ALIA SHAWKAT IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2016. PHOTOS: MATTHEW SPROUT/EXPOSURE. STYLING: CLAUDIA CIFU. HAIR: HOLLY MILLS FOR AVEDA/TIM HOWARD MANAGEMENT. MAKEUP: JUSTINE PURDUE FOR DIORSKIN/TIM HOWARD MANAGEMENT.
When we first meet Dory, Alia Shawkat‘s character on the TBS series Search Party, she is directionless and a little depressed. Her personal relationships—both with her live-in boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) and her two best friends, Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early)—feel stagnant; her career goals are non-existent. Then, Dory learns that a college acquaintance named Chantal has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Though the mystery seems too good to be true—more Nancy Drew with a few racy twists than modern-day New York—Dory becomes obsessed. The characters she meets along the way, from a paranoid real estate agent played by Rosie Perez to a sleazy private eye (Ron Livingston) to an arty-chic cult leader (Parker Posey), only draw her in further.
For Shawkat, who also produced Search Party, Dory feels like a new leaf. “I usually play grounded, has-their-head-on-straight, kind of sassy girls,” she explains while visiting New York. “That’s evolved lately … Dory is a very different character than I’ve played in a way. I remember feeling like it was a success when my little brother was like, ‘You don’t seem like yourself in that. You would never let someone talk to life that,'” she continues. “I was like, ‘Damn straight!'”
Raised in Palm Springs, Shawkat has been acting since she was a child. She moved on quickly from Barbie commercials (“Barbie in a Porsche,” she tells us) to a role in David O. Russell‘s Gulf War drama Three Kings and, as a young teenager, famously played Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development. More recently, the 27-year-old has been focusing on independent films, and regularly has projects at Sundance, SXSW, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Next month, she will appear in Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women alongside Annette Benning and Elle Fanning. She is currently editing her first feature film as a writer.
EMMA BROWN: How did you get involved with Search Party and how did you become a producer?
ALIA SHAWKAT: I was sent the script. Michael Showalter had called my manager and said that they were interested in me for the part, which is very flattering. It doesn’t happen very often. I’ve been a big fan of Michael Showalter’s for a long time. I watched Stella growing up. I met with him, and then Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss, the creators and writers of the show, and we just hit it off right away. I had notes, but mainly just character ideas and how I’d want to evolve it to myself a little bit more, and they were so game and responsive; they really had a similar sensibility. Then I saw Fort Tilden, the first film they made, and I really loved it. We did the pilot not knowing it would go to a series. Once it went to series, which was really exciting—I haven’t been the lead of a TV show since I was a kid—they were like, “You should be a producer.” Making the show, I was very involved. I was on set all the time, and so all the storylines, we just took our time, and every scene really meant something to me. It was important to be involved in everything.
BROWN: How did Dory evolve from when you first read the script to fit you?
SHAWKAT: She was written as someone who is insecure and doesn’t really have a strong voice at the beginning, and then she is bubbling up with tension and wants change, but doesn’t know how to. I just wanted to make her as grounded as possible, because the world she’s in, it’s not that it’s not realistic, but there are extreme characters and things that happen. I feel like when you’re dealing with your main character, it has to be relatable and feel grounded, and that’s the kind of acting I like to do anyway. So it was about keeping it grounded, and, when it went to series, it was specifically about the character stuff with her and Drew. I think her unhappiness in that relationship—she loves him still—is a big impetus for why she goes off and does all these weird choices.
BROWN: Do you think that Drew and Dory belong together?
SHAWKAT: I want to say yes. After the finale, it’s hard to say what will happen. I think that Dory at her best, in a weird way, shouldn’t be with Drew, and Dory at her worst shouldn’t be with Drew. Her in the flux, though, needs him and they should be together. I think if she was actually able to be happy with herself and confident, she’d realize he wasn’t enough. But he loves her, and when you’re in that in-between place that a lot of people are, especially when you’re in a relationship, it’s hard to see. You need that person to help you either get so fucked up you leave them, or do really well that you realize you can’t be with them either. [laughs]
BROWN: I could relate to where they were in their relationship—that point of stasis and you need to make a decision. After so long together, it’s hard to know how much you need that person, or how much you need just a person.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, it’s very difficult. You don’t want to not be single because you’re scared of being single. I’m kind of on the other side—I’ve been single for so long that I’m scared of being in a relationship: “Well, I’m so good on my own, I don’t need anybody.” They’re like, “We could just hang out,” and I’m like, “Not for too long.” [laughs] “Let’s not get too comfortable with each other.” But it’s the same thing—letting fear dictate something. It’s about how we react to it. We can’t prevent it.
BROWN: One of my favorite things about the show is that everyone is so great in their roles, and there are all of these little gems of characters. I loved Gavin, for example. And obviously Rosie Perez. Were you involved in casting at all when you became a producer?
SHAWKAT: I wasn’t necessarily, but when the Ron Livingston part was getting cast, there were a lot of names that were up and, I don’t want to take full credit for it, but I think I suggested Ron Livingston. I always had a crush on him and I just thought he was perfect for Keith. He’s such a great comedic actor without being hammy. He’s very realistic. I thought he played Keith so well—all of a sudden you’re like, “Wait a second, what? Who is this guy?” But it’s hard to take credit for anything on something like this, because everything was a discussion and very open. There was no “you’re the producer and you’re not.” Everyone was just throwing out ideas and it was such a welcoming group. I think that’s why the show turned out so great; no one was like, “Well, this was my idea,” everyone was like, “You don’t like that idea? Don’t say it. What do you want to say?” [With] the main actors—Meredith [Hagner] and John Early and John Reynolds—[they are] all such funny actors naturally. It’s not like a lot was improvised, but we’d do a couple of takes where they’d come up with an idea. I think that’s why all those characters are so flushed out, because they all have their own specific things. Then the writers would write towards the actors’ specific things, which makes any character more real.
BROWN: When you first shot the pilot, had it already sold to TBS?
SHAWKAT: No, it was made by this company Jax [Media] that does Broad City, Amy Schumer’s show, and Louie. It’s this amazing company with Tony Hernandez and Lilly Burns—they’re a couple—and they produce these pilots so the creative people get to make it exactly the way they want. Then they pitch it and package it and are like, “This is the pilot. This is the tone, these are the actors.” It’s so smart. I’m not saying TBS wouldn’t have taken it as a written pilot, but it would have been a different product. Once we knew it and were like, “Take it or leave it,” TBS was so excited about the show, and gave such full support that they were like, “Go make it,” pretty much sans notes. I’ve been on network TV and it’s very different; even on shows where creatively you did it, you weren’t rewarded for it. They were like, “You’ve got make it a little easier for people to understand.” On Arrested Development they would say that: “Can you make it stupider?” And Mitch [Hurwitz] was like, “No.” And they were like, “Alright, then, you’re canceled after three seasons.” Obviously the way people watch TV has changed so much, too, that it’s not necessarily about the ratings anymore. There’s a different kind of time lapse; you put it out there and people absorb it at their speed, not just on Monday night at eight. The pilot was shot like an independent film: low budget, kind of scrappy, but so much fun because of it. When we came back [for the rest of the season], I felt like we won the lottery: “We’ve got money now to do all the shit we want to do.” It was very creatively freeing.
BROWN: I don’t want to spoil anything, but in the last scene of the series, you have this great facial expression that you have to convey so much in. Did you have to do a lot of takes?
SHAWKAT: That was an intense scene. It took a lot of choreographing and rehearsing—figuring out the best, most realistic timing of everything. It was a very timed-out scene. It was fun, but it was an emotional week for me, because Dory was in such a crazy state the whole time. I was sticking my fingers down my throat—I wasn’t actually throwing up, but just to get that watery, tired feeling. Just jumping up and down, sitting in a corner. It all seems so crazy and heavy, but then the minute they get the shot, you’re like, “Great! Let’s go have a drink,” and it’s all over. [laughs] But it felt good though, because that is so much the button. Hopefully there will be another season, but it was kind of, “And this is where we end this story,” so it felt like a wrap-up for me as well.
BROWN: I would love another season, too, but what an ending. Where do you go from there?
SHAWKAT: [laughs] Exactly. My parents were asking the same thing. They were like, “But seriously, what could you do?” They have an idea, they just haven’t told me yet. I think that’s a good response though, if people are like, “But … where?”
BROWN: I was watching some interviews with you, and you said that when you were a child, you would use memories when acting. What about now? How has your technique evolved?
SHAWKAT: It’s changed a lot. That’s when I was nine to, like, 14. It’s interesting, just because I have been acting for almost 20 years now. At first it changed in my focus and how much I wanted to act. When I was younger, it was so much fun, and I really wanted it, but it was not competitive. Then I became a teenager and it became kind of competitive and not as much fun. I pulled back and I got lazy about it, where I was like, “Yeah, I guess, I’ll do small parts in cool movies,” but I wasn’t really trying to say anything. Then the last six years I’ve been like, “I want to do film and TV. I want to make good stories. I want to write; I want to be more involved.” That naturally changes your process on a set, just being more in touch and not being so, “Oh, it’s embarrassing to talk about acting.” I was like, “That’s all I want to talk about. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna fully do it.” So I’m more verbal and not as private as I was as a kid. I still do a form of sense memory. It honestly depends on the job. It depends on the other people you’re working with, how the other actor works. It’s take a little from here, take a little from there. I think how I’ve gotten better, hopefully, at taking what I’ve got and being able to mish-mash something together, and as long as it feels real to me in the moment, then it feels like a success.
BROWN: Over the past six years, has there been one project in particular where you felt, “This really terrifies me and I don’t know if I can do it, but that’s why I’m doing it?”
SHAWKAT: Yeah. I did this film called Paint It Black that Amber Tamblyn directed. It’s hopefully coming out. It’s been doing the festival circuit for a little while. Janet McTeer is in it; she’s an amazing fucking actress. She’s unbelievable. I got cast very last minute. I’ve known Amber for a while, and they actually cast somebody else and she dropped out. I had just wrapped Green Room, which was a really fun, challenging movie, too.
BROWN: That was a great movie.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, I love that movie, but it was very tiring to shoot. Very physical. We were all buddies; we became so close on that movie. We were all jumping in corners, crying—like, [crying voice] “You okay, man? This is fucking weird.” But it was very long hours. Then I got a phone call the last day on set in Oregon: “Can you do this movie? I want you to be in it.” I landed the next day, got my hair dyed and cut, slept, and shot for a month straight—every day, every scene. It was a combination of being very tired—”I hope I have energy for this”—and that she’s a very self-destructive girl. She’s drunk and on drugs, and her boyfriend commits suicide at the top, so it could lean into melodramatic, and I was like, “I don’t want to be pulling at fake emotions just to make it seem extreme.” It was very challenging to stay in that space that whole month. But Amber was so great, and Janet McTeer was unbelievable to work with. It was a very fulfilling experience, even though it’s a dark mentality.
BROWN: You’ve talked in the past about how your grandfather studied with James Dean and did method acting. That’s so interesting. Did you know your grandfather?
SHAWKAT: Yes, we were very close. He passed away in 2009. He was just the best storyteller. He was friends with all kinds of well-known actors, musicians—really lived the life. Steve McQueen used to pick up my uncle and take him on motorcycle rides. Frank Sinatra. He would tell stories about having dinner with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—very specific, fun stories. The minute he’d start talking, I was glued to it. We used to talk about acting. He studied with James Dean. They had the same coach and they shared an apartment as struggling actors. He had two kids and struggled for 10 years until he made it as an actor, which was another thing that always put stuff in perspective, even at a young age. He struggled for 10 years to do this thing that, I don’t necessarily want to say was easy, but I feel very lucky to have fallen into it. There’s been challenging times when I’m like, “I wonder if I’ll work again?” But just very different timing. My grandfather talked about James Dean; they were both very much into method acting. He always used to say, “James Dean would do weird stuff, like stand on chairs.” My grandfather was playing a drug addict in some movie, and he’d put a pillow over his face, and [ask] my mom and my aunt: “Now sit on the pillow, and don’t let me come up, even if I struggle.” Eventually he was able to lift them off if he needed to, but he was relating to when you’re a drug addict, you need it more than air—metaphors like that to test your brain to quickly get yourself there. I’ve pulled stuff like that. He helped me with an audition once that was really fun. He gave me great acting tips. I’m really open to learning new forms all the time. It always ties into a metaphor: “Imagine this, imagine that.” That’s the fun of it. You’re pretending. He was an amazing man.
BROWN: He must have been excited that you were acting.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, he got to see a couple films. He passed when I was 19 though. He watched Arrested Development; he said it was a little too fast-paced for him. He saw some independent films I did and really liked them. I wish he got to see these. He did Valley of the Dolls, which is one of his biggest films, but he also did a show called Naked City that shot in New York on the streets in the ’60s.
BROWN: That was one of the ones Marion Dougherty cast, right? With all these actors who are now really famous doing bit parts?
SHAWKAT: Yeah, it was like Dustin Hoffman when he was super young, Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel. My grandfather would work with these actors, and they were so young and so talented. When Dustin Hoffman has his one scene, you’re like, “Who the fuck is this guy?”
SEASON ONE OF SEARCH PARTY IS NOW AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON TBS.