and filthily funny, The Bisexual is written by Akhavan and her long-time collaborator Cecilia Frugiuele. Akhavan also directed the series and stars as Leila, a young woman who formerly identified as gay and is now exploring her bisexuality and struggling to come out to her friends.

Maxine Peake gives a thoughtful performance as her ex-girlfriend and business partner Sadie, and newcomer Saskia Chana, who plays Leila’s best friend Deniz, is sensationally deadpan and absolutely one to watch.

New Yorker Akhavan’s discomfort with the label “bisexual” is, she revealed, in part due to the fact that there “isn’t a face of bisexuality”. “It is something that feels disingenuous and also it’s not something you can really identify and put your finger to,” she said. “If I’m with a woman, I’m a lesbian… If I’m with a man, holding a man’s hand, we’re straight.” There’s no clear signaller, however, of being bi.

Akhavan also bemoans the lack of bisexual figures in the arts, with the rare exception of the former girlfriend of Ellen DeGeneres. “There’s Anne Heche and that’s it. And she’s not the best one. You can’t break Ellen’s heart and expect to come back.”

Saskia Chana as Deniz in The Bisexual (C4, EH)
Saskia Chana as Deniz in The Bisexual (C4)

The Bisexual was shunned by every US network Akhavan pitched it to, which is why the series was eventually produced for Channel 4 in the UK and is set against the backdrop of Hackney in London as opposed to its original home in New York. “I’m going to not be at all diplomatic,” she said, “I pitched this script in 2015 to all the networks in LA and was rejected everywhere.”

It was only when Akhavan came to the UK to promote her TV series Appropriate Behaviour – and she was staying on Frugiuele’s sofa and had just broken up with her girlfriend – that she decided to pitch The Bisexual over here.

“Before then, every conversation I’d had in LA was like, ‘But how are you going to appeal to men?’” Akhavan sighed, adding that American TV execs also proposed that the lead male character Gabe, played by Brian Gleeson, should have “a hotter girlfriend”.

“You’re just trying to fit yourself into this box,” she recalled. “I remember we went to one network and they were like, ‘Oh, but we have Transparent – we already have a gay show.’ And then you go to the next network and they’re like, ‘Well, we have Mindy Project, she’s a brown girl, it already exists.’”

Brian Gleeson as Gabe and Desiree Akhavan as Leila in The Bisexual (C4, EH)
Brian Gleeson as Gabe and Desiree Akhavan as Leila in The Bisexual (C4)

When Akhavan finally met with Naomi de Pear, executive producer at British production company Sister Pictures, they were bouncing ideas off each other like a “stacking Jenga of excitement”. Most of the crew working on The Bisexual ended up being women and, as Akhavan pointed out, “more than half of those women were lesbian identifying”.

“You were a minority if you were a dude on our set,” she said. “I communicate better with women personally, it wasn’t like [I recruited women] to level the playing field. Also, it’s such an intimately female story and crews are so predominantly male so it felt good to be on a set that was so female-centric.”

On the question of whether gay parts should be played by gay actors, Akhavan is very clear that with queer projects there should be “a queer hand at the wheel”. In The Bisexual, lesbian character Sadie is played by straight actor Peake, and in Akhavan’s new film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the gay lead is also portrayed by a straight actor, Chloe Grace Moretz – but Akhavan believes the sexuality of the actor does not necessarily matter as long as the right voices are behind the scenes.

“If they cast a straight actor and they have a lot of queer people on the team and they bring dignity to the role, I think it’s cool,” she said. “You can’t prescriptively say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to straight actors playing gay roles.”

Maxine Peake as Sadie and Desiree Akhavan as Leila in The Bisexual (C4, EH)
Maxine Peake as Sadie and Desiree Akhavan as Leila in The Bisexual (C4)

The Bisexual is a challenging and affecting drama which is deeply personal to Akhavan in that it delves into her complicated relationship with her own sexuality – so why make it a comedy? “The worst moments in my life were always hysterically funny to me,” she said.

And who does she hope will watch the show? Well, everyone – even neo-Nazis. “Then they’d have a brown friend… don’t you wish that people who don’t agree with you would watch your s***?”

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The Bisexual begins on Wednesday 10th October at 10pm on Channel 4