For those unfamiliar with the web-series PSUSY (pronounced pussy) I would describe it as this: Funny and messed up. Like a short, sharp fever-dream, or waking up the morning after a big night out and being bombarded with horrifying, sweaty flashbacks of all the weird and terrible (but hilarious) things you did the night before. Life is scattered with strange moments, and the series has a way of picking these moments out, and amplifying them.
I caught up with the show’s writer and creator Jaya Beach-Robertson, who plays Karen, and actor Aria Dehar, who plays Sharee, the morning after their Season 2 launch party. Catch season 1 here and season 2 here.
Why was it important for you to write this show?
Jaya: I was really dissatisfied with the way women were portrayed, not just in NZ but around the world. There is a disparity between how men get to be portrayed, they have all these complexities and the characters that are created are allowed to be flawed and not perfect people. But the women are always the homemakers, and delicate. We really wanted to break these stereotypes and give people something else to relate to. Also, because I look slightly different than the typical person you see on TV, Ari is a bit different, I just wanted to show a vast variety of women.
With Ari’s character, I was looking for someone who wasn’t white, and I knew Ari from the Wine Society where we sold wine on the phone. Aria and Luciane worked there. She had never acted before.
Aria: I did a play in high school. I used to help my friends read their scripts but I didn’t ever do it. The grapefruit scene was the first scene I did, and I was terrified because I was so close to this guy’s junk under the blankets, and they’re just chucking grapefruit pieces on me. I have to admit, I went out and had a ciggie in between takes and thought, ‘What am I doing’?
Jaya: It’s amazing you stayed on. That was her very first day.
When you were writing this, were you just like, ‘I'm gonna make this as fucked up as possible’?
Yes, that's exactly what it was. I had a rule in my head and I still use it. It's, ‘Have I seen this before’? Have I seen someone go, 'I need an abortion please?' Just one abortion please’. Just having the most absurd ideas and being like, ‘Why not?’ I just want to break every rule, every pre-conception about everything. Particularly the abortion one, I was just really passionate about that and I wanted to do a lot of research on it and I wanted to do it just to be like, if people watch it, they'll gain something.
Aria: That's the thing, the ideas when you're watching it, they'll seem weird but they're actually not that far-fetched. Women go through these struggles every day and that's the grotty nature of being a woman in the 21st century.
Jaya: At the time there was all this stuff on the news about abortion and I thought OK, this is really important … There's a lot of women out there who don't have the luxury of being able to have kids and raise them, they need that option. I have friends who have kids, and it's hard. If you get pregnant at 16 you should be able to go in and say, I’m not ready for this, without having to say you're mentally or physically incapable of doing that, which is fucked up.
When I try to explain this show to other people, I'm like, it's really funny but it's fucked.
Jaya: It's not safe for work, it's, ‘What the fuck was that?’, but it's also, ‘Oh my God, that's so me’. You're being shocked, but you're also like, ‘Oh, I've done that.’
What are the themes in this new series that are really important to you?
Jaya: The main one would be the last episode which deals with consent. We used the metaphor of going to the hairdresser where my character just wanted a trim and comes out completely blonde with a bob. We have this dialogue, like, ‘Did you say no’? ‘Yes, I said no’. ‘Did you say it loud enough, like you meant it’? Aria's part is about racial discrimination and micro-aggressions. I didn't want to write that, because I haven't experienced it.
Aria: My thing is that, because I'm a fair-skinned Maori woman I feel like I don't want to do a disservice, so my experience with racial discrimination is stereotypes. Like, when I say I'm Maori, and then people are like, ‘Oh, so that means that you're this, and that.’
Jaya: That part of the episode was really powerful. We had these two business people just saying all of this horrific shit and then the characters get their revenge and stand up to them. We have this moment when they're in this room just smashing shit. I wanted to write it as a cathartic ending.
Aria: That was the best shooting day, it was so much fun. And we had the best food as well.
Jaya: Every episode doesn't have a message, they're scattered throughout. Even in the first episode having Hannah Tasker-Poland, she's a dancer, performer - just showing her full body and just being open. We're talking about vaginas, fully talking about vaginas and how women come into strip clubs and feeling like they don't have to tip, so there's a little bit going on there. It's kind of all sewed in subtly, I hope. I didn't want to shove it down people's throats, I wanted to make them laugh, and then be like, ‘Oh’. A lot of the politics of NZ leech into it.
I think just the nature of putting women up front, just becomes political anyway, right?
Jaya: Your whole body is political, which is great, but it's also kinda fucked up. I was thinking what I would say if I was walking down the street with my top off and someone tried to pull me over. I was imagining I’d say, 'What are you doing sexualising my body? Just because I have glands! Fuck you, I should be able to have my boobs out.' Sometimes it makes me really angry. So it's a very political show by proxy.
I always ask people, ‘When people ask where you're from, what do you tell them?’ So, I'll ask you that too.
Jaya: I say I'm born in America, but I’m half kiwi, half American. 50-50.
Aria: I'm from Ngāti Raukawa, but also everywhere. So predominantly Tainui but also a little bit of the East Coast. Ngāti maru, and French. Māori French.
What was it about your background that drew you into this kind of creative area?
Jaya: I’ve always been making stuff, like sewing or drawing and I’ve got no training in this. I never studied scriptwriting, I never studied film making. I don't know what made me do this, I think it was just because I wanted to say something. I really, really wanted to say something that people would listen to and this is what happened.
Aria: I did drama in high school. I had a little bit of an interesting adolescence, let's just say. I had to leave MAGS and I went to AGGS and I really began that process of coming into my own person in drama class. I think that helps a bit, I feel quite at ease with acting as Sharee.
Jaya: She was telling me about all these auditions she's had, because she just got an agent, which is dope, and she was saying to me, I don't want to play any of these characters. I just want to be Sharee.
Jaya, did you study acting at all?
Jaya: I continuously study acting. A bit of backstory, I was the weird kid in high school and I was like, 'I need to get out of here, I need to get out of here, I need to get out of here, I don't fit in'. So I went on a 5 month exchange to Ireland, had a very hard time over there, came back, started drinking and doing fun stuff. And then I went to university, I was thinking, 'I’m gonna study in a lecture theatre, I’ll live in a hostel, I’m gonna party all the time and drink and get drunk,' and then second year of University I fell into a deep depression and would sleep til 4pm and stay awake til 5am. I hated what I was studying, I was studying theatre, but I wasn't doing it, and I was so deeply unhappy. So I did 3 years of university and I didn't graduate. So I don't have a Bachelor of Arts, I don't have any qualifications because I’m 15 points short. That's one class. I talked to them about it, but I mean, fuck it, who cares. So, I finished university, I went to India with my mum for a month, came back, worked at Whitcoulls for a while. I tried to get into the actors programme. I was fixated on that course, I thought this is going to solve all my problems. I didn't get in and I was devastated. I was so broken. They suggested I do this acting class with Michael Saccente and I called him every day for a month until he called me back. Every single day. He called me saying, 'Who the fuck are you? You've been calling me for a month!' I was just like, 'I just really wanna do your class.' He said, ‘OK, you're cool, come to Auckland, you're starting in two weeks’. I was in nelson with my parents, so I moved up here. I sttayed on my friends couch for a week, found this dirty flat and I’ve been doing the acting class ever since. Every Tuesday for four years. I just had to do something.
Is the show self-funded?
Jaya: The funding for the first show came from a McDonald’s commercial. The one thing about this face is it's very expressive, so I get a lot of commercials. I had $2,500 from the McDonald’s commercial, and that paid for the editor and food and stuff like that. The second season I had saved up $13k and we had about 10k from a funder who pulled out 9 days before we were shooting. At the same time, I was doing my first big TV show for Netflix, and I had this money that was guaranteed, and it drops out. I thought ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna spend everything I have on this’. We then crowd-funded the post-production budget, which went really well. It’s all from me and our fans. And now, I have no money.
Is it important to you to be independent?
Jaya: Yes. It’s quite controversial because a lot of my friends get funding from NZ on Air but I’m quite averse to that, because I don't want people to say, ‘We really, really like this...BUT’. I don't want a ‘but’. I want to be able to make what I want to make. I'm looking for someone in Season 3 who has enough money to take a big risk on us. I really want to create the PSUSY world a lot more.
I read a lot about how to get money, and it was to approach people who are making stuff that you like and connect with and relate to. I cannot connect and relate to a good 95% of what we make. Top of the Lake is fantastic, and that wasn't even funded by us, that was UK TV. So I have to go out into the world. I have very high goals. I do think we need to find the niche market further out in the world, for it to get the views.
Aria: When you think of the show, you think of broad city right? When I think of it, I think of Ab Fab.
Jaya: PSUSY is a love letter to Broad City. They were the ones who I was like, ‘You look kind of weird, you don't look like a normal girl because you're a real person, and you have fat on your stomach and you have weird stuff and you act weird, that's like me!’ So, they gave me permission to be myself and put myself and on screen. They’re my heroes.
I love finding stuff on the internet that surprises me. I just want to make people feel a bit weird.