‘I’m not a quirky 17-year-old any more’: what Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat did next


The former child star on her role in hipster Columbo series Search Party, her familys strip club and why shes not an It girl

This is the longest Alia Shawkat has been home in a while. Its a perfectly sunny Los Angeles afternoon when she welcomes me into her Spanish-style house, nestled in the hills east of Hollywood. Im single and young, and I crave travel and new adventures all the time, she says. If Im idle, Im like, gotta get out of here!

The actor, known for her performance as sarcastic, unknowable teenager Maeby Fnke on the cult TV show Arrested Development, and, more recently, for her starring role in Search Party, is just back from a trip to Israel and Palestine. Her home looks lived in, though, with books and glasses scattered about. She puts a bowl of blueberries on the table and lights an American Spirit cigarette. Do you mind that Im smoking? she asks. I dont. A temperate breeze is blowing through the open windows.

Shawkat is riding high on the success of Search Party, a dark comedy about an aimless recent university graduate, Dory (Shawkat), who learns that her former classmate has gone missing and becomes obsessed with finding her. The show, on which Shawkat is also a producer, takes the cringe-worthy millennial self-involvement of Girls to its satirical extreme, but with an overlaid mystery plotline. Dory is equal parts Nancy Drew and Lena Dunhams Hannah Horvath; Shawkat has described it as hipster Columbo.

In noir sitcom Search Party

The show debuted in the US in November on TBS, a network not known for highbrow television, yet critics were quick to hail it as one of the best dramas of the year. Exceptional and surprising… the series I wanted Girls to be, said New York magazines Matt Zoller Seitz; in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum wrote that it basically invents a new genre: the noir sitcom. After Channel 4 released the whole series online, Search Party became a hit in the UK as well, with this paper calling it the sharpest TV satire in years.

The show sends up the way social media encourages people to perform grief with hashtags and empty sentiments, even when a tragedy doesnt affect them directly. In the pilot episode, Dorys narcissistic friend Elliott tells his friends over brunch that Chantal, the missing former classmate, sucked. Then he proceeds to tweet: In shock. Sad news about a sweet girl. Keep an eye out, people.

As her search for Chantal becomes all-consuming, it becomes clear that the quest is more about Dory herself. The series, Shawkat explains, is about building up so much anxiety about having a purpose that you end up not only not doing anything, but then even hurting somebody because youre so unaware of other people. It resonates with anyone who has sought a higher purpose but couldnt seem to get out of their own way Shawkat included. I was like that when I was younger, she says, with the more obvious insecurities of being soft-spoken, and doing favours for friends, and thinking youre being a good friend, but then not getting anything back and having bitter resentment towards people.

Search Party: the sharpest TV satire in years

Shawkat started asking her parents to take her to auditions when she was only eight, after watching a childrens sketch comedy show called All That. I can do that, she remembers thinking. But it took her a year to get her mother to agree to let her audition for roles. Aged nine, she had a part in George Clooneys Three Kings; she was cast on Arrested Development when she was 13. From the start, her mother cautioned her about the effects of fame (Shawkats grandfather had starred in a number of TV crime series). She was like, Watch out, its crazy its as powerful a drug as anything, Shawkat says. And I still always have a little wariness about it.

Arrested Development, narrated by Ron Howard and co-starring Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor, is a documentary-style sitcom about a once wealthy and deeply corrupt family, the Bluths. Like The Office, it was a small, quirky programme that was unlike anything else on TV, and became an influential hit (you can see its DNA in shows such as Community and Modern Family). Shawkat played the joint-youngest member of the family, with her cousin George Michael (Michael Cera), who has a crush on her. In a family of selfish and useless grownups, the children emerge as the most sane and empathic.

The series ran for three seasons between 2003 and 2006 before being abruptly dropped by Fox, despite having won several Emmys. In 2013, it returned for a catchup on Netflix, six years after the last episode. Shawkat resumed her role, updating the character with a bit more sex and drugs to reflect her adult status; she has said she hopes the cast keep making it for the rest of their lives.

With Michael Cera in Arrested Development. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

While filming the original series, Shawkat continued to live in Palm Springs with her family and commute the 100 miles to Los Angeles to shoot, which, she says, probably kept her level-headed. She was a child actor, but she wasnt steeped in Hollywood. I used to go to parties when I was 14 or 15 with Michael Cera, she says, and we would just drink cranberry juice and make fun of everybody the whole time, doing pranks in the corner. I was able to see through a lot of bullshit at a young age.

As I glance around Shawkats house, I notice that it is covered with small neon stickers on the kitchen door, on the light fixtures, on the painting hanging above her table with Arabic writing on each. She started studying Arabic three months ago, in preparation for her trip to the Middle East. When I got there, I was like, Im gonna be able to speak Arabic! And I totally couldnt, but I could read signs. She also wanted to learn Arabic to connect with her father, who is originally from Iraq, emigrating to the US from Baghdad with $200 in his pocket when he was 21. Shortly afterwards, he met Shawkats mum, a law school dropout. They fell in love, started a business together and raised three kids, Shawkat says. That business was a strip club near Palm Springs, which is still open: Shawkat made a short film about it in 2014, in which she concluded that men will always want to see women naked, and the fact that my dad makes money out of it isnt a big deal. Its just a business.

After Arrested Development ended its first run, Shawkat, then 17, struggled. The show had brought her recognition, but she wasnt getting offered roles she liked. So she followed her then boyfriend, a musician, to New York. I wasnt really acting, and I was kind of bitter, she recalls. I was like, I dont want to be this young ingenue It girl. I just wasnt the right look for it. Her boyfriend suggested she take up painting. He let me use his parents basement and got me a big canvas, she says. She continues to sketch with pen and ink, and to paint with oil.

Shawkat leads me downstairs to a cosy room under the stairs that she uses as a studio and pulls out a few recent paintings. Some are grotesque and cartoonish, others are vibrant and more abstract. She posts images of her art roughly once a week to her Instagram account, @__mutantalia__, and lately, shes been pushing herself to work on bigger, more ambitious pieces. That stuff has been such a great safe haven, because when Im not working, instead of waiting for a phone call, I start to draw or write. Shawkat has exhibited a few times, most recently a series of line drawings of Donald Trump in a group show in Los Angeles.

Donald Trump by Alia Shawkat

Shawkat also has a Twitter account that her friend, fellow actor Ellen Page drunkenly, years ago, signed me up to, where shes been tweeting about supreme court hearings and resistance marches, in addition to film promos. Like many American public figures, Shawkat is still trying to figure out how to engage with contemporary politics. She flew to Washington DC for the Womens March in January, where she was photographed with the woman symbol drawn across her forehead and down her nose. But she is still slightly ambivalent about being labelled an activist. There are times when Im like, Im an Arab-American, and I stand with Planned Parenthood, she says. And theyre like, Alia Shawkat, shes an activist! And Im like, Am I? What am I actually doing? Im not an activist.

She has started to get more comfortable, though, with the idea that, thanks to her new audience, she has an influence on young womens lives. Before I used to be, Oh, thats cool if you like it, whatever. But now I want to be more actively talking to those girls, she says. After all, she was in their shoes not so long ago. Her fallow, post-Arrested Development period ended when she landed a role in Whip It, a roller-derby movie directed by Drew Barrymore (in which she plays Ellen Pages best friend), after which she went on to make dozens of films, including Cedar Rapids and Green Room.

Protesting with fellow actors on the Womens March in Washington DC. Photograph: Ruth Fremson/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

After years of doing indies, though, Shawkat is sick of playing parts that are dark and sarcastic, another take on Arrested Developments Maeby Fnke. Im not a quirky 17-year-old who hates her parents any more, she says with a note of exasperation. Even though I still look young, I want to play actual women with real stories and real issues. In 2015, she had a memorable cameo in comedy series Broad City, as Ilana Glazers doppelganger lover (after viewers had pointed out their resemblance). She is excited about this months US release of Paint It Black, an adaptation of a novel about the twisted relationship that develops between the girlfriend (Shawkat) of a young man who kills himself, and his mother (played by Janet McTeer).

Knock on wood, its been a really good last five years. Ive been working on things Im actually really proud of. She is now in the process of editing a film called Duck Butter, written and shot with her friend Miguel Arteta, the director of Youth In Revolt and The Good Girl. Its a film about two girls who meet and decide to spend 24 hours together, and they have to have an orgasm every hour, she says. Theyre like, Were not dating for five years. Lets see if were meant to be together right away.

Jumper and dress, Pari Desai; earrings, Crescioni; scarf, stylists own. Main image: jacket and scarf, Rodebjer at Nonna. Styling: Anna Su at Art Department. Hair: Terri Walker/Jed Root. Makeup: Sandy Ganzer/Forward Artists. Photograph: Steve Schofield for the Guardian

Much of the film was shot here in her house. Shawkat cites the collaboration with Arteta as one of the most exciting things in her career, because we both wrote from a very personal place, although, she emphasises, the film is not based on real events. Its a very sexual movie, but not in a romanticised way. I think women, especially in film, the minute theyre naked, its perfectly shot. Its like, look how gorgeous they are. And Im like, no, I want to be topless and getting a beer and leaning over the toilet, picking at my ingrown hairs. Thats what a womans naked body is, too.

Last year, Shawkat narrated an animated online video for Vice, describing in detail a hookup she had with an (unnamed) famous actor with a fetish for intimate shaving. She hopes her dad never watches it, but she doesnt regret being open about her private life. Her attitude is, shes young and unattached of course shes had casual sex. For women to talk about sex is still kind of a new thing, she says. Some people are still like, I cant believe you did that. What, I had casual sex, like every other guy who talks about casual sex?

Recently, a friend advised her to get out and live a little, and shes taken the advice to heart part of the motivation for her trip to the Middle East. She performs occasionally with a jazz band, and in a few weeks will sing at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. This, she stresses, is a big deal for her. Im not necessarily someone who can go on tour or put out a jazz record, but I love doing it live. There are a few clips of her singing on YouTube, and her voice is a sultry alto; I can easily picture her swaying on stage with a whiskey in one hand, which is, she says, her favourite way to perform.

In new film Paint It Black. Photograph: Olive Productions

She has a world-weariness about her, but Shawkat is only 28 well, nearly: its her birthday a few days after we meet. She says she might throw herself a party after spending the day at a table read for Search Party (the second season starts shooting in New York this month).

The city has shed all its associations with Shawkats lost year. Now New York definitely represents Search Party and sleeping and getting work done, she says. Which is great. Im ready to go back. Shes already made the transition from childhood success to quirky indies. Now that shes claiming leading roles and producing credits, its on to the next big thing and on her own terms. I can just do the stuff I want to do, she says matter-of-factly. I dont have to try to be cool any more.

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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