Alia Shawkat was 14 when she nabbed a role in Fox's highly acclaimed Arrested Development, and 17 when it was unceremoniously canceled in 2006. Luckily, the three-year stint established the young actress as one of Hollywood's brightest up-and-comers, with Shawkat continuing to land parts — comedic and dramatic — ever since.
Even more impressively, Shawkat has managed to diversify beyond her acting track. She's a writer, she's a singer, she's a visual artist — and she's passionate it about it all. Basically, the complete antithesis of her character Vanessa in the new movie The Oranges. In the film, Shawkat plays a girl who moves back in with her parents after college. A graphic artist by trade, Vanessa is antsy to escape life in the New Jersey suburbs, but bides her time by working in retail at a furniture outlet. As her parents create their own relationship catastrophes, Vanessa waits patiently for life to serve her up the perfect job on a silver platter.
Not quite the real life Shawkat's style. I spoke to the actress about The Oranges, her ambition for artistic pursuits (including her stunning paintings and continued work as a writer on the previously-announced HBO show Stitch N' Bitch), and how her evolution as a creative person has allowed her to reapproach Arrested Development, which is returning with new episodes next year on Netflix.
You lived in New York, but did you venture out and ever go to New Jersey?
Alia Shawkat:Yes I did! I was actually dating a guy at the time who was living with his parents in New Jersey. Bergen County area.
You've seen it first hand.
Shawkat: I loved it!
The suburbs always get a bad rap. They have an "underbelly."
Shawkat: Yeah, that "people are crazy there." I grew up in the suburbs of Palm Springs, California, and I mean, I guess people were holding in a lot of dark secrets. You find out weird s**t that just seems strange in the context of the suburbs. But it's not that seedy. It's just more hidden.
Your character Vanessa is a graphic designer, and I didn't realize this until after the film, but you are also an artist. When did you start investing yourself into that world?
Shawkat: I started doing it — started showing people — about two or three years ago. When I was actually living in New Jersey. Living in the city, staying with the boyfriend. I was in my ex-boyfriend's basement, and he gave it to me to use as a studio — that was four years ago — and I started painting again. It really came out. Since then, I moved to L.A. and I set up my own studio or stuff and I've been doing a lot of work. It's as big a passion of mine as acting. I had a show in Paris recently, a show in L.A., a show in Mexico City… it's kind of crazily, serendipitously falling in my lap, meeting amazing people. I'm doing this thing for Mocca TV, a YouTube channel, where I'm going to be interviewing some amazing artists. It's super rad.
That whole world was as intimidating to me as acting is to a lot of people, but it's been really good so far.
Do you see the two passions coming together at some point?
Shawkat: I definitely want there to be a connection to it. Whether it's making some form of narrative with animation or using my drawings in some format. I don't know how it's going to evolve yet. But it's something I've been thinking. Combining the two.
It's been cool. A lot of fans of Arrested Development are people who are in certain art scenes or music scenes. Hopefully they're not only hanging out with me because I was Maeby — but there's a connection, an opportunistic view to be in certain rooms.
Shawkat: To a degree. When it comes to music, I'm not as much like, 'I'm writing songs, I'm in the zone.' But I have started writing with friends. I like to sing — jazz songs. I've done a couple shows, jazz standards with a band. I love that, I really enjoy it.
It all kind of comes from the same pipe, if you will. Acting is such a strange schedule, either you're working all the time or not at all. So I think your energy levels and self-esteem can change. So that's why when I'm not filming, I like taking the opportunity to focus on different things. It's definitely using a different part of my mind. When I'm drawing, I'm alone in a room staring at one thing for seven hours. And then I pull away from it, and I'm able to see what happened — there's a much more therapeutic process to it. When I'm acting, in a way it's more sociable, because I have to be more open and vulnerable in front of people. So I can't draw while I'm working. It helps balance me out.
A few years ago, it was announced that you and Ellen Page were working together to write a TV show for HBO called Stitch N' Bitch. Is that still something you're working on?
Shawkat: Yeah, it is still going. Not with HBO proper — we're figuring out different techniques. There are so many online sources right now. HBO has something online… we're figuring it out. We're actually writing a new project together too. And also Sean Tillman, one of my good friends (Har Mar Superstar [laughs]). The three of us were writing it. It was fun writing together. Right now it's depending on us having time to all be in the same city for a few weeks. But I love writing. I love writing with friends. Me, Ellen, and Sean work really well together.
And just when people might stop asking you about Arrested Development…
Shawkat: …it comes back [laughs]. Totally.
Was it exciting to reapproach the material?
Shawkat: I'm excited that it's coming back. I think we all are. But there was a stage, a couple years ago, where we had finished and I was… not that I wasn't proud to be a part of it, but there was a point where I hadn't worked on any good films since and I felt insecure about it. 'God, this is the only thing I'm known for.' And that's when I realized my ego had gotten to a point, a level of danger. I'm very lucky to be part of something with such a cult following and is well-respected for good reason, because it's such a well-written show. But it was definitely something I dealt with briefly. But I was younger then [laughs].
Since then, it's something I've always hoped would come back. I was always so interested. Where will Maeby be? Where will all of them be? What will happen to them?
Do you feel that Maeby and the family have changed enough that the new Arrested Development will feel different? Was that important for you?
Shawkat: The content is something I can't speak about, but it's definitely progressed. And just naturally as me being an actor. I was concerned about that — I was a teenager then and the whole style of shooting was very quick and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style. As a teenager, I didn't think of it too much. I'd see the jokes, want it to be funny, and then I'd go back to the school trailer. Now that I'm more of an adult… I've been acting since I was nine and the way I approach acting has changed every year. I like to think it's getting stronger. But a film like [The Oranges], there's a very strong reality, an emotional base in it, and it's not like Arrested, that's wacky and based on beats and timings and crazy storylines. Having done performances since then, I've approached it more like an actory actor. [In high drama voice] 'Where am I coming from?' and 'What do I want out of this scene?' So on set it's different.
Is it more collaborative with Mitch this time?
Shawkat: Yeah, he's on set all the time. He's directing every episode. I've never seen a man who is more happy. He makes it such a fun set to be on everyday. His mind never stops.
You've worked some amazingly strong women actors and directors in your career. Is that important to you? Considering funny women are continually underrepresented in Hollywood?
Shawkat: Very much so. There's a frustration when you feel like there's no quality out there to do. Your hands are tied. So when these moments come across, it's just feels so meant-to-be that you're meeting someone that you become so close with, become great friends with, and therefore make really great art with. So I have been lucky that the timing has worked out that I've been able to work with these amazing people.
I've worked with many women directors now who are close to me, and I support their future work. And I want to work with them again and have in some cases. It's something that down the line, writing and directing, that I want to do. Obviously men and women are more equal now, but in this industry there is definitely an imbalance to that, and I think it's important to build up — not that we're going to start a war — but I definitely think the work is changing. Like Girls, I think Lena [Dunham] is a talented writer and actress. Just the fact that the show is even on… people are like, 'Oh my God, that's crazy, it's about girls!' It's a first step and within a year it's going to be completely different because it's on air. These changes happen and it opens doors. I don't need to just tell dick jokes to be funny.
But you can if you want.
Shawkat: Oh, definitely.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: ATO Pictures; Melissa Morgan Fine Art; Dennis Van Tine/Retna]