Actress Adepero Oduye received the Rising Star Award from Starz Denver Film Festival last night. Oduye stars in Pariah, about a teenage girl, Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), coming to terms with her sexuality. We chatted with the up-and-coming actress about medical school, finding her calling, and what it’s like to have Spike Lee as a mentor.

You graduated pre-med from Cornell University. How did you go from medical school to acting?

Cornell was a pretty intense academic experience. I wasn’t really sure if medicine was the route, and my father passed away suddenly, and young. It was a wakeup call, and I realized life is too short to do something you don’t want to do. I took an acting class in my senior year, and loved it. It was the only class that I went to every single class, and it was challenging and fun. You know when you have that feeling where you just belong somewhere, and it just feels natural and right. It’s such a good feeling when you discover that. And so I graduated from school and was like, ‘I’m gonna be an actor.'”

How do you prepare for a role, and how did you prepare for the role of Alike, in particular?

“I’m really into research, watching anything, reading anything, I really like doing all of that. And luckily with Dee [the film’s director], she was very much like that, too. She gave me a whole bunch of suggestions of things to look at, to read specifically. One thing was Audre Lorde’s Zami. She also did really cool homework assignments. She sent me and Pernell Walker, who plays Laura, on a homework assignment where we had to go to a black and Latino lesbian party in New York City, in character. We also went into a straight environment in character—Dave & Busters in Times Square—and saw how people responded to us in that environment.”

Sounds like she really mixed it up.

“Yeah, and it makes everything so fresh and exciting as an actor preparing. It doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh I’ve got to prepare and get into this.’ It’s fun, it’s natural.”

Pariah was a short before it was adapted into a feature length film. What’s different about preparing for a short than a feature?

“With Pariah, it was expanded, and way more in depth into her [Alike’s] life. I’d never been the lead in a feature before, so it’s a bit nerve-wracking, and also exciting because I got to be on set every single day. I love, love, loved that. I would come home tired, exhausted, but I’d be so excited and ready to wake up the next day, no matter how early. And you know when that happens that you’re doing the right thing.”

You’re 33 years old. What was it like to play a teenager?

“I’ve always played younger. People say I have a youthful energy.”

What was it like working with Spike Lee and Kim Wayans?

Kim Wayans is such a beautiful person. She’s so generous and giving, so dedicated and committed. Obviously, she’s really funny. Such a pleasure to work with because she’s been in the business for a long time. She gave a lot of advice. And Spike Lee, that still is kinda like….wow. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing are huge, huge films to me. Every time I see him, he’s checking up on me, he’s making sure everything’s on the up and up with my career, and asking me questions. It’s surreal.”

You’re receiving the Rising Star Award at this film festival. What does that mean to you?

“It’s overwhelming. It’s an honor. I’m so humbled. There is no way in a million years I could have imagined the specifics of how this was going to go. It’s humbling to have people see your work, and want to honor you for that.”

What’s next?

“I’m reading a lot of scripts. And we’re just starting the whole press tour with Pariah. I’m really optimistic for the future. I have a very clear idea of the kind of work that I want to do.”

What kind of work are you most interested in?

“Dramatic, really intense, well-written, authentic…whether it be in film or theater or TV. Film is where my heart is, but I really do enjoy theater as well. Hopefully one day, direct and write myself.”

—Image courtesy of Starz Denver Film Festival, from the movie “Pariah”