For an actress with such a brief career so far, Alia Shawkat has had some great luck. After starting out with a role in Three Kings, she scored a plum gig as the rebellious Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development—surrounded by all-stars who taught her all there is to know about comedy. Her post-AD roles have veered toward darkly comedic high-school indie fare, with Bart Got A Room, Prom Wars, Amreeka—though that one isn’t nearly as “comedic”—and 2009’s roller-derby film Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page. The most exciting news for her came recently: Shawkat and Page, along with Har Mar Superstar, will produce and write a show for HBO called Stitch N’ Bitch, and Shawkat will costar in the biopic about The Runaways slated for 2010. (Due to rights issues, her character is a fictional version of the band’s bass player.) Prior to Whip It’s DVD release, The A.V. Club chatted with Shawkat about working with Barrymore, her disdain for how Fox treated Arrested Development, and kissing Michael Cera.
The A.V. Club: What about roller-derby culture attracted you to Whip It?
Alia Shawkat: I wasn’t very aware that [roller derby] was still going on, and that it had so much of a following. So it was cool that this whole world has remained somewhat underground for 30 years or longer. Forty years, I guess. And it plays on girls’ sexiness. Like, they dress up, but they’re still so tough. People get so into it. I had not been to a show before the movie, and it was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever—the energy from the crowd was so exciting. People just flip out. They lose their shit… It’s cool that it’s an all-girls thing, too.
AVC: Did working with a female director enhance that?
AS: Yeah, I’ve worked with a couple of female directors, now, and I think that they’re amazing. As good or better than guy directors. But it’s a little different, because sadly, girls don’t have as much of an opportunity, or just aren’t making as many movies as men these days. So when they are on set, I notice people question the director a little more. Not necessarily the crew and stuff, but producers definitely keep an eye out. Which is unfair, but if anything, girls just need to prove—well, not girls, but whatever—that they can do it.
AVC: Did that happen on the set of Whip It, especially with a celebrity director?
AS: Yeah. I sensed it. She had a lot of pressure on her. She was acting, doing a physical sport, and directing. The woman barely slept.
AVC: Did people walk on eggshells around her? Because she’s been onscreen, people might have expectations as to what she’s like.
AS: I think they do, but Drew has an amazing gift of being able to take anyone’s guard down right away. So no matter how nervous you might be—I was nervous when I first met her after I had auditioned. I was like “Oh, great. I’m going to have to impress her. What the fuck?” Being in an audition room is safe, but having to go meet her… I remember she rolled out on roller skates, and I was like “Oh my God, you’re so cool!” And it just went so well. We’ve been really good friends ever since. We all had our own experiences with her movies for so many years, so we build up our own—you know, like why some people are like “I hate Stockard Channing.” And you’re like “Why? You don’t even know Stockard Channing.”
AVC: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you often play characters who are close to yourself. Is it a challenge to play characters in small towns having typical high-school and college experiences, since you never had a typical experience yourself?
AS: Yeah, you would think, but I grew up in Palm Springs, and I didn’t move to L.A. until just eight months ago. Right when I turned 18, I moved to New York, originally for school, and then dropped out and just lived in New York. So I have been around adults and working since I was, like, 9, but when I was younger, I’d always go back to Palm Springs after working. I did do home schooling the last two years, but my parents did a very good job of helping me have a very normal—like, dinner after school, that kind of thing. I had two brothers who couldn’t have given less of a shit what show I was on. It never was like, “Oh wow, I’m a mature adult.” I’ve started feeling that way, though, the last couple of months, because I have my own place, and I’m doing my own laundry. Coming from a small town and still going home has always been able to make me feel like I’m 12 again. But in a good way.
AVC: Prior to home schooling, did things change at school once you started being on television and taking on more acting jobs?
AS: Definitely, and not for the better. I went to a private school, and they were very rude to me. Sophomore year—that’s when I decided to leave. It was a really, really small school, so I would leave and then come back; there were only like 12 kids in my class, and when I came back, there were already, like, three cliques. And I’m like “All right, which one do I fit in?” Then I didn’t. Kids can be harsh, especially when they get jealous. I’d be on set with my best friend, and we’d be working together, having such a good time, and then I’d have to go back to Palm Springs to go to school, and I was like “Aw, fuck, I hate this!” It was like living two different lives for a little while.
AVC: You had your first kiss on the set of Arrested Development with Michael Cera as part of a scene, right?
AS: Yeah, that’s accurate. It was the pilot episode, and I remember that my dad was on set, and he used to be really strict when I was younger. He’s a Middle-Eastern father. And Michael told me that he was really nervous, like, “Your dad was watching. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me or something.” And all the Fox executives were there: “So, are you all set for your kiss?” They could tell that I was actually nervous, and they said “What? It’s not like it’s your first kiss or anything.” And I’m like “Mmm-hmm.” I was a late bloomer. It went really well, though. It wasn’t like a make-out, you know what I mean? The way I describe it was that it’s like two fists hitting each other, boom, in and out. Also, we were good friends, which made it more awkward on the set, but once we were finished, we pretended like it never happened.
AVC: Were there other formative moments on the set of Arrested Development?
AS: Definitely. I mean, so much happened. Me and Michael became really close, and we were hanging out every day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as it happens, when you make any friends at that age, you realize what your sense of humor is. You just start to be like, “Hey wait, you think this is funny, too? So do I.” Mitch Hurwitz was like a father figure to me. He was so sweet, and he’s just so smart. In a way, it was great to be around [the cast], because I feel that my understanding of comedy was able to grow really well during that time.
AVC: Did you think the show was funny when you first read for it?
AS: I thought it was unbelievably funny. I remember when we got the audition, there was a cover sheet on it that was like “This show is really going to be fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. You’ve got to be on board for a wild ride.” And then I read it—Curb Your Enthusiasm was my favorite show at that time, and it had a similar sense of humor. It’s not as realistic. It’s very wacky. But it just hit me so hard, how great I thought it was. And then when my mom read it, she was like “I really can’t believe they’re going to be able to make this. It’s an amazing pilot, but no way is it going to get picked up.” We were always surprised every time we got another episode. But every now and then when we did table reads, me and Michael would be pretending to laugh, and not necessarily knowing why. Sometimes we’d miss out on a couple of things. But overall, I got to say some funny shit. So I was happy about that.
AVC: You’ve been pretty candid in interviews about your disdain for the way Fox treated the show when it was on. Has that candor gotten you in trouble?
AS: Maybe that’s why I had a dry spell for a little while. It was so frustrating. They would say something to our face one day—“We love this show!”—and then we wouldn’t get the back nine or something. They’re just such liars. It’s really hard. I remember we won some Emmys, and we showed up to the Fox lot—and that’s free advertising, on the lot. We walked in and it was like, Prison Break, American Idol, then there was a small little banner above the security guard that said “Congratulations, Arrested Development, for winning three Emmys.” And I was just like “What the fuck? This is ridiculous.” And that was only up for two days. They thought it would be so difficult to let people know what kind of show it is. I mean, just put up a couple of billboards or some kind of advertising. But I remember my mom read an interview once, and she reamed me out. She was so upset. She was like “What do you think you’re doing? You’re never going to get hired again if you talk about Fox like this!” But I didn’t really care. I just followed the lead—like, David Cross would always talk about it, and I was like “Yeah! If he can, so can I!” That's just how we all felt. You know it’s a bad sign when they changed your time slot three times within one month. And you’re like, “No person… the No. 1 fan wouldn’t be able to find this show.”
AVC: Now that there’s a lot more buzz around Arrested Development because of the film rumors, are you finding it hard to branch away from Maeby Fünke-type roles in films?
AS: For a while after I moved to New York, I was attempting to go to school and focusing on other things, and a lot of the auditions I would get, I would turn down, because they were all—and I don’t think it was necessarily specific to me, a lot of young actors are faced with this. Maeby Fünke was a really well-written angry teen, but the majority are just angry teens that are like “Dad, I don’t want to talk to you anymore. You’re such a loser!” and all this shit. I went on an audition once for a show, and the feedback was to play an angry teen. My agent convinced me to try out. I was really bitter for a while, because it sucks when you don’t get good scripts after working on good quality. And later, they told [my agent] that it seemed like I really didn’t want to be there, and I was like “Ooo, yeah, because that’s the truth.”
AVC: What’s the story behind that “Don’t Stop Believing” video you did with Ellen Page?
AS: [Laughs.] [Ellen’s] mother was retiring, and she was like “Let’s make a video for my mom.” And then somehow it got on YouTube, and all these people saw it. I love how on YouTube, they get so pissed. Like, “Their syncing’s not even on! These people are losers!”