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Adepero Oduye talks about starring in 'Pariah'

Actress has won raves for her portrayal of lesbian teen searching for her voice

Adepero Oduye talks about starring in 'Pariah'

Adepero Oduye's mother thought her daughter was going to be a doctor.

So when she found out her child wanted to be an actress, she was worried and even told her daughter, 'You're crazy.'

But when the Nigerian immigrant saw her daughter's starring performance as a teenage lesbian struggling to find her voice in the independent film Pariah, she was overwhelmed.

'She whispered in my ear, 'I'm very proud of you,' Oduye recalled during a recent press junket for the film which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday (30 December).

The 33-year-old actress, one of seven children, was a premed student at Cornell University 14 years ago when her father died unexpectedly. She realized that life is too short to not do what you really want to do.

'Just hold on to the beauty and vision of your dreams,' she says. 'If you are clear on that, anything can happen.'

Her change of course is finally paying off with Pariah which earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for lead actress against such competition as Michelle Williams, Lauren Ambrose and Rachel Harris.

'It's really surreal,' she says. 'All of this is pretty new. As an actor, you watch those things and you're inspired and think one day that might be me. But never in a million years did I think it would happen to me for this film.'

In Pariah, Oduye plays 17-year-old Aleke who lives in Brooklyn with her younger sister, her police officer father and her very controlling mother, a religious woman (played by Kim Wayans) who suspects her daughter is gay and is determined to change that.

'I immediately related to not feeling free,' Oduye says of playing the character who is a budding poet.  'I feel like Aleke was at a point where she is exhausted by juggling identities for everyone else. She knows that she's got some talent – she's got something. She's got a place where she can put her voice.'

To research the part and the various scenes – including underground lesbian clubs – that Aleke inhabits, the actress went to some gay clubs, in character, as well as to some straight places in character.

'I wasn't butch, I wasn't fem. People didn't know where to place me,' she says. 'I felt invisible. I thought, 'This is exactly what Aleke feels like.''

Oduye clearly admires her character's perseverance. She has to endure her mother's rejection, a romantic heartbreak, and her father's initial denial.

'She gets knocked down and keeps getting back up,' she says.

The actress is hoping Pariah will lead to more quality roles.

'I just want an opportunity to play amazing characters in amazing stories that are dramatic and well-rounded,' she says. 'I feel like there's a lot of things that I can do and this is just the tip of the iceberg.'