The New Natural: Alia Shawkat

Alia Shawkat has the words “Mister Baby” tattooed across her back. It’s a tribute to the anxious Elvis fan in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train, three linked stories filled with awkward silences and understated comedy. It’s exactly the kind of movie, and exactly the kind of tattoo, you’d expect a cooler-than-thou Brooklyn hipster to like. Shawkat, best known for her role as Maeby Fünke, the kissing cousin on Fox’s rightly canonized Arrested Development, is that kind of girl. All this makes the 20-year-old actress the perfect person to pen Stitch N’ Bitch, the satirical send-up of urbane tapered denim fans she is writing with Ellen Page (her recent co-star in the roller derby flick Whip It ) for HBO. “It’s about two girls who leave Williamsburg and move to Silver Lake. It makes fun of all the people we are and we hang out with—all of these kids who look like French pirates at ironic parties with the wiry bikes,” Shawkat says. “It’ll have a lot of Ray-Bans and lots of red flannel.”

When not eviscerating the cool kids, Shawkat will appear as a fictional band member opposite Kristen Stewart in The Runaways, a Joan Jett biopic, as well as in the long-gestating Arrested Development movie. She also hopes to break into the indie comic book scene (she designed one of her tattoos, a squiggly triangle that looks like a rotund man in a top hat when viewed from the right angle), but couldn’t find a coffee shop in Brooklyn conducive to her creative pursuit. “I can’t pull out my journal in a vegan restaurant, when I’m surrounded by all of these people and their asymmetric haircuts. I would have seemed like such a tool bag.”

So what was Arrested Development like? It was great. When I got a script we were so excited for all the crazy shit we got to do. The only bad thing about it was that literally every other day we were being thrown into cancellation. We were never settled. So every time we were doing another episode we were like, “Really? We got another one? OK great!” But otherwise it was one of the best experiences ever. We were like a family. There were a couple of bad seeds but we’d just make fun of them.

What was it like getting the recognition for the show after it was over? It was very strange. I’ve been recognized for it more in the last year than ever before. When it was on I never got recognized. It was the DVD sales that got everyone. I think [the creator] Mitch [Hurwitz], was offered two more seasons with Showtime, but he turned it down because we won an Emmy, but no one watched it. He was kind of sensitive about it. The movie idea came about since people started watch the show so much and Jason [Bateman] and everyone is doing so well movie wise. They’re writing it right now, but I feel like the timing is imperative because everybody is still hot for it.

Why do you think the pause after production with Arrested Development and other shows like Family Guy works so well and makes them more popular? I think it’s because if you watched the show while it was one air, you couldn’t just tune in like to a Will & Grace episode and understand what was going on. My grandfather tried to watch it and he was like, “I can’t do it. They’re talking too fast!”

You’ve been doing all these girl projects, working with Drew Barrymore on Whip It and the all girl cast for The Runaways, was that a marked difference to working on such a male-dominated show as Arrested Development? It’s harder sometimes. When I was on Arrested Development it was a lot easier because it was such a big cast, too, so when had photo shoots it was pretty much just me and Michael [Cera] in the background. We got to do our bits but it was no pressure at all. The adults would take care of it. With Whip It there were a lot, a lot of girls, but there wasn’t one person that we didn’t like. I really take my hat off to Drew because she has such a positive attitude and I think that contributed a lot to that. We were just talking about it the other night, there was no one person that I didn’t get along with on the whole set. And with so many girls that’s so rare. There are so many egos. We still all hang out. It was really rad. The Runaways wasn’t as easy of an experience but we still all got along pretty well.

The Runaways are so emblematic of a very specific time, what was the biggest gap you had to bridge to make it realistic? Well thank god Joan Jett and Cherie Currie were on set a lot. I’m the bassist in the band. My character has nothing to do with the movement of the plot. The director [Floria Sigismondi], she’s a music video director and this is her first film, so the story is going to be focused on the style. I wasn’t playing a real person, because [the real person] was going to sue the shit out of us if I did, so we we’re all just staying in a very specific style more than telling the authentic story of a young girl in the 70’s. It’s all about the music and then the drugs and we break up and that kind of thing.

How would you describe the aesthetic? They didn’t really tell us much. The director would be strapped onto this thing and we would be spinning and filming and it was just a weird experience because I’m usually very involved. Like on Whip It, every scene we were able to take time and talk about the character and, not to sound stupid, but as an actor that’s what you do. And it wasn’t like that on this set, at least not for my character. It was a lot more, “rock out!” I learned the bass, which was cool. I think that was probably the most challenging thing, making it look real, making it look like I really know how to play bass.

What else have you been working on? I leave in a couple of weeks to go to Ann Arbor—that’s where I shot Whip It. So I’m going back there again to do a movie called Cedar Rapids with Miguel Arteta who directed Youth in Revolt and he’s one of my really good friends so I’m excited.

So what what you like to be doing in the next five years? Working would be nice. And maybe have a house.

Here in LA? Here and then be able to have an apartment in New York.

Welcome to the dream. I would love to do puppet shows. Do you know Punch and Judy? I went to London over the summer and got a wooden cart and it’s super cool. It would be cool to have a show at a gallery. I do sketches for comic book stuff so it would be great to make a comic book. My brother and I were working on an idea for one.

Are there any comic books that you particularly like? I like Daniel Clowes. I’ve been doing painting too, but the art world makes no sense to me. I’ve been acting since I was little and you just go in, you audition, and that’s it. But do I walk into a gallery and say, “Hey, I have art work do you want to look at it?” But I go into these small galleries in Chinatown and I’m like, “my shit’s better than this.” I’m not as into the super hero ones as I am to the graphic novels.

How old were you when you started acting? I started acting when I was 9. I had to convince my parents because my mother’s father was an actor and she just didn’t like anything about it. We started sending in headshots and we never heard anything back. My mom finally called and asked about it and they said I looked too “ethnic.” My hair was longer and curlier and I looked ethnic.

What is your “ethnicity?” I’m Arabic. My dad’s from Baghdad. I went and auditioned for an agent and I got it. Then I had a Barbie commercial as my first job. Barbie in a Porsche. I had a ponytail literally on top of my head. Then my second audition was a movie called Three Kings and I was there for three months, and that was my first real shooting experience with Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Walberg, Spike Jonze.

So what do your folks do? My father owns a shopping center in Palm Springs—the main attraction being showgirls. I’m first generation—he came over in the ‘70s with $200 in his pocket, you know one of those guys. Then he met my mom in Los Angeles and they moved to Palm Springs. Mom’s a housewife. She got all her degrees and then wanted to be a housewife.

Do you have any siblings? I have two brothers; I’m in the middle. The little one is 14 so he’s worthless. The older one is a piano player—he wants to do compositions for films and stuff. He’s into classical. The younger one is 14 and the older one is 22. The last one came and we were like, “What the fuck?”

What is a 14 year old like? Intense. I work and then I go home and I haven’t seen him in a couple of months and his voice has changed, he’s wearing baggy shorts and he’s gelling his hair into a little faux-hawk. He’s cool; we relate, but if you say one thing like, “No I’m not going to take you to go get ice cream,” he’ll be like, “Fuck you!” and lash out, and it’s like “Whoa-whoa-whoa I just said no, but OK, let’s go get ice cream just settle down.”

Does he have a myspace? I guess so. I don’t know. I’m not on myspace so I don’t know. I don’t have any of those things. He was born with that stuff right away. He’s also one of those World of Warcrafters. He’s on it all the time with a head set and he’s always saying weird stuff like “I leveled up like 3 points,” and I’m like “We have to go to dinner,” and he’s like “No! My friends are gonna die if I leave!” and I’m like, “No one is actually going to die.”

Would you like to do more movies? Comedy? Drama? I’m actually working on a show, writing a TV show with some friends right now. We just wrote a pilot. That’s the only TV I would want to be involved in right now, if I was writing it. Otherwise, I’d rather do film.

What’s the TV show about? It’s called Stitch N’ Bitch. We got the name from this cranium game. We were playing and our friend Brett had to mime “stitch and bitch” and I had never heard that before. But the show is me and Ellen Page and my friend Sean Fillman, and us three wrote it together and it’s about these two hipster girls who leave Williamsburg, Brooklyn who moves to Silverlake and we are just kind of making fun of all the people we are and hang out with the ridiculousness of wanting to be an artist and all those girls. So shit like that, just making fun of the culture. I was in Williamsburg doing research and it was ridiculous.

They have a uniform. They look like French pirates and they have these wirey bikes and funny mustaches. It was like nonstop. I had my journal in my purse and I couldn’t pull it out. I couldn’t sit at this vegan restaurant with all these people with asymmetrical haircuts and pull out my journal to write.

Dress by Trovata, Photo by Randall Slavin, Slyling by Jewels, Grooming by Jeffrey Paul @EA Management, Production Sara Pine @Creative 24.

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