ABOVE: ALIA SHAWKAT IN THE LIE
Arrested Development's Maeby Funke may be (sorry, couldn't resist) Alia Shawkat's most famous role to date, and perhaps it will continue to be if the ever-promised Arrested Development film becomes a reality. Nonetheless, in the five years since Arrested wrapped, Shawkat's grown up and branched out. The actress/singer/artist has just shot six films and is planning a spring art show in Paris. Many of these roles are bit parts in independent films, but she also has substantial roles in The Oranges, a favorite at this year's Toronto film festival also starring Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener, and The To Do List. Shawkat's next part is in Joshua Leonard's film, The Lie, an adaption of a T.C. Boyle piece from The New Yorker. The Lie is a beautiful film; somehow Leonard and his cast—Jess Weixler, who plays his wife, and Shawkat's cheerful appearance as Seven—have managed to bring a sprinkling of optimism to Boyle's originally heart-breaking story.
Shawkat took a moment out of her various cultural activities to chat with us about The Lie, working with Hugh Laurie and Whit Stillman, her artistic aspirations and, of course, the latest news on the Arrested Development film.
EMMA BROWN: I just saw your film, The Lie.
ALIA SHAWKAT: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
BROWN: And I was wondering how you got involved in it?
SHAWKAT: I was contacted by Joshua [Leonard]; Mark Webber is a mutual friend, and I heard he was in it. I play Mark's girlfriend that he never talks about. It was just a couple of hours of work. Each take, we would make up something new, and it was just really fun. I was partially nude under that blanket, which was also fun. It was pretty much that simple: went to the beach for a couple of hours, took off my clothes. I saw it months ago and it's such a cool movie, I'm happy to be a little button at the end of it. It's done really well.
BROWN: You have a lot of movies coming out in the next year or so—Damsels in Distress, He Loves Me, The Oranges, The Brass Teapot, The To Do List—did you shoot back to back?
SHAWKAT: The Hand Job [currently titled The To Do List], which is a movie with Aubrey Plaza and a lot of cool Canadian actors, and I shot He Loves Me with Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano, which I only shot three days on. So that was simultaneous, which was rough for, like, 48 hours. I remember wrapping The Hand Job one night at 3 am and then I had to go to a 6:30 am call for He Loves Me.
BROWN: Oh wow, that must really mess with your mind—playing two different people within three hours.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, definitely. I remember sitting my first day [on He Loves Me] talking to Paul and [asking him], "Do you ever feel like you forget how to act?" He was like, "Yeah, all the time," and I was like, "Okay, good." [laughs] It's always nerve-wracking; it's like going to a new school every time you start a new movie. There are so many people and you're trying to be comfortable and vulnerable on set in order to be fearless on camera. But it's fun, it's part of the job. You've just got to be very personable, I guess.
BROWN: You're also in Whit Stillman's new movie, Damsels in Distress. How was that? Were you a Stillman fan?
SHAWKAT: Yes, for sure. It was [another] film where I just had a day's shoot. I play a bitch whose name is Mad Marge. It was fun, I come out and I yell at Greta Gerwig. [Whit]'s a very strange man, he's like a fawn, he's very delicate and wears button-up pastels. At first I was like, "Oh my god, he hates me, I'm not doing anything right." The wording is very difficult, he writes so sharply, but the words are... crazy. There's one line, I can't remember the actual words, but I was standing in a room with the sound guy before my cue to go out, and each time I kept fucking up this line, I'd change it to something else, but he's very particular about getting the words right. [laughs] Every time I came back in the sound guy would repeat over and over again "You can do this man, you can do this," and I was like, "Oh, damnit!" But it became harder because the more I fucked up the more I kept forgetting. I haven't seen [the film] yet, so I don't know what take they used. Adam Brody saw it, we worked together before [on The Oranges] and he said that it turned out funny, but he might just be blowing smoke up my ass.
BROWN: Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener are in The Oranges as well—that must have been exciting. Was Hugh Laurie funny in person?
SHAWKAT: He is funny. He's a dark soul. [laughs] He's a great guy. When I first met him, I didn't know if, not if we were going to get along, but I just didn't know; he's not very openly like, "Hey! Let's get to know each other!" Which I don't really trust anyway, that kind of attitude.
BROWN: I grew up in England and we have a very different image of him than here in the US, we've only really seen his comedic side.
SHAWKAT: Oh, Fry and Laurie?
BROWN: Exactly. And Blackadder. Here everyone knows him as Doctor House; it's a very strange contrast. I'm always curious as to what he's actually like.
SHAWKAT: I think he is... Hugh Laurie. I'd say I feel the closest to him out of everyone on the cast. He's very kind and super funny, and we have a very similar sense of humor. I think I just had to impress him before he let his guard down. He's awkward and smart, so those are two qualities that I appreciate in people.
I remember right when we were shooting he was about to go to Texas to record [his album] with all of these heroes of his. He was just really jazzed about it, no pun intended. That was something that we bonded over as well, because I love jazz music through my grandfather. When I was in New York, I put together a show, I put together this really great band and performed at this place called Littlefield in Brooklyn. It was really fun, I did like, 10 standards, and then I just hopped around different bars like Mona's and different jazz clubs in New York just singing, because I know all the standards so well. It feels good to sing, everybody should sing!
BROWN: Are you going to release your own album as well?
SHAWKAT: I don't think so. I don't think it's good to say that you won't do certain things, but I don't necessarily have the natural urge to write. Sometimes I'll make up songs, but I appreciate the craft so much, unless it's like a baby alien coming out of me—"I need to write!" But I love singing, and I've been singing backup for friends' bands.
BROWN: What about a musical?
SHAWKAT: I would do a movie musical. There's been this weird resurgence. I don't know if you ever saw that movie Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin? It's a great film, it's a very dark movie, and then all of a sudden it'll go into a musical in his fantasy world. That's one of my favorite films. [Recently] I've been reading scripts where they've been doing a lot of singing now, but within the dark, realistic story line. I would love, love, love, love to do that. But not a musical on Broadway, I don't have that kind of energy or stamina.
BROWN: Theater in general just seems quite exhausting.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, seriously. It's something as an actor I know I must definitely do. But I'm still young, I shouldn't act as if I'm so tired all the time—as I said that I'm, like, wheezing sitting down on a rock. It would be great to do theater one day, but I don't think I'd do a musical.
BROWN: You're also an artist—I saw your website.
SHAWKAT: Oh yes, my manager told me. She's really pimping me out. [laughs]
BROWN: Yes, she was telling me all about your multi-faceted talents. She said that you just had your first art show, congratulations.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, I just did this Vice Group show that Devendra Banhart curated. He's a friend of mine, so he asked me to be a part of it, but there were really cool artists. I had a show in Palm Springs during Coachella weekend at this gallery called Melissa Morgan Gallery. It was really awesome. All my friends came, all my friends who are in bands and stuff, and I sold pieces, so I'm technically a real artist. Now I'm trying to put together a show. It's a very different world than acting; acting you audition and then they're like, "Okay! For three months you're going to be going to Louisiana," and you're like, "Okay, that was easy for twenty minutes of auditioning." It's kind of this small circle, but the art world's a smaller circle; it's all about these buyers and people being interested.
BROWN: Do you find that you have to put yourself out there more as an artist?
SHAWKAT: Yeah, definitely. It takes a lot of socializing, which is not something I love to do—a lot of going to gallery openings and meeting people.
BROWN: Are people hesitant in the art world because of your acting fame?
SHAWKAT: Not necessarily, I'm in a certain place right now with my "career" where people are like, "Oh you're Maeby from Arrested Development." Nothing against James Franco, but I think that when you're extremely famous as an actor, people will be like, "Yeah, we want your show" just because of your name. I'm lucky right now because I'm not that famous, people will look at the work just as the work, and people respond to it pretty well. It's just hard to know exactly what group I need to meet and where I need to be. I think [fame] helps, but I want it to be separate as much as it can. Fame is just so weird, people just love famous people. [laughs]
BROWN: I have to ask you about the Arrested Development movie.
SHAWKAT: [laughs] Of course. I saw Mitch Hurwitz almost a year before we all met up for this New Yorker panel, and he was talking about this idea of having each character have their own episode—maybe through Netflix or something—as the lead-up to a movie. That way they don't have to waste the first hour of the film catching up the audience, which is a brilliant idea. I was so excited by it. Then we did this New Yorker panel, which was the first time we were all together since we wrapped, so it was really intense, it felt like a family reunion. Michael's the only one I've really stayed close with, and we were both really nervous—it was kind of like snapping back into my 16-year-old self and being insecure and weird around the adults. Everybody's so excited, but there's no script yet, I think Ron Howard and Mitch are working on it. Hopefully it comes to fruition; I get asked about it almost every day.
THE LIE COMES OUT ON FRIDAY. YOU CAN CHECK OUT ALIA'S ART WORK ON HER WEBSITE.