From Arrested Development to her new comedy-mystery show, Search Party, Alia Shawkat has grown up on screen. We spend a sunny afternoon with the Hollywood veteran whose future looks brighter than ever
“We’re sitting in the sun on a bench surrounded by trees. I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now,” Alia Shawkat says with a laugh. “Like, I don’t want to leave this place.” The actress is talking about L.A., because she’s off to New York soon to film Search Party, the new comedy-mystery show she stars in, co-created by Michael Showalter and the team that made Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City happen. I don’t want to leave either, but for me “this place” is much more specific—the Griffith Park picnic table where we’re sipping iced coffee from the Trails Café—and my reasoning is much more personal: Shawkat is really freaking cool. I had my suspicions the first time I saw her on Arrested Development in 2003, when her comic timing as Maeby Fünke—the teen who convinced everyone she was a movie studio executive and made “Marry me!” a pop culture colloquialism—was on par with that of the cult show’s seasoned actors. It seemed pretty clear when she starred as a roller derby badass in Drew Barrymore’s 2009 film Whip It opposite Ellen Page, who’s still one of her closest friends. And her recent Broad City guest spot all but confirmed it when she showed up in season 2 as Ilana’s doppelgänger, facilitating one of TV’s weirdest and most hilarious sex scenes. When she rolled up to the park today rocking a Cross Colours snapback over her curly hair, a pale blue sweater, black shorts, and some cowboy-esque booties, apologizing for being a few minutes late because of a phone call about a movie she wrote, will star in, and is producing, it merely sealed the deal.
The fact that Shawkat is handling business like a boss is just one of the things that make her seem much older, or at least wiser, than her 27 years. It’s also her low-key demeanor and the unselfconscious way she talks about things like the Academy Awards (“They’re bullshit”) and gender dynamics (“These smart, amazing women, the minute a guy comes around, their voice changes, their energy shifts, and I’m like, What the fuck happened?”). But more than that, it’s probably the fact that she’s spent the majority of her life working in a very adult world. Shawkat, who grew up in Palm Springs, California, with two older brothers, was only eight years old when she told her parents she wanted to act. “We were a loud, jokey kind of family,” she says. “I watched [the Nickelodeon sketch show] All That, and I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to be on TV.’” It didn’t take long. After having her head shots mostly ignored because her Middle Eastern heritage (her dad is from Iraq) made her look “too ethnic,” as the agencies said, Shawkat was plucked from a hundred kids at a manager’s cattle call, and singled out again when she group-auditioned for an agency. She booked commercials for the Gap and Barbie during her first week of work, and her third audition landed her a role in David O. Russell’s 1999 film Three Kings. From there she starred in State of Grace (a female-fronted Wonder Years–like series narrated by Frances McDormand) and was then cast as Maeby in Arrested Development, a show that indelibly shaped not only her work trajectory but also, well, her. Shawkat was only 14 when she shot the pilot, which also included her first-ever kiss, with co-star Michael Cera. “Our sensibility and our sense of humor was molded on that show,” she says, playing with the large gold bangle on her wrist. “Both me and Michael have had distinct careers because of it. We’re both very conscious of the stuff we want to do because we started off like, This is the level you have to match.”
Unfortunately, Hollywood rarely rises to those standards, and auditioning for roles after Arrested Development’s all-too-soon cancellation in 2006 was a frustrating experience. “I was getting sent on auditions to be the snarky girl on a badly written show. And I was like, ‘I just played a snarky teen on the best show. Why would I try to do this again, and mimic a weaker version of it?’” Shawkat says. “I even went on an audition once and the feedback was, ‘She acted like she didn’t want to be there.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t.’” Shawkat was 18 at the time and, consciously or not, took a break from acting. She moved to New York with her then-boyfriend and explored a different creative path: painting. A year later, she decided to return to Hollywood, with decided being the operative word. “I truly was like, ‘I do want to be a part of this. I do want to act; I do want to write. I want to direct, I want to do all these things.’ But I had to figure it out on my own,” she says.
Shawkat didn’t eschew her newfound love for art, though. When we meet, she’s just returned from Marfa, Texas, where she attended the closing night of her solo exhibit—a collection of frenetic drawings with equal amounts absurdity and wit—at the eccentric town’s Wrong gallery. She chose to go to Texas instead of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, which was happening at the same time, where she starred in two of the festival’s films—The Intervention, a Big Chill–like ensemble movie written and directed by actor Clea DuVall, and Green Room, a punk-themed thriller featuring Patrick Stewart. It was a decision that speaks volumes about Shawkat, who seems to swing between the introverted life of a writer and artist, and the very public one of an actor. “It’s kind of like a yin and yang,” she says. “Working on sets is being very verbal and interacting with people and maintaining really high energy. You have to be in good shape, you have to look a certain way for a certain amount of time. Then I’ll come home, and it’s like I’ve gotta fill myself up again. Drawing or writing comes from spending a lot of time alone, wanting to escape to weird towns where nobody knows you, and pull that stuff in. I’ll drink more, smoke more. I won’t shower for a week, just wearing the same hooded sweatshirt every day. It’s like two different sides, but I feel like they balance each other out. Without one, I couldn’t do the other.”
When she returned to acting, it was with a mentality that pulled her other side into the process to stoke her creative fire—and not only in front of the camera. “I like to be much more involved now. It’s hard for me to just show up where they’re like, ‘You look great in the outfit, let’s get her on set,’” she says, affecting a “Hollywood producer” voice. It’s one of the reasons her résumé is packed with incredible indie films and guest spots—Damsels in Distress, The To-Do List, Getting On, Portlandia—projects where the chance for collaboration and input is that much higher. In fact, Shawkat’s guest spot on Broad City was her idea, after getting mistaken for one of the show’s stars, Ilana Glazer, more than a couple of times. (Abbi Jacobsen, the other half of Broad City, often shares her story of meeting Glazer and thinking she was “the girl who played Maeby.”) Shawkat threw the suggestion out to her manager. “Within the week I was on a group text with [Abbi and Ilana]. They were both just like, ‘Hey, bae, what’s up?’”
The role, in which Shawkat hooks up with Glazer, is brief but indicative of the characters she’s drawn to, ones that stand outside mainstream gender stereotypes and the seemingly ubiquitous male gaze. In The Intervention, her character, Lola, arrives at the vacation house where the story is set with her boyfriend, played by Ben Schwartz, but is (spoiler alert) hitting on Clea DuVall’s character, Jessie, midway through the plotline. In Green Room, Shawkat stands out in a part that was originally written for a male actor. And though she’s a Russ Meyer–inspired bombshell bank robber in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (“I had to wear fake tit and hip pads, and it was the most hair and makeup I’ve ever gotten on any job”), it’s a cartoonish sexualization in one of the year’s queerest movies. “I feel very lucky that the conversations I’m having with friends about sexuality and men’s gaze and the dynamics between men and women are coming to fruition in the work that I’m doing. I don’t think anyone has to make a solid decision like, ‘I only do these kinds of movies because I’m straight or I’m gay.’ I don’t view it that way. I don’t even look at myself as straight or gay,” she says. “And I think the stories that are coming out a lot more now are cleansed of sexual dynamics, or the sex wars of it. Obviously there are still a lot of roles where the girl is desired in a certain way, but it definitely rubs me wrong.”
Of course, the entertainment industry’s systemic biases influence the roles Shawkat plays as well. It’s been a long time since agencies said she looked “too ethnic,” but that doesn’t mean casting directors aren’t thinking it. “I think it’s still very prevalent for sure, they just don’t say it to my face,” she says, picking at the splintering wood of the picnic table. “There’s always gonna be white, blond girls. I’m mainly looked at as the friend. The ethnic friend who’s the supportive, sassy one, you know? People are so comfortable with that.” But the entertainment industry’s relationship to race is changing, she says, citing Aziz Ansari’s Master of None as just one example. “It’s happening. But what I’m looking forward to is making a movie where it’s not about that,” she says. “That’s the real change. You just make a movie—that person’s black, Asian, Indian, Arabic, whatever, and it’s not about ‘And I’m black, and I’m Asian.’ You’re just telling a regular story.”
As we sit at our picnic table, it starts to feel like I’m with the mayor of Griffith Park. Filmmaker Sebastián Silva (Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus, Nasty Baby) runs over for a gigantic hug when he spots Shawkat from across the way; halfway through our conversation, a friend she met at Burning Man a few years ago interrupts us to say hello. “It’s gonna seem like I’m so popular! I’m like, ‘ James Franco, oh my goodness, what are you doing here? Sit down with us for a second,’” she adds with a laugh. And while it feels like that could very well happen, she reminds me that out in the world, she’s not as famous as I assume. “I feel lucky that I’ve been working so long,” she says. “But I still get these write-ups where it’s like, ‘Fresh new face Alia Shawkat.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years!’” That’s what makes her so compelling, though: She does seem like a fresh new face, and probably will for 20 more