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Teyonah Parris talks about Spike Lee, 'Chi-raq' and sex

Actress plays Lysistrata in gang war adapatation of Greek comedy by Aristophanes

TEYONAH Parris descends like an angel from Quote Heaven to discuss her starring role in Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq."

Asked to describe her favorite scene, Parris says: "I got really excited about the sex match."

There really is such a thing in "Chi-Raq," adapted by Lee from the Greek play "Lysistrata," about a woman who stages a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war.

Lee applies the strike to present-day Chicago (the name, borrowed from Chicago rappers, conflates Chicago and Iraq), where women use abstinence as a means of persuading their men to end gang violence and all of its horrific collateral damage.

The movie concludes with Parris, as Lysistrata, on a bed with her gangster boyfriend (Nick Cannon) in the middle of a large arena, enacting a contest of seduction to see who will crack first. If Cannon's character yields, the gang wars end.

"We're shooting this in the middle of an armory," Parris said. "Spike has cameras all over the place, and he's following us around with a Steadicam. We have no idea where the shots or the angles are coming from. I really had no reference point at all for how this was going to look, visually. But when I saw the finished scene, I was so pleased, and so proud."

Spoiler alert, for those not up on their Aristophanes: Lysistrata prevails, peace reigns.

So does off-color language - Lysistrata's rallying cry is "No peace, no piece."

"It's a very sexual movie," Parris said. "There's a lot of sex. That's why I was so grateful to be working with Nick. He's so sweet, such a gentleman. He always made sure I was okay and comfortable. We really had to build trust early on, and very quickly."

Parris has solid credentials as an actress - she played Dawn Chambers in "Mad Men" and has an ongoing role in the Starz series "Survivor's Remorse" - but she had to hit the ground running in "Chi-Raq" and admits to being a bit disoriented.

Lee, for instance, never actually told her she'd won the coveted lead.

"One day we're having this very social breakfast, no talking about the work at all, and Spike is like, 'Oh, you didn't know? You're Lysistrata,' " Parris said, with a laugh.

Lee likes to keep the cast on its toes.

"You have to keep up with Spike. He's always moving, the project is always evolving. That's kind of been my relationship with the whole production. I have to stay fluid, so I can be available to do my best work."

Parris still has no idea why Lee chose her, but she's a Juilliard grad who can sing and dance - all of these skills come into play in "Chi-Raq."

"You show up ready to do a dramatic scene, and all of a sudden Spike has this great idea, and the next thing you know you're in the middle of this big dance number."

"Chi-Raq," funded by Amazon, is a fairly lavish production.

"Amazon has been amazing to work with," Parris said. "I know Spike felt that way. From what he told me, they gave him total freedom to create the way he wanted to create. And, of course, when he pitched this idea in establishment Hollywood, no one was interested."

The movie, as she notes, is an ambitious one - diverse samples of music, high drama, low comedy, rhyming verse. Samuel L. Jackson serves as a one-man Greek chorus, armed with outrageous garb and hundreds of lines of decidedly R-rated poetry.

"Spike has a lot of plates spinning in the air," Parris said. "The movie is aggressively imaginative. In its own way, it really puts the issue in your face. It's saying, we have to deal with this, as a community."

I asked Parris if she thought a sex strike would actually work.

"I do. If we look at history, we know that Leymah Gbowee, an activist, proposed a sex strike in the country of Liberia, and it played a huge part in ending the civil war," Parris said.

"A woman in Chicago is actually trying it. She's organizing a sex strike."

Something to think about if you're booking a weekend in the Windy City.