Alia Shawkat On Hipsters, Ellen Page, & the Future of ‘Arrested Development’
With a role on one of the great television comedies of all time under her belt, Alia Shawkat now finds herself in an interesting but all-too-familiar showbiz conundrum: Trying to build a career when everybody knows you as "that girl from Arrested Development." One step in the right direction is Cedar Rapids, an Ed Helms vehicle in which Shawkat plays a small-town hooker with a drug habit who takes Helms' prudish insurance salesman under her slightly shady wing. And Shawkat isn't exactly waiting around for that next great script -- instead, she's writing her own. Currently in development at HBO is Stitch n’ Bitch, a series the California native wrote with friends Ellen Page and Har Mar Superstar about two hipsters who'll do anything to live their lives as artists. We recently caught up with the actress to discuss the negative connotations of the word 'hipster,' finding worthwhile scripts, and Arrested Development: the movie.
Is it difficult finding good female roles?
It is hard. I’m in a position right now where I’ve been lucky enough to keep working, but it’s definitely not easy. It’s hard to find roles that aren’t repetitive. Every now and then something cool will come up, but most scripts I read are like the begrudged angry teenager. I’m like, I did that once and it got canceled, so I rather not do it again.
So is Cedar Rapids indicative of something stood out?
It’s one of the first more adult roles that I played. And then Miguel, we were friends before Cedar Rapids came to fruition, so when he called me, he was like, “I want you to play a hooker and she’s a drug addict too!” And I was like, Yay, that sounds fun. So that was a really fresh role for me, and I got to change my hair, which was really fun.
Were you guys friends because you worked on something?
I was shooting Whip It in Michigan, and he was shooting Youth in Revolt with Michael Cera, and so we all met and had a steak dinner.
Have you tried to create your own roles through writing?
Yes. I met Ellen Page on Whip It and Shawn Tillman – Har Mar Superstar—working on a show now that’s in development on HBO called Stitch n’ Btitch , but I think probably 10,000 people say that. We decided to go to Amsterdam for ten days, and we just went there and wrote this show, the three of us, and we got inspired through herbal substances and just being in a new country, and we wrote a pilot and never thought anything would happen, and then HBO really liked it.
Did you bring it to HBO yourself?
We did, yeah, with the help of Ellen as well, because she’s famous. But it’s still in development and we’re going to be doing a table read soon, but we’ve created a pretty stupid hipster versions of ourselves.
So it’s the two of you moving from Williamsburg to Silver Lake?
Yeah, we both want to become artists of any type or form. She’s the more earthy bitter one, like, We’ve got to save the world—that kind of hipster. I’m more of the, like, ‘I express myself through fashion and art, but I can’t really do anything type,’ and I just spend all my money.
Your parents’ money?
Yeah, my two gay dads’ money.
What did you base it on?
Honestly, slight exaggerations of ourselves. I used to live in Silver Lake and Ellen used to live in Williamsburg, and the culture that you’re surrounded in at this moment. I’m not going to pretend I’m not a hipster. What’s so funny about it is it has a bad connotation. Hipsters think it’s stupid to be called a hipster, but that’s what you are, and that’s what your friends are. That’s not bad, but that’s the whole point: We all want to be so different from everybody else. But I remember one of the lines when we were in Amsterdam, there was this homeless boy on the street, and he was pretty young, and Ellen was like, ‘Oh my god is that boy okay?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, he’s fine, he’s dressed okay.’ My character’s name is Kyla, and we ended up using that as something she says. Like there’s a homeless guy, but she’s like, “Well, he’s dressed okay,” so we kind of just pull from ourselves, but put it in extreme situations.
Yes and no. I haven’t read any television that I found as quick as Arrested Development, because they put so much into one episode of that show, and now when you read scripts, there’s so much talking about what’s happening and spoon feeding you the characters, and the jokes are so on the nose. But when I’d read an episode of Arrested, we didn’t really know what was happening until it was getting shot, and stuff didn’t make sense but in a great way. I think actors have more of an opportunity to create stuff when it’s not really planned out for them.
Do you do any interviews where someone doesn’t ask you about the Arrested Development movie?
It’s more people that come up to me on the street and are like, ‘So when’s the movie happening?!’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, I don’t know, and I don’t know you!’ I just hope it happens soon because people are going to start wondering
I heard that Mitch said it was going to happen this year?
Yes, very exciting. He doesn’t really talk to us about it directly, but I’m hoping it happens soon.
That’s something you’d like to be a part of?
Of course. Anyone I talk to that’s in the cast is really game. It’s about scheduling, but it’s gotten to the point where we never knew so many people would be so interested, that I think if it were to happen, people would put their schedules aside to get it done. And I think it would be a quick shoot too.
Is it strange that there’s so much interest in the show now that it’s over?
Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous. Not to bash Fox, because Fox is paying for my livelihood right now, but they never advertised, and didn’t really know what to do with it, I think. So it’s a surprise to everybody that people are caring about this little show that was canceled so many years ago. It’s very strange to everybody, even to Mitch. I don’t think he knew it would get this far. I think a big part of why he’s been doing this is because of Jason Bateman. So he’s like, ‘Well, I guess I should write this thing.’ Because I don’t think he wanted to, to tell you the truth. I think he was kind of hurt.
Did that experience sour you in any way?
It getting canceled?
At the time it was disappointing, because you’re with your friends, and it’s kind of like a family, and we loved what we were doing. I was getting paid weekly, which was also very nice. I love television shows, but I think three seasons is a good amount of time.
Is it a struggle to remain a working actress?
The minute I think I’m going to have to get a day job, I get a part. So it’s this weird cycle.
Have you come close to getting a day job?
I’m thinking of getting a day job. I like drawing cartoons, so I’m working on writing a cartoon show and doing other things to keep myself busy, instead of just waking up and having breakfast and going back to sleep. I love drawing just as much as acting, so I’ve been able to go back and forth. I think my agents get a little annoyed because I like to be picky with films, but I want it to be something good. Even though I still have to audition and jump through hoops to get the part.
Is there something I would know of that your agents wanted you to do, but you turned down?
Well, that’s not fair, it’ll sound like I’m bashing those projects. I’m not really the right type for a lot of those movies anyways, so they’re not going to hire me—like the part that’s ‘She’s the hottest girl at the school.’ First of all, I don’t want to be in high school anymore. I get sick when I’m in high schools. And second of all, it’s just not going to work. But there are good scripts coming. They seem to get lower and lower budget, but they seem to be good, quality scripts.
The Oranges sounds interesting to me.
How was that?
It was really fun. That was something I auditioned for years ago, and it kind of disappeared and came back. It was a really fun shoot. That was something where I got to create a really cool character.
Who do you play in that?
Her name’s Vanessa, and she’s the narrator, and I play Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener’s daughter. If they had sex, they’d have me. And then Leighton Meister sleeps with my dad and that kind of destroys everything. It’s interesting, because as a narrator, they usually have the most open, wisest person telling the story, but in this case, it’s like the bitter, selfish, angry girl who’s telling the story.